Soon after the English settlers landed on Jamestown Island in May 1607, they were attacked by Powhatan Indians. A fort was needed. George Percy reported that “the fifteenth of June, we had built and finished our Fort, which was triangle wise: having three Bulwarkes at every corner, like a halfe Moone, and four or five pieces of Artillerie mounted in them.”
Much of this fort burned in January 1608, but it was soon repaired. William Strachey wrote in 1614 that the river side of the fort was 120 yards long and the other two sides were 100 yards each. Surrounding the fort was a pallazado or stockade made of upright oak and poplar logs that were about 14 feet high and 8 to 10 inches in diameter. The fort enclosed an area of about one acre. According to Captain John Smith, by the fall of 1608 more pallazadoes were added to the triangular core to make the fort five-sided. Smith also recorded that the fort had 24 guns of different types in 1609.
The fort fell into disrepair in the 1620s. After the colony’s government moved to Williamsburg in 1699, Jamestown Island became a tobacco plantation. Jamestown’s many houses were ground down by plowing, and in 1861 Confederate forces graded more of the town’s remains to build an earthen fort for a cannon battery. By the late 1800s, the only remnant of 17th-century Jamestown left above ground was the brick church tower.
Shoreline erosion accelerated in the late 1800s and threatened the tower. In 1893, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) acquired 22.5 acres of land on the western end of the island where the tower and associated burial grounds stood. A concrete seawall was built in the early 1900s to stop the erosion, but most thought the site of the 1607–1624 James Fort had already been washed away.
In 1994 the APVA (now Preservation Virginia) hired archaeologists to search for the footprint of 1607 James Fort. In more than 20 years of exploration, the Jamestown Rediscovery team has unveiled the long-lost mosaic of life inside the fort. Archaeologists have found the trenches dug to support the protective timber walls of the “triangle-wise” James Fort, along with semi-circular palisade trenches and ditches marking the locations of the bulwarks at the corners of the fort. Soil stains left by decayed timber supports show the size of buildings inside the walls. Cellars and wells have been filled with artifacts of the daily lives of soldiers, artisans, gentlemen, commoners, and families. More than three million artifacts now tell a fresh story of Jamestown’s fledgling years.
The archaeological work continues. Join us on Jamestown Island as we continue to reveal “The Buried Truth” of Jamestown, the birthplace of modern America.