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Planet Earth

The Not-So-Dumb Englishmen

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Historians’ accounts of Jamestown are unflattering, at best. The colonists who settled at a bend in the James River in 1607 have been portrayed as bumblers, gentlemen who survived the Virginia wilderness only by luck (and the intervention of a 13-year-old named Pocahontas). But last summer, when archeologist William Kelso of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities uncovered traces of the original Jamestown Fort, a new picture emerged.

In a previously unexcavated area near an old church, Kelso found stained soil marking the location of logs that held up the fort’s outer walls. He traced the outline of a three-sided structure that matched written descriptions of the original fort, which was damaged by fire in 1608 and was thought to have washed into the river. Inside, he found thousands of artifacts, including armor, ammunition, jewelry, beads, and pottery. He also found the skeleton of an early settler with a musket ball in his knee. The Native Americans didn’t commonly own guns at that time, though it’s possible they had seized some from the settlers. It’s very puzzling, says Kelso. It could have been friendly fire, it could have been infighting among the leaders. And since he’s in a coffin inside the fort, we think he might have had high social standing.

Finding the fort has given Kelso a new appreciation of the Jamestown founders. They didn’t put the fort on low-lying ground where it would have eroded--this is the highest point on the island, he says. The Virginia Company was a business; they weren’t out there to lose money. Although they didn’t find any gold, they had sent all these craftsmen who started making Indian jewelry--things that the Algonquins wanted, not crucifixes. And they got food for it in return.These guys knew what they were doing.

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