Book Review: Jamestown, the Buried Truth

As my mom likes to tell the story, back in 1994 archaeologist Bill Kelso addressed a small audience to introduce his plans for the Jamestown Rediscovery project. The lack of interest arose from the notion that all that could be learned about the early days of the settlement had already been discovered. It was popularly believed that the remains of James Fort had been eroded by the James River.

Bill Kelso proved them wrong.

Jamestown, the Buried Truth by William M. Kelso tells the story of 12 years of excavation and discovery at Jamestown. The remains of the triangular fort from Jamestown’s early period 1607-1624 were there to be found, and the was just the beginning. The archaeologists uncovered remnants of the monumental effort to build a new colony in an unforgiving country fighting diseases, weather, starvation and conflicts with the native population of Tsenacomacans. The material record tells stories undocumented in the colonists records and early histories. The archaeological team may even have uncovered the remains of Bartholomew Gosnold, an early leader of the colony.

Kelso emphasizes that despite their flaws and mistakes, the Jamestown settlers were far from failures and Jamestown was not a fiasco but in fact successfully the first permanent English settlement in North America. Much to my pleasure, Kelso writes a chapter on the long, often overlooked period of Jamestown after initial settlement. From 1619-1699 Jamestown was home to the first popularly elected governmental body and served as the capital of the Virginia Colony. Kelso traces the development of that government through the traces of the five structures that served as the State House.

I’ll be traveling to Virginia in a couple of weeks for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s settlement. It should be an exciting event and a big party. More information at Jamestown 2007 and Jamestown 400. Jamestown Settlement, Historic Jamestowne (National Park Service), and Historic Jamestowne (Association for the Preservation of Antiquities) are always worth a visit, in person or online.

Other Jamestownia worth reading:

The cover story in the May 2007 edition of National Geographic is all about America in 1607.

A January 9, 2007 article in the Boston Globe about archaeological discovery of seeds, Jamestown seeds reflect survival efforts.

If you like a little fiction in your history, there’s Secret Histories: The Jamestown Colony in Postmodern Fiction at The Millions (A Blog About Books).

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Jamestown, the Buried Truth

  1. The Christian Science Monitor once again, this time writing Jamestown’s birthday notes a darker side this time. I’ll have to quibble with the notion that an event with rock bands and fireworks is not a celebration. I certainly agree that we must remember the bad things that happened, but at the same time we’re celebrating coming this far despite the bad things!

    Meanwhile, the Queen arrives in Virginia.

    Our tickets for America’s 400th Anniversary arrived today. Huzzah!


  2. I think the Christian Science Monitor is now running a daily article on Jamestown. Read Jamestown – where the American story began by Bob Deans.

    But Jamestown hasn’t washed away. It has survived as the archetypical American comeback story, a tale of hardship overcome by the human will to prevail.

    No single spot in the US can rightly be called the nation’s sole place of birth. American beginnings can be found in Boston; San Diego; Philadelphia; New York; Charleston, S.C.; St. Augustine, Fla.; New Orleans; and dozens of other places. A democracy, for that matter, is ever a work in progress, unfolding one citizen at a time in every city and hamlet across the nation and in every corner of the world touched by American enterprise, folly, assistance, or war. And yet it is here, at Jamestown, that we first waded as one – red, white, and black – into the swirling waters of American identity. It is here, in that sense, that our national story begins. And that is something Americans everywhere can pause to commemorate four centuries later.


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