The 17th-century brick church tower is the last surviving above-ground structure from the days when Jamestown was the capital of Virginia. The tower has survived fires, the fortification of the area during the American Civil War, and decades in which it was left to molder in the thick woods that grew after the colony’s capital moved to Williamsburg in 1699.
The tower’s exact construction date is still debatable. What is known is that in 1617 Captain Samuel Argall ordered the construction of a new church to replace the large timber-framed church where Pocahontas and John Rolfe married in 1614. The Argall church was the meeting place of the first representative legislative assembly in British North America in 1619. The Argall church was later replaced by a brick structure to reduce fire hazards and better serve an expanding colonial population.
In 1699 the churchwardens of James City Parish asked Virginia’s General Assembly for money to pay for the “steeple of their church, and towards the repairing of the church.” A visitor in 1702 said the Jamestown church had “a tower and a bell.” This church and tower continued to serve a congregation until about 1750, when the congregation moved to a new church constructed about three miles away. Gradually the site of Virginia’s first capital was reclaimed by farmland and woods, and the brick church crumbled. But the tower remained as a draw to sightseers throughout the 19th century.
The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now known as Preservation Virginia) acquired the tower and 22.5 acres around it in 1893. Repairs were made, and a new brick church, the Memorial Church, was constructed next to it for the 300th anniversary of Jamestown. In 2013 and 2014, the church tower got a major fix of its failing mortar and crumbling bricks. The project was part of a collaboration between Preservation Virginia and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for the operation of Historic Jamestowne. Cement and rainwater had damaged the top three feet of brickwork to the point where large sections were no longer attached. Colonial Williamsburg tradesmen removed all of the cement, down to the bottom of the tower, and uncovered evidence about how thick the floors were in the church tower’s rooms, pieces of charred wood from fires, and signs of two generations of tower construction. The tower walls are about 34 inches thick at the bottom and about 17 inches thick at the top. There has been no roof on the tower for centuries, though preservation experts are working on plans for a hidden roof that will keep rain off the historic bricks.