Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
A Campsite before 1607
The history of Jamestown does not begin in 1607. For thousands of years before English settlers arrived, American Indians had occupied this land, as evidenced by stone projectile points excavated on the island.
Gradually, the Jamestown site became less attractive because of rising sea levels, which resulted in increasingly salty water and marshy conditions. Eventually, the area was only occupied seasonally, probably by hunting or fishing parties. Close by here, archeologists excavated aboriginal pottery sherds and a variety of types of worked stone, suggesting a campsite from the Late Woodland period.
Although Jamestown Island was uninhabited at the time of English arrival, the nearby Paspehegh Indians had established communities both to the west, where the James and Chickahominy could be more easily accessed and controlled, and to the east, where were located tempting oyster grounds. The Paspeheghs, loosely allied with Powhatan’s chiefdom, participated in a series of altercations with the English. In 1610, their principal community destroyed, the survivors fled to seek refuge in other villages.
The Jamestown Riverfront, 1630 – 1690
That every ship arising in this colony from England, or any other parts, shall, with the first wind and weather, sale upp to the porte of James Citty, and not to unlade any goods or breake any bulke before she shall cast anchor there, uppon payne that the captayne and mayster of the sayd ship shall forfeite the sayd goods or the value thereof, and shall have and suffer one mounthes imprisonment.From Act XX, the first of March, 1631-2
Jamestown provided the English with a deep-water port, as well as a defensible settlement location. Like the Virginia Indians, the English tended to locate on or near major waterways, which allowed for easier transportation as well as a ready source of food.
Though Jamestown soon moved beyond the confines of a small, palisaded fort, the James River continued to be an important feature of the city. The waterfront was a bustling place throughout the seventeenth century, punctuated by wharves where imported goods were unloaded and hogshead barrels of tobacco were rolled aboard vessels bound across the broad Atlantic.
Sporadically throughout the century, laws were passed that designated Jamestown as the colony’s sole port of entry. The mercantile focus of the town was enhanced by these acts, which obligated all ships to load and unload at the colony’s governmental seat.
The Greate Road – An Early Highway Pre-1607-1700s
Only a few days after arriving at Jamestown in May 1607, settler George Percy wrote that he and his party “espied a pathway” and were “desirous to knowe whither it would bring us.” What they were traversing was probably a trail used by the nearby Paspahegh Indians. It would become the “Greate Road” of the English, a route that led from James Forte across the isthmus to the west of Glasshouse Point on the mainland, where Polish and German craftsmen were to establish a glassblowing industry in 1608.
Today, old road traces still exist at Glasshouse Point, likely sections of the Greate Road. On Jamestown Island, shallow depressions and slight mounds are all that remain to outwardly mark the course of this ancient highway. In 1939, a ridge on the west side of town was excavated and road traces found below the present ground line. Traffic had packed down the topsoil and created deep ruts; settlers would simply widen the road by driving their horses and oxen on either side of the original muddy and well-nigh impassible track. After the road became 30 or 35 feet wide, it was built up with layers of sand. More examples of this type of road use and maintenance were discovered in a 1941 excavation near the Memorial Church. In alignment with the earlier excavations and corresponding to documentary evidence, they allowed archeologists to locate a quarter of a mile of the Greate Road.
As English settlement spread, the terminus of the Greate Road at Glasshouse Point would become the beginning of other roads leading to such familiar landmarks as Green Spring (home of Governor Sir William Berkeley) and Middle Plantation (later renamed Williamsburg).
Backstreete – Main Street of Jamestown, 1620-1699
As early as 1614, colonist Ralph Hamor reported that Jamestown had “two faire rowes of howses, all of framed Timber.” Only a few years later, a new development project began, when William Claiborne, sent to the colony to survey Virginia land grants, was called upon to plan a “new town” to the east of the fort and the “two faire rowes of howses.”
In 1624, Hamor was granted an acre and a half in the “new town.” The deed description makes it clear that at least three streets had already been laid out. A “highway” ran perpendicular to the James, connecting a street following the riverbank with “the backstreete.” Other early settlers who owned property along this street included William Peirce, Dr. John Pott, Governor Sir Francis Wyatt and future governor John Harvey.
In the following decades, building incentives resulted in the construction of fine brick homes on Back Streete by such Virginia notables as Richard Kemp, William Sherwood, Henry Hartwell and William May. A four-dwelling rowhouse was probably built after Governor Sir William Berkeley’s Town Act of 1662.
Even when Williamsburg became Virginia’s new capital, the Back Streete area retained its cachet. In the 1750s, colonist Richard Ambler would build a mansion (now in ruins) nearby as a centerpiece of a thriving plantation.
A Jamestown Warehouse, 1630s-1699
Jamestown remained a major Virginia port until the eighteenth century. Settlers relied on the water for a good deal of their personal travel, as well as the transportation of tobacco and other crops for export. In 1633, legislation had been passed that created five different inspection points, including one at Jamestown, where tobacco was to be brought for examination and grading.
The port of Jamestown was a bustling place. In 1649, the author of A Perfect Description of Virginia revealed “at last Christmas we had trading here ten ships from London, two from Bristoll, twelve Hollanders, and seven from New-England.” Vessels such as these would bring goods from many lands; archeologists have uncovered artifacts of items from Spain, Germany, Holland, England and even China.
In order to house imported and exported items, Jamestown had its share of warehouses along the waterfront. Governor John Harvey would report in the 1630s that “there was not one foote of ground for half a mile together by the Rivers side in James Towne but was taken up and undertaken to be built….” Merchants had patented three of five waterfront lots; known waterfront features in the 1630s include a warehouse on the property of merchant William Parry, located near here. Brick foundation fragments found along the riverfront area may have been portions of similar buildings. Timber storehouses might well have been constructed that have now vanished without a trace.
The Home of Governor Harvey, 1630s
John Harvey served as a member of a royal commission investigating conditions in Virginia in 1624. As a reward, he received land at the east end of New Towne, where he probably built a residence and wharf.
When newly-knighted Sir John Harvey returned from England in 1630 as Jamestown’s new governor, he acquired this prime New Towne lot. It was likely here where he built his fine house, which often served as a statehouse during the 1630s.
Although the Crown replaced the contentious Sir John as governor in 1639, his house continued to be used as the statehouse into the 1650s, and also provided a town residence for Governor Sir William Berkeley. After Nathaniel Bacon’s followers burned the capital in 1676, the house was rebuilt a final time.
Tradesmen on the Lot of Governor Harvey, 1630s
Governors such as Sir John Harvey and Sir William Berkeley were concerned that Virginia colonists had become too focused on tobacco as a primary means of support. The tobacco market was subject to great fluctuation and could not be relied upon as a sure-fire way to a quick fortune. In addition, natural resources which could be minimally processed and exported were not being exploited and opportunities for industrial experimentation were not being explored.
When Sir John Harvey arrived in Virginia in the Spring of 1630 as the colony’s new governor, he set to work following the King’s instructions to begin producing marketable goods. In May, Sir John sent samples of rape seed, salt peter, pot-ashes and iron ore to England, proof that the Privy Council’s instructions were being taken seriously. In his reports, the new governor stated that ship-building had begun and that iron ore had been discovered; he also urged that craftsmen such as brickworkers, carpenters, smiths and shipwrights be sent to Virginia.
Archeologists have found evidence of craft and trade activities at several Jamestown sites. A lime kiln and brick kiln were excavated by the James River near the present-day Memorial Church. Near the Pitch and Tar Swamp, an industrial zone dated prior to 1650 was unearthed in the 1950s, revealing a brewhouse and apothecary, as well as evidence of the production of pottery, brick, tile and lime.
A Diverse Jamestown Household, 1620-1640
By 1624, Captain William Peirce had built a house near here described by a contemporary as “one of the fairest in Virginia.” A wealthy, influential planter and merchant who had arrived in Virginia in 1610, Peirce also owned a store in Jamestown.
A “beloved friend” of Governor Francis Wyatt, Captain Peirce was the colony’s cape merchant and also served as lieutenant governor and commander of Jamestown Island. He was responsible for the island’s two blockhouses and appointed captain of the governor’s guard. A member of the Council from 1632 to 1643, Peirce was amongst those who thrust Governor John Harvey from office.
Captain John Smith would praise Peirce’s wife Joan, describing her as “an honest and industrious woman” who maintained “a garden at Jamestown containing 3 or 4 acres.” The Peirces’ daughter, also named Joan, would marry John Rolfe, the widower of Pocahontas, in 1617.
In August 1619, Captain Peirce and John Rolfe ventured to Old Point Comfort to meet the Treasurer and the White Lion, aboard which were the first Africans recorded to have arrived in Virginia. By 1625, Peirce’s Jamestown household included an African woman named Angelo who reportedly had come to Virginia aboard the Treasurer.
An Upper-Class Neighborhood, 1630s-1699
… there are twelve houses and stores built in the Towne, one of brick by the
Secretayre, the fairest that was ever knowen in this countrye for substance and
Uniformitye….Governor Sir John Harvey, 1639
From the 1630s to the end of the seventeenth century, Jamestown boasted a number of fine homes, several of which stood near here along Back Street.
Richard Kemp, Virginia’s Secretary during Harvey’s term as governor, supported local merchants, proposed construction of a customhouse and encouraged free trade. The house he built nearby in 1638-39, praised by the governor in the quotation above, was Virginia’s first all-brick house. Its plan was identical to that of another Kemp home at Rich Neck Plantation, near present-day Williamsburg.
A second all-brick structure was erected by 1676-77 in this vicinity over the fire-damaged ruins of an older frame building, probably burned during Bacon’s Rebellion. Councilman William Sherwood’s new home included features such as a large cellar and a porch tower. Cooking took place in a separate kitchen; there is mention of a “Dining-Room,” a rare and very fashionable feature in a Virginia home of the 1670s. Sherwood had bought another nearby structure from Colonel John Page before 1682; Lord Howard of Effingham, a Virginia governor, would lodge at one of the two homes; he and other governors would assemble their councils there regularly until the capital moved to Williamsburg in 1699.
A Timeline for Structures at Jamestown Related to the Chiles Family
In 1638-9, Richard Kemp, who served as Secretary of the Virginia colony during the tenure of the irascible Sir John Harvey, built his “brick house” on 3 ½ acres of land to the east of the present-day Ambler ruins. This “brick house” was designated S44 by NPS archeologists; it is the building that would eventually pass into Walter Chiles I’s hands. Governor Sir John Harvey identified Kemp’s house as the first brick dwelling at Jamestown and two eyewitnesses used the word “faire” to describe the house. Governor Harvey himself referred to Kemp’s house as “the fairest that ever was knowen in this countrye for substance and uniformity.”
Archeological evidence (excavations done in the 1930’s and 1990’s) indicate that structure 44 was a one- or possibly two-story home raised on a shallow footing of brickbats. A central, H-shaped chimney was shared by two rooms on the ground floor. Both rooms may have been paved with brick or tile.
Empy Jones, the lead excavator during the 1934-35 dig, kept a daily logbook and produced a freehand sketch (illustrated above) of the foundations laid bare. Jones’ sketch indicated that S44 was about 23 feet long. S44 is also depicted in NPS archeologist John Cotter’s 1958 base map of the Jamestown townsite.
Richard Kemp was a close associate of the unpopular Governor Harvey, who had been thrust out of office by his fellow Virginians and then briefly reinstated by the Crown. When Sir John’s replacement Sir Francis Wyatt arrived in Virginia in 1639, he appointed a new Council, suspending Kemp as Secretary.
William Kemp sold S44 to Governor Wyatt in 1641, perhaps under duress, and moved to Rich Neck Plantation on the mainland. He would not recover his old post until Governor Sir William Berkeley replaced Wyatt in 1642. Sir Francis Wyatt built the “Country House” (S38) on a half-acre lot to the west of S44. (S38 is illustrated to the left in a conjectural painting by NPS artist Sydney King.)
Around 1644, Governor Sir William Berkeley purchased the S44 property with its brick house. The deed turning the property over to Sir William referred to the “mansion house, together with All gardens, orchards, yard Backsides, out houses, buildings … late in ye tenure and occupacon of Richd Kemp esq. and by him Conveyed unto Sr. ffrancis Wyatt Kt.” This was at the same time that Berkeley was building his Green Spring estate, located a few miles away on the mainland. Although Sir William owned other houses in town, he may have lived in S44 at one time or another.
In 1649, Berkeley sold S44 and its acreage to merchant and Burgess Walter Chiles I. Sometime prior to his death in 1653, Walter Chiles I acquired 70 acres at Black Point, located near the easternmost tip of Jamestown Island. When Walter Chiles I died, his widow Elizabeth retained a dower interest and remained in S44. His son Walter Chiles II inherited the estate from his father.
Recent archeology has indicated that a structure had stood previously on the site of S138. In 2005, NPS archeologist Dr. Andrew Veech found evidence of a post-in-the-ground structure (S178) when excavating S138. S178 appeared to be a timber building 10 feet wide and at least 24 feet long and was perhaps part of Kemp’s construction efforts after 1638. It is very likely that S178 stood at the time of the Chiles family’s ownership.
When Mary Chiles died, her husband Walter Chiles II married Suzanna (no last name?). When Chiles died, Suzanna wed the Reverend James Wadding and moved elsewhere. Suzanna and her husband the minister sold the lot with S44 and S138 on it to John Page, the father of Walter Chiles II’s first wife Mary. John Page was a York County merchant and resident of Bruton Parrish at Middle Plantation (the site of present-day Williamsburg), where he dwelt in a brick house he had built in 1662.
Sometime before September 1676, John Page tore down S44 and built S53 behind S138; archeological evidence indicates strongly that it was a wing of S138. (These structures are depicted in a 1664 plat drawn by John Underhill, illustrated to the left.)
In 1676, there was mention of looting of S53’s cellar; pipes of wine were stolen during Bacon’s Rebellion. Both S138 and S53 were burned down or at least badly damaged during the rebellion.
By 1682, both S138 and S53 were either rebuilt or repaired by William Sherwood, who had bought the property sometime before that year. (Sherwood had been purchasing property near the center of town to renovate and improve old structures, then leasing them out to burgesses and Lord Culpepper’s Council.)
Sherwood’s improvements to S138 and S53 were impressive. In 2005, excavators found evidence of a porch tower raised around the front doorway, probably constructed after 1676. A “porch chamber” was on the second story of the 16’3” X 13’10” porch.
When Sherwood rebuilt S138 and S53, he followed the footprint of the Chiles house, but enlarged it and probably built the aforementioned porch tower. In government leases of the property, there is mention of a “great hall” and “Dining-Room” (probably the front rooms in S138) and “a back room on the same floor” (S53) and a “cellar” (under S53).
In excavations from the 1930’s (illustrated above is a 1935 NPS dig at the Chiles/Sherwood property holdings), NPS excavators H.C. Forman and Summerfield Day found about 50,000 pieces of ornamental molded plaster across the entire Ambler complex site. These were recognized by the archeologists as destruction debris used to fill in cellar holes, leveling the old building sites in preparation for construction of the Ambler mansion in the 1750’s. The vast majority of ornamental plasterwork fragments (nearly 700 pieces) were associated with S138; nearly 300 were from the excavation of the cellar of S53.
Cherub faces, a foot, a hand holding a book (illustrated to the left), mastiff heads and acanthus leaves were amongst the plasterwork debris excavated. There was no evidence of strapwork, which was typical of the first half of the 17th century. According to historian Cary Carson’s report in the National Park Service’s Evaluation of Previous Archeology (a document associated with its Jamestown Archeological Assessment project), the plaster fragments “were as fashionably up-to-date as any 1670-1690s plasterwork in far grander buildings in England.” Carson continues: “So far as architectural historians know, S138/53 became the most dignified and fashionable public building in England’s North American colonies until the Capitol at Williamsburg and the Governor’s Palace were built 40 years later.”
In 1697, William Sherwood died; his widow Rachel continued to lease out her property for government business.
Rachel Sherwood married Edward Jaquelin about 1699 and his eldest daughter Elizabeth (from a later marriage) would inherit his Jamestown Island plantation. She wed Richard Ambler, who built the Ambler mansion (illustrated to the right by a photograph taken before the 1895 fire that destroyed the building) and demolished S138/53, S31 and S58. It is very likely that bricks from the earlier structures were incorporated into the Ambler Mansion.
Efforts to Build a Town, 1660-1699
Although no artifacts associated with this four-dwelling brick rowhouse provide a definite date of construction, historians conjecture that it was built in accordance with an act passed by the Virginia Assembly in September 1662, which stated:
That the towne to be built shall consist of thirty two houses, each house to be built with brick, forty foot long, twenty foot wide, within the walls, to be eighteen foote high above the ground, the walls to be two brick thick to the water table, and a brick and a halfe thick above the water table to the roofe, the roofe to be fifteen foote pitch and to be covered with slate or tile.
It is likely that this rowhouse was standing by September 1668, when the justices of James City County asked permission to use “one of the Countrie Brick houses” as a prison. Perhaps the quartered left leg and pelvis excavated from an abandoned well behind one of the houses is a gruesome souvenir from “that house where the goale was kept.”
In 1676, the entire row was badly damaged by Nathaniel Bacon’s burning of Jamestown and was “lyeing in ruins” by 1680. Although one or two units were repaired and altered shortly thereafter, the whole row was abandoned after the capital moved to Williamsburg in 1699.
A Jamestown Tavern Site, 1670s
Colonists came to Jamestown to participate in the General Assembly, attend court, and have their tobacco crops graded, weighed and taxed. An ordinary (tavern) provided a much-needed service for visitors and an attractive, if sporadic, income for Jamestown inhabitants. In the 1670s, an Englishman remarked upon the Jamestown ordinaries charging “extraordinary rates.”
Ordinaries and their operation were of concern to the Virginia Assembly from the 1640s on. Anyone wishing to keep an ordinary had to be bonded and licensed. Acts were passed requiring keepers to use English measures in pouring out drinks and punishing them for watering down their stock. The Assembly strictly regulated the price of food and drink; extensive credit was not to be offered to tipplers who “are not master of two servants, or being visiably worth fifty pounds sterling at least.”
Evidence from the excavation of a large brick foundation near here identifies the site as likely being an ordinary. Its elongated four-room ground floor plan with a cold middle room was typical of Virginia’s early taverns. Artifacts from a large cellar room included many glass bottle fragments; charred timber and a brass spigot suggest storage racks for casks of beer or cider.
May-Hartwell Site, 1660-1699
Evidence from wills, deeds, land plats, patents and court cases increase the Jamestown knowledge base. When scientists digitalized two 17th-century land plats and superimposed them on a modern map of Jamestown, they positively identified a framed structure that stood near here as belonging to a series of owners, beginning with William May in 1661.
By the 1660s, Jamestown had become a thriving port city, as well as serving as the colony’s center of government. Many colonists invested in town lots, as well as undeveloped land in Tidewater Virginia. William May would purchase more Jamestown acreage before bequeathing his holdings to fellow attorney Nicholas Meriwether in 1671. Meriwether also patented large holdings in several Virginia counties.
In 1688, Henry Hartwell, who owned adjoining lots, acquired the Meriwether house and acreage. Although archeologists commented on the dearth of artifacts associated with the house, nearby areas yielded a number of wine bottle seals marked “HH,” which likely belonged to Hartwell.
By 1745, Yorktown merchant Richard Ambler had acquired the property. He would build the nearby mansion that now stands in ruins, transforming the old Jamestown townsite into his family seat and a thriving plantation.
A Remarkable Collection, 1670-1700
What Jamestown colonists pitched, archeologists prize. Because of their accumulation of centuries-old waste, wells, privies and ditches are prime excavation sites.
This ditch, excavated in the 1930s by National Park Service archeologist J. C. Harrington, yielded an amazing quantity and variety of artifacts, most dated to the last quarter of the seventeenth century.
In addition to an outstanding collection of North Devon sgraffitoware, Harrington’s team unearthed fragments of bone combs, wine bottle seals and over a thousand clay pipe pieces. Three of six lead window cames were dated 1669.
Perhaps the most impressive find from this vicinity was an entire earthenware baking oven. Shattered into over 200 fragments, this large piece was produced in the North Devon potteries between 1670 and 1700. Settlers probably used the oven outdoors; heated stones placed inside made it hot enough for baking. You can view this oven in the Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center Museum.
Probable Site of Home and Shop of a Gunsmith
“Jackson the smith was at work in his shop”Minutes of the General Court, 1623
Protection was of the utmost importance in the early years of Virginia, as archeological evidence bears out: Jamestown has yielded perhaps the largest collection of late 16th– and 17th-century English weapons used in America. Gunsmiths such as early settler John Jackson were invaluable members of the community.
Appearing in Virginia records as early as 1623, Jackson patented a 3/8-acre waterfront lot in New Towne. Archeologists believe that they have located this site, where Jackson lived with his family and plied his trade. Quantities of lead sprue, gunflints, worked chert, scrap metal fragments, iron ore limonite, slag, and lead shot recovered from around the hearth of the two-room structure suggest a workshop for Jackson’s smithery. Hot and messy activities were probably performed outside somewhere nearby.
In addition to providing the colonists with weapons for hunting and defense, Jackson also served Virginia in more pacific ways as assemblyman and churchwarden. That he and his family were enjoying a good standard of living is borne out by such artifacts as window glass, an ivory cribbage board, curtain rings and a copper upholstery tack.
Efforts of a Virginia Tradesman, 1670s
In 1655, Ann Talbott patented a one-acre lot. Nearly three centuries later, National Park Service archeologists excavated a fragment of a brick-paved structure located in one corner of her property. Adjoining the structure’s large hearth may have been a brewer’s copper; there is also evidence of a bread oven opening into the fireplace. Flat tiles located nearby may have come from the roof.
Artifacts associated with the site include high-quality architectural hardware such as cock’s-head hinges, butterfly hinges, strap hinges, lock plates, keys and escutcheons, indicating that the structure may have been a fairly impressive one.
Archeologists, however, are far more impressed by a simple pewter spoon found in the vicinity. Although only the spoon’s handle has survived, its 1675 maker’s mark identifies it as the work of Joseph Copeland, a craftsman who worked at nearby Chuckatuck. Although a few artisans such as the Jamestown Potter produced local goods, most colonists succumbed to the lure of the quick profit tobacco cultivation promised.
In 1934, the National Park Service acquired 1,500 acres of Jamestown Island, including New Towne. Since then, the NPS has used a variety of methods to tell visitors about the town. After archeologists unearthed numerous structures with brick foundations and cellars, they left the excavations open for visitors to see. Because reconstruction might damage fragile archeological evidence, and because no-one could say for sure what the original buildings looked like, nothing was built on site. When the exposed foundations suffered from the elements, they had to be reburied.
To prepare for the 350th anniversary in 1957, archeologist J. C. Harrington suggested that “the present foundations, which have been excavated and covered back over, be capped with a layer of concrete and then built up to a point above ground level by old brick obtained during the Jamestown excavation.” “The whole town site,” he proposed, “should be landscaped to give the feeling of openness under trees.”
- Carson, Cary (Senior Principal Investigator). Evaluation of Previous Archaeology (part of the Jamestown Archaeological Assessment study conducted between 1992 and 1996). Williamsburg, Virginia, 2006.
- Cotter, John. Archeological Excavations at Jamestown. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1958.
- Cotter, John and J. Paul Hudson. New Discoveries at Jamestown. Washington, D. C.:U. S. Government Printing Office, 1957.
- Forman, Henry Chandlee. Jamestown and St. Mary’s: Buried Cities of Romance. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1938.
- —. Jamestown Archeological Assessment. Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, (no date).
- McCartney, Martha W. Documentary History of Jamestown Island, Volume III: Biographies of Owners and Residents (part of the Jamestown Archaeological Assessment study conducted between 1992 and 1996). Williamsburg, 2000.
- Tyler, Lyon Gardiner. The Cradle of the Republic: Jamestown and the James River. Richmond, Virginia: The Hermitage Press, Inc., 1906.