First English settlement reveals America’s roots
JAMESTOWN, Va. — “Even if you just got here today, all Americans are from Jamestown.”
Those were opening words historian Mark Summers offered to Nurturing Faith Experience participants who took a step back in history by visiting Colonial Williamsburg and this earlier site of Jamestown.
Established in 1607, Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in America.
“The United States was settled before it was founded,” added Summers, an education specialist with Jamestown Rediscovery. And that first English settlement — begun as a three-sided fortification built by the 104 men and boys who arrived on three ships commanded by Capt. Christopher Newport — rose on Virginia land along a wide river, all named for the British king.
Jamestown barely survived — facing devastating disease, conflict and division. This early slice of American history has been described as years of hope, adventure, discovery, struggle, suffering, growth and more.
Despite many and grave challenges, better times followed and a new nation came to life.
The treasured principle of separation of church and state as a way of guaranteeing religious liberty for all would grow out of the American experience well after the settlement of Jamestown — where the Church of England and the controlling political force were inseparable.
The church’s influence is indisputable, and still highly visible. Yet what was long regarded as the site of the first enduring church in English America — where a remaining structure with an earlier tower stands today — turned out to be the congregation’s second location.
Archaeological efforts in 2010-2011 revealed evidence of a timber-framed structure identified as a church erected early in 1608. Among other historical significances, it was the place where English settler John Rolfe and Pocahontas, daughter of the Powhatan Indian chief, were married in 1614.
Jamestown was a groundbreaking experience for the new nation coming into being. Before the Mayflower landed to the north, church and state were established in Jamestown. The ensuing political/religious disputes begun there would shape the formation of this country, said Summers.
“There’s a reason not to have an established church,” he opined. “It changes depending on who is in charge.”
The recently discovered site of the church built in 1608 was layered with information and intrigue. The structure, evidence showed, was erected of large timbers — and spanned a space of approximately 24 x 60 feet, with a tall roof.
“This is holy ground,” said Summers, standing within the newly-erected posts that mark the early place of worship.
The church chancel held four graves — now marked by simple crosses — archaeologists discovered. With the help of a team from the Smithsonian Institution, they used forensics and archival information to identify the four men given such prominence.
Robert Hunt was an Anglican chaplain who was the settlement’s first spiritual leader. He served briefly, dying just one year after arriving with the earliest settlers.
Sir Ferdinando Wainman was a military leader. Like Hunt, he died in his 30s after a brief time at the fort. One of Wainman’s relatives, Capt. William West, who was killed battling native warriors, was the last of the chancel interments.
Captain Gabriel Archer, one of Jamestown’s early leaders, also was entombed in the chancel. Interestingly, his burial showed evidence of Catholic rather than Anglican practices — leading some archaeologists to believe he was likely “a secret Catholic” within the Church of England community.
More on this recent archaeological work may be found in Holy Ground: Archaeology, Religion, and the First Founders of Jamestown, published in 2016 by the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, or by visiting Historic Jamestowne.
Jamestown was more than a religious community. It grew into a vital seaport and center of government — thriving in the second half of the 17th century despite many challenges.
There the flawed founders of Jamestown opened the door to the New World in what Summers called “the first chapter” of American history. Eventually, the first enslaved Africans would work the tobacco plantations along the James River.
Early leaders in Jamestown miscalculated threats, said Summers, noting the fear of the Spanish (who never attacked) that caused the settlers to move inland — while underestimating the clashes with native Indians and the harsh conditions of their swampy homeland.
A fire in the winter of 1608 burned down the fort, causing some leaders to call for abandoning the settlement. In the conflict of ideas arose a new leader: Capt. John Smith, whom Summers cast as “what we’d call a good ol’ boy today.”
Smith, he said, was “a misfit in England who was perfect for the job in America.”
These diverse strands — woven together to form a new nation — are all traced back to this place, said Summers.
“These are all your ancestors …,” he added. “We can’t hide from it.”
Leadership shifted from John Smith to George Percy in a contentious struggle.
“[Smith’s] leadership is challenged,” said Summers. “So he locks the door to the storehouse and quotes Thessalonians.” It was a radical act, he added, to interpret scripture without a priest.
Following a suspicious gunpowder explosion, Smith returned to England in 1609, a year after assuming leadership. Jamestown entered a season of warfare, disease and food shortages known as the colony’s “starving time” in which many of the men and the women who had joined them died.
Yet it was not the only time of severity for those who were carving out life in Jamestown.
There was more talk of abandonment until new settlers arrived under a second charter from King James I. Experiences in developing new industries and forming a representative government would follow.
Jamestown remained at the center of political and social life in Virginia for nearly a century until the seat of government moved to Williamsburg in 1699. Then Jamestown would fade from its earlier groundbreaking prominence — but remain of great historical significance.
Jamestown started something — the beginnings of a new nation — said Summers: “the people who land you on the moon in 300 years.” NFJ
BEING MARY BUCK
Only men and boys first arrived from England to settle Jamestown in 1607. It was the next year, following the death of the first minister, that Mary Buck accompanied her husband who would assume the important role of spiritual leader and representative of the Church of England.
Entering the 1907 Jamestown Memorial Church with an adjacent 17th-century tower, living historian Rebecca Suerdieck took on the persona of Mary Buck with keen knowledge and a bold English accent.
Acknowledging the archaeological work outside that led to the recent discovery of the settlement’s first church, she expressed surprise at those “digging through our rubbish in broad daylight.”
While at times lighthearted, she conveyed with great clarity the daily challenges faced by the early settlers. It was no surprise, she said, that those who arrived on ships first — after a long voyage from England — would erect a place of worship so soon.
“Imagine how thankful they were,” she said.
She shared her own harrowing experience at sea that included fire, a hurricane and an unplanned stop on an island we know as Bermuda. She described the fervent prayers and resulting miracle that brought her and others to the new land.
Due to the harshness of life, she said, abandonment was considered and sometimes planned. But everything changed in 1619, she added, when an elected assembly gained political power, bringing order and promises of peace. Comfort, however, was not an option.
“Life is hard in England; life is hard in Virginia,” she surmised. “That’s why we went to church so often.” NFJ