On May 13, 1607 began the first permanent English settlement in America and since it is so old, I didn’t expect to see a lot remaining. But our visit here was really good, one of the highlights of our trip. There is something about being on the site of a settlement founded over four hundred years ago when ships landed on the shores of the James River carrying 104 colonists from England. Jamestown became the first colony and under the leadership of Captain John Smith survived, although just barely.
Located on Jamestown Island, this is a National Park Historic Site and is connected to the mainland via a causeway. The National Park Service has done a remarkable job of keeping the area in a natural and pristine state. Much of the island is wetlands and also forests. The James River which is very large flows by here and was the route chosen by the English settlers when they reached the Atlantic Coast. They were looking for a secluded site that would be protected from enemy invasion and also provide productive land. After visiting I can see why they would have been attracted to this area as it is beautiful and peaceful.
A recreated fort was built on the site and we were able to learn how life was lived by these early colonists. I stopped in at the “barracks” where a soldier in period costume invited me to take a seat as he talked about life at the Fort. He was quite the actor – totally in character as “Anas Todkill” with an old English manner of speaking so I had to listen carefully to catch all that he was saying. He got up and paced the room taking me back to those early years and how they had been told that living on American soil would be like the Mediterranean, warm weather with fertile soil. When they arrived they had fresh water from the James River as there was an unusual abundance after snow melt but the water turned its normal brackish and they became ill drinking from it. There was drought, crop failures, famine and illness and the people suffered greatly. The weather turned out to be much colder than expected. (Scientists talk about how this time was “The Little Ice Age,” one of the coldest in the last millennium).
In the beginning, the Powhatan Indians played an important role in helping the settlers to survive. Other than John Smith, Pocahontas is probably the most well known figure at Jamestown as she became an advisor or intermediary between her tribe and the English. After being kidnapped by John Rolfe she was married to him even though she was already married to another tribesman. Surprisingly, the Powhatan people went along with this marriage as a kind of alliance. Pocahontas eventually traveled to England with her husband and died there a few years later. Relationships between the colonists and the native peoples deteriorated and added to the miseries of the new settlement.
Daniel Firehawk Abbott, a member of the Nanticoke people in Maryland gave a demonstration about the Algonquian Indians and their interactions with the Jamestown settlers. He had made and used all the implements that were displayed around him. He described how he had lived off the land and built four different Native American shelters. He explained that he experienced a hurricane in one of his shelters which could withstand strong winds due to the domed construction. Wearing period clothing with lots of fringe, he described how the fringe helped his clothes stay drier because water ran down to the fringe tips and dripped off. In the picture above he demonstrates how to light his handmade pipe using tinder he has gathered.
The only building remnant still standing from the earliest days is the brick church tower which is believed to be built around 1617. The rest of the church was destroyed and rebuilt in 1907 as Memorial Church. Above is a picture of Mark and a ranger in front of the tower.
I was surprised to find that archaeological digs were active in various parts of the park. The day that we visited there were archaeologists working inside the church although when we stopped in they had gone to lunch. We were able to see their equipment and the process of the excavation. A volunteer from the Jamestown Rediscovery society pointed out that in the trench on the right hand side of the building (above) can be seen the original bricks from the 1600’s era church. Jamestown became the location for the first capitol when the legislature met for the first time in the old church in 1619. A state house was eventually built in the 1660’s and used until the Capitol moved to the town of Williamsburg.
One of the excavations was a Cellar Kitchen from 1608-1609 which uncovered two brick faced ovens. During the period of 1609-1610 was the “starving time” winter and the cellar kitchen was abandoned and used as a trash pit. Archaeologists found here the remains of horses and dogs that the colonists were forced to kill and eat for food.
Volunteers were on hand to show recent finds (above) from one of the excavations. They were washing and scrubbing some of the pieces such as nails, bones, pottery, teeth and pipe stems. They find a lot of pipe stems here as tobacco growing was the major crop from the earliest years.
Speaking of archaeological finds, Jamestown has a wonderful archaeology museum on site that is full of amazing artifacts focusing on the period of 1607 – 1624. You can see items such as tools, pottery, household objects, coins, armor, weapons, toys, religious objects and even two complete human skeletons. One of my favorite exhibits was a collection of old keys and locks. Before we started looking at the exhibits, we sat down with one of the directors who had dishes of very small artifacts that people could sift through with tweezers and a magnifying glass and try to identify. Although the pieces were tiny, it was kind of fun to try and guess what they were, such as charcoal, bones, brick, ceramics, fish scales or shells.
There is more than the Fort area to explore. A trail winds through the “New Town” section where the remains of home and business foundations can be seen. Actually the original foundations were covered back up a number of years ago as they were in danger from the elements. Reconstructed foundations were placed on top of the old to show the location of these sites. The remains of the Ambler Plantation House are still standing. It was originally built in the 1750’s but was burned in two wars and after a third fire in 1895 was abandoned.
It was an informative and fun visit to Jamestown – a place that is continually being rediscovered!
Thanks for checking in with us! In the next blog we head to the city of Richmond and Virginia’s capitol.