Digging Up History In Jamestown
Spend A Little Time In The 1600s
I met Bill Kelso in 1998. He was in a 10-foot-square hole in the ground about 30 feet from the James River in Virginia. He was sifting dirt a spoonful at a time.
The place was Jamestown, Va., the first permanent English settlement in America.
There were maybe another dozen or so people in square holes, also sifting dirt, a speck at a time. As careful as surgeons, they were.
They were rediscovering America’s birthplace.
Bill, like a lot of his mostly volunteer helpers, was scraping milliliters of dirt at a time and then sifting them, usually finding nothing but always hoping.
Bill had come to Jamestown in 1994. He was a Ph.D. with a penchant for discovery. He had served as head archeologist for Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, before arriving in Jamestown, where he became a staff of one searching for the roots of our civilization. He did this despite popular claims that the site of the original 1607 fort on that James River island had long since been washed away by the river.
But by 1998, he and his helpers had found thousands of artifacts from the era of the fort’s establishment, when the likes of John Smith roamed about. The first conclusive evidence was found in 1996 by Bill, who received funds for his project from the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, now Preservation Virginia.
Over the years I have returned several times to revisit the roots of our beginning. The boundaries of the original fort and other buildings have been found and authenticated. The church, rebuilt in 1639 after a fire and once thought to have narrowly escaped the erosion believed to have wiped out the rest of the settlement’s remains, brings goose bumps as I walk through the original bell tower into the sanctuary. Plexiglas covers along the floor let visitors see the original rocks for the church foundation. I gaze down and cannot help but remember history lessons where I learned that in the church, on these stone foundations, the first democratic assembly and election of leaders in America occurred.
I gaze into the past at the fort as it slowly and surely is reconstructed on the very footprint of that first fort built by the men dispatched by England on a business venture to exploit the treasures in the new world.
I see the statue of John Smith, a renegade according to some but certainly a true pioneer of the first ilk, and I am amazed that its placement in 1909 turned out to be in the very area where the footprints of the original fort were later discovered.
There is a museum at that site now, the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium. It is built over the remains of the original Virginia Statehouse (1660-1698), used before the capital of Virginia was moved to Richmond.
Every time I revisit the original Jamestown, I wonder just what would have occurred had Spain first settled in America. There would be no United States. What would this abundant land have become?
I wonder what would have occurred had John Rolfe not arrived in Jamestown in 1610 on a ship that had been rebuilt in Bermuda after a storm interrupted his mission to deliver several hundred settlers, food and supplies to Jamestown. When Rolfe and 142 others arrived at the fort they found only 60 of the original 500 settlers remaining.
Rolfe was a tobacco farmer and trade and came to America with the aim of establishing a tobacco industry. While in Bermuda Rolfe’s wife and child had died. Four years after arriving in Jamestown, he married Pocahontas, daughter of Native American Chief Powhatan. While only a part of the series of events that led to the English settlement in the new world, this marriage was significant. The statute of Pocahontas is there today.
It is remarkable to see the discovery as it has evolved since my first visit 15 plus years ago. Skeletal remains have been found, some identified and some only dubbed with dubious names, JR (and “Who Shot JR,” who died of a gunshot wound to his knee) and another, Jane, a female.
It is gruesome yet captivating to stand and look at those skeletons and wonder over the “rest of the story,” as archeologists have determined but a small history of the remains.
Bill Kelso is still there. So are dozens of other professionals, volunteers and staff. Bill has seen Jamestown visited by the Queen and in turn she has conferred high honors of Great Britain to Bill.
From a staff of one, stubborn and intuitive Bill has given us a true footprint of America.
Ray Speckman can be found re-reading Bill Kelso’s book, Jamestown Rediscovery: 1994-2004, or at firstname.lastname@example.org