A Faire Well of Fresh Water

Located near the geographic center of James Fort and connected to the storehouse was a large rectangular cellar with a barrel-lined well in the floor. The feature served concurrently as a cellar and a well prior to being abandoned and backfilled with rubbish sometime before 1611. The early date of this feature suggests that this well is a strong candidate for James Fort’s first well dug in late 1608 or early 1609 when John Smith wrote, “we digged a faire Well of fresh water in the Fort of excellent, sweet water which till then was wanting.” The location of this well in the fort also suggests the first well because it was centrally adjacent to the storehouse, the first structure the colonists were ordered to build in the fort. The cellar component was only about 5 feet deep, but the well extended to a total depth of 14 feet. The cellar/well was likely part of an addition to the storehouse to which it was physically tied by a timber structure, which restricted access and protected the cellar/well from the elements.

The artifacts from the feature number in the tens of thousands, and the dateable objects all pre-date 1611. Numerous butchered dog and horse remains were found in the rubbish layers in the pit along with rat and turtle bones. These animal remains suggest that the trash in the feature was from the “Starving Time” winter of 1609–1610. The president of the colony during that winter was George Percy who had the following to say about that infamous winter, “Then, having fed upon horses and other beasts as long as they lasted, we were glad to make shift with vermin, as dogs, cats and mice.” Other interesting faunal remains found in the well included a 4-foot-diameter sea turtle carapace, shark bones and teeth, a whale vertebra, and numerous bottlenose dolphin bones with butcher marks.

Additional notable artifacts include a slate writing tablet with numerous drawings and words still visible, a child’s silver teething whistle with coral, a complete glass medicinal phial, many objects made by the Native Virginians, and lots of iron tools and elements of weaponry.

Secretary of the colony William Strachey likely refers to this well over a year after its construction in May of 1610 when he finds the well going bad. “James Town . . . hath no fresh water springs serving town but what we drew from a well six or seven fathom deep, fed by the brackish river oozing into it; from whence I verily believe the chief causes have proceeded of many diseases and sicknesses which have happened to our people.” Due to the aforementioned problems with the well at this time, the cellar/well likely was abandoned in 1610.

The heavy concentration of refuse in the cellar/well dating from the “Starving Time” suggests that this feature was filled as a result of a massive clean-up phase at the fort, which occurred shortly after Lord De La Warr’s arrival on June 10, 1610. De La Warr wrote the next day that he “set the sailors awork to unlade ships and the landmen some to cleanse the town.”

Analysis of the artifacts from the well will continue for many years to come, as will discussions about what the cellar and well looked like while in use, what the structure above the cellar would have resembled, and how that structure could have been tied into the storehouse structure. Thus far, artifact analysis also suggests this well was the first within James Fort. This will be confirmed if no earlier fort-period wells are found during future excavations.

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