When Captain John Smith observed the waters surrounding Jamestown Island four centuries ago, he was impressed by the sheer quantity of fish. Today archeologists are impressed by the quantity of archeological resources discovered between the waterline and as far as 1000 feet offshore. Careful scanning with sonar as well as diving in the murky water revealed at least 26 shipwrecks as well as landings, wharves, and piers along the shoreline.
Jamestown Island, situated in southeastern Virginia, 30 miles up the James River from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, was the site of the first permanent English colony in North America. While Jamestown's 1639 brick church tower is the only standing vestige of the colony still visible above ground, archeological investigations have located foundations of buildings dating from the Jamestown Colony's earliest days through the Civil War, including remnants of the original 1607 James Fort. This first English fort on the island, long thought to have been destroyed by the eroding James River, was re-identified in 1994. Recently, however, archeologists at Colonial NHP, which jointly administers Jamestown island with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), have become interested in the aquatic cultural resources, as well as the terrestrial ones. Between July 5 and July 15, 2006, a team of underwater archeologists explored the waters around the Jamestown Island in a survey of the 7.8 mile perimeter of the island.
A Brief History of Jamestown Island
On May 13, 1607, three English ships—the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery—anchored off Jamestown Island and thus established England's first permanent foothold in North America. The 104 Englishmen who landed that day chose Jamestown as the location of their new settlement partially because no one else was presently occupying the island: an unhealthy, if highly defensible, spot. This lack of inhabitants was hardly the case for most of Tidewater Virginia, as the English were soon to discover. Although it is difficult to estimate, modern historians number the Native American population of the early 17th century Tidewater Virginia at 13,000 to 14,000. Indian settlements belonging to the geographically extensive and politically powerful Powhatan chiefdom were concentrated along the James, York, and Rappahannock Rivers, which provided both food and transportation.
Lord Charles Cornwallis's British Army of 7,000 soldiers established a camp on Jamestown during the summer of 1781, and “cartel vessels” of American and British prisoners were periodically exchanged on the island between July 1781 and November 1782. In 1861 the island was occupied by Confederate soldiers who built Fort Pocahontas, an earth fort immediately adjacent to the Jamestown Colony's old brick church tower as part of the Confederacy's defense system to block the Union advance up the James River. Little further attention was paid to Jamestown until preservation was undertaken at the close of the nineteenth century.
In 1892 Jamestown was purchased by Edward and Louise Barney, a couple from Dayton, Ohio. Soon afterwards, the Barneys deeded 22 ½ acres of their newly-bought land, including the 1639 brick church tower, to the APVA. By this time, the James River erosion had eaten away the island's western end; visitors began to conclude that the site of James Fort lay completely underwater. With federal assistance, a sea wall was constructed in 1900 to protect the area from further erosion. In 1934 the island's remaining 1,500 acres were purchased by the NPS for $165,000 as part of the newly-established Colonial National Monument. Today, Historic Jamestowne is jointly operated by the APVA and NPS.