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Finding The Real Jamestown

May 2024
13min read

The archaeologist who discovered the real Jamestown debunks myths and answers long-puzzling mysteries about North America's first successful English colony

Forget much of what you know about the Jamestown colony. For the past 200 years, many archaeologists and historians believed that the James River had largely eroded any traces of the original settlement over the intervening four centuries. Our excavations, ongoing since 1994, have proved otherwise: we have uncovered more than 250 feet of two palisade wall lines, the east bulwark line, three cellars, a building—all part of the original triangular fort. In addition, we have unearthed more than a million artifacts, most dating to the first years of the English settlement in 1607-1610. The soil has yielded a new understanding of the early years of Jamestown: a fresh picture not only of its settlers, their abilities, lives, and accomplishments, but of the interdependence between the English settlers and the Virginia Indians. 

No one disputes the simple facts: on May 14, 1607, after a difficult voyage of more than five months, a band of adventurers lured by the promise of a better life landed on the banks of the James River and established the first enduring English settlement in the New World. By the time the Pilgrims reached Plymouth in 1620, much of the James River basin from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to within twenty miles of the site of modern Richmond had been settled by the English under the sponsorship of the Virginia Company. A group of men elected from the scattered settlements of Virginia met on Jamestown Island, the first expression of English representative government in North America. 

But this dramatic and important story until recently has had few reliable details. The written records pertaining to Jamestown are scarce, ambiguous, and sometimes conflicting: maps of questionable accuracy; a few letters and official reports; published records written by interested parties (most famous among them John Smith, whose writings included the dubious tale of his own dramatic rescue by the Indian maiden Pocahontas.)  From the accounts, we can tell the colony’s early history was troubled, beginning with an alleged mutiny during the crossing from England (blamed on John Smith) and continuing through many struggles for power and incidents of civil unrest. The colony faced other trials and hardships as well, including a major battle with the local Indians within weeks of arrival, an unfamiliar semitropical climate, lack of fresh water, meager and spoiled food, drought, and accidents. 

The documentary evidence of the precariousness of life in early Jamestown and of the gap between the founders’ intentions and the colony’s achievements has led to a story of Jamestown over the generations that emphasized its shortcomings. Historian Edmund S. Morgan summarized conventional wisdom when he wrote in 1975 that “The adventurers who ventured capital lost it. Most of the settlers who ventured their lives lost them. And so did most of the Indians who came near them. Measured by any of the objectives announced for it, the colony failed.” This story, which continues to be told, has been held responsible for the diminished importance of Jamestown itself in American popular consciousness.

In this interpretation, the colony failed because of poor planning by the sponsoring Virginia Company, the incompetence or laziness of the colonists—qualities supposedly explained by the upper-class origin of half of the original settlers—and mistaken cultural assumptions about the Indians.  

To call Jamestown a complete failure, let alone a disaster, is to oversimplify. Even the scanty documents, with their record of the colony’s important firsts, its periods of thriving, and the energy and intelligence unceasingly invested in it, hint at a more complex story.

Jamestown first caught my attention four decades ago when I came across an aerial photo of Jamestown Island in a magazine as an undergraduate student in Ohio. The mesmerizing color image showed a network of open archaeological trenches laying bare the foundations of the buried town. This gridwork was part of an effort by the National Park Service to uncover the remains of Jamestown for a 1957 exhibition celebrating the 350th anniversary of its founding. Looking at the strict order of archaeological trenches crisscrossing the expanse of hallowed ground, I imagined digging one day with my own hands in Jamestown soil. 

After I arrived at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, as a graduate student in early American history, I sought out the ruins at nearby Jamestown. I was especially curious about the 1607 fort that must surely have been uncovered in the extensive excavations of the 1950s. James Fort first defined the limits of colonial Jamestown. At the excavation site, owned by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), I saw the moss-covered brick church reconstructed in the 1930s, statues of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, and a curious windowed exhibit in the side of the nearby earthen Civil War fort. The glass protected some exposed layers of dirt in the bank of the fort, revealing the actual soil layers that made up the bank: the Civil War zone, complete with lead bullets; beneath it the dark band of colonial trash; and the deepest deposit, a lighter soil containing arrow points and prehistoric Indian pottery. 

When I asked a park ranger about the old fort site, he pointed to a lone cypress tree growing way off shore and said, “Unfortunately, you’re too late. It’s out there—and lost for good.” My disappointment was mixed with confusion. 

“But what about here?” I asked, looking again at the layer of dirt under glass labeled “colonial.”

He replied with a shrug of his shoulders that I took as a “could be.” 

James Fort was never far from my thoughts in the ensuing years as I became an archaeologist specializing in the British Colonial America period. Most of my work focused on rescuing historically rich farm sites along the banks of the James River, which were being rediscovered by real estate developers and resettled by retirees. The more I dug, the more I became convinced that the “colonial level” under that glass exhibit at the Civil War fort might indicate the presence of the 1607 James Fort.  

When the APVA decided to investigate its property on Jamestown Island archaeologically in preparation for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, I enthusiastically volunteered for the job. There was not much of a line. Most archaeologists discounted any chance of finding something significant, certainly not the fort, which the National Park Service had concluded in the 1950s had “been washed into the James River.” 

Before digging, we had to narrow the boundaries of the site. At 22.5 acres, the APVA property on Jamestown Island is no small shroud, amounting to 9,900 ten-foot squares if broken up into grids. Clearly we needed to make an educated guess as to where the fort might lie.

We did know the location of the seventeenth-century Jamestown church. A part of the tower still existed, the sole above-ground remnant of the original town. If the fort site was submerged off shore to the west, then the church, located according to contemporary sources as in “the midst” of the fort, would also have been gone. In that case, the present foundations and tower would be evidence of a relocation in the seventeenth-century campaign, which seemed unlikely because churches and the human burials around them are rarely ever moved. 

So thirty years to the day after I had first set foot on Jamestown Island, I found myself putting shovel to ground one hundred feet from the glassed-in cross-section that had been the original object of my curiosity. Few words exist that describe the elation of turning up fragments of early seventeenth-century ceramics, which happened almost immediately. That initial season we uncovered the dark soil trace of a wall line, the first sign of James Fort. Thirteen years of work since have turned up more evidence than anyone had expectedmost important, the site of James Fort itself, so long thought unrecoverable. 

In May of 1607, Virginia looked like an Eden to the English “gentlemen, artisans and laborers” seeking a place to settle in the name of King James I. Little wonder that these pioneers saw a paradise: they had left the gray, chilly English winter and spent most of the next four and one-half months crossing the Atlantic, cramped aboard three ships that were mere lifeboats by today’s standards. The gentle, seductive breezes and lush first growth of Spring gave no hint of the coming deadly heat of the summer. The wildest dreams of a Utopian New World seemed to be reality: the ideal place to plant a permanent colony of English people, to find gold and a route to the rich Orient, to convert the natives to Christianity, and a place to reap profit for their investors, the Virginia Company of London. 

On May 13, the group decided to settle a point of land that was actually an island at very high tide. Although it was a mere thirty-five miles from the open ocean, from which the Spanish could launch an attack, the island still qualified as a naturally defensible place, with a narrow neck of land to guard against assault from the mainland Indians and its naturally hidden location in a sharp bend in the river. The Virginia Company had instructed them not to upset the Virginia Indians, especially by settling on land they already occupied. Jamestown Island was vacant, although they had occupied it in the not-too-distant past. By 1607 their cleared land must have evolved into a fair-sized grove of straight, tall, second-growth hardwood trees, ideal for building timber palisades and blockhouses. These advantages apparently far outweighed the acres of low-lying marshland the colonists were warned to avoid and the lack of fresh water on the island. John Smith deemed Jamestown Island “a very fit place for the erecting of a great cittie.” 

So on May 14, 1607, after a voyage of more than five months, the colonists who had survived—104 of them, all men—filed ashore. The men fell immediately to work, clearing the land, building shelters, preparing gardens, fishing, and fortifying themselves despite Company instructions not to upset the Indians by doing so. Like Smith, Percy tells of throwing up a brush fort and establishing a military guard “to watch and ward.” 

At first two Paspahegh Indian messengers arrived at the emerging settlement with news that their werowance, or chief, would be coming with a gift deer. Four days later, Percy reports, the werowance “came…to our quarter” as advertised, but instead of the deer he brought along “one hundred salvages armed,” a message that the English soldiers were essentially outnumbered and surrounded. The leader also “made signs that he would give us as much land as we would desire,” meaning the 1,600-acre Jamestown Island. But the deal seemed to go sour when one of the Indians grabbed a soldier’s hatchet, prompting a scuffle in which a native was struck on the arm. The chief and his warriors left angry.

On May 27, some 200 warriors launched “a very furious assault to our fort…They came up allmost into the fort, shott through the tentes.” The battle “endured hott about an hower,” hurting “11 men (whereof one dyed) and killed a Boy. …We killed divers of them…how many hurt we know not.” Four of the councilors were wounded including Bartholomew Gosnold. Cannon shots from the ship finally “caused the Indians to retire.” 

The assault turned out to be a wake-up call and Wingfield ordered that the settlement be immediately enclosed with palisades, logs set side by side vertically in the ground. Building the fort was no easy task for such a small number of men, certainly not the work of lazy men ill-used to physical labor. Using only hand tools, they cut trees into logs probably weighing 800 pounds apiece and dug at least 900 feet of trenches to seat them. Almost daily the workmen had to dodge Indian arrows shot from the surrounding woods and marsh grasses. One worker, Eustace Clovill, paid a dear price for “straggling without the fort.” The snipers shot six arrows into him, causing his death in less than a week. 

Recently in our excavations in the north corner of the fort, we came across an artifact-rich area, perhaps a well or cellar, containing broad swords, tasset lames (armor protecting the thigh), a breast plate, and other armor. This cache may well indicate that the colonists soon realized that the heavy metal protection of their home country proved too hot and ill-effective against Indian arrows. We have also found evidence that the colonists began developing lighter, more flexible jacks of plate, with overlapping plates of armor, much better protection against arrows, and quite similar to the “Dragon Skin” developed by the military today.

In the days that followed, colony leader George Percy chronicled the deaths of twenty-five colonists, including councilor Bartholomew Gosnold: “Our men were destroyed with cruel diseases as swellings, fluxs, burning fevers, and by wars, and some departed suddenly, but for the most part they died of mere famine.” We found a cluster of 22 graves inside the fort, probably these very same men. 

Outside the west wall, we found a single grave, contemporaneous with the building of the fort. Atop the coffin lay a spearlike Captain’s leading staff, signifying a ceremonial burial. I believe this is the resting spot of 36-year-old Gosnold, the founding energy behind the colony and designer of the fort. 

Later, Captain John Smith claimed that sixty-seven were dead by September. When the popular Smith took over as the colony’s leader in September—President Wingfield having been impeached for allegedly hoarding food—he oversaw the building of some thatched houses. In the fall of 1607, a number of emissaries from James River Indian tribes expressed intentions of peace, and every four or five days Pocahontas (the great chief Powhatan’s daughter, who had befriended Smith) and her attendants brought the men provisions. Despite these friendly actions, concern for security probably caused the new houses to be built inside the fort.

In January 1608, after two supply ships and 100 fresh men arrived from England, fire seriously damaged or destroyed the fort. On top of that disaster, the winter of 1608 was one of “extreme frost.” That winter saw a rash of deaths in which, Smith reports, “more than half of us died.” Despite these hardships, Smith reports a “rebuilding [of] James Towne,” which included repairing the partially burned palisades, completely rebuilding the church, and reroofing the storehouse. By summer Smith carried on with his voyages of discovery on Virginia’s waterways away from Jamestown, with the presumption that the fort had been brought back in order.

Yet whenever Smith returned to Jamestown from his Company-ordered explorations, once in July and again in September 1608, he wrote that he found the town in decay and the people “all sick, the rest some lame, some bruised—all unable to do anything but complain…many dead, the harvest rotting and nothing done.” Smith restored discipline in the disorganized and disheartened militia: “the whole company every Saturday exercised in the plain by the west bulwark prepared for that purpose…where sometimes more than an hundred savages would stand in amazement to behold how a file would batter a tree.”

Likely among the audience watching the troops perform were the first two immigrant women, Mistress Forest and her maid Anne Burras, who would soon marry John Laydon, one of the few hearty survivors of the original 105 settlers. Eight Germans had arrived with the supply ships, brought to make pitch, tar, glass, mills, and soap ashes, and when the ships sailed back to England in late 1608, they carried a cargo of clapboard, pitch and even glass made in Jamestown.

In 1608-9 the “five-square, James towne” seemed to prosper under Captain John Smith’s strict leadership. That spring, he instituted a “must work or no food” policy to ensure there would be a harvest. The men “made a well in the fort of excellent sweet water which was wanting, built twenty houses, recovered the church… and built a blockhouse in the neck of our isle.” The settlers caught giant sturgeon fish and harvested various wild roots and fruits. According to Smith, “[w]e lived very well.” 

But not for long. The same summer, seven of a nine-ship supply flotilla made it in from England intending to revitalize the colony. Those ships apparently also brought individuals who set out to murder Smith and “to supplant us rather than supply us.” Over two hundred men took the new supplies away from Jamestown, going to live elsewhere. When Smith sailed to the Falls settlement in search of supplies in the late autumn, he returned with a life-threatening wound to his thigh caused when, as he put it, someone “accidentally” fired his powder bag. He soon decided to return to England, “seeing there was neither chirurgian nor chirurgery in the fort to cure his hurt.” George Percy was named president.

The 1609-10 winter that followed became known as the “starving time.” A flotilla of supply ships under the newly appointed lieutenant governor Sir Thomas Gates failed to arrive, most shipwrecked in Bermuda. The colonists’ livestock was quickly eaten, including the horses; and some of their weapons were traded away for Indian corn. We discovered a pair of stirrups, probably discarded once the horses were eaten. 

During that brutal winter, Indians besieged the fort. The siege proved so effective that “it is true that the Indians killed as fast without, if our men stirred but beyond their bounds of their blockhouse, as famine and pestilence did within.” The Indians withheld even their occasional food deliveries. One explanation for the trouble may be the arrival in Jamestown of twenty women and children on the Blessing in the fall of 1609; perhaps the siege was the result of these newcomers’ presence. It certainly must have sent a strong signal that what might have been perceived as a small, perhaps temporary all-male trading post was growing into something quite different: a permanent settlement of families. Extermination of the invaders may have appeared to be the only course of action. Only sixty of the 215 left at Jamestown survived.

By spring, the Deliverance and the Patience, replacements for the governor’s wrecked flagship, the Sea Venture, arrived from Bermuda to find “the palisades torn down, the ports open, the gates from off the[i]r hinges...and empty houses [some] rent up and burnt [for firewood].…[T]he Indians killed . . . our men [if they] stirred beyond the bounds of their blockhouse.” The supplies brought in from Bermuda soon disappeared, and the expectation of resupply from the Indians proved to be wishful thinking. The situation declined so badly that Gates ordered an evacuation of the town. With thirty days’ supply, the survivors sailed downriver.

According to one account, Gates planned to “stay some ten days at Cape Comfort…to wait the arrival of a supply ship.” More official accounts say that the party was in a headlong nonstop retreat back to England. In any event, not far downriver the evacuees met an advance party from the incoming supply fleet of the new governor, Lord De La Warre. The group returned to Jamestown and prepared for the arrival of the new governor. 

The Virginia Company’s goals—to find a route to the Orient, convert the New World natives to Christianity, find gold, and export raw and manufactured goods—were at best only slightly fulfilled. The hoped-for precious minerals and short, all-water route to the riches of the Orient were never found; the native population was far from willing to embrace the Church of England; and initial manufacturing projects did not prove lucrative. 

But the introduction of Caribbean tobacco by John Rolfe in 1613 did at last establish a cash crop that helped ensure the survival of the Virginia colony, although the success of hinterland plantations depleted the Jamestown population. 

A census around 1624 showed a total of 1,232 colonists living in Virginia (at least 120 families) in twenty-nine settlements scattered along the James River from Hampton Roads to the Falls near present-day Richmond. Of these, a total of 121 men, women, and children lived at Jamestown. Most of these 1,232 were the lucky survivors of a massive surprise attack by the Powhatan Indians that had killed 347 colonists two years earlier. Jamestown itself had been spared by an early warning, but the massacre was the final death blow to the Virginia Company. The Company was dissolved and the colony taken over directly by the Crown. 

Although it cannot be disputed that the Virginia Company failed in Virginia politically as well as financially, the 1,232 colonists of 1624 did not call it quits. They did not go home, nor were they “lost” like their English predecessors of the ill-fated Fort Raleigh Colony. For these survivors,Virginia lived on. Strangely, in defeat the Virginia Company had suceeded. Jamestown endured.  

An archaeologist must often practice more than one kind of patience. One September day in 1994 my digging was interrupted by a pair of British tourists. 

“Have you found anything?”

He spoke so earnestly that I felt compelled to give a serious answer. “Absolutely. See this black stain in the clay? Well, that’s what’s left of a 1607 fort wall…maybe from James Fort.”

After a moment, the man’s companion said, “You mean that’s it? America, the last of the world’s superpowers, began as…just dirt?” I thought about it for a moment. 

“Yes, I guess it was just dirt.”

“Shouldn’t there have been a ruined castle or some marble columns or…something real?” she contined.

“No, I just dirt and plenty of hope,” I answered. 

“Oh, brilliant!” they said in unison. “Brilliant indeed.”

The archaeologist exploring the beginnings of the United States discovers no medieval castles, classical templates, or Egyptian pyramids. “Just dirt” held out hopes for the landless immigrant, offering a way to break into an otherwise closed society based on the inheritance of family estates.

“Just dirt” holds out hope to the archaeologist as well. Marks in the soil of Jamestown Island are the traces of a native people and English immigrants, evidence that has survived the ground-disturbing activities of succeeding generations and the eroding efforts of the adjacent river. So we dig, in the faith that these traces bear America’s richest heritage.

The discovery process at Jamestown is far from over. Approximately one-half of the interior of the fort site remains to be excavated, in-depth analysis of the field data and artifacts has only begun, and the expanded fort area on APVA property has only been tested. And, despite almost three decades of excavation, about 80 percent of the forty-acre townsite that lies on the National Park Service property west of the fort remains basically unexplored.

Who knows what more exciting discoveries will be coaxed from the dirt of Jamestown over the next several decades?


Adapted with permission from Jamestown: The Buried Truth (University of Virginia Press 2006)


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