Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not Your peace at my tears! For I am Your passing guest, a temporary resident, as all my fathers were. —Psalm 39:12 AMP
We just saw the church where Pocahontas got married.
It’s August, 2010, and Barbara has agreed to go with me to explore the “historic triangle”—Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown. Today, feeling the breeze blowing in from the James River, we shun the reconstructed “Jamestown” and pilgrimage straight to the original island site, keen to learn how the great American experiment started. At first we see nothing but a statue of Captain John Smith and a few reconstructed fenceposts. Barbara and I walk over the rough ground toward the excavations and wonder about the tales told by broken pottery and bone fragments. The whole disappeared community is now hidden in the entrails of the earth.
We go inside a derelict tower and gaze up at the crumbling brick that seems to gaze back at us—miraculously, the tower refuses to topple.
Bill, the archaeologist, walks up carrying a clipboard and wearing a floppy hat that shades a few days’ beard growth. (Think Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark.) He tells us, “You’re standing in the tower of the third church of the colony, built about 1670.”
He walks us over to a long-abandoned well. “What did you find here?” I ask him.
“They found a signet ring, clay pipe stems, a pistol, a full suit of armor, and what we consider the most important find of all—a child’s school slate with pictures and writings.” I marvel at how a long-disappeared community can come to life through archaeology.
In 1607, England’s Virginia Company hurled her wandering children upon this very beach to manure New World soil. What a tale this island tells! Bill says, “People assumed the original fort had long ago washed into the James River, but in 1994, Dr. Kelso found 90 percent of the original fence postholes.” We rub our hands over the new locust posts planted in the old holes that mark off the triangular fort.
I remember learning in junior high school that Jamestowne was the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Reverend Hunt and John Smith shepherded a hundred or so males that came over that spring, who soon began cultivating tobacco and peanuts for the palates of England. A few years later, the sponsoring Virginia Company imported ninety wives for the men. Assuming that seventeenth-century women were just as interesting as today’s, they probably had little trouble finding husbands. But today we learn that Jamestowne colony almost died stillborn.
In the first two months, Reverend Hunt, bereft of outside aid and hobbled by inadequate food and tainted water, buried two-thirds of these men—inside the fort so the Indians would not notice that they were falling like flies. We see small steel crosses marking thirty-four of these graves, all unexcavated. They buried only the landed gentlemen in coffins—the others lay in shrouds, or just in their clothes. We read the plaque at the base of a memorial cross: “To the glory of God and in grateful memory of those early settlers . . . who died at Jamestown during the first perilous years of the colony.” The plaque doesn’t mention the many Indian deaths. I mourn the adventurers who risked all they had, and died premature deaths. And I mourn the Indian deaths.
We see the excavated rectangle that dominates the site—the original church, discovered only a month ago! We watch the student volunteers from the University of Virginia filtering each shovelful of dirt through a sieve, searching for tiny beads, bone fragments, or seashells. Bill says, “Most of what we know about Jamestown was discovered in the last fifteen years. The yellow flags over there mark the postholes of the church. John Rolfe married Pocahontas here.”
I see several little yellow flags, and I ask Bill, “What are those dark outlines over there in the chancel area?”
“Those are unexcavated graves. Reverend Hunt, the first minister, is probably buried there.”
Along with the settlers, the good ship Godspeed carried other cargo—human greed and raw ambition. Soon the colonists were not only dying but also shooting the Indians and each other. A museum stands on pylons above fifty other gravesites in an ancient burial ground. In the museum we stare at the skeleton of a young English boy with a musket ball embedded in his right knee. We wander around the grounds, looking at the ruined remains of the old plantation buildings. We inspect the foundations of the burned buildings where Nathaniel Bacon (of the botched “Bacon’s Rebellion”) brought a jackbooted gang in and burned the town to the ground. In 1699, the capital of the new Virginia colony moved to Williamsburg, and Jamestown declined.
These first settlers established their beachhead here, holding on for dear life. They weren’t seeking “freedom” so much as wealth and commerce. But many found only broken dreams, frustrated hopes, and shortened lives. As we leave the island, I wonder what new things we will learn about Jamestown in the next fifteen years. We mull over these artifacts, these graves. I gain an insight—almost everybody who is born, dies. I guess I had always assumed that in my case there might possibly be an exception. I find here a story of fecund hopes, most of which were dashed by sadness and loss.
Barbara asks me, “Well, what do you think?
I reply, “Jamestown tells me that most of my endeavors are futile, and that I must pursue things that are not transient, but transcendent.”