Danny Schmidt hoists a plastic bucket filled with mud from an abandoned water well in Jamestown, Va., unearthing 400 years of history at the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Inside the bucket is a shoe sole that belonged to one of the colony’s early residents.
“It’s very fragile,” says Schmidt, 27, cradling the piece of blackened leather in his hands. “I’m going to take it to the lab right now.”
Within a few hours, Schmidt and three other archaeologists sift through five buckets of mud containing four shoe soles, an iron sword hilt, a ceramic tobacco pipe, a handful of squash seeds, and numerous glass and pottery shards.
“This site is just loaded with artifacts,” says archaeologist Carter Hudgins, 28, referring to the well, which researchers believe colonists filled with refuse four centuries ago after it went dry or became contaminated.
Since 1994, archaeologists have discovered hundreds of thousands of artifacts, from a tobacco seed to a suit of armor, while excavating the site of James Fort, a one-acre wooden enclosure built by a group of 104 men and boys who landed on Jamestown Island on May 13, 1607.
The colonists arrived aboard three ships, the Discovery, Godspeed and Susan Constant. Though they faced disease, starvation and war with the Powhatan Indians, they ultimately endured under the leadership of Capt. John Smith and planted the seeds of American democracy. They also brought to the continent the English language, the Anglican Church and the free-market system based on the tobacco trade.
Today, evidence of the colony is preserved at Historic Jamestowne, a 1,500-acre park administered by the National Park Service and the Association of the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), which last year opened a museum along the James River to showcase more than a thousand artifacts, including two human skeletons, found during the ongoing archaeological dig.
“We haven’t found the site of the first church yet,” says William Kelso, APVA’s director of archaeology. “That was the heart of the operation.”
In 1614, Englishman John Rolfe married Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, in a Jamestown church, ushering in a period of temporary peace between the colonists and native people. Five years later, the first general assembly in the Western Hemisphere convened in the colony’s church, laying the foundation for the form of representative government we have in the United States today.
“The seed of democracy was watered by the profits of tobacco,” says Dick Cheatham, 58, a 14th-generation descendant of Rolfe who portrays his pioneering ancestor. Rolfe is credited with introducing West Indies tobacco in Virginia, crossbreeding it with indigenous strains and providing the colony with a cash crop for export to Europe.
A mile upstream of the original Fort James is Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum where costumed re-enactors teach visitors about sailing aboard replicas of the ships that brought the colonists to Virginia. They also demonstrate 17th-century skills such as cooking over an open hearth, shooting a matchlock musket, tanning deer hides and basket weaving in a re-created fort and Virginia Indian village.
“We get our raffia (a plant fiber used for weaving) from a supplier in Maryland, but the Indians would have used cattails from the marshes,” says Cameron McKay, a Williamsburg, Va., resident who portrays a Powhatan Indian.
Meanwhile, back on Jamestown Island, the historic settlement’s only modern-day residents—William Kelso and his wife, Ellen—live in a four-room cottage within view of the archaeological dig at James Fort.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” says Kelso, 65. “My dream was to find something significant in American history and then to live and breathe it.”
Kelso has accomplished his dream and he hopes further excavation at Jamestown reveals more clues about the people who gave the United States its start 400 years ago. “I’m at the epicenter of America,” he adds. “This is my hometown.”