Beyond Duke of Gloucester Street

Exploring Williamsburg away from the historic district reveals the earliest stirrings of American colonization.

Virginia

A Cover Story

October 13, 2002|By Sarah Clayton | Sarah Clayton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When they found her, they thought she'd fallen asleep on the trash pit, but on closer inspection it was obvious she'd been partially scalped, and had pulled herself into the pit -- presumably to hide -- and bled to death.

The archaeologists called her "Granny" because she'd lost her lower molars. In fact, she was only 40 years old and one of the 78 people -- out of a population of 140 -- who died in the Indian attack that March day in 1622, on Martin's Hundred, one of the earliest English settlements in the New World. The rest of the settlers were either captured or had fled to nearby Jamestown.

I was sitting on a bench in the late summer heat near where Granny had died. At my back, Virginia's James River was nudging the shore and gently sighing. Before me was a partial reconstruction of the house where Granny had been a servant. The cicadas were droning away, and my legs were tired from the bike trip out here. Like Granny, I could have drifted away, though to a less permanent sleep.

My husband, John, and I had come to find the Williamsburg beyond the bustle of Duke of Gloucester Street.

From when we checked into the Market Square Tavern, one of the street's restored 18th-century buildings with overnight accommodations, until we left late the next day, we immersed ourselves in the earliest stirrings of colonization in English America by walking or biking everywhere we went, mostly to the two major archaeological digs in the area -- Martin's Hundred and the original 1607 fort at Jamestown, long thought lost under the eroding shore of the James River.

Martin's Hundred was found by accident in the early 1970s, by archaeologists searching around Carter's Grove, a stately 18th-century plantation eight miles east of Williamsburg, for evidence of its early outbuildings. What they instead found were traces of an early 17th-century town and fort and domestic and military artifacts -- a fragment of a Dutch delft tile, table knives encrusted in silver, a gilded spur, body armor, sword guards, two iron helmets, ceramics from Italy, Portugal, Germany. They also found bodies -- some hastily buried; several, like Granny, brutalized.

The short, sad history of this fragile moment in American history began in 1618 when the Virginia Company of London granted a charter to the Society of Martin's Hundred (Richard Martin, the recorder of the City of London, lent credibility to the venture) to colonize 22,000 acres in Virginia and generate a profit for the shareholders.

Early in 1619, the ship The Gift of God delivered the 220 men and women to their tract of land downriver from Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in the New World. Settled in 1607, Jamestown was finally enjoying a period of stability after a labor-intensive birth complicated by fires, famine and conflicts with the Indians.

Four centuries later

John and I, enjoying a weekend without children, had arrived at Martin's Hundred on bicycles by way of the eight-mile Country Road linking Williamsburg to Carter's Grove. But, before we took to our bikes, we stopped at the Cheese Shop in the center of Williamsburg and bought a variety of cheeses, good bread and dried fruit for a picnic.

Country Road took us past tidal creeks dark and sinuous as snakes; marshes with fiddler crabs gamboling in the mud; forests of beech, oak and maple; and through open fields. We found six-inch fossilized scallop shells spilling out of a muddy creek bank, telling of life here millions of years ago.

We parked our bikes at the Carter's Grove Reception Center and ate our picnic on the attractive back deck. Then we wandered through the heat to the Winthrop Rockefeller Archaeo-logical Museum, a small, fascinating place displaying some of the more impressive finds from Martin's Hundred and telling how the archaeologists dated objects using old paintings, whose reproductions are displayed next to the objects.

A 1630 Dutch painting, for example, revealed that an odd-looking earthenware bowl was used to hold live coals from which men could light their pipes.

Two early 17th-century iron helmets were "one of the most exciting discoveries in the annals of American archaeology," according to Ivor Noel Hume, the now-retired director of Archae-ological Research for Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

The helmets have been meticulously restored -- a 15-minute film at the museum tells how -- and stare grandly but silently out from their display cases.

Martin's Hundred, a flat, broad plain along the James River, is dotted with wooden barrels that, when activated, tell the story of this short-lived settlement.

All the archaeologists found of the buildings and palisade were the stains and trenches where posts once stood. These are now marked with short wooden poles, and, occasionally, a larger section is reconstructed to give a better idea of what the whole looked like.

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