Location: Jamestown, Virginia
Webpage: National Park Service
General Description: In 1607, Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the New World. In contrast to latter settlements, Jamestown was a business venture by the Virginia Company of London to exploit Virginia’s natural resources. Consequently the initial 104 colonists that arrived in May of 1607, was made up primarily of artisans, craftwmen, laborers and soldiers to protect them. Under the leadership of Captain John Smith they were originally friendly with the Powhatan tribes that helped to sustain them that first winter. However, the tribes were experiencing the worst drought in 800 years and the assistance was limited and by summer the colonists were dying from disease and starvation. In addition to the drought, the site they choose for the colony was not a good one for survival. It was chosen more for defense from the Spaniards then for food and water. Located on an island without a source of fresh water and limited game made conditions ripe for disease and starvation. They were heavily dependent on supplies from England and trade with the Indians. More colonists arrived in 1609 including a few women, however, the ships carrying the supplies and leadership for the colony were lost in storms in the Caribbean. The winter of 1609 was known as the “starving time” with only 60 of the 300 colonists surviving until the spring. By this time relationships with the Powhatan tribes had deteriorated to the point that they were essentially confined to the fort over the winter and could not forage or trade for food. The success of the business enterprise were also very limited even though there is evidence of attempts to exploit the native plants and minerals for useful commodities. Different crops were attempted, but only tobacco seemed promising. The colony continues to grow with annual addition of settlers including African slaves in 1619 and unmarried women in 1620. In 1622 the Powhatan indians attack English settlements along the James River, killing 347 settlers, a third of the population. In 1624, the Charter to the Virginia Company is revoked and Jamestown becomes a royal colony. Jamestown continues to grow and prosper as the only sanctioned harbor in the Virginia colony. However, its location continues to make life difficult with disease and no fresh water sources. In 1676, Nathaniel Bacon leads a revolt against the British military in protest over the weak response to Indian attacks in the backcountry. They set fire to Jamestown, which never fully recovers and the Statehouse was moved to Williamsburg the following year. Since then the site of Jamestown has been farmed, primarily for tobacco, and the only evidence remaining are archeological remains. The oldest structure is the Old Memorial Church build in 1907, hundreds of years later. The site is divided in to two areas, the town of Jamestown once it had expanded beyond the fort, known as New Towne (administered by NPS) and the recently discovered site of the 1607 fort known as Old Towne (administered by Preservation Virginia Organization). The NPS has put in some bricks to show the outline of the various buildings that have been identified in New Towne, whereas the Preservation Virginia Organization has done extensive and ongoing archeological work in Old Towns since the location of the original fort, which for years had been thought to have been lost to the James River, was found in 1994. Since then the Organization have found numerous structures, burials, and over a million artifacts. Since the work is still ongoing you can often watch the archeologists at their work. Some of the most impressive finds are on display at the Voorhees Archearium.
1) If you have the opportunity to join a talk with one of the archeologist working at the site, you definitely need to take advantage of it. We learned a lot more about how the work is done, how they put the clues found in the soil and from the artifacts together, and what has been found since 1994 than we would have learned from the limited signs put up. For instance, they were currently finishing excavating the original bakery in the fort. The ovens were actually carved into the sides of the basement of the structure, which meant they would eventually collapse and the bakery would have to be moved.
2) In addition to the archeological work being done, the Virginia Preservation Organization has reconstructed part of the palisade wall using wooden pegs to hold it together, as well, as the framework for the barracks. Part of this effort is for the benefits of tourists, but it also serves as a research tool. By trying to build the structures themselves they gain a better understanding about the artifacts being found or the lack of artifacts, such as a lack of nails even though they had blacksmiths.
3) The Archearium is a must see! They have done an excellent job displaying a small fraction of the artifacts they have found including weapons, armor, and tools used by the crasftsmen. Two exhibits really caught my attention. First was the evidence they found to conclude that the “starving time” during the winter of 1609 included cannibalism. This included the skull and part of the leg of a young female that show multiple small cuts in the bone that occurred when the cut the meat off the bone. Second, was a piece of slate that was used as a “scratch pad”. You can clearly see a lot of scratches of letters, numbers, and crude pictures.
4) After the archeological work being done in Old Towns, the NPS work in New Towns was not as impressive. I was surprised to find out how small the town was until I realized that this was the harbor, government center, and workshops such as a tannery and blacksmith shops. Nearly all of the citizens of Jamestown lived outside of town on small farms and other scattered communities. There was not a need for a lot of housing in town during that time, so only a small fraction of the buildings were homes. It is also interesting to the Ambler Mansion ruins which was a pre Civil War plantation home (two stories and not very big) to demonstrate this land was continued to be used for farming after Jamestown was gone.
5) Ranger talks are all interesting and worth the time. While we were there we participated in a Ranger talk about the Bald Eagle population. They have 3 active nests on Jamestown Island, which reflects the re-growth in the populations of Bald Eagles since the banning of DDT. This area of Virginia once again boasts the largest concentration of Bald Eagles outside of Alaska. At the end of the talk we went out front of the Visitor Center with his small telescope and looked at a nest with three fledgelings just about ready to leave the nest. Pretty neat! (The picture of the bald eagle is actually a postcard the ranger gave us and not a picture we took unfortunately, however the other two pictures are animals we saw at Jamestown).