Forget what you’ve learned about Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. Stunning new archaeological evidence reveals that the real roots of American independence and the entrepreneurial spirit which drove it were thriving in Virginia’s Tidewater.
You probably know about John Smith and Pocahontas, but not much more. Jamestown in 1607 was English America’s first permanent settlement and, since then, perhaps its most unjustly maligned. According to many histories, Jamestown was a false start in the New World: a colony founded on greed that ultimately failed due to poor location, infighting and highborn colonists resistant to hard work. The colony’s very physical legacy, its original fort, was believed to have long ago washed away into the James River.
Enter Dr. William Kelso, chief archaeologist for the Jamestown Rediscovery Project sponsored by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. Using computer technology, centuries-old accounts written by the colonists themselves and the eye of a historical detective, Kelso has rediscovered James Fort and with it a trove of priceless artifacts that illuminate the lives, struggles and surprising accomplishments of those first English Americans.
The pioneering settlement Kelso describes in his book Jamestown: The Buried Truth is an astonishing place. Still, you may find it strangely familiar. This is the real story of the birth of a nation—America before the Pilgrims.
Dr. Kelso, most people probably think that an archaeologist would be more likely to dig for King Tut than John Smith.
So did I! Until I discovered that there was an American history that archaeologists could make a contribution to.
What led you to believe James Fort was still there, when previous experts agreed that the fort was gone?
When I first came to James Island, I realized that story didn’t have any particular backing to it—no real evidence—it was just agreed upon. When I looked at one of the earlier trenches, I could see that there was a dark layer underneath everything. I questioned it, but I didn’t get an answer. I came to realize how little was known about the area.
Your project is called Jamestown Rediscovery. Why would we need to rediscover where English America began? Why don’t we know it?
Because it keeps getting swept under the rug. I think this all goes back to the American Civil War. You know, the victors write the history. That’s the North. That’s the Pilgrims in 1620. It’s not a Southern colony in 1607. In the standard history books, Jamestown comes off as a bunch of greedy men, coming here to make money.
I’ve read they were lazy, too.
That’s been the story. But that’s not at all what we’re finding. The artifacts we’ve unearthed indicate people very hard at work, performing long, strenuous labor. Sure, they were trying to make a profit for the corporation. Now, how unAmerican is that?
It’s very American. But not like the Jamestown I learned about in social studies class. For example, in your book you talk about knights in shining armor.
There were at least three sirs—knighted men—at Jamestown. We’ve found armor all over the place. They brought more helmets than heads to put them on. American history does go back to knights in armor. Shakespeare himself drew on the Jamestown experiences [for his play The Tempest]. To me, this means that to really understand the beginnings of America, we need to look back to a much older European tradition.
You say that almost immediately on arriving, the colonists began felling trees and splitting them into planks, not just to build homes but to ship the lumber back to England.
That first summer, they loaded three ships for exporting. That was the idea: Find items of value and send them back. We’ve also found evidence that the colonists were attempting to manufacture glass, bronze and other valuables for export, using the resources here.
Even searching for gold?
We’ve recovered state-of-the-art crucibles, the kind used to assay gold deposits. It’s also documented that the colonists even sent back an entire shipload of dirt. They thought it was gilded. Which is ironic.
Because the dirt was the gold, the actual land—what the settlers couldn’t have back home.
So this was starting a nation and starting a business?
Oh, absolutely. After all, it was called the Virginia Company. We’re not digging up columns and tombs here. We’re finding a legacy that isn’t made of bricks—it’s the remains of a system of commerce.
For example, right now, I’m looking out on the James River, and there’s a barge that’s loaded with gravel and it’s headed, I think, for Japan. So the whole thing is still in operation. And from this same place.
That’s a really different take on how America began. Every schoolchild learns that the Pilgrims came here for religious freedom. These entrepreneurial Jamestown pioneers sound much different.
Yes, but also more like modern Americans.
How difficult would it have been for the original colonists to construct James Fort?
Building this palisade in just 19 days is probably the main reason that half the original colonists died. The colonists erected, say, 600 logs, weighing up to 800 pounds each, in the hot Virginia summer, after being raised in England. And working under fire, literally, from the natives. It must have been a panicking thing.
Was this the wrong place to land?
No. The perceived threat to the colony was Spain. Against a Spanish sea attack, the colonists chose the right strategic position: an island. There’s no other place along the James River as defensible as this one.
So this one triangular fort, about 100 yards on a side, was how big America was in 1607?
English America, yes, you could say that.The dwellings, warehouses and other buildings that made up the colony were inside the fort. The building remains we’re excavating now are the buildings that John Smith and the other colonists lived and worked in.
Since the precise location of the fort had been lost, you used the colonists’ own writings to find it. Were the Jamestowners accurate record keepers? Can we believe what they wrote?
Yes. There’s no doubt. Especially William Strachey, one of the colony scribes. His location for the fort was very exact.
Poring through these archaically written documents, Jamestown takes on an almost mythological quality. You know about John Smith and Pocahontas. But it becomes real historical science when we retrace the steps. The stories become true. I have a friend who teaches colonial history, and after seeing the digs he said, “Now I believe what I’ve always taught.”
You mentioned William Strachey. I understand you may have actually unearthed something of his.
Very likely his signet ring. It was recovered in the corner of the fort.
Is that the closest anyone has ever come to connecting an artifact with a specific colonist?
It’s one of three. We’ve also found a pewter flagon—drinking mug—in a well outside the fort, which bears the initials of settlers Richard and Elizabeth Pierce.
And the captain’s staff?
Unearthed in one of the burials. We believe the remains are those of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold. You think people don’t know much about Jamestown, but boy, they have never heard of this guy! According to John Smith, Gosnold was the main reason the colony survived that first year. That would make this a very important find—an unsung hero in American history.
Your work has even put a face on the Jamestowners.
Yes, using modern forensics. That’s another reason I think we’re revealing a forgotten century in American history. It’s what archaeology does. In a document, you can have someone’s point of view. But what you find in the ground, no one’s putting a spin on that.
We’re getting a fairer picture of the settlement. There were mistakes made. A lot of people died needlessly. It was paradise, and it wasn’t. People want to know: Did Jamestown succeed or fail? Well, it did both. These remains, their number, location and condition, point up how terribly hard life was in early Jamestown.
Especially during the “Starving Time” in 1609-10. After 400 years, how can you dig down and say definitively that these colonists very nearly starved to death?
It’s clear from what they butchered. We’ve found the remains of rats, dogs, horses—I mean, you’re chopping up your transportation. They were eating poisonous snakes, stuff that’s really taboo unless you’re absolutely desperate. Then there’s a question: Why didn’t they leave the fort for food? They couldn’t. Documentary evidence says if they ventured out of the fort, they were picked off.
By the natives?
Yes, but we’ve also found evidence of natives working inside the compound. We have evidence that someone was actually making stone tools in the fort. They were flaking points and making beads. What we’ve found represents the greatest evidence of contact between the Powhatan Indians and the English: Powhatan artifacts like pottery, beads and native pipes.
Again, this brings another sense of reality that you wouldn’t think of before. There were Indians in the fort, as well as outside. Not like a Western—the settlers on one side of the fort, and the Indians on the other.
You’ve recovered more than a million artifacts. Some look remarkably modern, like they were lost last year. Is there one artifact that stands out in your mind?
So many are astonishing. But I’d have to say, the fort itself. Individual artifacts can also present several interpretations. The one absolute that we’ve found is James Fort. It exists on dry land; it didn’t wash away. That’s undeniable. And in archaeology, it’s very seldom that you can come up with something undeniable.
The Jamestown you’re discovering is nothing like what most of us have seen in pictures. You know, the little stick huts.
That was one of the biggest surprises to me. I thought of little “Hansel & Gretel” cottages. In fact, Jamestown never had those. The little huts didn’t last long. We can see in the ground when they were torn down.
Jamestown started as poles in the ground, with tents over the tops. Then it went to something that would look at home in Ireland, one-story structures. Later, Jamestown becomes more of a city facade; they put up buildings which would have looked perfectly logical in London. Half-timber buildings. Finally it goes to brick, by statute, to make things permanent.
And while building that city, you say that Jamestown also built American independence, long before it happened at Independence Hall.
Absolutely. The basis of the American Revolution started at Jamestown. Jefferson knew that. In his book A History of Virginia, there’s a section on how, by the mid-17th century, the Jamestowners insisted on the same rights as Englishmen. So when Jefferson writes about justifications for the Revolution, he says we want to maintain our rights that we established here 160 years ago.
Jefferson’s sentiment was “Keep your promise that started in Jamestown.”
Did Jamestown eventually decline because the colonial capital moved to Williamsburg?
Yes, the area reverted to farmland. Jamestown is not really a good deep-water port; there are better ports at Yorktown.
So Jamestown didn’t disappear because it failed, but because the American experiment it started grew so successful.
That’s my point. The Virginia Company, the colony’s sponsors, failed, so everyone concludes that Jamestown failed. But it didn’t. By the time the Pilgrims step on Plymouth Rock in 1620, there were over a thousand people living up and down the James River on various prosperous plantations. And the ideas of Jamestown, that legacy, moved to Williamsburg, and then to Richmond.
And the site of James Fort even has a second history after that.
As a Confederate fort. Again, this was the most defensible position in the area. In fact, the Confederates used Jamestown’s surviving church steeple as an observation tower. Their fort was earthen walls. Today, those walls are full of Jamestown artifacts.
Did the Confederates know that?
Oh, yes. Their journals record finding logs from the fort, and burials. The Confederates found a piece of armor that is still in our collection.
Another new nation, trying to start on this same spot?
In a way. And Union forces saw Jamestown as important to take. It was the beginnings of their country.
So this really is about “becoming American.” In your book, you’ve said that the Jamestown colonists arrived here as quintessential Englishmen.
Yes they did. We’ve found their teacups and porcelain. We’ve found hundreds of sewing pins for fine garments. They were bringing their lives here. As far as I can determine, Jamestown was the first permanent English colony anywhere on earth.
When did these Englishmen become American?
We can see it happening in the archaeological record. The Englishmen become Americans when they figure out how to use this new environment. They came to this place where the forests were endless, where you could have land. The Virginia Company sent them for gold, but they found valuables that you couldn’t get back home.
That’s what drove them to endure the risks of this place. Then they adapted to it. They learned to make native pottery. We’ve found Powhatan-type bowls with feet on them, made to sit on English tables. They adapted their European armor for guerrilla fighting, by chopping it up and making smaller pieces—like flak jackets. We’ve found the pieces. They even recast some of their armor into kettles and other implements when the fighting was over.
Like swords into ploughshares. In many ways, its sounds like the America we know today started in this one tiny settlement. What can Jamestown teach us now, 400 years later?
The most important lesson for Americans today? Probably how precariously this whole thing started.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.