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Preservation Virginia > Jamestown Rediscovery > Exhibit > Jamestown Fort: Rediscovered > The Story > Jamestown Fort

Jamestown Fort: The First Permanent English Settlement

"the fort is called, in honor of His Majesty's name, Jamestown."

William Strachey,
Jamestown Secretary, 1610

The hundred and four men and boys came ashore on Jamestown Island, May 14, 1607. By June 15 they had already completed a fort. It was inadequately constructed to defend against potential attack from the Spanish, but it served as immediate security against the local Indians, the Powhatan. The construction would have been very quick and basic, using indigenous trees, felled and stripped of branches and bark. The logs were then stood upright in a row and embedded in a trench to create the palisade walls. The fort was built in a triangular formation with circular bulwarks, or watch towers, at each point.

Despite the valiant effort of the colonists to tame this wilderness, the perils of the natural world soon overtook them. Oppressive summer heat and humidity set in with disastrous results. The food transported from England spoiled, and the brackish water bearing mosquitoes and disease was too dangerous to drink. More than half the colony's population perished from disease. Those who survived were able to establish a bartering relationship with the Powhatan and procure food. The arrival of cooler autumn weather and nature's bounty that comes with it further eased their situation. Provisions were secured for winter, and the return of Captain Newport at the start of 1608 added even more. Bad luck struck again, however, when their food stores were ruined in a blaze that swept through and damaged the fort. That spring the settlers rebuilt the fort to be even stronger. The improved fort had a palisade wall 15 to 18 feet high and surrounded a planned town that included a church, a storehouse, and 40 to 50 houses. October saw more settlers arrive, including two women, bringing the total population to 120.

James Fort

Establishing the Fort

In the spring of 1609 the corn stores were devastated by rats. John Smith, then president of the colony, brokered a deal whereby some colonists left the settlement to live temporarily among the Powhatan while others went to an area rich with oysters. Once the food situation stabilized, the colonists set out to establish some semblance of normalcy and to make the settlement profitable. In their zeal to do well for theVirginia Company, they failed to acquire enough food stores for their own needs. The fall harvest would have brought some relief had not 400 new settlers arrived before the winter "starving time." All but 60 of the 504 colonists died that season. William Strachey recorded in May 1610 that the palisade had been torn down and the gates were off their hinges. The houses, left empty after their owners' deaths, had been scavenged for firewood. In June the surviving colonists decided to abandon the fort.

Sailing downriver the colonists encountered the ships of Lord De La Warr, who had been sent as their new governor. They returned to the fort where, under De La Warr's leadership, the colonists rebuilt a second time. It is this version of the fort that history provides the most precise description. The then secretary of the colony, William Strachey, wrote that the southern line was 420 feet long, the longest and best defensive line because it faced the river. The other two sides were 300 feet long. At each tip of the triangle was a bulwark with artillery, and the fort was all constructed of a palisade of planks and strong posts.

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