Jamestown: How England's first settlement in America faces being washed away

·6 min read
Jamestown underwater in May - Handout / Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation / AFP
Jamestown underwater in May - Handout / Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation / AFP

When the first English settlers arrived in America in 1607, Jamestown, Virginia seemed like the perfect location for the British Empire’s first permanent outpost.

The uninhabited island, some 50 miles up the James river, offered a defensible site against Spanish invaders and deep water docking for English supply ships.

Tobacco seeds arrived from London, slaves arrived from Angola and Britain expanded its presence inland. Colonial America was born in Jamestown, and the waterways gave it life.

But now, some 400 years later, water is threatening its entire existence.

“The river is rising, the storms are getting worse and more rain is falling. In 50 years, the whole archaeological site could be underwater.” This is the stark assessment of James Horn, President of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation.

Split image of a dry Jamestown and a submerged Jamestown - HANDOUT/Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation/AFP
Split image of a dry Jamestown and a submerged Jamestown - HANDOUT/Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation/AFP

Jamestown has just been named as one of America’s most endangered historic places by the US National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The area is at a “critical turning point” where inaction would mean that it will “disappear from the cultural landscape,” the trust said.

The settlement is of huge significance to British and American history.

King James I granted the Virginia Company a royal charter for colonial pursuit in 1606. Three ships - the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery made their way west via the Canary Islands and the Caribbean before reaching Chesapeake Bay.

Of the original 104 settlers, only 38 survived the first winter. Such was the shortage of food in the early years, that people ate box turtles, horses, dogs, snakes and then each other.

There were also skirmishes with Powhatan Indians, with peace only achieved after their most famous daughter, Pocahontas, joined the British settlers and eventually ended up in England.

By 1610, the fortunes changed with the arrival of tobacco seeds, which were then planted and cultivated. In 1619, the first slaves arrived.

The settlement started to prosper and grew so big, they eventually relocated further inland, to Williamsburg, which became the colonial capital in 1699 and remained so until 1780.

Artefacts at Jamestown - Ryan M. Kelly / AFP
Artefacts at Jamestown - Ryan M. Kelly / AFP

Jamestown’s 22 acre site, at the end of Virginia’s Colonial Parkway road, is perched delicately just three feet above sea level. That was part of the attraction back in 1607, when boats could come right up to the settlement to unload their cargo.

But in the last century the river has risen by a foot and a half. Now, the site floods five or six times a year, putting large areas underwater and damaging the precious artefacts buried under the soil.

“The graves are usually four feet deep. There is serious concern that the bones are being eroded. The ground simply cannot absorb that much water,” said Mr Horn, a British historian, who relocated to the United States 25 years ago.

Even on a hot May afternoon, as archaeologists set about carefully excavating the ground, there is still standing water from a deluge of rain the week before. Sandbags are used to protect dig sites.

“We are having to change the way we work because of climate change,” said David Givens, the director of archaeology.

Barges full of granite blocks are anchored offshore - RYAN M. KELLY/AFP via Getty Images
Barges full of granite blocks are anchored offshore - RYAN M. KELLY/AFP via Getty Images

Out on the river, two barges bob side by side - one laden with huge boulders and the other with a digger.

“We are using 96,000 tons of granite armour stone to reinforce the sea wall. This can absorb waves and slow down the land slide towards the river, but it’s not a permanent solution. That won’t stop flooding if there’s a hurricane,” said Mr Givens.

Jamestown, with its British and American roots has a particular and unique identity.

There is a ferry to Scotland - just on the other side of the James river. Inland, is the Isle of Wight. And scattered around are Windsor, Wakefield, Norfolk, New Kent and Sussex.

With Bald eagles flying overhead and Union Jacks fluttering in the wind, if any place represents the "special relationship" it is here.

Some 200,000 tourists - many from the UK and Europe - visited in 2019, before the pandemic took hold. Now though, the site has to shut to the public on some days because the paths are underwater and the museum and fort sites are inaccessible.

Caitlin Delmas, staff archaeologist, works on a dig site - RYAN M. KELLY/AFP via Getty Images
Caitlin Delmas, staff archaeologist, works on a dig site - RYAN M. KELLY/AFP via Getty Images

Queen Elizabeth II has been to Jamestown twice, in 1957 and 2007.

“It was a terrific visit,” said Mr Horn, who was there 15 years ago.

“She was rather quiet initially, but once we talked about the founding of the British Empire, she really picked up on that.”

The late Duke of Edinburgh, meanwhile, was fascinated by the maps that had been put on display especially for the Royal couple.

The site has yielded a number of important finds.

Mary Anna Hartley, a senior archaeologist, was part of the team that discovered "Jane" - a 14-year-old girl who had been eaten by her fellow colonists in the winter of 1609-10.

The find, in 2012, was the first forensic evidence of survival cannibalism at any early European colony in North America.

Queen Elizabeth II at Jamestown in 2007 - AP Photo/Lisa Billings
Queen Elizabeth II at Jamestown in 2007 - AP Photo/Lisa Billings

Among the more than three million artefacts recovered are sword hilts, drinking vessels and a Roman lock pistol that was found at the bottom of a well.

“Seeing our work go to the Smithsonian was pretty special,” Ms Hartley said.

The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation has a number of ways it plans to protect the site in the face of ever-increasing threat from the water, but they insist that time is ticking.

As many as eight acres of the 22 have already become so saturated they are now designated marshland areas and fall under restrictive planning regulations.

On the eastern side of the island, a swamp continues to encroach.

There are concept plans for a pumping station, the re-establishing of ditches and even to raise the paths, roads and buildings.

David Givens, director of archaeology, looks across floodwater at Jamestown - RYAN M. KELLY/AFP via Getty Images
David Givens, director of archaeology, looks across floodwater at Jamestown - RYAN M. KELLY/AFP via Getty Images

“There is an irony in our archaeologists digging under the ground while we attempt to put more earth on top,” said Mr Horn.

This will cost tens of millions of dollars, but Mr Horn is hopeful that funding will come from donors, the state and the federal government.

“Jamestown is the first permanent and Successful English colony in America, and represents a meeting of cultures,” said Mr Horn.

“Native Indians, Europeans and then in 1619, Africans. It tells us a lot about ourselves, and it can tell Americans today a lot about where they came from.

“That’s the historical side, but symbolically, this is one of the most important archaeological sites in the US, and in fact, in the world.

“If Jamestown is allowed to go underwater, I'd venture to say any site could go underwater. If we can't save Jamestown, then what does that say about us? That we don't value our heritage, we don't value our history? We don't want to know where we've come from? I don't think that's the case.”

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