History of Jamestown Rediscovery

The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project has been bringing to vivid life the stories of early James Fort since 1994.

As early as 1837, eyewitness accounts claimed that the fort built in 1607 by Captain John Smith and the first English settlers was submerged in the James River. The “lost fort” story pointed to a lone cypress tree 100 yards off the western shore of Jamestown Island as the marker of where, according to settler George Percy, the first ships moored to the trees. Erosion on the western shore was so bad that a concrete seawall was built in 1902, and that fed the “lost fort” story. An abbreviated archaeological excavation by the National Park Service (NPS) unearthed no apparent evidence of the fort.

Dr. William Kelso visited Jamestown in 1963 while a graduate student at the College of William and Mary in nearby Williamsburg. He heard about the lost fort and the 20 acres of the island eroded by the river current, but Kelso was skeptical. He had a theory that the standing 17th-century brick church tower had been built near the center of the original fort. Colony secretary William Strachey had written that “a pretty chapel” stood “in the middest” of the fort, so it seemed likely that a later church would have been built near the site of the first one, by the rationale “once sacred ground, always sacred ground.”

This theory was based on experience. The archaeologists who stepped forward with the “fort survival” theory, which included Kelso, Bly Straube, Nicholas Luccketti, and Ivor Noël Hume, had for years done research and rescue excavations on 17th-century farm sites along the James River. They examined artifacts and notes from the early NPS work as well as artifacts in the Preservation Virginia (PV) collection that included some fragments of pottery and weapons old enough to be signs of early Jamestown. Soil stains found by NPS archaeologists in the area of a Civil War earthwork near the church tower suggested to new eyes the remnants of palisades (wooden fences). Similar stains had been found elsewhere along the James River and had proven to mark fortifications.

After 10 years of negotiation with Preservation Virginia—the organization who owned the land—and after winning grant support, Kelso launched the Jamestown Rediscovery Project in 1994. The project had two goals: find the site of the earliest fortified town on the island and share this exciting moment of discovery with actual and virtual visitors. The team hoped something could be found in time for Jamestown’s 400th anniversary in 2007. Kelso began excavations on April 4, 1994, digging between the church tower and the James River. Within three archaeological seasons, the Jamestown Rediscovery team had uncovered enough evidence to prove the remains of James Fort existed on dry land near the church tower.

Since then, Jamestown Rediscovery’s mission has evolved into a more challenging undertaking. More than two dozen staff members excavate, interpret, preserve, conserve, and research the site’s findings. The team has mapped thousands of archaeological features, such as post holes, ditches, wells, foundations, graves, and pits. More than 4 million unearthed artifacts require the curation and conservation environment provided by the state-of-the-art, on-site Rediscovery Research Center.

As our work continues, thousands of new questions are forming. How did these Europeans adapt to the North American environment? What can we learn about the people whose lives at Jamestown were undocumented? How can material culture describe the relations between the English and the native peoples? What can the archaeological remains tell us about how experiments in industry, trade, and agriculture came to include the first English experiment in representative democracy in North America in 1619? The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation is an private nonprofit, with no ongoing financial support from state or federal tax dollars. Join us as we piece together the lives of Jamestown’s first colonists using the fragments they left behind at the first successful English colony in North America.