Jamestown, Virginia Part I – A Flashback and Introduction


The farm that I grew up on was about 20 miles from Williamsburg, Virginia. My mother did her weekly shopping in Williamsburg. While she shopped, I would explore the restored section of Williamsburg. It has become something of a tradition to go back to Williamsburg, Virginia for Thanksgiving.

In 1957, I was twelve years old. That was also the 350th anniversary of the British settlement at Jamestowne. This was a big event in tidewater Virginia, and even more excitement was generated when it was announced that Queen Elizabeth would visit Williamsburg and Jamestowne as part of the celebration.
Queen Elizabeth Williamsburg 1957
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip visit Williamsburg during the 350th Anniversary of the first permanent English Settlement in the New World at Jamestown. (Photo by Jeff Richmond)

According to the published schedule, on the day of her visit she would appear on the steps of the Wren building at William and Marry College. To get a good view, my friend, Bert, and I crawled along a hedgerow to a point not far from the front of the Wren building. Even then I carried a camera almost everywhere. After what seemed like hours of waiting, there was a stir in front of the building, the doors opened, and out stepped the Queen and Prince Phillip. I captured the photo shown here.

Jamestowne Today

Occasionally, my mother would take me over to historic Jamestowne Island to walk the grounds of the site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. I have vague memories of exposed ruins of building foundations as well as the Jamestown Church and John Smith’s statue. (The original colonial spelling for Jamestowne included the “e.” That spelling is used here when referring to historic Jamestowne). During this recent trip to Williamsburg, I set aside a day to re visit to Historic Jamestowne.

It was a cool, clear pleasant day. The entrance to the historic site lies at the southwest end of the National Parkway between Jamestown and Yorktown, Virginia.

Once through the entrance, the road curves to the left across a causeway to Jamestowne Island. Early in the history of Jamestowne, there was a natural causeway that connected the island to the mainland. A storm washed the land bridge away some years after the settlement was established hence initially, there was access between Jamestowne and land to the west for both the settlers and Native American (Virginia) Indians.

Across the causeway, the road divides. The left branch leads to Island Drive. There is no fee to drive this 15-mile loop road around the island, but it does not include the historic Jamestowne site. The loop road offers many informational signs about the lives of early settlers, allows one to see the island much as it must have looked to these early settlers.

To the right is the information center and entrance to Historic Jamestowne. In the information center you can purchase tickets ($14.00 or $5.00 with a Senior Pass), browse the shop and stamp your National Parks Passport.

A walkway from the back of the building leads to the historic area. At the end of the walkway, the original Jamestowne site is off to the right. To the left is what is often called New Jamestowne. This area grew up some years after the initial settlement.
The Tercentennial Monument was erected for the 300th anniversary of Jamestowne in 1907.

The walkway guides you toward the Tercentennial Monument erected for Jamestowne’s 300th anniversary in 1907. From the base of the monument, the entire layout of settlement is visible.

The guide map provided in the information center suggests following the path around the site, beginning with the Memorial Church. Several churches or chapels were built in the years immediately following the initial settlement in 1607. The earliest remnants, however, of an early colonial church, including the present church tower, date from 1639. The present Memorial Church was built in 1607 over the foundation of the 1639 chapel and adjacent to the old church tower (the older foundation is visible inside the current church).
Pocahontas was a young teenager during the early years of Jamestowne.

A statue of Pocahontas stands along the path to the church. Beyond Pocahontas and the church lies the site of the Fort James. The acre of land enclosed within walls of triangular Fort James would become the settlers’ entire world during the worst years after their initial settlement.

Around this area are several sites of current archeological excavations. In 1957, we thought we knew all we there was to know about Jamestowne. New excavation work began in 1994 by Jamestowne Rediscovery.
The entire park is well interpreted with informative illustrated signage. The sign that describes James Fort reads, in part: “The walls enclosed about one acre, in a triangular shaped fortification. Right here, on May 13, 1607, Englishmen planted the roots of what became the United States of America.”

These excavations began with the hope of finding evidence of the 1607 James Fort, which was believed to have been lost to shoreline erosion. Jamestowne Rediscovery found that much of the fortification was still buried on the island and more than a million artifacts have been recovered, greatly expanding the true story of Jamestowne. In fact, only the southwest corner of the triangular fort had been lost to the river.

The history of Jamestowne is much like a photographer’s film (back when we used film). In the darkroom, we used to develop photos—what started out as a blank piece of photographic paper was slipped into a developing solution. Gradually a picture began to emerge until it was fully developed. Archeologists, in a comparable manner, continue to develop a better image—and understanding—of life in this early colony. But already, much of what we thought we knew in 1957 has either changed dramatically (e.g., finding the fort) or has greatly expanded our understanding of life in the colony, including disturbing realities of survival.

During the first years, the colonists, through John Smith, maintained a fragile peace with the Powhatan Indians. There are stories that Pocahontas, Chief Powhatan’s daughter, brought gifts of food to the settlers during this time. Also during this time, John Smith explored and mapped the entire James River system, making note of the location and names of Indian villages. Smith was injured in an accident in 1609, and returned to England—never to return to Jamestowne.

When he left Jamestowne in 1609, the fragile peace collapsed and Powhatan’s tribes laid siege to the settlers and James Fort. Food was scarce and disease was rampant within the small colony. A chronicle of disease, death, and cannibalism has been revealed through the efforts of Jamestowne Rediscovery.
The Archaearium Museum (behind the monument) offers a detailed account of the most recent findings of the Jamestowne Recovery excavations. (Note: Photography is not permitted inside the museum.)

To display and interpret this increased knowledge, the park added the Archaearium Museum that includes many of the artifacts unearthed by Jamestown Rediscovery archeologists. And it is here that the tragic and triumphant story of history, hardships, and eventual survival of the colony comes to life.

My Takeaway

Going to school in Virginia, we had class in Virginia history in at least two years in grade school. Always, the first permanent English settlement in the new world, figured heavily in that class. We drew pictures of early settlers and Indians sharing huge feasts (that did not occur until 1619), and we learned the legend (or was it fact?) of Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life. Flashing back more than 50 years, I realized so much has changed about our knowledge and understanding of the settlers’ life during the first years of the settlement, that it is time for me to go back to school.

If, like me, you have not looked into the history of the first permanent English Settlement since leaving school, you are welcome to join me here in my “continuing education.”

The next installment of this series:

What we did not know in 1957 – The Story of Starvation, Cannibalism, and Jane

Future Installments will include:

John Smith in Virginia

The Powhatan Indians

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1 Response to Jamestown, Virginia Part I – A Flashback and Introduction

  1. Pingback: Mariners’ Museum Part 1 – The Monitor Center | Renaissance Musings

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