Archaeologists Discover Missing Corner of 1607 James Fort And Possibly John Smith's Well Beneath First Governor's House
Archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne in Jamestown, Virginia, discovered the remains of the north corner of James Fort, the final undiscovered piece of the original 1607 fort walls, next to what appears to be a 1609 well, hidden beneath the brick ruins of a fireplace from the first Virginia Governor’s house, built in 1611.
After 12 years of excavating the fort site at the first permanent English settlement in America, in preparation for Jamestown’s 400th anniversary in 2007, Dr. William Kelso, director of archaeology for the APVA Preservation Virginia, said finding the north corner, the last missing piece of the fort outline, was "the icing on the cake." This week, archaeologists discovered an 8-foot section of the west wall leading into a 6-foot section of curved palisade that marks the beginning of the north cannon emplacement, the bulwark.
Conceptual illustration of James Fort based on recent archaeological findings and superimposed on the actual fort site on Jamestown Island. The timber-frame structures on the west side of the fort may have been used by the council and the governor. Illustration by Jamie May.
Archaeologists have also discovered a feature that may be an early well. "It appears that the colonists built an addition to the governor's house on top of an early well that had been abandoned and filled with trash. As the fill settled, the floor of the fireplace slumped down into the hole." Archaeologists will begin excavating the well this month, as soon as they finish recording and removing the bricks from the fireplace.
Kelso noted that Capt. John Smith ordered the first well to be dug inside the fort in 1609. "It's possible that this is Smith's well. We know for certain that it is a sealed context from the first few years of James Fort, and we should find artifacts that will add new information to our understanding of how the colonists lived and died during the early years of the settlement," he said.
Senior Archaeologist Jamie May said cannon balls and pieces of armor that date to the early fort period have already been discovered in the fireplace rubble near the edges of the feature.
APVA Archaeologist David Givens inspects the hearth of a fireplace that appears to have fallen into a well. The fireplace is inside the remains of the first Virginia Governor's house, which dates to 1611, and was apparently built over a well that could be the one built by John Smith in 1609.
Based on what they know so far, Kelso said the building above the well seems to be the house that was built in 1611 by Sir Thomas Gates when he was lieutenant governor, and was later expanded around 1617. Archaeologists have unearthed a cobblestone foundation and an H-shaped hearth in what appears to have been a box-frame, two-story, timber-framed house. A brick foundation was added to the north end of the building, which illuminates a reference that, over time, governors added onto the original structure built by Gates.
According to a reference discovered by Senior Curator Bly Straube in the Virginia Company Records, written in November 1618, future governors enlarged and continued to use Gates' house as their residence: "And we do hereby ordain that the Governors house in James town first built by Sir Thomas Gates Knight at the charges and by the Servants of the Company and since enlarged by others by the very same means be and continue forever as the Governors house..."
May said the original section of the Governor's house is about 65 feet long and 20 feet wide, a width that fits traditional James Fort Period dimensions. The foundation is about 10 feet away from and parallel to the west wall of the James Fort site, which is the same as other early structures that have been unearthed inside the fort site. The addition is still being unearthed and they do not yet know its dimensions.
Bermuda limestone was used in the construction of one of the hearths. The earliest date that Bermuda limestone could have been in the colony is the spring of 1610 when colonists, including Gates, who had been shipwrecked for a year in Bermuda, finally arrived at Jamestown. Bermuda limestone was proclaimed by the colonists to be very good ballast, and they used it in the new ship they built to reach Jamestown. That tells archaeologists that the building could have been constructed no earlier than the spring of 1610.
Artifacts discovered above and around the building seem to include a relatively high concentration of status items compared to other areas of the fort site such as broken Chinese porcelain wine cups, ceramics and glassware in the facon de Venise. Archaeologists have also discovered the lens of an early telescope, a 1605 Bartmann jug medallion, and pieces of delftware wall tiles, probably from the second quarter of the 17th century. Personal objects such as a small silver wax seal with a scallop shell design, a silver figurine, a jet crucifix, the cap of a small silver knife handle engraved with the initials FP and the date 1622, and other items such as buttons, aglets, oyster shells and food remains have also been found in this area.
These artifacts wound up in the soil that was thrown up above the building site during the construction of the Civil War gun battery and cannot be used to date the building, but they may indicate that this end of the fort was where high-ranking colonists such as the governor and the council lived.
Artifacts from the excavation will be displayed in the Archaearium, a new exhibition facility at Historic Jamestowne, expected to open this spring, which will showcase the new information and insights about the colony that have been revealed through the archaeological project.
Kelso said it appears that the architecture inside the fort went through several phases. Initially, the men apparently lived in tents and pits in the ground that were covered by lean-to's attached to the fort walls. Then they built mud-and-stud houses, which were later replaced by more sophisticated timber-framed buildings like these that were constructed for the upper class.