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Digging Up Jamestown

July 2024
33min read

Where the written word leaves off, the spade must often take over. A well-known archaeologist relates what the earth has revealed about the first permanent British colony in America

To most people, the science of archaeology has the faintly exotic aura of faraway places and long-dead civilizations. But our own country, too, has its buried past, and a fascinating and often puzzling one it is. This is true not only—as might be expected—of the remains of pre-Columbian Indian cultures, but surprisingly, of the more recent colonial era as well. Indeed, we know less about certain aspects of seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century life in America than we do about comparable facets of Greek or even Egyptian culture.

Jamestown is a case in point. For all that has been written on the first permanent British colony in the New World, much about it still remains in the realm of surmise. Here is where the archaeologist has been useful—for to a trained eye, a fragment of glass, the remains of a musket, or the location of a building foundation or a graveyard can reveal an amazing variety of information.

What follows is an account of some of the discoveries made on the site of the Jamestown settlement; it is taken from Ivor Noël Hume’s Here Lies Virginia , to be published in June by Alfred A. Knopf. One of the leading authorities in the field of colonial American archaeology, the author is an Englishman who first made his reputation excavating the antiquities of London; since 1957, he has been the chief archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.


Even though many visitors arrive at Jamestown and ask to be shown Plymouth Rock and the relics of the Pilgrims, I do not propose to wade too far into the murky waters of early Jamestown history. They contain strong currents of controversy in which one can very easily be swept away and drowned. Some authors have used the abundant contemporary narratives to show that the colonists of 1607 were a dedicated group of intensely religious idealists bringing civilization into a savage land; others have used different passages from the same sources to prove that the colonists were little better than a pack of rabid dogs. But dogs or demigods, there is no denying that they had immense courage and a fortitude that is rarely matched in this twentieth century.

We are not here concerned with the squabbling of the Wingfields, Newports, Percys, Gosnolds, and the like, nor should we try to pontificate on the validity of the story of Pocahontas and that celebrated exaggerator, John Smith. That carcass has been picked many times before. We are concerned, however, with those pages of Jamestown’s history that relate to the marks that the settlers left behind in the ground. From these come the archaeologists’ deductions and ultimately the reconstructions and interpretations that are enjoyed by modern visitors to the island.

Unfortunately, no seventeenth-century ships have been found nestled in the muddy bed of the James River, and consequently the most impressive and evocative of all the sights to be seen at Jamestown have no archaeological background. I mean, of course, the reconstructions of the ships, the Susan Constant , the Godspeed , and the little Discovery , which brought the first Jamestown colonists to Virginia in May, 1607. Built for the 35oth anniversary in 1957, they now lie in the James close by the reconstructed fort, as lasting reminders of the bravery of the colonists. The largest, the Susan Constant of one hundred tons, carried seventy-one persons; the Godspeed of forty tons, fiftytwo; and the Discovery of twenty tons, twenty-one. This last was only forty-nine feet in length, little more than a fishing boat, and was of a type known as a “pinnace,” from the Latin pinus , “ i.e. , a pine tree, of which it was commonly made.”

The sight of this little vessel bobbing at its moorings brings home to us, as nothing else can, the courage and faith of those first passengers. Many of us would have doubts about the safety of crossing the James in it on a rough day, let alone attempting a five-month journey across the Atlantic. Quite apart from the impact of their small size, the sight of their masts and spars in the distance as one leaves the island gives one a vision of the past that is unforgettable. I have seen these ships a thousand times, silhouetted against a setting sun, rising ghostlike from a shroud of early morning mist, and frozen fast into a sea of winter ice. But I doubt if I shall ever cease to be thrilled by the awareness that I am surveying a scene almost exactly as it was viewed through the eyes of colonists and Indians alike, 350-odd years ago.

I am certain that some archaeologists will claim that such romantic notions have no place in the serious study of the past. If, in admitting them, I am thought to be letting the team down, I can only counter that if we are unable to use the surviving words and relics of history to enable the past to live again in our own minds, how can we ever hope to make it of interest to others? A great deal of time and money has been spent (some of it hideously wasted) up and down the country in enabling tourists to enjoy looking at the past—from a safe distance. Rarely has a project been as successful as the reconstruction of the fort at Jamestown. It is true that it is not on the original site, and that it is rather more sturdy and certainly much cleaner than was the original. But as you walk among its wattle-anddaub houses on a cold winter day, you begin to feel what it must have been like to be far from home, cabined, cribbed, confined behind mud walls, longing for spring and the sight of a sail bringing food and succor from England.

The site of the fort has never been found, but it is generally believed to have been built toward the western end of the island, and so, being close to the river, it has since been washed away. Some authorities have suggested that part of it may lie beneath the Confederate earthworks immediately to the west of Jamestown’s brick church. Careful excavations were conducted there by the National Park Service in 1955, but no traces of it were found. In the same year, attempts were made offshore to haul up artifact clues in a clam bucket lowered from a barge. Sixty-five “drops” were made, as a result of which the Park Service is now the proud possessor of as fine a collection of old beer bottles, brickbats, and nineteenth-and twentieth-century crockery as ever graced a city dump.

Just what they hoped to find is not at all clear, for this was no dramatically submerged site, only a bed of clay that had tumbled slowly from an eroding bank carrying into a scatter of useless debris any structures that it may have supported. In any case, even if the fort had survived, all that the archaeologists could have hoped to find would have been postholes in the ground. Catching a washed-away posthole in a clam bucket would be quite a feat. No doubt it was hoped that informative seventeenth-century artifacts would be found—and a few were. But short of finding an inscribed tablet giving the position of the fort, it is hard to see how any amount of artifacts could have done more than confirm that the surface of a good deal of heavily inhabited land had been washed away in the ensuing years.

When the colonists landed on Jamestown Island on May 14, 1607, they immediately set about building themselves some sort of fortification, which probably amounted to little more than a breastwork of brushwood. On May 21 Captain Newport, John Smith, and twenty others set out to explore the upper reaches of the James. When they returned on the twenty-seventh, the fort had been surprised, and many of the colonists had been wounded before the Indians had been driven off. Immediate efforts were made to improve the defenses and by the fifteenth of June, according to George Percy, one of the colonists, “we had built and finished our Fort, which was triangle wise, having three Bulwarkes, at every corner, like a hälfe Moone, and foure or five pieces of Artillerie mounted in them.” “James Fort” enclosed the entire settlement; it was not merely a keep to which the colonists could withdraw in an emergency. This was just as well, as they spent most of their time in a state of emergency.

The appearance and substance of the colonists’ dwellings within the fort in the summer of 1607 are not clear. There are references to both tents and cabins, and on the basis of the latter it has sometimes been assumed that the settlers had log cabins. But in the seventeenth century the word “cabin” could describe the meanest hut—and that was almost certainly the James Fort connotation.

It had been a month after they landed when the colonists got around to digging a well in the fort. Until then they had drunk the dirty river water. To make matters worse, they were forced to deal with problems of sanitation within the confines of the palisades, as those who had ventured out to attend to these needs had been prime targets for Indian marksmen. What with one thing and another, it was not surprising that the “men were destroyed with cruell diseases” and that as famine, heat, and the Indians crept upon them, they were in no mood or condition to indulge in architectural extravagances.


As George Percy pointed out, “If it had not pleased God to put a terrour in the Savages hearts, we had all perished by those vile and cruell Pagans, being in that weake estate as we were; our men night and day groaning in every corner of the Fort most pittifull to heare.” After supplies arrived and the weather became more temperate, the situation improved somewhat. But in the winter of 1607-08, an accidental fire destroyed the entire fort, a catastrophe that occurred soon after Captain Newport had returned from England.

With the help of Newport and his sailors the palisades were rebuilt, along with the church and storehouses; but when he returned again to England in April, 1608, the repairs were still not complete. Nevertheless, we may assume that it was in the spring and summer of 1608 that the colonists managed for the first time to build themselves a reasonably solid settlement. This was virtually the same assemblage of buildings that William Strachey saw when he arrived as first secretary of the colony in 1610 and whose fortifications he described as having the side next the River extending one hundred and forty yeards; the West and East sides a hundred onely. At every Angle or corner, where the lines meete, a Bulwarke or Watch-tower is raised, and in each Bulwarke a peece of Ordnance or two is well mounted. To every side, a proportioned distance from the Pallisado, is a setled streete of houses, that runs along, so as each line of the Angle hath his streets; in the midst is a market place, a Storehouse, and a Corps du guard, as likewise a pretty chapel …

The chapel had two bells, which could ring out merrily when the occasion demanded, but which were more often to toll out the notes of doom as the death rate continued to mount over the months and years. The horrifying figures have been succinctly stated by the National Park Service archaeologist John L. Cotter in his report on the archaeology of Jamestown: Between December, 1606 (when the first vessels of the Virginia Company left England) and February, 1625, 7,289 immigrants came to Virginia. During this period 6,040 died … Allowing for a proportion of these settlers to have been buried on plantations and settlements on the mainland, it is evident that more persons were buried on Jamestown Island during the first few years than lived there at any one time thereafter.

A though the infant settlement had endured many privations, the winter of 1609–10 exceeded all the horrors that had gone before. Increased Indian hostility, disease, and almost nonexistent food supplies whittled the colonists’ numbers down from about five hundred to as few as sixty. This terrible winter, now referred to by historians as the “starving time,” probably left its mark in the ground in the form of a large concentration of graves beneath the east end of an extensive foundation complex which included the site of the third State House, later destroyed in Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676.

It is estimated that the graveyard contained as many as three hundred bodies, most of them clustered together but with a few stragglers extending almost to the present river’s edge. As all of them pre-date the earliest of the overlying foundations, we know that they stem from the first years of the colony. Furthermore, the fact that the bodies were interred without coffins and lay with heads and feet in all directions strongly suggests that they were laid to rest in haste without the niceties of formal Christian burial. The “starving time” could well have provided both the large number of dead and the frame of mind that made disposing of the remains more important than the paying of final respects.

A second early graveyard was situated in the vicinity of the seventeenth-century brick church, whose original tower still stands. Scattered burials have also been found in various parts of Jamestown and its environs, most of them the bones of colonists, but a few being skeletons of Indians.

The disposal of human remains is always a problem when deaths come too quickly one upon another. Just how and where the early settlers dealt with this problem is still unknown, for apart from the three hundred or so under the third State House complex, the small early cemetery by the church, and the few individual graves, no traces have been found of the remainder of the 6,040 who perished in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. The positions of the two cemeteries, however, provide us with clues to the position of the fort site, supporting the theory that it stood in the vicinity of the surviving Confederate earthwork.


The hazards of venturing outside the fort were constantly brought home to the settlers, and consequently they would undoubtedly have dug their graves in the best-protected area that they could find. The island being roughly pear-shaped and the settlement being situated toward the narrow end, the greatest natural protection would have been found upriver in the lee of the fort, toward, as it were, the stem of the pear. On the basis of this reasoning it would follow that the fort must have been east of the “starving-time” graveyard. The second cemetery, on the other hand, was almost certainly of later date and was in use when the settlement was outgrowing the fort and when the danger from the Indians seemed to be waning. Thus, with the town growing in a down-river, or easterly, direction, the second cemetery would have been below the fort; together the two graveyards provide brackets between which the fort site probably existed.

In May, 1610, along with the approach of spring, came Sir Thomas Gates, the colonists’ new governor, who had been delayed for almost a year in Bermuda. The sight that greeted him on arrival was enough to make him decide to pack up and take the surviving settlers home. In the words of his report, … the pallisadoes he found tourne downe, the portes open, the gates from the hinges, the church ruined and unfrequented, empty howses (whose owners untimely death had taken newly from them) rent up and burnt, the living not able, as they pretended, to step into the woodes to gather other fire-wood; and, it is true, the Indian as fast killing without as the famine and pestilence within.

After careful deliberation Gates took the colonists on board and set off down the James toward the sea and England. Had he started two days earlier the story of Jamestown would have been a duplicate of Ralph Lane’s first Roanoke colony, the settlers giving up just before relief arrived. As it was, Gates was already under sail when news arrived that Lord Delaware, well supplied and with 150 fresh colonists, had reached Port Comfort at the mouth of the river. This was the turning point. The fort was rebuilt, and peace was made with the Indians: Jamestown would survive. But people do not change their character as readily as fate may change their fortunes, and when Lord Delaware returned to England in March, 1611, the colonists immediately relaxed. John Smith, in a moment of exasperation, dubbed them as unfit to found a colony as to sustain it, and if proof were needed, it was to be found in the spring of that year, when, knowing that the grain store could not last three months, the settlers still could not be bothered to plant the corn on which their existence would depend. When Sir Thomas Dale, the new deputy governor, arrived at Jamestown in May, he found “most of the companie were at their daily and usuall works, bowling in the streets …”


It took a firm hand, martial law, and a variety of necessary though unpopular measures before the young colony was ready to present a bold face to Spaniards, Indians, or even the weather. But a year later Jamestown could boast “two rowes of houses of framed timber, and some of them two stories, and a garret higher, three large Store-houses Joined together [a hundred and twenty feet in length], and hee [Sir Thomas Dale] hath newly strongly impaled the towne.” Before long the settlement began to burst out of its wooden womb and to grow up into a community of streets, stores, taverns, and frame residences not unlike an English village in, say, Kent or Essex.

Once the fear of Indian attack was removed, the settlers began to move further afield, building themselves farms away from the island. In addition, three other comparable settlements were established: the first was set up at Kecoughtan, originally an Indian village below Old Point Comfort on Hampton Roads, while the others were upriver from Jamestown a distance of some fifty miles and were named Charles City and Henricus (also known as Henrico).

If all had gone according to plan, Henricus would ultimately have become more important than Jamestown. It was founded in 1611 by Sir Thomas Dale on land now known as Farrar’s Island in a bend of the James River called Dutch Gap. “This towne,” wrote John Smith, “is situated upon a necke of a plaine rising land, three parts environed with the maine River; the necke of land well impaled, makes it like an He; it hath three streets of well framed houses, a handsome Church, and the foundations of a better laid (to be built of Bricke), besides Store-houses, Watch-houses, and such like. Upon the verge of the River there are five houses, wherein live the honester sort of people, as Farmers in England, and they keepe continuall centinell for the townes securitie.” Here, incidentally, was the first reference to a building being constructed of brick. Robert Johnson, writing of Henricus in 1612, refers to the houses (as well as the new church) having “the first story of all bricks.”

As Henricus gained in stature, plans were developed to build a hospital there, and the Virginia Company granted ten thousand acres for a university and one thousand for an Indian school. During this same era of increasing optimism both in England and Virginia, an ironworks was constructed further upstream at Falling Creek; Charles City was well established, as also were seven “Hundreds,” or plantations—tracts deeded to groups of Virginia Company stockholders for the founding of individual settlements. But on Good Friday, 1622, the Indians made it clear that they had no wish to go to school or to be wooed away from their native gods. Working to a carefully prearranged plan, they fell upon the isolated farms and settlements, burning the houses and slaughtering every man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on. Fortunately for Jamestown, a friendly Indian servant chose to tell his master of the plan just in time for the town to be warned. But the outlying areas received no warning-the ironworks at Falling Creek was destroyed; so were the towns of Henricus and Charles City, as well as most of the isolated farms. At Martin’s Hundred, only seven miles from Jamestown, seventy-three people were killed, and the total for the entire massacre has been set at between 300 and 347 persons.

Although the Virginia Company ordered that Henricus be rebuilt and that brickmakers, already there to build the university and school, should get on with the job, the project was never revived. Today the site on Farrar’s Island is extremely difficult to reach. The palisaded neck referred to by John Smith has been cut through by a canal ironing out a bend in the river, while most of the island has disappeared into a vast gravel-mining project engineered by a local cement company. Overlooking the canal at Dutch Gap is a marker recalling that here was the site of Henricus and of the first intended university in America. But it is my personal belief that the marker is too close to the end of the island and that Henricus, one of the “four ancient boroughs” of Virginia, has been sacrificed on the gravel-tempered concrete altar of progress.

The aftermath of the massacre of 1622 resulted, not too surprisingly, in a hardening of the colonists’ attitude toward the Indians. John Smith made no bones about it, urging that they should be destroyed by all means possible and beaten out of the country. From a purely practical viewpoint, Smith also noted that hitherto, in a self-sacrificing attempt at peaceful coexistence, the Indians had been left to live in “the pleasantest places in the Countrey,” while the colonists had been forced to hack their fields out of the jungle. Now, after the massacre, the colonists needed no fiery oratory to send them out after their enemies. Although the Indians as individuals were hard to pin down, there was little difficulty in destroying their villages, crops, and canoes. Year after year these measures thinned the ranks of the colonists’ foes. Nevertheless twenty-two years after the first massacre the same Indian leader, Opechancanough, staged a repeat performance. Once again the colonists were taken by surprise; once again the outlying farms and settlements were destroyed; and once again the settlers’ death roll numbered more than three hundred. But this time there was a difference; instead of killing some 347 out of an estimated 1,300, in 1644 the Indians took a similar number out of 8,000. But if the Indians’ successes were proportionately less, the retribution was even more severe than before. Opechancanough was caught and killed, and the great Powhatan Confederacy that had controlled the Tidewater area when the colonists arrived was now destroyed.

Regardless of the fact that neither Indian uprising changed the course of history (at least as far as the colonists were concerned), considerable damage was done, and a great deal of blood was shed. There is every reason to suppose that here and there the soil of Tidewater Virginia is still stained, still scattered with broken artifacts, and the clay still reddened by the fires. It may seem curious, therefore, that no site has yet been found that can be definitely associated with either massacre. A possible candidate was the site, now on federal property five miles below Jamestown, which was found by Floyd Painter of Norfolk. The land immediately above the river had been cleared by bulldozing, and in the side of an open ditch Painter found two refuse pits, both containing artifacts dating no later than about 1640 and ashes and quantities of clenched nails that could have been the residue of anything from a few old crates to a burned homestead. From these pits the amateur archaeologist recovered a quantity of pottery, Indian copper beads, a lead bale seal for cloth issued in the reign of Tames I, iron tools, and an iron siege helmet. This last was an item of head armor of excessive weight and strength generally worn by military engineers who were likely to be working while exposed to enemy fire.


Mr. Painter’s helmet is one of the very few pieces of armor found in Virginia and the only English siege helmet found in America. Its great weight would have made it a most tiresome item of headgear for a hot Virginia summer, and one may wonder therefore how it ever came to be there. A possible explanation comes out of the knowledge that a quantity of armor was sent over from London in 1608, most of it apparently being unwanted pieces from the Tower of London. As far as the London agent was concerned, a helmet was a helmet, and if the colonists did not like it, there was little they could do about it. Mr. Painter noted that his helmet had a dent in it, which he attributed to a musket ball, an observation that sired various conjectural explanations ranging from the helmet’s having been used for target practice to its having seen service against the Spaniards. Unhappily, the noted military historian Harold L. Peterson spoiled these romantic excesses by explaining that the impression was merely that of a testing dent administered when the helmet was manufactured.

Another helmet of rather similar shape but of normal weight was found in a refuse pit on the Naval Mine Depot property near Yorktown. This helmet, known as a cabasset, was associated with numerous weapon fragments, all of the first half of the seventeenth century. From Jamestown itself have come a number of items of body armor. The most interesting pieces, a breastplate and backplate of light pikeman’s armor, were found in a single refuse pit filled prior to 1650. In the same pit were a cutlass, the guard from a basket-hiked sword, a musket barrel, and a fine swepthilt sword from the workshop of Johannes Wundes of Solingen in Germany. The only other substantial piece of armor from Jamestown was found by Confederate soldiers while digging their breastworks near the church during the Civil War. This was a hinged arm section that could have come either from a light suit or a three-quarter suit of a type worn by officers in the seventeenth century.

No doubt as time went by, a great deal of Jamestown’s armor was turned over to the blacksmith for scrap. Nevertheless, the records list so much that it is surprising that so little has been found. Harold Peterson, in his book Arms and Armor in Colonial America , has noted that after the 1622 massacre the colony was supplied with no fewer than 2,000 helmets, 40 plate cuirasses, 400 shirts and coats of mail, and 100 jackets armored with small metal scales. This store was in addition to the armor already in Virginia before the massacre, some of which had probably been taken by the Indians.

It has often been said that armor was found to be too heavy to wear in Virginia and that the colonists quickly abandoned it. This may be true of the heavier threequarter-length suits, but it would seem that the protective merits of breastplates, helmets, and mail continued to be appreciated as late as the 1620’s. Earlier, in 1611, William Strachey described the order of dress for those who had to venture on punitive missions beyond the palisades. Every musketeer, he said, “shall either be furnished with a quilted coate of Canuas, a headpeece, and a sword, or else with a light Armor, and Bases quilted, with which he shall be furnished; and every Targiteer [one who carries a shield] with his Bases to the small of his legge, and his headpeece, sword and pistoll or Scuppet provided for that end …”


No identifiable fragments of shields, or “targets” as they were called, have yet been found in Virginia excavations. Although it was on its way out in Europe by the end of the sixteenth century, in Virginia the shield had much to commend it. When the Indians loosed their arrows in a high arc, the colonists could see them coming and use their shields to push them aside. Equally helpful was the fact that with the protection of a shield it would not be essential to wear plate armor, but only a padded or leather coat. The shields themselves were generally circular, about three feet in diameter, and made of steel, or more commonly of wood covered with leather. It was the latter variety on which, in the first days of the 1607 landing, a naively confident Englishman invited a visiting Indian to try his luck. George Percy recalled that the savage ”… tooke from his back an Arrow of an elle long, drew it strongly in his Bowe, shoots the Target a foote thorow, or better: which was strange, being that a Pistoll could not pierce it. Wee seeing the force of his Bowe, afterwards set him up a steele Target; he shot again, and burst his arrow all to pieces.”

No Indian bows have been found in Virginia excavations; being of wood they would not normally survive. But if they were deposited in permanently wet soil they could do so, and there is every reason to suppose that the marshes of Jamestown Island may hold many such treasures. In such conditions, metals and organic material can be preserved in virtually the same condition as they were in on the day they were lost. An Indian canoe, hollowed out of a single tree trunk, has been found in fine shape in the mud of the York River near West Point and is exhibited in the Valentine Museum in Richmond. Although such objects survive intact as long as they remain incased in mud, once they begin to be washed out of it they quickly go to pieces. This is particularly true of fabrics and slender pieces of wood such as arrows or bows. Whereas pottery or stone implements are easily spotted by archaeologists and collectors, it calls for a very sharp eye to recognize the curve of a bow amid the mass of roots and twigs that habitually protrude from the riverbanks.


Although the English were all too aware of the effectiveness of the bow and arrow in the hands of the extremely mobile Indians, there is no indication that the colonists made use of the same weapon. Firearms were considered much more useful in that the report of the gun would often disperse the enemy even when the ball missed by a country mile. As every student of European history knows, the English longbow with steel-tipped arrows had been a combination to be feared since the Middle Ages. Although this weapon was still in use in the early seventeenth century, there is evidence to show that the colonists deliberately refrained from importing any for fear that one might fall into Indian hands and serve as a prototype for improving their already deadly armament.

The heavy crossbow with its equally cumbersome quarrels or bolts had been a standard European weapon in the early days of Spanish incursion into America. But it was troublesome to carry and slow to load. On the credit side, it could pierce plate armor at sixty yards; but against Indians who frequently wore little but a frown, such power was hardly necessary. Light crossbows were used as sporting weapons, and part of one of them was found in excavations at Green Spring, the great seventeenth-century plantation of Governor Berkeley.

Many musket fragments have been found in excavations at Jamestown, the most informative being the locks or firing mechanisms, which well illustrate the various stages in the development of the firearm. The principle of the musket was simply the ignition of a small quantity of gunpowder that burnt through a touchhole into the barrel of the gun, setting off the compressed charge that it contained. During the seventeenth century various methods were developed to achieve this simple result. The first and least complicated was the matchlock, which was nothing more than a covered pan for priming powder and a length of cotton soaked in potassium nitrate to provide a constantly burning match. The end of the match was attached to a lever on the side of the gun, and when the trigger was pulled, the glowing end was thrust down into the powder—always providing that you remembered to open the lid of the pan first. The matchlock was the principal weapon of the first colonists, but by 1624, as Harold Peterson has pointed out, a military census showed that there were only 47 matchlocks out of a grand total of 1,098 firearms in the colony. In England, however, the matchlock continued to be used by the army until 1690.

A much more complicated and expensive weapon was the wheel lock, of which there were a few in Virginia in the early days of the colony. Its priming powder was ignited by means of a serrated steel wheel beside the pan, which was wound up on a spring by a key. When the spring was freed, the wheel ground against a lump of iron pyrites that sent a spark into the powder. Fragments of at least one of these have been found at Jamestown. A third mechanism much simpler than the wheel lock was used by the first colonists; this was the snaphaunce, the ancestor of the well-known flintlock of the eighteenth century. The snaphaunce comprised a hammer holding a piece of flint which, when the trigger was pulled, sprang forward and scraped against a vertical block of steel called a battery, sending a spark downward into the priming powder. An obvious refinement was soon developed in which a reversed L-shaped cover for the pan also served as a striking surface for the flint. When the trigger was pulled, the flint slammed forward, striking the vertical face of the cover, or frizzen, and pushing it up and away from the pan. Thus, in one movement the priming powder was uncovered and a spark struck down into it. Although there are many contemporary references to the use of snaphaunces in Virginia, very few fragments of them have been found.

Other weapons represented among the fragments from Jamestown are the three basic pole-arms—the halberd, the bill, and the pike. The first of these had become little more than a badge of rank carried by sergeants while inspecting the guard or being inspected themselves. Only one example has been found. On the other hand, six bills have been recovered, coming, perhaps, from the 950 shipped into the colony after the 1622 massacre. This weapon was a simple development of the common agricultural implement, having a broad chopperlike cutting edge slightly hooked at the end, a long spike extending from behind the hook, and generally another smaller spike protruding from the back of the blade. On a short handle it was an excellent tool for slashing underbrush, but on its long military pole its principal use was against cavalry. This was also true of the pike, which was generally a stout double-edged blade on the end of a pole some fourteen to sixteen feet in length. The pikemen would kneel with their pole-arms at a forty-five-degree angle to prevent enemy horsemen from charging the musketeers while they were going through the lengthy process of reloading their weapons. However, as the Indians did not possess horses, and there was only one at Jamestown as late as 1624–25, the usefulness of pole-arms was somewhat limited. They would, of course, have been invaluable if the Indians had dashed into the field with clubs and hatchets swinging. But the redmen had more sense than to engage in such excesses, and preferred to remain discreetly in the woods.

Undoubtedly the most unusual weapon or military device surviving from seventeenth-century Virginia is known as a caltrop, a single example of which has been found at Jamestown. It amounts to a widely spread iron tripod about three inches long with another leg sticking vertically upward, so that however you throw it down, one spike always sticks up. This unpleasant little device has an extremely long history going back into Roman times and was generally used to deter the horse of advancing cavalry. There is no doubt that the most inscrutable Indian treading on a caltrop would be shocked into noisy comment. The difficulty with these things was that you needed so many of them. A thick concentration neatly arrayed outside the fort gates might have been effective, providing the colonists themselves did not plan to venture out. In the same way, discreet little clusters on woodland trails might have had nuisance value. But in the sort of guerrilla warfare favored by the Indians, it seems improbable that caltrops would have been of much use. The fact that only one has been found would seem to suggest that they were used little, if at all. As with all military equipment designed for European wars, the caltrop’s presence in Virginia must be considered in the light of possible attacks by the Spaniards as well as assaults from the Indians.

By the middle of the seventeenth century fear of both enemies had dwindled, and Jamestown was settling down to a reasonably comfortable and predictable existence. In a letter to the authorities in London, Governor Sir John Harvey wrote proudly of the blossoming of Jamestown in 1639: … there are twelve houses and stores built in the Towne, one of brick by the Secretayre, the fairest that ever was knowen in this countrye for substance and uniformitye, by whose example others have undertaken to build framed houses to beautifye the place, consonant to his majesties Instruction that wee should not suffer men to build slight cottages as heretofore … A Levye likewyse by his majesties commands is raised for the building of a State howse at James Cittie, and shall with all diligence be performed.

In the early days of the colony the council had met either in the church or in the house of the governor. The building of a specific structure for these deliberations was an important step forward in the history of American government. The property acquired for this purpose was the former home of Governor Harvey, which the colony purchased in 1641. A deed of 1671 described the structure as then comprising three houses, at least one of them built of brick and measuring forty feet by twenty feet. The same document adds that the center unit of the three attached “tenements” had been the old State House.

This first State House complex served as the residence of three royal governors, the most famous of whom was Sir William Berkeley. The State House was the political and judicial center of the colony, a meeting place for the Assembly, a place where taxes were levied, complaints heard, punishment administered, and where, one dramatic day in 1652, the colony surrendered to the enemies of the King. Parliamentary commissioners sent over by Oliver Cromwell received there the reluctant allegiance of the royalist Governor Berkeley and through him that of the whole colony.

By 1656, four years before Charles II was restored to the long-vacant throne of his father, the first State House of Virginia had ceased to serve that purpose, though it remained as a residence. We know from documentary sources that by 1696 only one of the three joining buildings was still standing, the rest being in a state of ruin. The nature of the disaster that befell the building will probably never be known—unless its site still remains to be excavated.

The general consensus today is that the site has already been found, and that it lies toward the east end of what was known as “New Towne.” Visitors to Jamestown can see part of the open brick-lined cellars of a substantial building complex comprising three basement sections, each entered by means of its own bulkhead steps leading down into it from the outside, suggesting that the whole consisted of three individual units. This complex was discovered as long ago as 1901 by Colonel Edward Barney, who then owned a large part of the island. He and his wife dug down through the debris-filled east basement and found a brick fireplace in which, resting on the ashes of a fire, was a three-legged cooking pot still containing bones that had been stewing there when the building was destroyed. Along with a large quantity of not-too-impressive domestic debris, Colonel Barney also found a fine pewter basin more than a foot in diameter.

The Colonel did not go on to explore the whole building complex, and the site was virtually forgotten until 1932, when a Richmond antiquary, George C. Gregory, was looking for the site of the first State House and came upon these foundations. He duly uncovered the outline of the triple structure and concluded that this was the State House. Two years later the site, along with all that part of the town not owned by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, was acquired by the National Park Service.

Almost immediately work began on the total clearance of the foundations laid bare by Gregory. Large quantities of artifacts were recovered, including fragments of wine bottles, clay tobacco pipes, and ceramics. In the latter category was a large proportion of a massive Rhenish stoneware bottle known as a “Bellarmine,” bearing on its sides molded medallions carrying the date 1661. The bottle had been badly burnt and one might be tempted to argue that it was in the building when it was destroyed. However, the fact that the whole of the base and part of the neck are missing might be explained by careless excavating or, more probably, by the vessel’s being broken elsewhere and thrown into the already ruined building. In any case, the bottle’s presence there shows that it could not have found its way into the cellar before 1661, five years after the structure had ceased to serve as the State House. The large quantity of other relics, particularly the pipes and bottles, suggests that even in the early eighteenth century the cellars were still open to receive refuse.

There is little doubt that the building complex found first by Colonel Barney and later by Mr. Gregory fits most of the requirements for the first State House as culled from the scrappy documentary information. The measurements are right, so are the three divisions, and so is the style of building. On the other hand, no evidence was found to suggest that any of it dated prior to 1640—which it should have done if part of it had been the home of Governor Harvey before it became the State House. But such negative evidence must always be treated with extreme caution. Less easy to overlook is the fact that the two houses shown on original surveys to be in certain locations in relationship to the State House could not be found when their supposed positions were plotted in relation to the triple foundation. Attempts were made to find them: by a National Park Service archaeologist, H. Summerfield Day, in 1935, and by Dr. John L. Cotter in 1956. Both drew a blank. But as Cotter has pointed out in his report on the site, had these missing buildings been of light construction, it is possible that all traces of them might have been obliterated by subsequent plowing.


Even if this structure was not the first State House, there is no doubt that it existed in the second half of the seventeenth century and that it possessed most of the construction details that one would expect of such a building, or, for that matter, of any well-built residence or commercial building of that period. The walls were made of red brick laid in English bond and anchored with mortar using lime from burnt oyster shells. The floors of two of the cellar units were of ordinary red brick, but the one at the east end had originally been laid with small yellow Dutch bricks set on edge, only a few of which remained in position at the time of the excavations carried out in 1934.

The use of small bricks about an inch in thickness and laid on edge goes back into Roman times. They were used for floors that were going to take a good deal of heavy wear, and were set in herring-bone patterns. The Dutch made great use of such brickettes in the seventeenth century; rather surprisingly, there is no doubt that they were shipped to America and not made here in the Dutch style. Examples have been found on sites as far apart as Van Cortlandt Manor on the Hudson and in the Dutch colony of Surinam. I say that it is surprising that they should be exported only because bricks were not shipped to America nearly as frequently as is popularly believed.

Scores of old houses up and down the country are claimed by their owners to be made from English brick. However, while the measurements of these bricks may conform to English statutes regulating sizes, most of them were made in the colonies. This is particularly true of Tidewater Virginia, where much of the clay is excellently suited for brick-making. The basis for the belief is that bricks were used as ballast, and there is no doubt this was done from time to time. However, quite apart from the fact that few ships could have carried enough to be really useful, bricks made somewhat treacherous ballast. Unlike the Dutch brickettes, English bricks were not very tightly grained and so tended to be porous. If a vessel shipped water, much of it would disappear into the bricks and so dangerously increase the weight of the ballast. An example of this was provided on the James River some years ago when a barge towing bricks down river from Richmond sank from the increased weight of its water-logged cargo.

Brick houses were naturally much less prone to fires than were those of wood, and it was with that in mind that the Assembly passed the Town Act of 1662. This stated that the town should consist “of thirty-two houses, each house to be built with brick, forty foot long, twenty foot wide, within the walls, to be eighteen foote high above the ground, the walls to be two brick thick to the water table, and a brick and a hälfe thick above the water table to the roofe, the roofe to be fifteen foot pitch and to be covered with slate or tile.” In a later passage the Act admits that “it might seem hard to demolish any wooden houses already built in the towne, yett it is hereby provided and enacted that noe wooden houses shall hereafter be built within the limitts of the towne, nor those now standing be hereafter repaired, but brick ones be erected in theire steads.”

With the Indian menace long since gone, Jamestown had remained the administrative center and a port for all merchandise reaching and leaving the colony, but it had not blossomed as the thriving residential community that the Assembly naively envisaged. Embraced to the north and east by swamp and on the south and west by the muddy waters of the James River, the town was both damp and unhealthy. Nothing but a mosquito could really want to call it home. Consequently most of the colonists had moved away and went to Jamestown only to conduct their business. Some indication of this is provided by a wellknown description of 1676 which tells us that the town then consisted of some “16 or 18 houses, most as is the church built of brick, faire and large; and in them about a dozen families (for all the howses are not inhabited) getting their liveings by keeping ordinaries, at extreordinary rates.” The tourist industry would seem already to have emerged in Virginia.

Regardless of whether the houses of Jamestown were of brick or wood, they were not immune to fire—at least not when they were deliberately put to the torch. In 1676, the planter Nathaniel Bacon led an insurrection against the governorship of Sir William Berkeley, and having forced the Governor to flee he proceeded to set fire to Jamestown. It is noteworthy that the wealthy plantation owner William Drummond was one of Bacon’s supporters and that he deliberately fired his own house. But Drummond was not roofless as a result of this dramatic act, for he possessed another large house on the mainland—on land that he rented from the Governor. Such persons having two houses would help to account for the previously quoted statement that some of the houses of Jamestown were not occupied. One cannot help thinking that Drummond must have been very sure that he was on the winning side when he burnt the Jamestown house and left himself and his family with only the property rented from the same governor that he had just chased out of town. Unhappily, he was in error. Bacon took sick and died, and the rebellion promptly fell apart. Drummond was caught, and hanged within half an hour of being brought before the irate Berkeley. The latter duly evicted Drummond’s widow and family—which, though unkind, was hardly surprising.


A contemporary account of the uprising stated that “The towne consisted of 12 new brick Houses besides a considerable number of Frame houses with brick chimneys, all which will not be rebuilt (as is computed) for Fifteen hundred pounds of Tobacco.” Here, then, we have evidence that regardless of the Town Act of 1662, all Jamestown’s houses were not of brick. The same authority listed both church and State House as being among the buildings destroyed. The latter was the third—the second having been a rented property used but a short time—and had been built about 1666.

Whereas the first State House was part of a threestructure complex, the third was the most northerly of five buildings, all linked together with common walls. The same foundations served as the site of the fourth State House, built after the rebellion of 1676, and archaeological evidence suggests that the third State House was roofed with tiles and the fourth with slate. Beyond that, little is known. In his report on the excavations at Jamestown, John Cotter notes that the foundations of the third State House revealed no traces of chimneys; this, he suggests, might represent an early attempt at fire prevention. Such measures were certainly admirable, though the results were less so. The third State House was burnt by Bacon as already described, the fourth burned in 1698, the first Williamsburg capitol in 1744, and the second in 1832, all of them brick buildings and all, save the last, without chimneys.

The destruction of the fourth State House marked the end of Jamestown as the administrative capital of Virginia, the legislators voting to move inland to Middle Plantation—later renamed Williamsburg—where the College of William and Mary had been erected in 1693. The legend has long been fostered that at the end of the seventeenth century, immediately prior to the burning of the State House, Jamestown “was a crowded, cluttered town.” It has been inferred that when the legislators moved their meeting place, the inhabitants of the “crowded” town packed their bags and moved to the new site. Had this been true, it would be reasonable to expect that they would have carried their seventeenth-century glass, pottery, kitchen utensils, and what-not along with them, and that in the course of time a reasonable percentage of those things would have found their way into the ground of Williamsburg. However, in thirty years of excavation, Williamsburg archaeologists have come up with no more than a handful of fragments of seventeenth-century pottery—and most of that dating so close to the end of the century that there is no reason to associate it with Jamestown. On the basis of archaeology’s negative evidence, it could be supposed that there was no domestic exodus from Jamestown to Williamsburg. The documentary evidence suggests quite convincingly that in 1676 Jamestown possessed fewer than twenty good houses and a community of some twelve families, most of whom were probably engaged in the tavern trade. Although the town’s importance sharply declined when the Assembly moved away, ships continued to lie at anchor in the James and sailors still needed to be entertained and suitably primed for the long voyage back to England.

The fact that archaeological excavations at Jamestown have unearthed as many artifacts from the first quarter of the eighteenth century as from the last quarter of the seventeenth would indicate that there was no immediate decline in the intensity of occupation. Probably more lethal to the life of Jamestown than the departure of the Assembly was the rapid increase in the importance of the port of Yorktown and the slower development of Archer’s Hope and later College Landing, the port for Williamsburg, both of which kept shipping down river from Jamestown.

And yet, just as the memory of the adventures of the “Lost Colony” on Roanoke Island had remained alive through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so the memory of the ordeals of Jamestown’s motley band of founding fathers glowed brightly through the nineteenth. Their fortitude was praised at the Bicentennial of 1807, their sacrifice was lauded at the Virginiad of 1822 and again at the 25Oth anniversary in 1857. At the Tercentenary of 1907 they shared the spotlight with Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill, a German beer garden, a re-enactment of the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac , and as many other exposition attractions as its organizers could dream up. For five glorious months the suffering, courage, and perseverance of the Jamestown colonists were feted in a bombardment of fireworks and candy, highlighted by the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt, who arrived in Hampton Roads to review the fleet—rather thoughtlessly, one might think, aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower . Happily the 1907 circus was held outside Norfolk and not on the historic site itself. Happily, for there is no doubt that the celebration would have destroyed the archaeological remains of Virginia’s first capital. As it was, the destruction was left to nature, whose winds and waters whittled away at the historic shoreline until an extensive riprap protection project was undertaken in 1935.

With the approach of the 35oth anniversary celebrations, the National Park Service undertook a liberal program of excavation under the direction of Dr. Cotter, lasting from 1954 until 1956. But even when this work was completed, more than half of Jamestown’s soil remained unexplored. At the present time, the Park Service has no immediate plans for further excavations, although work on the huge collection of artifacts goes on, and will continue for many years.

No attempt has been made to reconstruct the houses of Jamestown, as has been done at nearby Williamsburg. Instead, most of the old foundations have been reburied and the outlines of the buildings marked out on the surface by modern low brick walls whose uneven height creates an impression of weathered antiquity. About a mile to the west on the mainland stands the 1957 Festival Park, and it is there that the fort has been reconstructed, the reproduced ships moored, and various exhibit buildings erected. Unlike the Exposition grounds of 1907, the Festival Park was not abandoned when the year was out. It remains a permanent museum and memorial to the Jamestown story.


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