Historic Jamestowne

Historic Jamestowne: Piecing Together Our Past

by Audrey Hingley, Contributing Writer

Photos Courtesy of APVA Preservation Virginia/Historic Jamestowne

Visit www.historicjamestowne.org


Bill Kelso

Years before the first fascinating fragments were unearthed, archaeologist Bill Kelso (left) believed the James Fort was right under our noses.  

For Dr. William M. Kelso, director of archaeology for the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project, the importance of Jamestown, Va., is simple.

The United States, as we know it today, “was born on the banks of the James River at a place called James Fort in 1607. For anyone who wants to come to Jamestown, it’s here. That’s what we discovered,” Kelso says.

Long thought to be washed away via erosion into the adjacent James River, the original three-sided James Fort was the missing piece of Jamestown’s historic puzzle. “I was going around saying the fort was here when I was in graduate school. I thought the evidence wasn’t there to prove it [the fort] wasn’t there,” explains Kelso, who first visited the site as a graduate student and noticed soil layers in an exhibit that aroused his interest.

Dutch delftware pharmaceutical jar from the town drainage ditch fill.

APVA Preservation Virginia (APVA), the statewide preservation organization in Virginia , decided to archaeologically ex­plore the site, which it owns, in preparation for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown ’s founding in 2007. Kelso was chosen to head the investigation. To identify the remains of James Fort required two things: The fort must match documentary descriptions and there must be proof that the fort dated to the first decade of the 17th century.

In April 1994, armed with a shovel, wheelbarrow and “a cheap little video camera” to record any historic moments, Kelso had only dug a few inches before 17th-century fragments appeared. Digging continued in a series of 10-foot squares and by 1996, the discovery of a wall trench, curved bulwark palisade and ditch suggested that the James Fort had indeed been found. The acre-size fort still retains the remnants of much of its structure, including palisade walls, bulwarks, interior buildings, and a well.

The dig continues to gain momentum: Today, more than 60 people, including volunteers, work at the site. More than a million artifacts attesting to the variety of the colonists’ life have been catalogued, as well as human remains of early leaders and settlers. Kelso’s new book, Jamestown The Buried Truth (University of Virginia Press), which chronicles the discoveries, was released last September and is already in its fourth printing. The book took three years to complete.

In a dust-jacket notation, Carter L. Hudgins, early American culture professor at the University of Mary Washington, notes, “What Kelso and his team have found there since the first shovel was turned is nothing less than astounding ... evidence of everything that was built, abandoned and then lost during Jamestown’s first decades survived, literally inches beneath commemorative statues of John Smith and Pocahontas.” 

Best-selling novelist Patricia Cornwell, whom Kelso says has “really helped this project and has funded a lot of it,” calls his book “the autopsy of America.” She notes that without what she terms “Kelso’s almost mystical vision” that the site still existed, “we would have little to rely on but legend to tell us how modern America began.”

Jamestown was a commercial venture sponsored by The Virginia Company, a group of British entrepreneurs supported by King James I, in search of a water route to the Orient, gold, adventure and a place to convert the natives to Christianity. The three ships that landed at Jamestown in May of 1607 transported 108 men and boys intent on gaining a New World foothold; 104 survived the nearly five-month journey. James Fort was erected in an incredible 19 days, its wooden walls forming a triangular barrier around the settlement. Some logs weighed as much as 800 pounds.

In 1619 an assembly of elected representatives met on Jamestown Island, the first elected government in what would eventually become the United States of America. By 1620, the year Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock, there were already thousands of settlers living in Virginia.  

The Archaearium at Historic Jamestowne opened in 2006.

Since the 1950s there have been two “Jamestowns.” Jamestown Settlement, run as a living-history park by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, a state agency, was established in 1957. Historic James­towne, where James Fort was discovered, is the original site where the first colonists settled. In the 19th century, Jamestown reverted to farmland and Confederate earthworks were created during the Civil War to provide defense against Union gunboats. In 1893, private landowners donated 22½ acres to APVA; in 1934 the National Park Service (NPS) acquired the remaining 1,500 acres and works jointly with APVA to operate the site. More than 300,000 people visit the site annually; APVA administrator Ann Berry notes, “We have already seen an increase in attendance recently ... everything we do here is to help visitors have a sense of place and connection to the people that were here 400 years ago.”

Unlike Jamestown Settlement, a living-history attraction ablaze with colorful flags, costumed guides and replicas of the three ships that sailed from England, Historic Jamestowne is more low-key. Sitting on a bench on a windy day watching the James’ muddy swells, it’s easy to imagine 1607 and the world those early residents encountered.

Peace and calmness surround Historic Jamestowne. A walking bridge from the visitors’ center to the site itself crosses a quiet marsh filled with the sounds of frogs and water birds. A large statue of Captain John Smith faces the river and visitors can watch activity at the various dig sites. There’s a statue of Pocahontas and a row of stark wooden crosses marking settlers’ remains.

The Archaearium, a 7,500-square-foot museum that debuted last year, displays more than 1,000 artifacts unearthed in site excavations. Thousands of European pottery fragments have been found, as well as “precisely datable” items such as three coins dated 1560-1602. One exhibit hall includes glass cases displaying human remains, some of which feature accompanying facial reconstructions like those used to identify modern crime victims. DNA analysis, computer manipulation and forensic sculpture have taken their place alongside artifact recovery in the new world of archaeology, allowing modern man to come face-to-face with Jamestown ’s people. 

One big question: What took so long to find the original fort? “Everyone had decided the fort had washed away. The NPS did a couple of tests and concluded it was not here ... they actually came within inches [of where it was],” Kelso says. “And the APVA kept this [site] more as a shrine.”

He adds that most NPS personnel in the past had been trained to dig prehistoric or Indian sites: “Not many people were looking at American history with a shovel. But there has been so much development in Virginia and the Chesapeake area, these sites from the 17th century are turning up all over the place. People are beginning to learn about that forgotten era of American history.”

The Settlers’ Fate

The winter of 1609-1610, known as “the starving time,” has been horrendously captured via the excavations. Excavators discovered poisonous snake vertebrae, musk turtle remains and the bones of rats, horses, dogs and cats. At the end of the “starving time,” only 60 of the 215 people believed to be residing there were left alive.

“The dogs were good hunters and horses were part of their military defenses ... so when you take [eat] those creatures, you have to be in bad shape,” Kelso observes.  

Another highlight for Kelso: finding what is believed to be the remains of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, complete with a decorative iron captain’s leading staff. Gosnold, who died at age 36 a scant three months after arriving in Jamestown, was the “key person” of Jamestown, Kelso says.

“He got the people over here, and he was the most respected of all the leaders,” he explains.

The quest to positively identify Gosnold took Kelso to Suffolk, England, when genealogical research led to relatives’ gravesites. In the end there was not a perfect DNA match but there is reason to doubt that the English “relative” sampled may in fact not be a Gosnold relative.

“I am not too concerned about being able to scientifically identify those remains,” Kelso says of the skeleton on display in the Archaearium. In fact, in his book Kelso calls the process itself “a significant achievement ... the fact that DNA could survive in burials over three centuries old and survive to the degree that it was even possible to compare samples from two graves separated by an ocean is a milestone.”

Another finding: the discovery of a brick-lined well, whose shaft held nearly 1,400 objects, including a full suit of armor, scattered over seven distinct layers. Water testing found that the Jamestown water today is clean enough to meet modern drinking-water standards. Kelso writes, “It is likely that [George] Percy, who was acting governor of the settlement during the ‘starving time,’ would blame the deaths on his watch on something other than shortage of food. 

“Percy said the salt ooze was so close in the marshes that it got in the water. We’ve put a bunch of [well] shafts out there to test different areas, and the ones we have done [the bad water reports are just not true],” Kelso says.

Amid all the stories in The Buried Truth, Kelso has bigger points to emphasize. “The biggest misconception about Jamestown is that it was a disaster. But this was a vibrant community and it succeeded. It did not fail! The Virginia Company failed but the colony did not fail,” Kelso emphasizes. “The old story that said Jamestown was a failure and nobody knew what they were doing ... a lot of people lived and they did a lot of things right.”


For More Information:

(757) 229-1733; www.apva.org



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