Well Found in Virginia's 17th-Century Jamestown Fort

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
September 3, 2002
Archaeologists have discovered a well and the remains of a building inside the boundaries of James Fort, the original location of the first permanent English colony in the New World.

The find suggests that the fort housing the first English settlers to arrive on the shores of North America in 1607 was larger than originally believed. The well may also harbor artifacts made of wood, leather, and cloth, in addition to plant material and seeds that are not normally preserved.

"It's an incredibly exciting feature to find," said William Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). "Colonists often used abandoned wells as trash pits, eventually filling them in. In addition to the tantalizing possibility of finding organic materials, it's possible we'll learn more about the fate of the colonists."

The settlement suffered an extremely high death rate; it's possible, suggests Kelso, that the water was contaminated. Another theory holds that the colonists were poisoned by salt. "The water table has remained at close to the same level for 400 years; we may be able to determine how much salt is in the water," he said.

Rediscovering Jamestown

In May 1607, 108 settlers landed on Jamestown Island, essentially as employees of the Virginia Company, a joint venture chartered by King James I. Investors expected the company to settle the New World, find gold, map a water route to China, and turn a profit.

Upon arriving on the shores of James Island, the settlers built a fort, and fell into a life and death struggle, battling drought, disease, famine, and local natives. The "starving winter" of 1608 left only 60 settlers alive. The fort was on the verge of being abandoned when supply ships arrived from England.

Contemporary accounts, including a sketch by a Spanish ambassador, describe the fort as triangular-like in shape, with wooden palisades enclosing a storehouse, church, and a number of houses. Historians believe the fort remained as an active post into the 1620s. By 1800, the fort had disappeared under farmland.

Digging for Clues to the Past

The island was fortified during both the American Revolution and the Civil War. But over the last 100 years, uncovering the original James Fort has engaged the imaginations and attention of American archaeologists. For a long time many historians believed the original fort had been eroded away, washed into the James River.

In 1900, a sea wall was constructed, and in 1934 the island was designated as a national park. But it wasn't until 1996 that the palisades of the original fort were definitively identified.

Since then hundreds of thousands of artifacts dating to the first years of English settlement (1607-1610) have been found. But the James Fort well has, until now, proven elusive.

Traditionally the English placed them in a centralized location, and contemporary descriptions of the fort mention a well in 1609. "The location of this well, assuming it's in a centralized location as is typical, makes me think the fort may have been larger than originally thought," said Kelso.

Students sponsored by the Anheuser-Busch Corporation helped make the discoveries possible, said Kelso. Twenty students from colleges and universities across the country, were selected to participate in the 2002 summer dig at Jamestown. In addition to the well, the students uncovered artifacts, an ammunition dump used by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, and the remains of a building located inside the east wall of the original fort.

"It's the tip of the iceberg syndrome, though," said Kelso. "The sheer magnitude of the site is more than we ever thought possible."

"The contribution by Anheuser-Busch is enormously essential," said Kelso. "What the field school enables us to do is open larger areas. It's very labor intensive, and without the students we wouldn't have been able to open up nearly as much as we did.

"In a way, this is a birthday present to the nation," said Kelso. "In 2007 it will be the 400-year anniversary of the beginning of our country, and at times like now, understanding the genesis of the nation is even more important."

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