The gates of the fort stood wide open. A cluster of hens scratched furiously through plant scraps near the foot of its weathered plank walls.
Inside, framed by the entrance, a young guard sat in a slice of shade against the nearest building. It was a warm day, but he wore breeches and stockings. His chest was layered in a long-sleeved linen shirt and heavy jerkin, crossed by a leather strap loaded with wooden flasks that carried gunpowder. If he leaned forward too far, his metal helmet gleamed in the sun.
The guard, Hunter Bristow, is among the youngest volunteers at Jamestown Settlement, a living history center along the James River in Virginia. Its grounds feature a full-size recreation of the English settlement at James Fort in the early 1600s, as well as the ships the colonists arrived on to launch the first permanent English colony in North America.
An Indian village, based on a portion of a Paspahegh village that existed near the original fort, depicts the homes and lifeways of the people whose lives the colonists disrupted.
Bristow, who starts high school this fall, spent part of his summer playing a guard and occasional armorer at the reconstructed fort. He got the history bug after learning about Virginia’s early history in fourth grade.
He’s the only costumed interpreter I can spot that isn’t in his or her 20s or well beyond.
“Not too many kids are doing this,” Bristow admitted. “To me, they’re missing a great opportunity.”
Bristow loves what he’s doing and the history he is learning along the way. And, at 14, he already feels the tug between enjoying a colorful re-enactment and standing on the land where events actually took place — at Historic Jamestowne, about three miles away.
“This place is really cool,” he said, “but over there, they have all this stuff that the archaeologists are digging up. It’s just amazing.”
Both Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne are located in the greater Williamsburg area, where many attractions compete for attention: Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens and Yorktown Battlefield, to name a few.
With two sites telling the story of Jamestown, I’m sure many people visit just one. I’d like to suggest the best choice, but I can’t. You need to see both.
The Jamestown story is fascinating, complex and continues to unfold. It’s worth your time to make both stops, and a must if you want a deeper experience of this pivotal era.
At Jamestown Settlement, Alexis Harvey wears sailors’ garb and staffs a replica of the Godspeed, one of three surprisingly small ships that carried the first English colonists to what would become Jamestown.
Harvey spends her day explaining how the old ships worked, talking about the voyage and teaching children — who sometimes think they are on a pirate ship — to tie sailors’ knots. She sees how well living history exhibits engage an audience but believes that Historic Jamestowne completes the story.
“If people come to both sites, they gain of lot of insight. They inform each other,” Harvey said.
The broader story of Jamestown can be unraveled at both places, from the struggles of the first colonists and their interactions with Indian communities to life under martial law, the escalating wars with the Indians and the fading of Jamestown into fields and brush.
Historic Jamestowne, a part of the National Park System, has a stronger emphasis on the settlement’s early years. If you start your visit there, you may have a better sense of events in the order that they happened.
Historic Jamestowne is on an island, accessible by car on a causeway. A foot path from the visitor center travels over a patch of wetlands and emerges on the open waterfront.
At every step, you share ground with a staggering story, both for the colonists as well as the Indians, who grappled with the new arrivals and their ever-growing demands. This is a place of world-changing interactions between two cultures, and it marked the beginning of what would become the United States.
This was also the base from which Capt. John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay, encountering Indian communities throughout the area, and producing its first detailed map. As such, Jamestown is a centerpiece of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
Nothing above ground remains from this era. In fact, until 1994, the footprint of Fort James was assumed to be lost beneath the rising waters of the James River.
As it turns out, all but a small portion of its remains are still under solid land. Archaeologists have been at work ever since, churning out more than one million artifacts that support the historical record, add to it and raise questions.
A stockade fence, made of craggy boards with gaps between them, stands on the footprint of the fort wall, and a building has been framed in the same way. A cluster of simple crosses mark grave sites. But most of the grounds mark excavations sites. If you visit during warmer months, you can talk to archaeologists as they work.
Two discoveries made headlines in recent years. In 2010, archaeologists looking for men’s barracks came across the remains of the 1607 church inside the fort walls.
Although later churches replaced this one, including a brick memorial church in 1907, this was the first. It is a near perfect match with the dimensions Smith recorded in his journals, and is believed to be the site of Pocahontas’ wedding to tobacco planter John Rolfe in 1614.
In 2013, the discovery was grim. The skull of a young girl, about 14 years old, was pulled from the remains of a cellar from an excavation area near the church. The skull bears clear marks of cannibalism — a desperate act during the Starving Time, during the winter of 1609-1610. Archaeologists named her Jane.
“Here we had one of the happiest times in Jamestown history right next to what was easily its darkest,” said Jeff Aronowitz, assistant manager of education programs.
The Starving Time was the culmination of several crises, some of which the colonists would never accurately understand. Their fort stood beside a tidal swamp — remember those wetlands under the footbridge? — where fresh water only came from rain. The swamp also produced natural arsenic, which was ingested with the water.
“Yes, the English were starving,” Aronowitz said. “But we have detailed accounts of their symptoms, like peeling skin, bloody diarrhea, skin lesions and manic episodes, that are commonly seen with cholera and arsenic and salt poisoning.”
Also, as winter approached, the impacts of a regional drought were growing. The wells were becoming even saltier. The great schools of sturgeon that the English encountered in 1607 failed to return because there wasn’t enough freshwater in the river.
The Indians, who had sustained the English with food, understood the value of their food supply at a time when relations with the English had soured.
“Because they were trying to force the Indians to feed them during a famine, the Indians reached a breaking point,” Aronowitz said. They not only declined to share; they laid siege to the fort.
“It was a disaster waiting to happen,” Aronowitz said.
Men stole food from the fort’s stores and were executed for the crime. They ate horses, dogs, cats, snakes, mice, plant roots, shoe leather and finally human remains.
Colonist George Percy wrote about the horrors: “And now famine, beginning to look ghastly and pale in every face so that nothing was spared to maintain life and to do those things which seem incredible, as to dig up dead corpses out of graves and to eat them.”
Hundreds of colonist died. By spring, only 60 remained. Two supply ships, delayed by a storm, arrived in May and found the fort in ruins. Percy wrote that the survivors ran toward the ship, thin as skeletons, crying out “We are starved.”
Last December, I joined a walking tour at Historic Jamestowne on a day before truly cold weather set in. Some of us tried to go without a jacket but wished we hadn’t when the wind rolled in off the river. It spurred our guide, Mark Summers, to comment, “No matter how bad a day we have, it’s better than 400 years ago.”
The Vorhees Archaearium is just outside of the fort’s historic footprint, not to be confused with the visitor center at the site entrance and certainly not to be missed. The Archaearium isn’t large, but it houses an overwhelming assortment of artifacts collected from within the fort. They not only include armor and weapons but personal items like musical instruments, coins, tools and games.
You’ll also encounter the facial reconstructions of three early settlers, including young Jane, and remains believed to be those of Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, one of the fort’s first leaders. Forensic displays explain how the analysis of more than 70 burials is shedding new light on Jamestown’s people and the ways in which they lived.
The newest exhibit in the museum, “The World of Pocahontas, Unearthed,” draws attention to the large number of Indian artifacts found at the fort, indicating that there was far more interaction between the English and Indians than reflected in the historic records. Evidence suggests that Indian women were not just visiting the fort, but living and working there too.
Three miles away, the re-created fort at Jamestown Settlement, which is operated by the state of Virginia, reflects a different point in time — James Fort under martial law. It began just after the Starving Time, when Lord De La Warr arrived in the spring of 1610 on ships loaded with supplies and more people. His mission was to clean up the fort and impose order.
“It was a military regime, with about 200 men in residence and a few of their wives,” said fort interpreter Sammy Haskell.
Most importantly, De La Warr wanted few dealings with the Indians except to remove them. Within two months of his arrival, the English attacked a Paspahegh village. They captured and executed the local chief’s wife and her children, burned houses and cut down corn fields.
“The English go on an offensive against the natives, and it’s a take-no-prisoners war,” Haskell said.
The buildings of the recreated fort are tidy and somewhat medieval, reflecting building styles that lingered in England. Even the fort walls are neatly assembled. Men are hammering tiny wire rigs into sturdy links of chain mail and demonstrating medical instruments under the shade of canvas. A cannon fires. The blacksmith is at work and children are trying on armor under a tree.
The martial law of 1610–14 brought marked change to James Fort, as this imagined scene portrays. It does not invoke the intimate presence of death and desperation perceived at Historic Jamestowne. Instead, Jamestown Settlement is a reminder that leadership changed and the colony took root and evolved.
On the other hand, the beauty of the grounds, the dramatic ships on the waterfront and the picturesque Indian village nestled under the trees fails to emphasize that this was still a time of violent change, with the future of two cultures at stake.
“When we talk about ‘first colonists,’ we need to keep it in perspective,” said Summers, the guide at Historic Jamestowne. “If you’re an American Indian, you have them all beat by at least 10,000 years.”
Current scholarship indicates that most Indians in the tidal areas of what would become Virginia belonged to a complex system of tribes that paid tribute to Powhatan, an overarching chief (and father of Pocahontas) who lived along a neighboring river at Werowocomoco. The native name for this region was Tsenacomoco.
Some historians and archaeologists believe the Powhatan chiefdom included about 30 tribes and 15,000 people. There were concerns and conflicts among them, as well as with other tribes to the north and to the west. When the English first arrived, they were one challenge among many.
It’s impossible for living history exhibits to create a feel for this enormous landscape, but the size and sturdiness of both the fort and colonial ships at Jamestown Settlement can’t help but outweigh the Indian village paired with them.
The village is popular with visitors and is flush with friendly interpreters who demonstrate cooking, stone work and weaving. But it’s a quaint woodland scene, while the fort is more imposing.
The contrast inadvertently risks suggesting that the Indians were a side note to the inevitable momentum of the fort, which is the reverse impression of reality. Actually, the colonists were a speck on a much larger stage, fighting for purchase in a land they barely knew and in which they were greatly outnumbered.
For a better sense of these dynamics, and the violence involved, you’ll need to head inside. The visitor center at Jamestown Settlement includes a large museum that could easily be missed by visitors who hurry down the corridor to outdoor areas.
The museum is filled with historic items and descriptions of the conflicts that arose as English, Indian and African cultures began to mix on these shores.
Be sure to look for a small metal badge among the displays that is etched with flowers and swirls and the word, “Appamatock.” The Virginia government issued these badges in 1662. As Indians were pushed from their land, those allowed to enter English areas for trade were forced to wear them as tribal identification. This is one of four known to exist today.
One of the best things about the re-created Paspahegh village is the emphasis on daily tasks, which humanizes the Indian world. Children are quick to jump in, helping to scrape deer hide, try out a hoe and work on a log canoe.
It’s also a place for questions. Some visitors are surprised to hear that Virginia Indians are still here, with land reserved for the Mattaponi and Pamunkey. One young man wanted to know what Indians believed back then and what they believe now.
“People also ask how long it takes to do everything,” said interpreter Lynn Powell. “We can only tell them how long it takes us to do it, using these techniques and tools, but we really don’t know how long it took the Indians.”
Staff at both sites often explain that questions remain, both large and small.
“The ability to say ‘I don’t know’ is so important,” said James Harrison, a costumed sailor.
It’s honest, too. Fielding questions about history is always complicated and fraught with pitfalls. What’s most important is that both Jamestown Settlement and Historic Jamestowne inspire visitors to ask them.
Don’t Wait Until Summer
Williamsburg is a great destination for fall and winter travel, when the weather is often mild. Many attractions remain open, and fewer tourists are in the area.
Historic Jamestowne and Jamestown Settlement are located about 6 miles southwest of Williamsburg, VA, about three miles apart.
- Jamestown Settlement is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily but closed on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission is $16 for adults and $7.50 for ages 6–12. Children younger than 6 are free. For information, visit www.historyisfun.org or call 888-593-4682.
- Historic Jamestowne is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily but closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. The Vorhees Archaearium is open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. but closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Admission is $14 for ages 16 and older, free for ages 15 and younger. For information, visit https://historicjamestowne.org/ or call 757-229-4997.