Historic discovery of James Fort celebrates 25 years

William Kelso, director of archaeological research and interpretation at Historic Jamestowne, was honored by the Virginia House of Delegates in January for his historic discoveries. (WYDaily/Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery)
William Kelso, director of archaeological research and interpretation at Historic Jamestowne, was honored by the Virginia House of Delegates in January for his historic discoveries. (Southside Daily/Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery)

It has been 25 years since a long-known legend was disproved under the evidence of archaeological research.

The 1607 James Fort was long believed to never be located because it had washed away into the James River because of erosion, according to a news release from Jamestown Rediscovery. But on April 4, 1994, a team led by archaeologist William Kelso, now the director of archaeological research and interpretation at Historic Jamestowne, began excavating on the island and came upon a history-changing discovery.

“Almost all the archaeologists and historians told me it couldn’t be done,” Kelso said in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal in 2011.

On the first day of excavation, Kelso and his team removed eight inches of soil and found an earthen pit that was full of arms, armor, parts of muskets, swords and more. Further research showed all of those items were old enough to have been used at the James Fort.

Twelve years later, most of the lost fort had been found by Kelso and his team and to-date there have been nearly 3 million artifacts found since the project began.

A life-long fan of Jamestown, Kelso first heard of the long-lost fort during a visit in 1965, according to his journal article. It wouldn’t be until 30 years later when Kelso finally had the skills and tools to discover something that most of his peers believed to be impossible.

The James Fort holds significance as the first permanent English settlement in the New World and in January, Kelso was recognized for the rediscovery by the Virginia House of Delegates with House Joint Resolution Number 734.

Del. Mike Mullin presented Kelso with the resolution, describing him as his “personal hero” and “Virginia’s very own Indiana Jones,” according to the news release.  

The resolution commended Kelso for a number of archaeological discoveries from the James Fort to the 1608 church on the island where Pocahontas and John Rolfe were married and the graves of four prominent early leaders of the Jamestown colony.

To learn more about the excavation and discoveries at the James Fort, visit Jamestown Rediscovery online.

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.