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The First Colonists


Finding James Fort
The First Fatality?
Harsh Realities of Life in Jamestown
Struggling to Survive

Little was known about the men and eventually the women who came to Jamestown, or about actual events in the earliest years between 1607 and 1609. Written records indicate that the fort still existed in 1620. But by 1624, it had essentially disappeared, and nearly all investigators assumed that James Fort had long ago washed into the James River.


No one knew where the fort had been, much less where the men who arrived in 1607 were buried. Until 1994, that is, when a team of APVA Preservation Virginia archaeologists headed by William Kelso discovered a trash pit brimming with early 17th-century artifacts. That same year, they uncovered evidence of the palisade. James Fort had been found!

Salt-glazed stoneware Bartmann jug
German-made Bartmann ("bearded man" jugs are among the more common ceramics excavated at James Fort. Image courtesy: APVA Preservation Virginia/Historic Jamestowne

Uncovering James Fort

More than 80 percent of the fort's archaeological features survived underground, along with artifacts, such as the jug pictured at left, and the skeletal remains of some of the first men and boys at Jamestown. Today, more than half of the fort has been explored. As the excavations continue, the list of remarkable discoveries grows.

So far, archaeologists have identified the location of 33 burials within the fort, in addition to the captain's burial just outside the wall. These graves date to the first two years of the settlement. Only four have been excavated, and two of them contain the remains of two men each. Another unusually wide grave has been located. Investigators think it also dates to 1607, but it has yet to be excavated.

map of James Fort based on excavations at the site since 1994
Map of James Fort, based on excavations at the site since 1994. Graphic by Jamie May, APVA Preservation Virginia/Historic Jamestowne

What Scientists Now Know about James Fort

Soon after they arrived, the colonists put up a three-sided wooden palisade on an island in the James River - near the heart of the Powhatan chiefdom. As the colonists established themselves, they rebuilt and enlarged the palisade and put up other structures. From 1607 to 1619, the site of the original fort changed dramatically. Older features, including graves, were built over and forgotten.

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