After the Fort: Jamestown, circa. 1620-1699James P. Whittenburg
Associate Professor of History
College of William & Mary
|It is something of an irony that the most enduring image of Jamestown in the modern public mind is that of a wooden fort begun in 1607 and dismantled about the time Virginia became a royal colony in 1624, for almost as soon as the walls of James Fort went up, colonists began to build outside them. (1) As early as 1614, Jamestown official Ralph Hamor described "two faire rowes of howses, all of framed Timber, two stories, and an upper Garret, or Corne loft high, besides three large, and substantial Storehowses, joined together in length some hundred and twenty foot, and in breadth forty" situated well to the east of the palisade. (2) By 1623, William Claiborne had completed a formal survey of that area for the site of a true town. (3) Seventeenth-century English visitors would have certainly felt at home among the warehouses, taverns, and homes that took form in "New Town," for as archaeologist Audrey Horning makes clear, Jamestown's backers modeled it on British port/industrial towns of the era. (4)|
|Only the 1639 brick church tower now remains of what was for nearly a century the hub of political life in the colony (http://www.apva.org/history/church.html). In 1893, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) acquired 22.5 acres of Jamestown Island around the tower, and in 1906, the National Society, Colonial Dames of America, built a brick chapel there over the foundations of the fifth church on the site, completed in the mid-1680s (http://www.apva.org/tour/chtour.html and http://www.apva.org/tour/gravyard.html). Together, this twentieth-century church and its seventeenth-century tower are evocative of Jamestown as it was after the era of James Fort. The National Park Service (NPS) purchased the remaining 1,500 acres of Jamestown Island in 1934. Both the APVA and the NPS promoted archaeology at Jamestown prior to the Second World War, but only in the wake of additional excavations undertaken in preparation for the 1957 celebration of the 350th anniversary of the founding of Virginia did archaeologist John Cotter produce a comprehensive analysis, complete with a map showing the locations of discovered structures. The NPS did not excavate the APVA property fully, but beginning a few yards east of the church, it used cross trenching to locate the brick foundations of New Town. Walking now among the low brick walls that the NPS placed aboveground to mark the footprints of these buildings, visitors can readily identify the ghostly outline of Jamestown (http://www.apva.org/finding/growth.jpg). (5)|
|Two main roads ran eastward from the church area toward Orchard Run, about three-eighths of a mile down the island. "Front Street" (also known by other names) wound along the south shore and "Back Street" followed a similar direction between 200 and 600 feet inland. Several crossing roads and paths linked the two main thoroughfares. Altogether, the streets and lots of New Town defined a quasi-rectangular grid of perhaps 40 acres between the James River on the south, Pitch and Tar Swamp to the north, Orchard Run on the east, and the church area to the west. Below that soil are the remains of warehouses, industrial sites, artisan shops, taverns, governmental offices, homes, and associated outbuildings constructed during the last eight decades of the seventeenth century. (6)|
|The jumble of low walls marking the footprints of the New Town structures is confusing to modern visitors because the buildings did not all exist at one time. In the 1990s, a cooperative project by the NPS, the College of William & Mary, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation known as the Jamestown Archaeological Assessment built upon John Cotter's work by means of sophisticated statistical re-analysis of artifacts, careful documentary research, and limited additional excavation to uncover both chronological and spatial patterns of ownership and activity across New Town. It is now clear that expanded Jamestown passed through successive peaks and valleys of urban development, with three periods of high activity: the first in the1620s and 1630s, another in the 1660s, and a final phase of development in the 1680s. (7)|
|The high level of activity in the 1620s and 1630s is associated with Sir John Harvey, who had first come to Virginia in 1624 and served as its governor for most of the 1630s. From his earliest involvement with Virginia in the mid-1620s, Harvey pushed hard to make Jamestown into a legitimate seat of government, a major port, and a manufacturing zone. In 1624, he patented 6.5 acres in the eastern end of New Town that from archaeological evidence was clearly an industrial sector. He sponsored additional manufacturing in the northwestern sector of the town along Pitch and Tar Swamp. Nearby, Harvey built a fine brick home that also served as a statehouse. All of Harvey's ventures ultimately failed. Bankrupt, he eventually sold his Jamestown property to the government. (8)|
|Other wealthy officials, entrepreneurs, and merchants patented lots in New Town. (9) In 1638 Governor Harvey reported that "there are twelve houses and stores built in the Towne, one of brick by the Secrtarye, the fairest that ever was knowen in this countrye for substance and uniformitye, by which example others have undertaken to build framed howses." (10) Recent excavations of a building a few yards southwest of the church suggest the appearance of the New Town waterfront. Built on a lot belonging to merchant John White in the mid-1640s, a 52 foot by 30 foot structure stood on a foundation of brick and stone. It had two chimneys on the long side and was probably a two-story affair, with a half-timbered living quarter above a brick first-floor warehouse. (11) The pace of urban development in Jamestown may have slackened after Harvey's departure in 1639, but there would have been a number of buildings such as John White's warehouse along both Front Street and Back Street during Sir William Berkeley's first tenure as governor, 1642-1652.|
|Forced from office during the Commonwealth era, William Berkeley returned as governor with the restoration of Charles II in 1660. In 1662, the king initiated the second phase of concerted urban development at Jamestown when he instructed Berkeley to see to the building of true towns on each of the colony's main rivers, beginning with one on the James. Berkeley then secured an act in the colonial assembly to underwrite the cost of thirty-two brick homes, each 20 feet by 40 feet, at Jamestown. Speculators seized the opportunity to build at public expense. It is unclear how many of these dwellings went up, but excavations have uncovered at least a dozen of them, built as long connected rows, in New Town. It also seems likely that some owners took advantage of the act to tear down older frame buildings, replacing them with brick houses. All of these structures were in a sense quite modern in that they were made of brick and sported brick chimneys, glazed windows, and tile or slate roofs. This move away from wood as a primary building material had mostly to do with fire prevention and followed similar developments in England. Quality of construction was often very shoddy, and maintenance by absentee landowners appears to have been minimal. (12)|
|It is difficult to know what Jamestown at mid-century was like west of New Town. Under the direction of William Kelso, the Jamestown Rediscovery research project began in 1994 to uncover the site of James Fort near the church on the APVA property. William Strachey described it in 1610 as a triangle formed by a 420-foot wall along the river for a base and enclosed by two 300-foot legs running inland to a point that, as excavations determined, fell just north of the 1639 church tower. Fortunately for the Jamestown Rediscovery team, the fort area seems to have escaped intense urban development after the walls came down in the mid-1620s. (13) The brick church and the associated graveyard surely dominated the area where the palisade once stood, and a road ran from there toward Sandy Bay at the northern end of the island, where brick blockhouses defended an isthmus that connected Jamestown to the mainland. (14)|
|Archaeology outside the fort area on the APVA part of the island has been limited, but during the construction of the 1901 seawall there, Col. Samuel Yonge of the Army Corps of Engineers discovered and mapped the foundations of Jamestown's best-known row house about 300 yards west of New Town (http://www.apva.org/finding/yonge.gif). John Cotter excavated the site in the 1950s, and the Jamestown Rediscovery team is at work there at this writing (June 2001). Capped aboveground with a mystifying tangle of modern bricks that outline seventeenth-century foundations, what is usually termed the "Ludwell/Statehouse Group" or simply "The Old Statehouse," was actually a series of joined buildings put up in four phases over a period of about twenty years (http://www.apva.org/finding/state.html). Governor William Berkeley probably began construction of a three-bay brick house on this site prior to 1645. A letter from Secretary Richard Kemp to Berkeley in that year indicates that construction was in progress, though lagging. When, exactly, Berkeley finished this section is uncertain, but probably in the wake of the 1662 legislation offering government subsidies, he and Secretary Philip Ludwell built the rest of the complex, which ultimately reached a length of about 240 feet, with width varying from 20 to 42 feet. The row stood two and one-half stories high. There were glazed windows, and in some of the bays, tiled floors. Both Berkeley and Ludwell lived in fine plantation homes a few miles from Jamestown, so the building was probably a speculative venture very much like the row houses of New Town. (15)|
|While it is possible that the eastern one-third of the Ludwell/Statehouse Group was indeed functioning as the statehouse when Nathaniel Bacon's rebels burned it down in 1676, a large brick building in New Town that the NPS labeled "Structure 112" seems a better fit. (16) There were surely other as yet unexcavated structures near the Ludwell/Statehouse complex in the 1660s and 1670s. For one example, Bacon ally Richard Lawrence owned a lot there. During the sack of the town, Lawrence set fire to his own house, reputedly one of the grandest in the colony. (17)|
|Bacon's forces destroyed Jamestown utterly. Governor Berkeley regained control of Virginia, but Jamestown never fully recovered from the fire. Berkeley's first instinct was to rebuild the town. He formulated a plan early in 1677 to throw up ten wooden houses a day at Jamestown, but Thomas Lord Culpeper succeeded him as governor a few months later. Following instructions from the Privy Council, Lord Culpeper began in 1680 to rebuild the destroyed town in brick, thus beginning the final period of concentrated activity there. Culpeper's efforts met with marginal success. Rebuilt on their original sites, the church and statehouse (wherever it was actually located) were back in service by the middle of the decade. Legislative acts of 1680 and 1690, as well as instructions from the crown in 1692, confirmed Jamestown as the colonial capital and encouraged renewed interest in the town. (18)|
|Although there were probably thirty homes in rebuilt Jamestown by 1697, sentiment was growing to transfer the capital inland to Middle Plantation, site of the new College of William & Mary. When the statehouse burned again in 1698, college president James Blair and new Governor Francis Nicholson successfully prevailed upon the assembly to establish a new capital at Middle Plantation in 1699 that quickly acquired the name "Williamsburg." Until about 1715, the James City County court continued to meet on the island in a building constructed of bricks salvaged from the ruins of the statehouse, and there were services in the church until the middle of the eighteenth century, but as a true urban place, Jamestown was doomed. (19)|
|Jamestown had served only one enduring purpose. It was the seat of government. The king might dissolve the Virginia Company, Governor Harvey's attempts to establish a center of commerce and industry could fail completely, and Nathaniel Bacon would burn it to the ground; but as the capital of the colony, Jamestown continued to attract investors who eagerly acquired lots and put up buildings they rarely inhabited themselves. All that was necessary to the town's survival was that the London authorities reaffirm Jamestown as the capital city. When the government moved to Williamsburg at the end of the seventeenth century, there was no longer a role for Jamestown. Almost all of the town's lots became integrated into two large plantations. Richard Ambler of Yorktown amassed some 700 acres on Jamestown Island where he finished a grand Georgian house about mid-century, and in the process, pulled down the several major buildings remaining from the heyday of Jamestown. The ruin of Ambler's mansion still stands in the approximate middle of what had once been New Town, an appropriate symbol of the primacy of plantations over towns in the Virginia world (http://www.apva.org/tour/newtown.html). (20)|
|Jamestown began as a small triangular wooden fort, but quickly grew into an English town with more than a mile of streets. The total number of buildings there may never be known, but in the 1930s, NPS archaeologist Jean C. "Pinky" Harrington excavated more than 100 structures and associated features. (21) In a colony where most people lived in tiny one-story earth-fast hovels created by applying clapboards over a frame of posts set directly into the earth and heated by wooden chimneys, many Jamestown homes were multi-story brick buildings with glazed windows and brick chimneys. (22) While there were no other towns like it in Virginia, Jamestown offers a context of a growing number of identified seventeenth-century plantation homes that were also strikingly different from the post-hole homes of even affluent planters. Just across the James River in Surry County, Arthur Allen's magnificent 1662 brick house is the last surviving example of domestic architecture from seventeenth-century Virginia. (23) Governor William Berkeley's massive Green Spring stood a few miles north of Jamestown and recent excavations in Middle Plantation have uncovered the foundations of impressive seventeenth-century brick houses built by Richard Kemp, brothers Philip and Thomas Ludwell, and John Page. (24) When one considers both the reality-and especially the aspirations-of Jamestown, those nearby country homes do not seem so far outside the norms of the era.|
Billings, Warren M. Jamestown and the Founding of a Nation. Gettysburg: Thomas Publications in cooperation with Colonial National Historical Park and Eastern National Park & Monument Association, 1990.
Bragdon, Kathleen, Edward A. Chappell, and William Graham. "A Scant Urbanity: Jamestown in the 17th Century." In Archaeological Society of Virginia, The Archaeology of Seventeenth Century Virginia. Richmond, Virginia, 1993, pp. 223-249.
Bridenbaugh, Carl. Jamestown, 1544-1699. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Brown, Marley R., III and Audrey J. Horning. "The Jamestown Archaeological Assessment Multidisciplinary Study of Jamestown Island." Archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg. 14 March 2001 (http://www.history.org/history/argy/research/argyjtw1.htm) (3 June 2001).
Carson, Cary, Norman F. Barka, William M. Kelso, Garry Wheeler Stone, and Dell Upton, "Impermanent Architecture in the Southern American Colonies." Winterthur Portfolio, 16(1982):135-192.
Cotter, John L. Archaeological Excavations at Jamestown, Virginia, Second Edition with a New Introduction and Background Material. Courtland, Virginia: Archeological Society of Virginia, 1994.
Horning, Audrey J. "Urbanism in the Colonial South: The Development of Seventeenth-Century Jamestown." In Amy L. Young, ed., Archaeology of Southern Urban Landscapes. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000, pp. 52-68.
Jamestown Rediscovery. Jamestown Rediscovery. 16 April 2001 (http://www.apva.org/jr.html) (3 June 2001).
McCartney, Martha W. James City County: Keystone of the Commonwealth. Virginia Beach: Donning Company, 1997.
Reps, John W. Tidewater Towns: City Planning in Colonial Virginia and Maryland. Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation distributed by the University Press of Virginia, 1972.
Yonge, Samuel H. "'The Site of Old Jamestown,' 1607-1698." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, XI (1904):257-276, 293-413; XII (1904):33-53, 113-133.End Notes:
1 Jamestown Rediscovery, "History of Jamestown," Jamestown Rediscovery, 16 April 2001 (http://www.apva.org/history/index.html) (3 June 2001); William Kelso and Beverly Straube, Jamestown Rediscovery VI, (Richmond: Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 2000), pp. 14-22.
2 Ralph Hamor, A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia [London, 1615], facsimile edition with introduction by A. L. Rowse (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1957), p. 33.
3 Carl Bridenbaugh, Jamestown, 1544-1699, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 134.
4 Audrey J. Horning, "Urbanism in the Colonial South: The Development of Seventeenth-Century Jamestown," in Amy L. Young, ed., Archaeology of Southern Urban Landscapes, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), pp. 56, 67-68.
5 Jamestown Rediscovery, "Previous Archaeology," Jamestown Rediscovery, 16 April 2001 (http://www.apva.org/finding/prevarch.html) (3 June 2001) offers a quick overview of archaeology on the island through the 1950s. Samuel H. Yonge, "'The Site of Old Jamestown,' 1607-1698," Virginia Magazine of History & Biography, XI (1904):257-276, 293-413; XII (1904):33-53, 113-133 covers the 1903 excavations on the APVA's 22.5 acres that accompanied the building of the seawall. John L. Cotter, Archaeological Excavations at Jamestown, Virginia, Second Edition with a New Introduction and Background Material (Courtland, Virginia: Archeological Society of Virginia, 1994) covers National Park Service excavations beginning in the 1930s and includes Cotter's report and map of New Town.
6 Yonge, "'The Site of Old Jamestown.' 1607-1698," map following p. 262, pp. 263-264, 404-412. Cotter, Archaeological Excavations at Jamestown, Virginia, pp. 164, 166, applies the name "Front Street" to the New Town road along the shore of the James River.
7 Horning, "Urbanism in the Colonial South," pp. 56-57; Marley R. Brown III and David Orr, "The Jamestown Archaeological Assessment," Cultural Resource Management, 22, supplement (1999), pp. 4-6; Audrey J. Horning, "Finding the Town in Jamestown: Archaeology of the 17th-Century Capital," Cultural Resource Management, 22, supplement (1999), pp. 7-9; Marley R. Brown III and Audrey J. Horning, "The Jamestown Archaeological Assessment: Multidisciplinary Study of Jamestown Island," Archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg, 14 March 2001 (http://www.history.org/history/argy/research/argyjtw4.htm) (3 June 2001).
8 Charles E. Hatch, Jr., Jamestown, Virginia: The Town Site and Its Story (Richmond: National Park Service in cooperation with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1950), pp. 27-28; Horning, "Urbanism in the Colonial South," pp. 59-61; Kathleen Bragdon, Edward A. Chappell, and William Graham, "A Scant Urbanity: Jamestown in the 17th Century," in Archaeological Society of Virginia, The Archaeology of Seventeenth Century Virginia (Richmond, Virginia, 1993), p. 229.
9 Martha W. McCartney, James City County: Keystone of the Commonwealth (Virginia Beach, Virginia: Donning Company, 1997), pp. 45-46; Yonge, "'The Site of Old Jamestown,' 1607-1698," pp. 410-411.
10 "VIRGINIA UNDER GOVERNOR HARVEY (Colonial Papers, Vol. 10, No. 57.)," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, III (1895):29-30.
12 John W. Reps, Tidewater Towns: City Planning in Colonial Virginia and Maryland (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, distributed by the University Press of Virginia, 1972), pp. 52-54; McCartney, James City County, pp. 104-106; Horning, "Urbanism In the Colonial South," pp. 64-66.
13 William M. Kelso, Nicholas M. Luccketti, and Beverley A. Straube, Jamestown Rediscovery III, (Richmond: Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1997), pp. 13-24; Jamestown Rediscovery, "Growth of Jamestown," Jamestown Rediscovery, 16 April 2001 (http://www.apva.org/finding/growth.html) (3 June 2001).
14 Yonge, "'Site of Old Jamestown,' 1607-1698," map following p. 262, pp. 263-264, 412-414.
15 Ibid., pp. 113-124; Cotter, Archaeological Excavations at Jamestown, Virginia, pp. 25-28; McCartney, James City County, p. 80; Kelso and Straube, Jamestown Rediscovery VI, pp. 27-31; Jamestown Rediscovery, "Statehouse and Early Burial Ground," Jamestown Rediscovery, 16 April 2001 (http://www.apva.org/finding/state.html) (3 June 2001).
16 Cotter, Archaeological Excavations at Jamestown, Virginia, pp. 112-121; Carl R. Lounsbury, "The Statehouses of Jamestown," Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Council for Northeast Historical Archaeology, Williamsburg, VA, 1994. As Lounsbury points out, several scenarios involving the statehouses at Jamestown are possible. Additional archaeology, including especially that now underway by the Jamestown Rediscovery team at the "Ludwell/Statehouse Group," may ultimately settle the case.
17 Yonge, "'Site of Old Jamestown,' 1607-1698," p. 413; Bridenbaugh, Jamestown, 1544-1699, p. 101.
18 Bridenbaugh, Jamestown, 1544-1699, pp. 141-143; McCartney, James City County, pp. 133-134; Reps, Tidewater Towns, pp. 65-68; Horning, "Urbanism in the Colonial South," p. 67; Brown and Horning, "The Jamestown Archaeological Assessment," p. 7.
19 Horning, "Urbanism in the Colonial South," p. 67; McCartney, James City County, pp. 127-142, 156; Warren M. Billings, Jamestown and the Founding of a Nation, (Gettysburg: Thomas Publications, 1990), p. 105.
20 McCartney, James City County, pp.193; Cotter, Archaeological Excavations at Jamestown, Virginia, 28-31; Bragdon, Chappell, and Graham, "A Scant Urbanity," 226-227.
21 Horning, "Urbanism in the Colonial South," p. 53.
22 Bragdon, Chappell, and Graham, "A Scant Urbanity," 234. Cary Carson, Norman F. Barka, William M. Kelso, Garry Wheeler Stone, and Dell Upton, "Impermanent Architecture in the Southern American Colonies," Winterthur Portfolio, 16 (1982):135-192 remains the best source on seventeenth-century earth-fast buildings in the Chesapeake region.
23 Stephenson B. Andrews, ed., Bacon's Castle, (Richmond: Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1984), details the history of Allen's house from the mid-seventeenth century through the late twentieth.
24 National Park Service, "Green Spring," Colonial National Historic Park, 23 May 2001 (http://www.nps.gov/colo/grnspg/gspg1.htm) (3 June 2001); Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, "Rich Neck Plantation: Excavation of a Major 17th-Century Plantation," Archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg, 14 March 2001 (http://www.history.org/history/argy/excavs/argyrn.htm) (3 June 2001); John Metz, Jennifer Jones, Dwayne Pickett, and David Muraca, "The John Page Site: Excavation of a Major House Site on the Bruton Heights Property," Archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg, 14 March 2001 (http://www.history.org/history/argy/research/argypag1.htm) (3 June 2001).