Jamestown Island was formed many thousands of years ago from a series of ridges and depressions along the James River. When English colonists arrived in 1607, a narrow isthmus connected the island to the mainland, and a "paradise" of virgin hardwoods covered the land. By 1800, the isthmus had eroded, and the forest had been cleared for farming.
In the two hundred years following the arrival of the English, the island landscape evolved from the seat of government to large plantations owned by the Ambler and Travis families. From the island's rim, Confederate forts guarded the river channel during the Civil War. Today, the Island Drive affords views of the island, James River, the marshlands, and regenerating forest.
The drive will introduce you to the natural environment which the English colonists encountered. You will also see the "Gallery in the Woods", a series of interpretive paintings illustrating the earliest industries attempted by the settlers. These paintings are located at pull offs along the drive.
Please remember that the Island Drive is also used by pedestrians and bike riders. Drive carefully and observe all speed limits. Due to weight limits of the loop drive bridges, large vehicles, such as campers, RVs and buses, are not allowed.
You may observe wildlife during your tour. Keep in mind that you should never feed or attempt to approach wild animals. Always admire them from a safe distance. This is the best way to ensure your safety, as well as theirs.
To explore the Island Drive follow the tour directions below.
THE ISLAND DRIVE TOUR
The tour consists of a 3 or 5 mile one way loop around the rest of Jamestown Island and begins when you turn right out of the parking lot. PLEASE NOTE: The speed limit on the Island Drive is 15 MPH.
As you begin the tour you will come to a wooden bridge which crosses a branch of the Pitch and Tar Swamp. Continue over the bridge to a large pull off area to the right.
Jamestown Island Drive - Jamestown's history is as rich and complex as its marshy ecosystem. Many stories, some little known or nearly forgotten, are linked to the sites beyond the town along the Jamestown Island Drive.
Jamestown Suburbs - Orchard Run marks the eastern end of New Towne, the portion of Jamestown surveyed in the early 1620s. From here the townsite extends over half a mile to the west along the James River.
Continue on the drive to another pull off on your left.
STOP 2 Jamestown During the Civil War - Like much of Virginia, Jamestown felt the direct impact of the Civil War. After Virginia seceded from the Union (April 1861), Confederates pinpointed Jamestown as the best location on the James River for defending their capital in Richmond. William Allen, owner of the island, quickly raised troops at his own expense to occupy the site. Before year's end, free blacks, Allen's enslaved workers, and Confederate troops had constructed earthworks to defend the island and control river traffic.
Continue to a large pull off on your right.
The Changing Land - A slow, steady geological process formed the marshy Jamestown peninsula. About 100,000 years ago, clay sand, and silt began building up to form the Jamestown landmass. Ravines cut through these deposits creating a series of ridges and swales. As the sea level gradually rose, the swales filled, and more and more of Jamestown became marshland.
Continue to a fork in the road and bear to the left to complete the 3 mile tour (and skip to STOP 9) or bear to the right and stop at the next pull off to the right to do the entire 5 mile tour.
Precious Plants - Virginia Indians used the rich variety of Tidewater plants and trees to make canoes, tools, rope, mats, beds, housing, food, and medicine. After a long ocean voyage, early colonists were understandably refreshed and astonished by Virginia's abundance. "We came into a little plat of ground," George Percy recounted, "full of fine and beautiful strawberries four times bigger and better than ours in England." From the "goodly tall trees" to the "fair meadows," Virginia resembled a paradise.
Continue to the next large pull off on your left.
"Soile Fit to Produce" - Jamestown's colonists learned to live off the land. They grew tobacco, Virginia's most profitable cash crop, in the rich, fertile soil along Virginia waterways, including Jamestown Island. They farmed the broader, flatter upland ridges often using fields cleared by Virginia Indians. Hardwoods for timber, like walnut, beech, and hickory, flourished on less arable ground. And marshlands, as described by Reverend Hugh Jones, were "…good range for stock in the spring, summer and fall; and the hogs will run fat with certain roots of flags and reeds, which abounding in the marshes they root up and eat."
Continue to the next pull off on your right.
American Bald Eagles - Called "the greatest devourer" by Captain John Smith, bald eagles still feed on the plentiful fish of the James River and build their nests high in the trees.
A Site of Habitation - Thousands of years ago, when the island was larger and drier, Jamestown was more suitable for permanent habitation. In fact, archeologists have excavated hearths from 2,000-year-old campsites. Nearby, they found pottery and evidence of stone tool-making. Soil core samples recovered by geologists revealed evidence of buried cornfields cultivated by the American Indians long before the English arrival.
Black Point - This tip of the island is known as Black Point. It was part of the island that was first seen by the colonists as they sailed up river in 1607. At this time you have the opportunity to leave your car and walk the trail to Black Point where you will have a panoramic view of the James River.The trail follows one of the ridges from which Jamestown Island was formed. On either side is a forest in the process of renewing itself. The ridge was once covered in hardwood, which was cleared by the English. The pine you now see is evidence of a forest in the process of regeneration.
Proceed over the wooden bridge to the next pull off on your left.
An Ancient Planter - Captain John Smith called Williams Spence "an honest, valiant and industrious man." Others referred to him as a gentleman, laborer, and ensign. A Jamestown resident since 1608, Spence served as a member of the newly-formed House of Burgesses, Virginia's first legislative assembly, in 1619.
Continue on to the next pull off on the left.
Travis Estate - From the 1630s into the 19th century, the Travis family owned this part of Jamestown Island. If you follow the trail, you will find gravestones from their family cemetery. The Travis home stood nearby.
Continuing on, you will cross another wooden bridge and the next pull off is on your right.
The continuation of the 3 mile driving tour starts here.
Fences and Ditches - Captain John Smith wrote in 1629 that "…for goats hogs and poultry…they [colonists] have so much more than they spend, they are able to feed three or foure hundred men more than they have." Most of this livestock roamed free and often destroyed crops unprotected by stout fencing. The Virginia Assembly repeatedly instructed residents to enclose gardens and orchards. If a marauding hog laid waste to an unfenced pumpkin patch, the offended party had no redress.
Cross the bridge and the next pull off will be on the right.
The "Island House" - To the right, just beyond this narrow marsh, lay the 80-acre "Island House" tract which was "planted and seated" prior to 1619 by Richard Kingsmill, "ancient planter," burgess, and man of property and affairs. His daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, Nathaniel Bacon, later sold it to Nicholas Meriwether, an ancestor of Meriwether Lewis, one of our great western explorers.
Plants from the Past - Scientists and scholars work together to gain a better understanding of Jamestown. Paleobotanists, who study plant materials from the past, have added some fascinating pieces to the Jamestown puzzle.
The last stop of the tour will be to your right.
Early African Residents - John Rolfe wrote in 1619 that a ship docked at Point Comfort and off-loaded "not any thing but 20. And odd Negroes, ach Governor [Sir Gearge Yeardley] and Cape Marchant [Abraham Piersey] bought for victualle…" It is uncertain whether those new arrivals were indentured servants or enslaved Africans.
This stop concludes the driving tour of Jamestown Island. By continuing along the road you will return to the Visitor Center parking lot. If you would like to visit the Glasshouse, go past the parking lot and head back the way you came into the park. You will see a sign directing you to turn left to go to the Glasshouse.