Jamestown will forever claim title to the oldest permanent English settlement in America. While the Spanish may point to their origins on the continent as far back as St. Augustine in 1565, and the Dutch, French, and Swedes have origin stories of their own – the Jamestown settlement factors prominently in the American imagination. This has been enhanced even more so by extensive excavations through the Jamestown Rediscovery project that resumed in the late 1990s and continue through present day.
We started our day enjoyably at the Old Chickahominy House. This breakfast location about five miles from the Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center, presented a brief history worth recounting in and of itself. The building was constructed from salvaged parts of other tidewater buildings, including a portion of paneling from the famous Carter’s Grove plantation around 8.5 miles to the east. (Note: The paneling is located on the back wall of the back room of the gift shop area.) The breakfast menu while simple in offerings, was filling enough to keep us going for much of the morning and early afternoon.
The experience of visiting Historic Jamestowne begins before arriving there. The Colonial Parkway was envisioned in the 1930s to help travelers learn Colonial American history. Park Superintendent William Robinson described in 1932, “the process can be changed to a short drive… in which it will be possible to study the whole story of the founding of the colony, its development from the stages of infancy to maturity, and the final struggle to achieve independence in which the forces of all the colonies were united.” Construction of the 23-mile Colonial Parkway began during the Great Depression connecting Yorktown to Williamsburg. By World War II, a tunnel provided passage beneath Williamsburg. The final phase linked Williamsburg and Jamestown to mark the 350th anniversary of the settlement’s founding in 1957. The parkway also afforded scenic views of the James and York Rivers approaching the respective historic sites.
Around the same time the parkway was initiated, the Colonial National Historical Park was established as one of the first historical parks in the National Park System, created in 1930 as the Colonial National Monument. The purpose of the park is to commemorate the beginning and end of the British colonial experience in North America, preserving and protecting both Jamestown and Yorktown, while maintaining the Colonial Parkway that connects these two sites.
The short video on display at the Visitor Center is worth taking the time to see. The auditorium where it is shown is circular shaped. Projections are on either side walls to create the impression of sweeping panoramas. And, while somewhat distracting, there is an additional projection on the floor in the center of the auditorium. The movie in unique in trying to represent three narratives – of the English settlers, the African slaves brought to Jamestown, and the Native Americans. What reinforces this is actors speaking each in their own “voice.”
Many tours are offered of the fort by archaeologists and also National Park Service staff members. On one such tour we joined a 5th grade teacher who has worked at the site for many years. He led us in a pleasant and conversational discussion about the site. One highlight was showing the spot where Pocahontas and John Rolfe were likely married based on archaeological evidence.
Jamestown, the Truth Revealed written by William M. Kelso and published in May 2017, shares many stories from the past decade of excavations. While couched in the traditional language of archaeology, it nevertheless manages to bring key moments in the history to life. Notorious among these are the story of “Jane” who was 14 year old girl subjected to “survival cannibalism” by settlers in the earliest years.
From James Fort it is a short walk to the Archaearium where many of the leading finds from the Jamestown Rediscovery project are on display. This presentation of artifacts so close to the location where they have been found is surprisingly effective, and the engine that has driven increasing attention and visitation over the past several years. As an aside, where nearby neighborhood Colonial Williamsburg able to capture a similar dynamic, they might also benefit from increased interest and visitation. Instead, right now CW excavations are limited and they are not put on display in such a way as to generate broad based interest in the archaeological work being done and how this touches on broader themes. Though we digress.
We were pleasantly surprised by how the displays brought items that were discovered to life, and helped to place them in historic context so we could imagine how they were used. This started from the entrance and continued throughout the museum. One particularly effective display in this respect were artifacts on display from excavation of a well, placed in the exhibit in the same location/area of the display as they had been in the well, of course without the dirt that previously surrounded them. One got a sense of the strata and how different items were added over time.
As we were leaving we could not help but notice the extensive list of Benefactors on the wall. Particularly impressive was the significant interest from large corporate donors that the Jamestown Rediscovery project has managed to attract. As a museum best practice having these visibly displayed by the entrance clearly indicated to visitors and future benefactors as well how this site and museum were made possible. It is also a great opportunity for those companies that support Jamestown Discovery to align their image and brand with an exciting and innovative project.
After exploring the Fort and Archaerium we enjoyed taking a walk along the “Main Street” of Jamestowne. Of course, all that remains are some ruins and brick foundations of a few of the buildings that once stood there. Despite best efforts to build up the town, when the colonial capital moved to the Middle Plantation (today Williamsburg) the original settlement gradually was allowed to fall in to ruins.
On our way from Historic Jamestowne to the Jamestown Settlement, we enjoyed stopping by the Glasshouse. This is a modern reproduction near the site of where the original structure set. As an interesting aside, this is also where John Smith engaged in hand-to-hand combat with an Indian, that nearly involved his drowning in the nearby water. Today the glass blowers demonstrate their craft to passersby. This managed to capture and retain the interest of my boys for nearly 20 minutes – no small feat!
Jamestown Settlement managed by the Commonwealth of Virginia boasts a sort of living history museum where visitors pass through a Native American settlement, may visit James Fort circa 1610, and observe replicas of the ca. 1605 ships that brought the first settlers. An extensive interpretive display and museum inside the main visitors center building further brings the story to life through numerous exhibits and artifacts.
What could not be undone to Historic Jamestowne through warfare, near famine, and abandonment of the settlement – archaeological evidence of the settlement is now being eaten away by waves beating against the shore and a rising water table beneath the island. Since 1607, the James River has eroded around 25 acres of Jamestown Island. At one time the shore extended more than 100 yards offshore from the seawall. As recently as the Civil War a jetty extended from the area near the fort in to the James River, though today no evidence remains of this feature. What this means is that archaeologists are in a battle against time to preserve and capture as much as they can from the pre-history, settlement period, and its aftermath. Predictions are that Historic Jamestowne will be submerged in the next 80-100 years. This raises important questions about how this site will cope with change?
Clearly archaeological discoveries at Historic Jamestowne are driving a fascination on the part of the public about what is being discovered. Many of these discoveries, however, are not yet reflected in concrete form at Jamestown Settlement. For instance, the palisade surrounding the replica fort at Jamestown Settlement is a replica of the fort as it existed several years after the first settlement attempt. The large buildings within the fort and overall interpretation support the image of a thriving colonial outpost. Assuming a future when Historic Jamestowne is submerged might it be valuable to have a more accurately depicted fort from the immediate settlement period at Jamestown Settlement? Perhaps the existing Jamestown Settlement fort and a replica fort from the settlement period could be placed side-by-side?
Similarly, if Historic Jamestowne is submerged archaeologists and stewards of the site need to weigh keeping artifacts and fragments in situ or saving what may be salvaged before it is submerged or washed away altogether. The fate of the Archaearium raises another interesting question. While elevated presumably above flood level, could pavilions like this cantilevered building be connected by boardwalks that survive the forces of time and rising waters? Likewise, how will the welcome center and parkway system fare?
These are just a few of the considerations that will impact the ever changing landscape of Jamestown. One can only hope that by the time the 500th year anniversary rolls around in 2107 that this site will continue to exert a powerful influence on the field of historical archaeology and the American imagination.