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James Fort Found Volume 49 Number 6, November/December 1996
by Jessica E. Saraceni

Traces of the first James Fort, built in 1607 by English settlers on what is now Jamestown Island, Virginia, have been found, dispelling the long-held belief that the site had eroded into the James River. Postholes and stains indicate the position of two palisade walls connected by a corner bulwark, fitting a 1610 description of James Fort. "The position of this corner of the fort suggests that as much as 80 percent of the structure's remains could be uncovered," says William Kelso, director of Jamestown Rediscovery, a ten-year effort to find and study the fort. Evidence for the 1607 date includes the absence of artifacts in a palisade trench, indicating that it was the first structure in the area; signs of glassmaking within the fort (documents indicate that a special building was constructed outside the walls in 1609 for this purpose); and 12 coins, none of which is later than 1603. More than 90,000 artifacts have been recovered, including ceramics, a full breastplate and helmet made before 1610, weapons, book corner-plates and clasps, firearms, bullet molds, lead balls, an official seal, smoking pipes, and cast-iron shot for light artillery. A skeleton found at the site will be studied to learn about the physical condition of the colonists. An initial examination revealed that the deceased, a male European in his twenties, had suffered bullet wounds to a leg and shoulder. So far a 60-by-120-foot section, or five percent of the fort, owned since 1893 by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, has been excavated.

Jamestown was established on May 13, 1607, by the Virginia Company, a trading concern under charter from King James I. Of the original 104 settlers, only 38 survived the first year, many dying of dysentery, typhoid fever, or starvation. Evidence of glassmaking, including sky-blue glass beads, and the manufacture of copper jewelry indicates that the early settlers were producing goods for trade with Powhatan, chief of the Pamunkey tribe and Pocahontas' father. In exchange the Pamunkey traded corn, which was essential to the survival of the English. Eventually the settlers learned from the Pamunkey to cultivate corn and tobacco, fish, and build huts of tree bark. Native American stone tools, pieces of pottery, large pots, and projectile points have also been found at the site. An early seventeenth-century navigational chart of the James River, found last year in the Dutch National Archives, shows the position of the original fort. Drawn between 1613 and 1617, the chart is in excellent condition and remarkably accurate when compared to satellite photos, suggesting that erosion of the island has not been as extensive as previously thought.

The first James Fort, which covered about one acre, burned down in 1608. It was replaced with a five-sided fort covering about four acres. The remains of a church tower built between 1608 and 1609 sit on the walls of the first fort. The expanded camp eventually became a town with store- and guardhouses; foundations of brick buildings overlap traces of the second fort's walls. Kelso hopes to trace the development of the settlement. The town was abandoned by the end of the seventeenth century.

* The web page of the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeology Project includes a history of the site and a report on recent excavations, from the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America