Kelso's Quest

The discovery of James Fort, the first permanent English settlement in North America, is the culmination of alumnus William Kelso's thirty-year search for this nation's true origins

By Allison O. Adams

One rainy autumn day in September 1996, archaeologist William Kelso '71PhD came face to face with one of America's first European settlers. The human skeleton he and his crew discovered during their excavation of Virginia's James Fort, the first permanent English settlement on this continent, lay supine in a large shaft under a leaky protective tent. Near the figure were a few iron nails and faint soil impressions left by the wooden coffin that had decomposed around it.

As Kelso and his colleagues gingerly cleaned four-hundred-year-old earth away from the body, a sketchy story began to emerge: the white male was five feet five inches tall and muscular, and he had died in his early twenties as a result of a lead musket ball shot to his right leg. The remains of the coffin and a shroud pin over his skull were signs of his gentility, and artifacts found in layers above the grave indicated that the man was buried early in the settlement's existence. Kelso knew it was likely that they had found a member of the seventeenth-century, London-based business venture known as the Virginia Company-perhaps even a colonist who had sailed with the legendary Captain John Smith in 1607.

"I've never been tall enough to make a slam dunk," says Kelso, whose easygoing, understated manner belies his emotional stake in the discovery. "But I think this is what it would feel like. It's been the highlight of my life."

It took the archaeologists fourteen hours to lift the skeleton (removed intact to allow study in its burial position) by bracing a half ton of the surrounding clay in pressure straps, metal, and wood. The team catalogued the unidentified man as JR102C and nicknamed him J.R., which stands for Jamestown Rediscovery, the name of the excavation project Kelso directs for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) on Jamestown Island.

For Kelso, who earned his Ph.D. from Emory's Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts in 1971, the work triumphantly culminates his more-than-thirty-year quest to understand this nation's beginnings. Since April 1994, he has led the search for James Fort, a small, triangular, wooden structure built by the Virginia Company in 1607 on Jamestown Island. The establishment gave rise first to James Town, then colonial Virginia, and ultimately the United States. As long ago as 1963, Kelso began to doubt conventional wisdom that the fort's remains had washed into the James River. Today, his findings are calling new attention--both popular and scholarly--to the European colonization of North America.

J.R. now lies in his cradle of clay inside the project's on-site laboratory, where Kelso and his colleagues reconstruct and catalogue artifacts, slowly piecing together a detailed picture of life within the fort's walls. Placing a rugged, suntanned hand gently on the clay, Kelso notes that the skeleton serves as a dramatic emblem for a host of new questions about early colonial life in North America. "That shot in his right leg was intended to kill," he says. "Why? Was it unrest among the settlers? Were people battling one another about starvation? Was it an accident? Or an Indian uprising?"

Such questions arise almost daily as Jamestown Rediscovery progresses, challenging prevailing notions about how America's earliest permanent English settlers lived and how their presence shaped American culture and society. For those reasons, Virginia state archaeologist Catherine Slusser called Kelso's excavation the premier find in the United States in this century. "This is the birthplace, the absolute cradle, of everything we now know as America," she told the Washington Times last year.

"We are standing on the source spring of American democracy," said Virginia Governor George Allen during a September 1996 ceremony to announce the discovery of the fort. "The Virginia Company . . . was the first commercial venture in the English New World. On this hallowed ground, the foundation of free people and free enterprise was begun."

The sheer magnitude of the project is enough to gain notoriety. Kelso began digging the site alone in 1994. Since then, he has acquired a crew of six specialists, and together they have turned up some 140,000 artifacts, including a complete helmet and breastplate, a sword hilt, Dutch and English coins, shards of European and American pottery, clay smoking pipes, copper and glass beads used in trading with native tribes, and a signet ring that belonged to William Strachey, who published a chronicle of his own 1609 voyage to the New World--a document believed to have inspired William Shakespeare's The Tempest. In November 1996, the crew stopped digging because they had temporarily run out of storage space for the artifacts. At that time, only five percent of the full site had been excavated.

Most significantly, Kelso and his colleagues have located the remains of the actual fort-subtle soil impressions left by the decomposed wooden palisade posts and rounded corner bastions. "This is not like finding marble ruins in Greece," says Kelso, whose weathered good looks have sparked comparisons in the Virginia media to Hollywood's famed archaeologist Indiana Jones. "Everything was built out of wood, so it's totally organic. It's just dirt. We look for stains in the soil--what we call the footprints. But then sometimes we just clink into stuff with our trowels."

Jamestown Island lies west of the Chesapeake Bay on the James River, seven miles south of Colonial Williamsburg in southeastern Virginia. The Jamestown Rediscovery excavation is on twenty-two-and-a-half acres belonging to the APVA, adjacent to federally owned land managed by the National Park Service (NPS). The site is open to the public, and visitors can watch the archaeologists digging outdoors or working in the lab. As they make their way toward the archaeological site on a typical weekday, clusters of school children stroll past granite historical monuments, massive statues of John Smith and Pocahontas, and a crumbling brick church tower-one of the few remnants of the seventeenth-century town rising out of the grassy landscape.

The grass ends abruptly near the river, at a long, broad strip of bare earth contoured by layers, trenches, and shafts. Here at the site of James Fort, Kelso and his staff are recovering items that bring depth and dimension to the story of the 104 members of the Virginia Company of London who came to the island in May 1607 (predating the Plymouth Rock pilgrims by more than a decade), seeking riches in the New World. Among them was Captain Smith, whose swashbuckling, romantic accounts of the settlement include the tale of Pocahontas, the daughter of Algonquian chief Powhatan who helped ease tensions between the English and the Algonquins.

By the end of their first winter in the fort, many of the original settlers had died. Historians have long accepted Smith's claims that it was his own resourcefulness and determination that kept the group alive for the next several years in the face of starvation, disease, and native attacks. In 1619, the first representative governmental assembly in America met in James Town, which had by then grown out from the fort on the wealth of the tobacco cash-crop trade. The capital of the Virginia colony was located there until 1699, when it moved to Williamsburg.

The island settlement then gradually fell to ruin, and by the late nineteenth century, only the church tower remained. After the APVA and the NPS obtained the land, archaeologists excavated several sites on the island during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. Many of the remains of James Town proper were uncovered, but the researchers of this era concluded that the original fort had been built in marshland too close to the shore and had long ago been eroded into the river.

That explanation piqued Kelso's curiosity in 1963, when he visited Jamestown Island as a graduate student in history at the nearby College of William and Mary. When a park ranger told him the fort had washed away, Kelso was immediately skeptical. He wondered why the settlers, most of whom were soldiers, would have constructed their fortification on unstable marshland. "I pointed almost to the spot where we later found the fort and asked, 'Couldn't it be there?' And he said, 'Well, maybe. We don't know what's there. We've never dug there.' "

The question tugged at Kelso over the next several decades while he built a career in historical archaeology. After earning his master of arts degree from William and Mary's Institute of Early American History and Culture, the Ohio native taught history at Williamsburg High School for three years. During the summers, he worked on archaeological projects in the area.

Upon moving to Georgia to take a full-time position excavating colonial-era sites for the state, Kelso became interested in the seventeenth-century Wormsloe Island plantation near Savannah, the state's first fortified plantation. A full excavation became Kelso's dissertation subject when he entered Emory's Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts (ILA) as a doctoral student in 1969. He was admitted as part of a short-lived, experimental program in historical archaeology. "The ILA fit me perfectly," he says. "I wanted to study history and historical architecture and do documentary history. I didn't need any more archaeological field training because at that point I had ten years of experience."

From 1971 until 1993, Kelso served as an archaeologist at Virginia's colonial sites, including a stint as director of archaeology for Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. For fourteen years he worked to uncover the story of the slaves who lived at both Monticello and Poplar Forest, Jefferson's outpost plantation near Lynchburg. His excavations of slave quarters at both sites helped demonstrate the close relationship between Jefferson and his family of slaves. Because of Kelso's efforts, visitors to Monticello now learn about the tensions between Jefferson's ideas concerning individual liberty and a democratic society and his personal practice of slave ownership.

"This is the 'all men are created equal' guy," says Kelso, "and he kept slaves. No one wanted to talk about that. But the only way to keep your capital in the South then was to have a labor force. That's not to say it was a good system, but he would have had to decide to become absolutely poor if he had freed the slaves."

While he was working at Monticello, Kelso also ventured out to other early colonial sites. A 1992 dig at Roanoke Island's Fort Raleigh National Historical Site uncovered what is thought to be the earliest scientific laboratory in America. Once used for metallurgical research, the lab dates back to the 1580s and is located on the spot where Sir Walter Raleigh's legendary Lost Colony was supposed to have been situated.

On the strength of those successes, Kelso left Monticello in 1993 to become director of archaeology for the APVA, which was beginning to plan the centennial celebration of its 1907 founding, as well as the quadricentennial of the fort's establishment. The organization was ripe for a compelling new endeavor for 2007, and Kelso suggested a search for the original James Fort.

"People thought I was crazy, but I thought there was a good chance we'd find something," he says. "We needed to take the assumptions from the past and question them."

One typical assumption has been that the Virginia Company settlers lacked the craftsmanship and military skills required to survive. "Until now, no one has doubted that the settlers were a bunch of lazy people who weren't doing anything, so they starved," says Kelso. "They were called 'gentleman,' but no one has realized that gentlemen could also be seasoned soldiers. They had enough military sense not to build the fort in a place that would erode away." He also cites as proof of their savvy their choice of the island itself, which was strategically the best place in the area for protection from invasion by both land and sea.

The archaeologists have also found the remains of glassworks and copperworks inside the fort-evidence that some of the settlers were working craftsmen. "They sent craftsmen to deal with all the gold they thought they were going to find," Kelso says. "They didn't find it, but they did make jewelry to trade with the Indians for food. We find Indian pottery mixed in with European pottery, so there was obviously trade."

A few skeptics still contend that the original fort washed into the river and that Kelso has found a later structure built in another location after a 1608 fire damaged the original. "But if you read the records," Kelso says, "you know that the first fort was repaired and restored. They don't say that they built a new fort somewhere else."

Further work will bring more new information to bear on Kelso's quest and questions. Bolstered by support from the National Geographic Society, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and several other funding organizations, the $20-million Jamestown Rediscovery project is expected to continue for another decade and will include excavation of the full fort and part of the town that grew beyond its palisades.

"We want to study the differences in housing," Kelso says. "Was this microscopic town stratified? How quickly did European ideas mellow and begin to form a truly American culture? And we want to know what the environment was like: Did it contribute to disease and death, or was it really healthy?"

Kelso also hopes to learn more about individual colonists and perhaps even to identify JR102C. Before they return the body to its grave, Smith-sonian Institution experts are attempting to reassemble the skull, which had been crushed into a hundred pieces by pressure on the coffin.

Excitement about Jamestown Rediscovery and its implications has not waned since the announcement in September 1996. Visitors to the island have increased from some twenty thousand per month to more than fifty thousand. "That tells us that this country cares about its roots," Kelso says. "This is where it really begins."

Top photo by Kay Hinton

Background: This sketch of the fort's outline was made circa 1608 by Don Pedro de Zuñiga, the Spanish ambassador to England. The flag shape on top is thought to outline a garden just north of the fort.

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