Jamestown, 400 Years After the First Settlers, Still Surprises

They came in three small ships with lyrical names: the Godspeed, the Discovery and the Susan Constant. We can only imagine how they must have felt, after four months spent crossing the Atlantic, to find solid ground in what is now Tidewater, Va.

But we do have a sense of how difficult they would find it to build a settlement here. Of 104 men who disembarked at Jamestown May 14, 1607, only 38 were still alive by year's end.

"They knew a little bit about the conditions that they might encounter," says Jim Horn, author of a Jamestown history titled "A Land as God Made It."

"But no Englishman had explored this region thoroughly. So to a large extent they were stepping into the unknown when they landed here."

Schoolchildren still read the fables of Jamestown's Capt. John Smith, and of the Indian princess, Pocahontas, who supposedly saved his life.

But only now, 400 years later, is the real Jamestown being unearthed.

Completely Lost, Then Found

Jamestown stands as the first successful English settlement in the New World. The Spanish had put down roots in St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565. Earlier English colonies had failed — most notably the lost colony of Roanoke, N.C., where all the settlers mysteriously disappeared.

Why did Jamestown survive? Historians say the written accounts — by Smith and others — are incomplete and sometimes self-serving. Archaeologists could offer little help. For centuries, the accepted wisdom was that the site of the original settlement was long gone, washed away by the James River.

But Bill Kelso had other ideas. In 1993, he became head archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. He had a hunch that the first settlement could still be found on dry land, right in the shadow of a 1704 church tower.

Buried Treasure

He points to the ground less than 50 feet from the water. "This is the exact spot that we started the excavation," he tells a reporter. "We expanded toward the river and the rest" -- he chuckles -- "is history."

If one tries an archaeological dig in a random spot, sifting through the dirt, one generally finds -- well, dirt. Within days, Kelso and his colleagues realized they had found treasure. Since that first try in 1994, they have found more than a million artifacts from the Jamestown of the early 1600s.

They've found musket balls, medicine jars, shoe leather and equipment for making beer. They came across a ring with an inscription, in 17-century spelling: "Deale Trvly." The settlers brought everything from farming tools to fine china.

"It's difficult to move your trowel without hitting an artifact, says the senior archaeologist Danny Schmidt Sr., as he carefully digs. Dusting off a small object he says, "We found what I believe is a chess piece. It's maybe a bishop, actually."

He explains that the spot in which they're currently digging was probably a trash pit -- which, to archaeologists, is a treasure trove.

"Most of the settlers were illiterate, so they don't leave behind written records. So their tale is told through their trash."

Secrets Unearthed

The excavation suggests that the settlers were tough and hardworking -- they built a triangular fort in all of 19 days -- but coming from the cool climate of England, they were poorly prepared for the torrid Virginia summers.

"Just think of them wearing those dark woolen outfits in that heat," says Kelso as we pass a row of grave markers. "One document says they died because of exertion, just exertion in the climate."

Their relations with the local Powhatan tribe -- some journal entries refer to them as "the naturals" -- were sometimes friendly, sometimes deadly. Kelso says there's evidence the Powhatan sometimes lived right within the walls of the fort, sometimes helping the English find food.

At other times, the Powhatan attacked. At least one English skeleton was found with an arrowhead embedded in bone. English armor had been found -- obsolete in Europe by 1607 but useful against the bow and arrow.

By the 1620s, though, it was clear that the colonists were going to make it. They planted tobacco and shipped it back to Europe at great profit. For every settler who died, more arrived from England.

"What kept them going, all through that period, was the idea that there was greater opportunity here," says historian Horn. "There are opportunities that the New World offers that the Old World doesn't to ordinary people."

"I owe them a lot," says Kelso, "and I've often said that this is where the American dream begins. They came over to better their lives, get land, get a piece of the action."

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