Jamestown, North America’s First Permanent English Colony, Could Soon Be Underwater

Flooding risk has landed the site on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of most endangered places

Overhead view of Jamestown after a Nor'easter in October 2021
Overhead view of Jamestown after a Nor'easter in October 2021 Historic Jamestowne

When a group of English men and boys arrived in Chesapeake Bay in April 1607, starvation and disease awaited them. Now, the site of their arrival—and the first successful English colony in North America—is under threat. Thanks to sea level rise and climate change, much of the colony’s rich and varied history is now being subsumed by the swamp on which it was built.

That’s the assessment of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has included the site of the historic colony on its 2022 list of America’s most endangered places.

Experts tell the Washington Post’s Michael E. Ruane that due to climate change and rising waters, they only have roughly five years left to protect the site, home to thousands of years of history and a treasured archaeological dig that tells the story of the early days of English colonists in America, from flooding.

Though researchers and preservation specialists at Historic Jamestowne are doing what they can to combat the rising waters, including sandbagging dig sites and using to cover excavation sites, they are locked in a battle against time and the elements.

Archaeologist Mary Anna R. Hartley tells the Washington Post these efforts barely combat the area’s brutal rainstorms, which can drop between four and 10 inches of rainwater in a day.

“When you see a storm … it’s almost too late,” she says, noting that the rain events come on “almost a weekly basis.”

“We are already inundated,” Michael Lavin, director of collections and conservation for Jamestown Rediscovery, which leads the archaeological investigation at the site, tells the Virginia Gazette’s Em Holter.

An old red-brick church
Remains of the 1639 Jamestown church tower. Archaeologists have uncovered much of the historic colony since 1994. Tony Fischer via Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Since 1994, archaeologists and researchers have worked to uncover some 3 million artifacts from the site of the original colony, per the Jamestown Rediscovery project’s website. Historians had assumed that the original fort at the site had long since been swallowed up by the James River, but to date archaeologists have uncovered most of the structure’s remains.

Founded in 1607 by 104 English men and boys, Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in North America. The National Trust writes that the site “represents the meshing of cultures in North America, from 12,000 years of indigenous history to the arrival of English settlers and the forced migration of enslaved people from Africa.”

The early settlers experienced epic hardship at Jamestown. Disease, infighting, and drinking brackish river water killed many of the original English colonists, as did starvation caused by ignorance of how to survive off the land. During the winter of 1609-1610, known as the “Starving Times,” settlers ate anything they could to survive including dogs, mice, shoe leather, and even their own dead. By the end of that winter, roughly 90 percent of the settlers had died.

Archaeologists have uncovered remnants of those hardships, including direct evidence that colonists engaged in cannibalism. In 2013, researchers announced they had discovered the bones of a 14-year-old English girl who had been dismembered and eaten.

“Historians have gone back and forth on whether this sort of thing really happened there,” Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley told Smithsonian magazine’s Joseph Stromberg at the time. “Given these bones in a trash pit, all cut and chopped up, it's clear that this body was dismembered for consumption.”

A wooden fence at Jamestown Settlement
Much of the original settlement at Jamestown has been recovered by archaeologists.  Ken Lund via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

Those that survived starvation did so thanks to the help from the tribe whose land they had commandeered. The Powhatans had inhabited the area for over 12,000 years before the English arrived, and oscillated between peace and warfare with the foreign invaders for decades.

The colonists eventually learned to plant tobacco, and the lucrative trade led to the first instance of African slavery in what would later become the United States. In 1619, Portuguese slavers arrived at Jamestown with about two dozen Angolans. English colonists purchased them and put them work in the tobacco farms. Slavery would persist in North America for the next two and a half centuries.

Archaeologists tell the Washington Post that though some historic structures are on higher ground are safe for now, areas closer to the river filled with potential artifacts like armor and Native American arrowheads are becoming permanently flooded. Both burials and artifacts may not survive ongoing water exposure, they say.

In four decades, they tell the BBC’s Jane O’Brien, much of the site will be underwater.

A reinforced seawall is already in the works thanks to $2 million in funds raised by Jamestown Rediscovery and its nonprofit affiliate Preservation Virginia, and a drainage overhaul is underway. But experts say it will take more to save the site.

“There is basically a five-year window at Jamestown,” Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, tells the BBC. “If we do not begin to address these issues within that five-year window, mitigating the impact of climate change becomes exponentially harder. This can’t wait another 10 or 15 years. This is about right now.”

Rivers and other waterways were critical for early settlers. But the proximity of bodies of water to many historic cities is a liability in the age of human-caused climate change. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA), sea levels have risen 8 to 9 inches since 1880, and along the U.S. coastline, high-tide flooding is up to 900 percent more frequent than just 50 years ago.

More modern landmarks are at risk as well. Olivewood Cemetery, one of the oldest known African American cemeteries, is also on the National Trust’s list of most endangered places. The 147-year-old Houston cemetery’s situation on low-lying ground near a bayou has exposed its more than 4,000 graves to damage from flooding. And Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin, constructed in the 1880s to help solve flooding, has ironically experienced a flooding problem of its own, endangering the city’s beloved cherry trees.