Time yields secrets of Jamestown

History: Explosion of discoveries links Virginia Colony's earliest generation to a specific piece of ground.

March 11, 2004|By Mark St. John Erickson | Mark St. John Erickson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- Twelve years after colonists landed here in 1607 to establish the first permanent English settlement in North America, Jamestown remained a small, struggling enterprise on the banks of the James River.

No one in August 1619 understood the consequences of joining a few hundred white, European, mostly English settlers with what Colony secretary John Rolfe famously described as "20. and odd negroes."

Only a few, fragmented records of these newcomers survive, mostly in the form of early census documents that list the first Africans by race, occupation and on several tantalizingly concrete occasions by name. And not until recently, as part of an explosion of discoveries about the earliest days of Jamestown, has anyone been able to link this charter generation to a specific piece of ground.

Historian Martha W. McCartney and her Colonial Williamsburg colleagues uncovered the secret three years ago during a study commissioned by Colonial National Historical Park.

Combing records

Systematically combing through old wills, deeds and public records as well as newly uncovered papers and overlooked archaeological evidence, the researchers used an electronic mapping program to pinpoint the Jamestown properties of Sir George Yeardley and Capt. William Pierce, two early colonists whose households included nine of the first Africans.

"There's a certain awe that comes from knowing you're standing at a spot where something so important happened," says McCartney, who compared the pioneering detective work to solving a giant puzzle.

"Sometimes while we were still working on the study I would have to drive out to the island, stop at the entrance to the Loop Road and try to imagine what it must have been like back then. It helps to put history on the ground."

Few scholars dispute Jamestown's landmark status as the birthplace of America's multiracial identity.

Robert Watson, an assistant professor of history at Hampton University, calls the English settlement "the most important place in this country in terms of the origin of our nation."

"This is where the cultures that make us what we are today first came together," he says.

Like much of the rest of the Colony's early history, however, the paper trail that reaches back to the arrival of 1619 has been badly and in some places completely tattered by the passage of years.

Virtually all of James City County's court records were burned during the Civil War, creating vast, often maddening gaps in the information available to present-day researchers. More complications arise from the relatively scanty number of early papers and reports that have survived in England.

Overcoming hurdles

Still, McCartney and her colleagues, who began looking at land ownership patterns as part of an earlier study called the Jamestown Archaeological Assessment, overcame many of the hurdles that had stymied previous historians.

Working around the lost records, they scoured the surviving documents in the surrounding counties, looking for deeds, wills and other papers that might relate to property holdings on Jamestown Island. They also investigated numerous unexplored sources in England, including a newly available cache of papers from a prominent Virginia Company official.

More information came from the National Archives and the Library of Congress, which provided little-known maps as well as a crucial collection of records from one of the island's leading families. Then there was an indispensable cache of archaeological evidence dug up during the 1930s, including a telltale pattern of early ditches that marked the boundaries of many properties.

"A lot of the times it was like playing pin the tail on the donkey," says McCartney, describing how each new piece of information was superimposed and then jiggered into the overall lot plan through the use of electronic mapping.

"But in the end it all came together like a jigsaw puzzle."

Among the discoveries that resulted were the boundaries of "urban" Jamestown and the outlying farmlands owned by a group of pioneering colonists known as the "ancient planters." Also revealed was the location of an early gunsmith's shop, which archaeologists have since confirmed through excavation.

Both the Yeardley and Pierce properties finally popped up, too, pinpointing the earliest sites that can be directly linked to the charter generation of Africans.

Three black men and five black women are included among the "servants" in a January 1625 census of Yeardley's household, which was on a 7.25-acre lot near the entrance to the present-day Loop Road. The same records list an African servant woman named Angelo at Pierce's home, which stood between a lane known as Back Street and the riverfront.

Status hardens

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