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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Town Profiles: Jamestown

It all began in May 1607, when John Smith and 103 other colonists made landfall in the New World and established England's first permanent colony known as Jamestown. This modest settlement would eventually give rise to England's most prosperous economic colonies, Virginia's first capitol, and eventually the world's most powerful nation. Not much is left of the original Jamestown settlement as of today. The majority of the buildings have long been destroyed, and the only remains are foundations and burial sites. However, continuous efforts are presently being taken to uncover the remains of Jamestown and get a sense of what life was like 410 years ago. Certainly, between Indian wars, starvation, and environmental dangers, life wasn't particularly enjoyable. Despite these hardships--some of which brought the colony to near-failure--the colonists left behind them a legacy of progress, innovation, and perseverance that sowed the seeds of a new nation.

Reconstructed yehakin

There are two Jamestown parks to visit: 1) the Virginia-owned Jamestown Settlement and 2) Historic Jamestowne owned by the National Park Service. The first stop for me was at the Jamestown Settlement, which I will dub the 'tourist trap.' This nickname doesn't mean to detract from its historic significance, it's just that no matter what time or day you go, it will always be very, VERY crowded. But brave the crowds anyway! The Settlement is a very interactive and family-friendly place to go, featuring a gallery exhibit, a reconstructed Indian village, and a recreated James Fort. The first place I visited was the gallery where there are movie presentations and a museum exhibition of the colony's progression from first contact through the 18th century. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside the exhibit area, so I have nothing to show for that (all the more reason to go and see for yourself). However, I will say that the abundance and quality of artifacts on display are absolutely amazing! It's not every day you can see a 17th century bronze cannon, Neolithic stone relics, and English manillas all in one place.

Outside of the exhibition galleries along the footpath is the recreated Powhatan Indian village of Paspahegh. This open exhibit features reed-covered houses (called yehakins), Indian goods, and reenactors to show what life was like before the settlers arrived. There is an additional boardwalk trail that describes the various plants and wildlife the Indians used for survival and cultivation. Located directly next to the Indian village is the recreated James Fort. This fort served as a protectorate for the settlers and the site of nearly all daily colonial business, featuring public houses, a church, governmental buildings, and military barracks. Finally, docked at the end of the walkway, are the recreated cargo and passenger ships that brought the colonists over from England in 1607, the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. Visitors can board each of these ships, and on the Susan Constant, you can go below the decks and explore the cramped conditions of naval life.

The Jamestown Settlement was a very enriching place to visit. It offers tourists a unique and interactive historical experience that you can't really find anywhere else. However, in my opinion, the best part of the trip was located a couple miles east on Jamestown Island: the Historic Jamestowne exhibit.

Susan Constant

Unlike the Jamestown Settlement, Historic Jamestowne is located at the original settlement site. Of course, nothing remains standing of the 400 year-old town, but excavators and archaeologists are constantly working to uncover and preserve whatever remains underground. Upon entering the park, you walk by what once was Governor Yeardley's residence. Yeardley came to Jamestown in 1610 and was appointed royal governor eight years later. In 1619, he issued the Great Charter, which established Virginia's first representative government. Today, his residence no longer stands and is only marked by an empty lot and a plaque.

The footpath to the original Jamestown site cuts through what is known as the "Pitch and Tar" Swamp. What may seem like just a bog was actually a vital resource for the settlers. Laborers extracted clay, tar, and grasses from the muddy waters in order to build houses and make repairs to the fort. Crossing over to dry land stands the impressive Tercentenary Monument, erected in 1907 marking the settlement's 300th anniversary.

Off to the right stands the location of the James Fort. This area is still an active archaeological site today, with new discoveries constantly being made. The first dig site is called the 'Quarter.' This was believed to be living quarters for settlers. Archaeologists have recovered Indian artifacts from trade, cooking materials, and a dagger from this area. All of these and other artifacts mentioned later in this post can be viewed at the Voorhees Archaearium (again, you'll have to see for yourself since photos were prohibited).

Tercentenary Monument

Located next to the Quarter is the Cellar Kitchen, believe to have been built in 1608-09. It didn't get much use according to historians, considering the year after its construction was known as the 'Starving Time.' During this period, the settlement ran dangerously low on supplies and had particularly poor relations with the Indians. This resulted in mass starvation, malnutrition, and the deaths of 80% of the colony. The layering of the relics recovered from this pit reveal that the kitchen was turned into a trash pit during this time. The bones of dogs, horses, and other animals were found scattered below the ground. More gruesomely, the partial remains of a 14-year girl were also found. Portions of her skull were posthumously removed and striations (caused by deep knife cuts) were found all over her face. This amazing recovery is an unfortunate example of survival cannibalism that took over the camp during this time. Her skull is presently on display in the archaearium, all the more reason to visit (ya know...if you're into that kind of stuff).

Just up the way are some more morbid exhibits, such as a mass burial site for settlers. Dated to 1607, around 30 grave sites have been discovered with only three of them unearthed. One of these sets of remains belonged to a 14 year-old boy who apparently was killed by an Indian attack in May 1607. 'How do they know?' you ask? Simple. The arrowhead was still embedded in the boy's leg.

How can you talk about Jamestown without mentioning Pocahontas? Anyone who has completed an elementary education (or has seen a certain Disney movie) knows about the legend of Pocahontas. Of course, much of her story is mere legend. Not much is really known about her prior to the arrival of the colonists. She was believed to have been born in 1595, the daughter of Chief Wahunsenacawh (do not ask me how to pronounce that), leader of the Powhatan tribe. It is known that she was friendly with the settlers, although her role in saving John Smith's life is up for conjecture. In 1613, she was kidnapped by the settlers and converted to Christianity. They even changed her name to 'Rebecca.' That following year , she married John Rolfe--you know, the guy who introduced tobacco to the Virginia colony--and moved across the ocean to England in 1616. She died in England a few months later March 21, 1617. Despite her rather short story, she is credited with creating a symbiotic and peaceful relationship between the colonists and Powhatan tribe, thus saving the colony from sure disaster.

Skull of cannibalism victim

Walking towards the archaearium, visitors can pass by the original first landing site. Due to global warming and eroding coastlines, the original landing point is under water. However, it is still chilling to think that on that very ground 410 years ago, English colonists landed on Virginia's coast for the very first time.

I finally reached the archaearium, situated amidst the ruins of the Statehouse. The Statehouse was the location of the Virginia General Assembly from 1619 to 1698, when it unfortunately burned down. The inside of the museum was mind-blowing. Obviously, my opinion is biased since I have a strong fascination for relics and artifacts, but anybody who appreciates history in the slightest will be put into a state of awe upon entrance. All of the artifacts on display were found from the original settlement (and may I mention, more are still being found to this day!). Some of the relics include body armor, human remains, cooking utensils, gold and silver coins, pottery, bottles, and many personal items. One of the most interesting exhibits is of burial JR102C, America's first murder. The skeleton of a mid-30s male was recovered with a gunshot wound to his knee. Considering only colonists had firearms at this time, it is reasonable to suggest that the poor man was killed by one of this own. It is a tragic, but very intriguing story.

Back inside the fort wall stands the Memorial Church, erected in 1907 as part of the tercentennial. It stands overtop of the original church structure built in the early 1600s. One of the coolest features of this church is that it contains an original 1600s church tower, one of the only surviving structures from the early colonial era. There were actually five churches in Jamestown's history. The first church burned down in 1608 and the second replaced it until 1619. The third church was ordered to be constructed by Governor Argall in 1617 and was completed in 1619. The foundation of this church can be seen inside the Memorial Church. The fourth church was built around the third, being completed in 1647, only to be burned down in 1676. The fifth and final church was built on top of the original foundation and the tower seen today was part of that church.

Memorial Church

Another neat feature of the church is the 18th-century cemetery. Among the tombs are those of James and Sarah Blair. This name holds a personal connection to me since I study at the College of William and Mary. Blair was one of the primary founders of the college and its first president. It's hard to be on-campus and not hear about James Blair, considering we have academic buildings, roads, and literary magazines named after the man. So when I saw this memorial, a sense of wonderment just flowed throughout my body. I don't really know how to explain was just really cool to see!

One of the last structures within the fort complex were the barracks. This site was home to many of the common soldiers and laborers who founded early Jamestown. Archaeologists have reportedly found thousands of artifacts from this site, including helmets, weapons, dining ware, and personal affects.

Just outside of the fort walls stands a plaque remembering the first Africans to arrive at Jamestown and the subsequent millions who followed over the next 200 years. After the Jamestown colony stabilized and began to grow, planter began to cultivate tobacco, one of the most prized cash crops in England. Demand eventually outweighed supply the colonists could grow by themselves. In 1619, the first Africans arrived at the settlement. These folks, along with Native Americans and some white indentured servants, toiled in the fields to increase the economic prosperity of the colonies. Originally, this servitude wasn't intended to be for life. However, as the business grew more lucrative, the institution of slavery was established. This was formalized in 1705 with the Virginia Slave Code, establishing racial and legal descriptions of slavery. The surviving slaves and the untold numbers who died en route and in the fields are forever remembered for their sacrifice, skills, and culture they brought to the New World. In fact, a good number of African artifacts have been recovered and preserved, serving as somber reminders of a barbaric economic practice.

Further along the footpath are countless number of brick ruins, marking the remains of houses and other buildings from the Jamestown colony. These foundations of course are not the originals, but they are built on top of the original brickwork. Due to erosion and decay, the primary foundations have been reduced to their subterranean roots.. Preservationists layered bricks overtop of the original foundations a few years ago to protect the remaining foundations and create visual representations of early colonial homes.

Ruins of Ambler House

One of the more impressive ruins in the park are those of the Ambler House. This mansion was erected in the 1750s as part of the Ambler Plantation. The house was burned a few times, once in the Revolution and again during the Civil War. In 1895, after another devastating fire, the house was abandoned. Today, the ruins have been reinforced and serves as a beautiful example of colonial architecture.

Across from the Ambler house are the ruins of the May-Hartwell house. The home's original owner, William May, and his successor, Henry Hartwell owned the home from 1660-1699. This area was the site of some of the most extraordinary relic recoveries archaeologists have made at Jamestown. Wine bottle seals, sgraffito pottery, and thousands of clay pipes have been excavated from this plot of land.

My visit to Jamestown was quite exceptional. There is so much to learn and appreciate at both sites, it can be quite overwhelming. A visit to both museums can easily take an entire day. Overall, I highly recommend visiting Jamestown. Again, Jamestown Settlement is a more touristy destination, but does not fall short in any way when it comes to historic presentation. However, if you prefer a less-crowded, self-guided experience, definitely explore Historic Jamestowne. Despite the absurd length of this post, I barely covered the tip of the iceberg on this one. I strongly urge all of you to visit these sites soon, especially with the anniversary of Jamestown's founding on May 13th! Thanks for reading!


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