Jamestown: Back to the start

JAMESTOWN, Va. - In 1976, the country celebrated its Bicentennial.

Last year was Ben Franklin's Tricentennial.


Now, it's the Jamestown settlement's Quadricentennial - but organizers of the preparations and festivities here aren't calling it that.

"No one knows how to say it, so we call it the 400th Anniversary," the "Chicken Lady" says.

Her Christian name is Rachel Stanton, she says, and she came here in 1619 to get a new start on life by working as an indentured servant. She is a "poultress," raising 400 chickens for Samuel Jordan, one of the most influential men in the colony, and she considers herself lucky because the job "keeps me out of the tobacco fields."

Standing a few hundred feet from the spot where the first settlers landed on May 13, 1607, Rachel tells a group of tourists in her northern England/Scottish accent that the settlement was lucky, too, because it had survived 12 years of blunders and obstacles.

For example, the first group of 104 men and boys consisted mostly of soldiers (including Capt. John Smith) to fight the natives and the Spaniards, and adventurers - the young sons of rich families. No farmers to grow food.

Plus, "they landed in the midst of the worst drought in history," Rachel says.

Most of the men came to get rich and go home. To keep them from leaving, and to expand the settlement, the Virginia Company persuaded women to come here by letting them pick the man they would marry, Rachel says. But most couples were barren, because of the diet and harsh living conditions.

Rachel's stories bring the 400-year-old settlement to life, and the 45 minutes fly by at the Colonial National Historical Park. Her 21st-century name is Valli Anne Trusler, and she works for Living History Associates of Richmond. Other characters include Capt. John Smith; Capt. Samuel Argall, who captured Pocahontas; and John Rolfe, who married her and took her to England.

And there's so much more to see, from archaeologists excavating James Fort to a skeleton thought to be that of Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, a founding father of Jamestown. There's the original 17th-century brick church tower and the ruins of the glass furnace built in 1608.

In time for this anniversary, the National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) have opened a $4.9 million Archaearium to display about 1,000 of the site's artifacts. It is built on pilings, with windows in the floor for viewing the foundation of the Statehouse from the late 1600s, when Jamestown was the capital of the colony.

Also, a new Visitors Center features interactive exhibits about the settlers, the Powhatan Indians and the Africans who were brought here as slaves.

All that is in Historic Jamestowne, run by the park service and the APVA, a private, nonprofit group. Down the road a mile, the state-supported Jamestown Settlement has exhibits, a re-created colonial fort, and Powhatan Indian Village, and replicas of the first settlers' three ships - the Godspeed, Susan Constant and Discovery.

Yes, it can be quite confusing for visitors, who often make a U-turn at one spot, then head for the other. But each site has plenty to offer.

Jamestown Settlement, built for Jamestown's 350th anniversary and run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, might be better for families with young children, who can try grinding corn and scraping an animal hide. They can run through the re-created fort or climb onto a bunk in one of the ships.

Historic Jamestowne, on the other hand, is the actual settlement site, and archaeologists are uncovering relics every day. Their biggest find, and a fascinating tale, is the exact location of James Fort, which was built in the settlement's first 19 days.

For decades, experts thought the site of the triangular fort with half-moon corners had eroded into the James River. But in 1994, archaeologist William Kelso proposed that the site might be underfoot, and he persuaded the APVA, which was already thinking about the 400th anniversary, to let him dig.

Kelso based his hunch on a batch of clues, Park Ranger Bill Warder says during one of his daily tours. They included:

The church tower that dates to the mid-1600s had been built inside the fort. This was the key clue, which came from settlers' accounts and the religious practice of rebuilding churches on the same holy ground.

Utility workers were digging trenches in 1939 when they unearthed objects from the settlement's first years. Those findings led Kelso to the river side of the church.

Only 90 of the nearly 300 colonists survived the "starving time" of 1609-10 - where were the dead buried? In the 1950s, archaeologists found a cemetery with remains dating to that third winter, and none of the remains were of American Indian or African descent. They had to be those of the settlers.

During the Civil War, the site served as a Confederate fort until 1862, when the Union Army took control. There's a military axiom: "Once a good fort site, always a good fort site."

And, finally, John Smith had written that the glasshouse was about a mile from the fort. Coincidentally and ironically, a 19-foot statue of Capt. John Smith dedicated in 1909 overlooks the York River, about 5,000 feet from the glasshouse site.

Based on these clues, Kelso found artifacts on his first day of digging. But it took him more than two years to pinpoint the location of two walls of the fort, and seven more years for the third wall, says Warder, who has worked on the excavations.

It turns out that more than 85 percent of the fort site has survived, largely because of a seawall built in 1901 to save the church tower. And Kelso's team continues to add to the more than a million artifacts it has unearthed, including a child's leather shoe, surgical tools, nuts, seeds, buttons, a 1604 jug, weapons, ceramics, and beads.

As we watched archaeologists work slowly and carefully, we walked in the footsteps of John Smith, John Rolfe and Pocahontas. It was thrilling and mind-boggling to peer into a well and look back 400 years.

Contact assistant travel editor Bill Reed at 215-854-2459 or breed@phillynews.com.