Rethinking Jamestown

America’s first permanent colonists have long been considered lazy and incompetent. But new evidence suggests that it was a prolonged drought—not indolence—that almost did them in

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To the english voyagers who waded ashore at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on a balmy April day in 1607, the lush Virginia landscape must have seemed like a garden paradise after four and a half months at sea. One ebullient adventurer later wrote that he was “almost ravished” by the sight of the freshwater streams and “faire meddowes and goodly tall trees” they encountered when they first landed at Cape Henry. After skirmishing with a band of Natives and planting a cross, the men of the Virginia Company expedition returned to their ships—the Susan Constant , Godspeed and Discovery — and the 104 passengers and crew continued up the Powhatan River (soon to be renamed the James in honor of their King, James I) in search of a more secure site.

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They thought they had found it on a marshy peninsula some 50 miles upstream—a spot they believed could be defended against Indians attacking from the mainland and that was far enough from the coast to ensure ample warning of approaching Spanish warships. They set about building a fortress and clearing land for the commercial outpost they had been sent to establish and which they called “James Cittie.” They were eager to get down to the business of extracting gold, timber and other commodities to ship back to London.

But Jamestown proved to be neither paradise nor gold mine. In the heat of that first summer at the mosquito-infested settlement, 46 of the colonists died of fever, starvation or Indian arrows. By year’s end, only 38 remained. Were it not for the timely arrival of British supply ships in January 1608, and again the following October, Jamestown, like Roanoke a few years before, almost certainly would have vanished.

It is little wonder that history has not smiled on the colonists of Jamestown. Though recognized as the first permanent English settlement in North America and the setting for the charming (if apocryphal) tale of Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith, Jamestown has been largely ignored in colonial lore in favor of Massachusetts’ Plymouth Colony. And what has survived is not flattering, especially when compared with the image of industrious and devout Pilgrims seeking religious freedom in a new land. In contrast, the Jamestown settlers are largely remembered as a motley assortment of inept and indolent English gentlemen who came looking for easy money and instead found self-inflicted catastrophe. “Without a trace of foresight or enterprise,” wrote historian W. E. Woodward in his 1936 A New American History , “ . . . they wandered about, looking over the country, and dreaming of gold mines.”

But today the banks of the James River are yielding secrets hidden for nearly 400 years that seem to tell a different story. Archaeologists working at the settlement site have turned up what they consider dramatic evidence that the colonists were not ill-prepared dandies and laggards, and that the disaster-plagued Virginia Colony, perhaps more than Plymouth, was the seedbed of the American nation—a bold experiment in democracy, perseverance and enterprise.

The breakthrough came in 1996, when a team of archaeologists working for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities ( APVA ) discovered a portion of the decayed ruins of the original 1607 Jamestown fort, a triangular wooden structure many historians were certain had been swallowed by the river long ago. By the end of the 2003 digging season, the archaeologists had located the fort’s entire perimeter on the open western edge of the heavily wooded 1,500-acre island; only one corner of it had been lost to the river. “This was a huge find,” William Kelso, chief archaeologist at the site, said shortly after the discovery. “Now we know where the heart is, the center of the colonial effort, the bull’s-eye. We know exactly where to dig now, and we will focus our time and resources on uncovering and analyzing the interior of the James Fort.”

Since then, Kelso and his team have excavated the ruins of several buildings inside the fort’s perimeter, along with thousands of artifacts and the skeletal remains of some of the first settlers. Only a third of the site has been excavated, and many of the artifacts are still being analyzed. Yet the evidence has already caused historians to reconsider some longheld assumptions about the men and the circumstances surrounding what YaleUniversity history professor emeritus Edmund S. Morgan once called “the Jamestown fiasco .” “Archaeology is giving us a much more concrete picture of what it was like to live there,” says Morgan, whose 1975 history, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia , argued that Jamestown’s first years were disastrous. “But whether it turns the Virginia Company into a success story is another question.”

The large number of artifacts suggests that, if nothing else, the Virginia Company expedition was much better equipped than previously thought. By the end of the 2003 season, more than half a million items, from fishhooks and weaponry to glassmaking and woodworking equipment, along with the bones of game fish and assorted livestock, had been recovered and cataloged. Many are now on display at the Jamestown Rediscovery project headquarters, a clapboard Colonial-style building a few hundred yards from the fort. “All of this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which says that the colonists were underfunded and illequipped, that they didn’t have the means to survive, let alone prosper,” says Kelso. “What we have found here suggests that just isn’t the case.”

In a climate-controlled room down the hall from Kelso’s sparsely decorated office, Beverly Straube, the project’s curator, sorts and analyzes the detritus of everyday life and death in the Virginia Colony. Some of the more significant artifacts are nestled in shallow open boxes, labeled and carefully arranged on long tables according to where the items were found. From one box, Straube picks up a broken ceramic piece with drops of shiny white “frosting” attached to its surface. “It’s part of a crucible,” she explains. “And this,” she says, pointing to the white substance, “is molten glass. We know from John Smith’s records that German glassmakers were brought in to manufacture glass to sell back in London. Here we have evidence of the glassmakers at work in the Jamestown fort.” From another box, she takes a broken ceramic piece with a cut-out hole and an ear-like protrusion. She compares it with a sketch of a ceramic oven, about the size of a toaster, used by 16th-century craftsmen to make clay tobacco pipes. Nearby are fragments of a glass alembic (a domed vessel used in distilling) and a ceramic boiling vessel, known as a cucurbit, for refining precious metals. “These artifacts tell us that the colonists weren’t just sitting around,” Straube says. “When they were healthy enough to work, this was an industrious place.”

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