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Uncovering James Fort

For years, archaeologists thought the site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World had been washed away by erosion, but William Kelso believed otherwise - and after 30 months of digging, he and his team of researchers have proved he was right.

On an April day two years ago, Dr. William Kelso grabbed a shovel, walked the few hundred yards from the front door of his Jamestown Island home to the shore of the James River, and began digging.

Dr. Kelso, director of archaeology, for the Association for the Protection of Virginia Antiquities, believed that the remains of James Fort - the first permanent English settlement in the New World - lay buried beneath his feet.

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If his hunch was correct, he had come upon one of the most important archaeological finds in the United States, a window into the beginnings of what eventually became America.

But there were haunting reasons to think he was wrong.

In 1957, a team of archaeologists had come here determined to find the elusive fort. They failed.

After digging an extensive web of narrow trenches across the island, they came up with only shards and bits of armor - nothing to indicate the substantial fortifications they were looking for.

Dismayed, they surmised that severe erosion had taken James Fort to the bottom of the James River, a conclusion supported by eyewitness accounts of visitors to Jamestown Island in the 1800s, who said they saw the remains of James Fort being washed away, .

This theory became gospel. In fact, Kelso remembers asking a member of the National Park Service where the fort was located when he visited here as a graduate student a few years after the '57 dig.

"He said, 'Oh, I'm sorry,' and he pointed out into the middle of the river. But I said, 'How do you know that?' and I started grilling him," Kelso recalls with a wry smile, fully realizing he now has the last laugh.

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"As I recall, he conceded, 'We really think it's out there, but it's possible, maybe it does survive.' "

Kelso filed that "but" on a dusty shelf in the back of his memory. Thirty years later it helped spur him on to find the fort that had eluded so many others.

Ironically, Kelso was led to revisit the site by the very artifacts unearthed in 1957 - and by Bly Straube.

Ms. Straube, one of Kelso's longtime colleagues, was hired by the National Park Service in 1986 to date its archive of artifacts, including those from the '57 dig.

In 1957, historical archaeology was still a new science (in contrast to prehistorical archaeology - which had been around for a long time). The hundreds of books and dozens of experts that now help archaeologists date artifacts did not exist, so the archaeologists could only estimate how old their artifacts were, plus or minus 50 years.

Straube, however, had spent her adult life looking at things pulled from 17th-century earth. She and co-worker Nick Luccketti had worked more 17th-century sites than anyone in Virginia. But as Straube began dating the artifacts, she found that the pieces were older than any she had seen.

"The amount of 16th-century material was just unbelievable," she says.

During long nights spent hunched over thousands of crumbling artifacts, Straube slowly began piecing together the puzzle of James Fort's fate.

She found musket matchlocks from the 1560s and ceramics from the late Tudor period, which ended with the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 - four years before James Fort was settled.

This finding was critical, she explains, because "ceramics usually break not far from their time of manufacture, so if you find ceramics that date to the late 16th century, you know you're dealing with a pretty old site."

When she told Kelso of her discovery, he was convinced. He had doubted the 1957 survey from the beginning.

Back in 1957, he was an undergraduate student at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. It was exam time, and Kelso found himself in the library, frustrated with the act of pretending to study. He wandered over to the magazine rack and picked up a copy of what he thinks was a National Geographic. Splashed across its pages were pictures of the Jamestown Island dig. He remembers one shot in particular, an aerial photograph looking over the whole site.

"My first reaction, I'll never forget, was 'Wow, I didn't know there were such significant archaeological sites in this country.' And my second reaction was, 'Oh well, that's all dug.' And then I looked again and noticed there was a lot of [undug] space ... and I thought, 'There's a lot left to do.'"

Indeed, the 1957 dig had left a large area near the island's historic church undisturbed. Mr. Luccketti, who joined the dig with Straube, says the 1957 archaeologists didn't know what to look for.

"No one had ever excavated a 17th-century wooden fort before," he says. "We have had the luxury of digging a couple ourselves. Digging narrow trenches is not the best way to look for a [17th-century wooden fort], you have to open up large areas."

That's exactly what Kelso wanted to do. So he pitched the idea to the Association for the Protection of Virginia Antiquities - the organization that owned the property - in 1993. His proposal fit perfectly with the APVA's new agenda.

In 1957, the APVA had kept the archaeologists on a tight leash, sometimes even prohibiting them from digging in certain areas because excavating would harm the landscaping. But by 1993, the cash-strapped organization had realized that the Jamestown Island plot was their most important possession, and something had to be done on it. So they gave Kelso the autonomy to do what he needed to do.

Kelso moved to Jamestown Island, and after a year of planning, researching, and fund-raising, he set off on that April morning with his shovel and an educated guess.

The year of preparation and a lifetime of second-guessing the experts had all come down to this: where to start digging.

He picked a spot next to the church.

"I was an exchange archaeologist in Israel, and under every synagogue or Christian church there's always a Roman or classical temple, and under that is some pagan thing, and on and on," he recalls. "The first thing they did [at James Fort] was put up a church, so if the church is in the fort, then the fort is going to survive around the church."

It turns out he was wrong.

As a number of archaeologists believed, the church had been moved. But what he did find was good enough to keep him going: a trash pit full of pre-Colonial waste. More artifacts, thousands of them, all dating back to Jamestown. As the digging continued, Kelso and his growing staff gathered kinetic energy.

Each subsequent find made sense: a wall, then a second wall, then the corner bastion - all fitting a 1610 description of the fort, right down to the 46 degree angle formed by the corner.

And what about the eyewitness accounts? Kelso points out that a peripheral brick fort was built in 1667, which, according to erosion patterns, would be out in the James River by now. This is the fort he believes the visitors saw. In addition, he says there would have been no visible remnants of an 17th-century wooden fort in the 1800s.

So, confident that his team had found James Fort "beyond a reasonable doubt," Kelso told the world on Sept. 12 that James Fort was no longer lost.

"It is a landmark," says George Stuart, vice president for research and exploration at the National Geographic Society. "It is a superlative in terms of it being the first permanent English settlement ... [the beginning of] a very important cultural strain that is a part of our lives."

But Kelso's work is far from over - with continued financial help from National Geographic, the Virginia State Legislature, and others, he hopes to excavate other parts of the fort by 2000. First on the priority list is finding the church he missed two years ago.

"I don't think it was moved far," he says with a grin.

Mr. Stuart says he looks forward to the continued excavations. "The more they dig, the more I hope they'll find out something about the daily life [at James Fort]. I'd love to know what it was like on a typical autumn day," he adds

On this late autumn day, Kelso is reflective. The recent announcement of the discovery and the fact that the site has been closed for the winter give him the opportunity to look back and appreciate all the events that led to the find.

"It was kind of like we were all being trained for finally coming together to do this," he finishes. "I don't believe in predestination, but sometimes, you begin to wonder."


Settled by 104 artisans, craftsmen, and laborers on May 13, 1607, James Fort was the genesis of the 13 colonies. The settlers chose this site because it was one of the higher points along the James River and because the James was so deep here that ships could be moored to the trees. Built of logs driven into an embankment and surrounded by a ditch, the fort itself was relatively short-lived. By 1623, settlers had established New Towne outside its walls. Jamestown, as it became known, was the capital of Virginia until 1698.


Artifacts unearthed in 1957 led William Kelso to the site in search of James Fort - which many thought had eroded and been carried into the James River. Since Kelso began digging 30 months ago he and his team have uncovered more than 150,000 artifacts, many reaching back into the 16th century. Included in these finds are: brass book fittings like those used to bind a Bible, more than 1,500 pieces of copper used in trade with Indians, and perhaps most important, a human skeleton found this summer. Kelso believes the settler might have been buried as early as 1607. The team hopes to continue excavating key portions of the fort until at least 2000.

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