In April 1607, three storm-battered ships under the command of Capt. Christopher Newport came under the lee of the Virginia capes spanning the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The adventurers gathered to read the secret instructions sent to direct them in founding a colony after their long voyage.
“That night was the box opened, and the orders read, in which [seven men] were named to be the Council, and to choose a President amongst them for a year, who with the Council should govern.”
This constituted the first hint of an electoral process for the English colony. It was fraught with dissension and was probably no better than some of the modern ones we’ve seen!
The ships worked their way into the Bay’s southernmost principal river, which they named the James, and eventually selected a site acceptable to the Native Americans, who were uneasy about these strange interlopers. This uneasiness was caused by the Spaniards, who a few decades earlier had brought about misunderstanding and bloodshed on both sides.
“In a peninsula on the north side of this river are the English planted in a place called by them Jamestown, in honor of the King’s most excellent Majesty. John Smith Writ this with his own hand.”
At this place, today called Jamestown Island, the river channel’s depths of 14 and even 30 feet were within yards of the bank, and in 1607, the adventurers were able to moor their ships directly to trees. Currents at this location, while sweeping a deep navigable channel, also continually eroded the shoreline.
Amidst much anguish and political intrigue with both Native American tribes ruled by the Powhatan and amongst themselves, the colonists began clearing ground to plant crops to survive that winter and assembling a cargo to ship back to England.
Newport was to lead his ships back to England, having only been hired for transporting the colonists. But first, he, Smith and 20 others explored the James River, looking for its headwaters and testing the Native Americans’ receptiveness to trade.
When they returned to the fledgling settlement, they found the untried colonists had been viciously attacked by the Powhatan Confederation while they were out working in the woods and meadows. Seventeen had been injured and one boy killed.
The force arrayed against them would have been sufficient to have slaughtered them all. But Newport’s ship fired a bar shot from one of her cannons into the trees above the combatants. The report, the howl of this projectile whirling over them and the severing of a great bough which crashed to earth, sent all of the amazed assailants scattering, allowing the defenders to regroup. The attack did not resume.
Immediately, work began on building a proper stockade, a triangular fort with emplacements for the colonists’ wheeled cannon, named Asakers. They pitched their temporary sailcloth tents within and began digging a well for an emergency water supply. It would prove brackish and of poor quality, the source of much illness and death.
Newport sailed for England, planning to return with provisions and a new wave of colonists on what was called the “First Supply.”
By September or October 1607, wooden cabins were replacing the tents inside the fort. The huts, thatched with reeds in the European manner, were rainproof but very combustible. There was even a rudimentary street, where Pocahontas, the favorite daughter of the Powhatan, then an ebullient pre-teen, would turn cartwheels.
Newport returned in a few months with more colonists and some provisions. He led another party to negotiate with the Powhatan’s tribes for corn and supplies to tide them over the winter.
Only marginally successful, they returned to a new disaster at Jamestown: The green newcomers had set their quarters in the fort on fire. The blaze spread rapidly to virtually all of the hard-built dwellings, and much of their irreplaceable stores were burned in the resulting conflagration, leaving them all impoverished to face the severe winter of 1607–1608.
There were no international news reports and humanitarian aid shipments to save them. They survived or died on their own resources, and supplies from the ships were bartered at usurious prices during the whole 14 weeks she lay at Jamestown. The riverbank, meanwhile, continued to erode.
John Smith became governor in 1608, replacing the last in a series of an incompetent predecessors. His organizational skills created order out of chaos. The colonists worked to prepare a cargo for the next departing ship and made shift to start a local glass-making industry.
The quartz sands near Jamestown were combined with potash from burnt wood, soda ash from burnt seaweed, and lime from crushed oyster shell. This slightly pasty and gritty mix was fired in a hot furnace to fuse the ingredients.
What resulted was a greenish glass, its olive color imparted by fluxes added to lower melting temperatures. Archaeologists have found fragments around the site and occasional intact items. The industrial effort was a failure, though, in part because it was located far enough from the stockade to be vulnerable to attacks by Native Americans.
Today, a reconstruction of the original Jamestown Glassworks, adjacent the original ruin, makes replica pieces which can be purchased.
Long and complex time ensued, and in April 1619, Sir George Yeardley arrived to be the next governor. His hand would be more even and less harsh than his predecessor, Sir Thomas Dale, who had introduced severe punishments for relatively minor transgressions.
“And that they might have a hand in the governing of themselves, it was granted that a general assembly should be held yearly once two burgesses from each plantation freely to be elected by the inhabitants therof.”
They convened July 30, 1619 in Jamestown’s new 20 by 50 foot church. They met until Aug. 4, in heat so extreme that one member died, yet they produced six petitions to the Company, considered four others, sat twice in court proceedings, made 38 laws and raised taxes to pay themselves.
By 1624, the 24 men sat in the House of Burgesses, joined by the governor and six members of his council. They were confident enough to send London and the Crown strong, dissenting opinions on the state of the colony as described by their detractors in England.
“To what growth of perfection the colony hath attained at the end of those  years we conceive may easily be judged by what we have formerly said. And rather than be reduced to live under the like government, (the likes of Thomas Dales) we desire His Majesty that commissioners may be sent over with authority to hang us.”
The stamp of independence was on the North American frontier, echoed more than a century later by Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” and the subsequent birth of our nation.
As the colony attained reasonable stability after the Native American-led massacre of 1622, the settlement expanded beyond the perimeters of the old fort and the once vital stockade fell into decay and disuse.
The river eroded more and more bank and the shoreline crept closer to the now blurred site of the first colony, where John Smith, Pocahontas and all the first adventurers had trod.
Local clays formed relatively erosion-resistant layers in cliffs bordering the James, and it was not long before colonists began molding and firing this as brick for building and into curved tiles for roofing, neither of which was as vulnerable to accidental fires as wooden cabins.
These building materials were modeled after those used in Europe and proved equally as serviceable in the New World. Shell from the river’s rich oyster banks was brought to shore and burned into lime, a highly caustic material, which when slaked with water and combined with sand, became the mortar used to form walls and chimneys.
In the 1640s, public and commercial buildings made of durable masonry arose in and around the old fort, and its site was covered with new streets, dwellings and the clutter of 17th century town life.
The remains of the original fort at Jamestown crumbled amongst the underbrush and were lost or buried under subsequent structures. Conventional wisdom was that the entire palisade and its remains eventually disappeared into the river and were swept away. Some parts of the Chesapeake shoreline, after all, erode at the rate of 12 feet in a year.
Two centuries later, during the Civil War, Confederate defenders threw up earthworks along this part of the riverbank as part of their strategy against the Union. Many acres of soil were thus turned topsy turvy, and artifacts from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were jumbled together. Southern sympathizers and subsequent Civil War buffs found these ruins of military activity worth preserving for their own sake.
At the turn of the 20th century, public interest in the coming 300th anniversary of the colony’s founding caused public-spirited Americans to preserve the still eroding shoreline. In 1907, a seawall was built along the river face of Jamestown Island. No more of this shoreline would erode throughout the coming century.
Some archaeologists were unconvinced that the entire fort had eroded away before the seawall stabilized the land water interface. During excavations begun in 1994, University of Virginia student workers led by Bill Kelso of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities found the old fort site. Artifacts in the tens of thousands were subsequently recorded, and as the debris of centuries was carefully sifted away, marks showing the original alignment of the log palisade from 1607 were revealed.
In seven years, across level ground by chance undisturbed by the Confederate fortifications, an exciting history has emerged: armor, weapons, trade goods, personal items and a grave with a young man dead of a musket wound, the ball still in place. Also found were glassware, coins and a signet ring bearing the family crest of William Strachey, a colonial secretary and chronicler of the settlement in its first decade.
What will be revealed at Jamestown in time for the 400th anniversary of the colony’s planting (1607-2007) will likely exceed all that had been found during the whole previous history of this site.
Politics was a large part of what happened at Jamestown, and political forces have subsequently shaped a great deal of what has since happened in the United States. Wise elected officials had a major role in defining, funding and executing today’s broad-based efforts to recognize the damage to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. Wise elected officials have also fought for programs and funding for restoration work now under way.
In April 2001, the Alliance for Chesapeake Bay is sponsoring a dialogue among some of those leaders, bringing them together to capture some of their wisdom and transmit it to further generations.
Last year, I traveled to Jamestown National Historical Park to meet with their staff and the APVA. Louis Malon, director at the APVA, understands the importance of the Alliance’s year 2001 gathering of political figures so seminal in the Bay restoration effort. For this conference, he has donated soil taken from inside the original fort’s perimeter, laced with tiny bits of material which had gone through the sieves used to recover significant artifacts. There are bits of brick and tile, mortar and charcoal, which echo all of the drama and struggle of those early centuries.
Each of the invited participants to the “Dialogue Across Political Generations” will take home a replica of a Jamestown glass pharmaceutical phial containing some of this soil, sealed with wax over a natural cork. There is in each, bits of brick and mortar, the work of early Europeans on the American continent, and who knows what trace of all the adventurers, leaders and rogues of the Virginia colony. Soil trod by John Smith and Pocahontas.