Rediscovering Jamestown Island

Whenever I visit the Historic Triangle, one of my favorite spots to visit is Jamestown Island. And each time I head back it gets even better.

When I was in school the general statements about Jamestown went something like this:

  • John Smith was a shameless self-promoter who exaggerated his achievements running the fort.

  • The original fort had long since been washed into the James River.

It turns out both these assumptions were dead wrong.

Since 1994 The Jamestown Rediscovery Project has been redefining what we thought we knew about Jamestown’s earliest days.

Dr. William Kelso challenged the accepted narrative of the fort being washed into the river in 1994. He was given a ten year grant to see if he could uncover anything of historic significance in time for Jamestown’s 400th anniversary.

He found a 16th Century artifact in his first shovel-full of dirt. That was twenty-three years ago, and the project continues to gain steam.

Since then, the Jamestown Rediscovery work has uncovered the original outline of the original triangle fort. It turns out only one of the corners had been washed into the river. It has also excavated the first church constructed in the town, a barracks built by order of John Smith in the “mud and stud” method of his native county, “counselors row” where the important people lived, the first well, a storehouse, and a kitchen. They’ve also reconstructed over 80% of the original fort on the 16th Century “foundations 1.”

I’ve got more stories to tell about these discoveries, but I picked up the second volume describing the project’s work during my visit 2 and want to have some more details before I go into them. The picture below, however, blows my mind.

One of the tasks John Smith undertook after he assumed command of James Fort was to alter the shape of the fort from three sides to five. The outlined trench in the ground is proof he did just that. Those odd, almost circular, shapes are the remains of the posts used to create the extended stockade. It turns out Smith might not have been as great of an exaggerating braggart as he’s been painted in historical narratives 3.

If you are ever anywhere near the Historic Triangle of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Do not miss a opportunity to visit this historic island. And whatever you do, take the archaeology tour!

The trench, and post outlines, dug to extend James Fort under John's Smiths orders.


  1. It’s a bit of a stretch to call a dug trench and some discolored soil a “foundation.” 
  2. I read the first volume several years ago. 
  3. Nor is he the noble prince of Disney’s awful Pocahontas movie. Bleh. 

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  1. We went there, too! No archeology tour, though. Sounds amazing!

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