Interview with Dr. William Kelso for Virginia Secrets
by Sue Bland
Dr. William M. Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities Jamestown Rediscovery project, is one of America’s foremost archaeologists in Early American history.
He was hired by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) in 1993 to conduct a historical archaeological research project to find and analyze any remains from James Fort and the town site that still existed as the APVA’s centerpiece contribution to the 400th anniversary. He directs a team of about a dozen archaeologists, conservators and a curator. Students who attend the annual APVA/UVA summer field school also contribute significantly to the research effort.
Excavations began in 1994 and by 1996, Kelso and his staff announced they had discovered the remains of James Fort, dispelling long-held beliefs that the fort had washed away into the James River.
Kelso previously served as director of archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg’s Carter’s Grove, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Poplar Forest. He has lectured throughout the U.S. and Europe and written annual summaries of his discoveries at Jamestown.
You have said that being an archaeologist is a bit like being a detective. Can you tell us some of the mysteries you are still working with, the mysteries that have unfolded in the last 11 years?
It’s a continuing process, no matter what we find. For every three questions, there may be one answer. First of all, the main question was is there anything left of James Fort? Could it be found? That took 10 years, to really get me to a place where I feel confident that that’s exactly what we had found. Now everything’s falling into place. But, it also raises questions about the details. It just keeps going, it’s like peeling an onion ─ you just keep going towards the center. To come to understand Jamestown in any kind of realistic way is the goal.
The more I see what began here ( Jamestown) the more I see legacies every time I open the newspaper. Private investment, political things that are going on are all things that began at Jamestown.
Back to the mystery, it’s never going to be solved but it’s going to become clearer and clearer what the answers are to questions about Jamestown.
My next question is about the hunch that led you to put your shovel down in the right place. I read the history of you coming here (in the 1960s) and seeing the Civil War excavation and the colonial layer – there was a little more to it than just that – weren’t there some other factors that you thought were really obvious?
Dr. William Kelso views a map of Jamestown
Island showing the excavation of the James Fort. Photo © Virginia Tourism Corporation.
Yeah, as the years went on there was a little doubt in the mind that maybe there is something…a place that people don’t know about. I’ve always found that there were a lot of things down there, especially in the APVA part that weren’t allowed to be looked at. The excavation was into the Civil War mound, but it was more than that. That was a search by the Park Service to see if James Fort was in that area in 1955 or 1956. They hop scotched around and missed it. The conclusion was that it washed away.
But I could see then that there was this layer, this big, black, thick layer and that’s what we are dealing with right now, right in that spot, almost, from 40 years ago. And it’s definitely James Fort – right there. Amazingly enough.
Then I read a book by Ivor Noel Hume, the British archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg called Here Lies Virginia and a page in there says “I think James Fort may lie in the vicinity of the earthwork because of where the burial grounds have been found.”
When did he write that?
1963, soon after I visited here. I probably read it a few months later. That came together, it was another click.
And then you studied with him.
Yeah I did. And I thought, well, this guy knows everything. He’s probably right.
Noel Hume also found crucibles, two glass melting pots that came out of a trench near the Pocahontas monument. We saw a photograph of the Pocahontas monument (in its original location) and now we know she’s standing there on top of what we now know is the fort wall.
Statue of John Smith looking out over the James River.
Photo © Virginia Tourism Corporation.
There’s a monument to John Smith looking out at the river, and as it turns out he’s standing at the south gate of the fort. (People used to say he was looking out at the lost James Fort.)
Then in the 1980s…I worked with Noel Hume at Carter’s Grove and became an archaeologist, and then he burst my balloon, he changed his theory and “proved” that it ( Jamestown) had washed away. He had changed his mind totally and said it was on the East end of the island. At that point he advised the Jamestown Festival Park how to build the fort…
What is there left to find out about Jamestown?
That’s a hard question to answer because it seems like what we find are surprises and that there are answers to questions we didn’t even ask. For instance, we found the foundations of huge buildings and that was a TOTAL surprise.
When you say buildings are you talking about the complex, the Statehouse?
Yes, but they are IN the fort, IN the triangle. Right over there, cobblestone footing and brick chimneys and things that no one ever thought existed in the original Fort. Jamestown was THAT developed even before the latter years when they built the main, huge capital building. These weren't just mud and sticks in the ground building types that they started out with.
We have learned that James Fort itself went from military outpost/ trading post to Government Center/ public spaces. All the little cabins at Jamestown were probably leveled. How was that building constructed, what did it look like, is what I always want to find out get to, the image it. So that’s going to take a lot of research. We have some ideas now but each time we find out something, it will refine them, I think.
How early are you dating that to be?
The large building, 1610 or 1611. It’s clear that’s what it is. So it’s Jamestown, Phase II.
This is a continual interplay between what we thought we knew from documents and what we find in the ground then back and read the documents again. And I just read something about Governor Gates who keeps his chief residence in Jamestown. Then you say “oh,”and you can relate it to something tangible, and then it comes alive.
From my reading of this latest Jamestown Rediscovery book you said that the church was a foundation that was a clue for you. It seemed like an obvious clue that they would not have moved the church and that you should start to look close to the church – is that right?
Yeah, and that was so obvious to me. I had had the opportunity to travel to Europe once as exchange archaeologist with the country of Israel. The archaeologists took me to all these churches. Of course they are interested, the archaeologists over there, in what’s under it. So you go underneath and get to see these foundations upon foundations going back to pagan times. But once sacred ground, always sacred ground. They never are relocated.
So when I went back to the ( Jamestown) documents, there was nothing that said the church was ever moved. It was just assumed. But the documents also said the early churches were IN the Fort.
Do you think the APVA woman who did the digging near the church perhaps found the evidence that you discovered and perhaps did not write about it?
Mary Jeffrey Galt was her name. She did say that she found the foundation of a larger church with her own hands -- the church of 1608.
Then there were engineers, one named Samuel Young (1903). He thought the fort was there (he was about 100 feet off).
But then there was a traveler’s account of 1848 that talks about visiting the mysterious James Fort and finding it eroded away and gone.
When it comes to adding to the world’s knowledge of life in Jamestown what do you want people to know most about your discoveries – the discoveries you’ve made in the last 11 years?
At some point in the 19 th century, American history was rewritten, and Plymouth stuck as the place the nation began. When you go to origins – there’s Plymouth, there’s Yorktown, there are certain things that are going to be there and they’ll probably always be there, but if history has any value at all, which I, of course, think it does, then you have to get it straight. If we live our lives somewhat based on memories of the past, but the memories are incorrect then we’re guided by something that never happened or happened differently ─ that this country was founded by a very specific religious sect that had virtually been expelled from England. They didn’t come here for religious freedom, they just wanted freedom for themselves. How American is that? When you look at Jamestown, it has so many other American legacies.
When you find the physical manifestations of something that happened in the past, people can’t minimize it or deny it. For instance, at Jefferson’s Monticello, when we dug the slave quarters, the reality of slavery even Jefferson’s own, became an issue to deal with. Where we are now is based on whatever mistakes or successes happened. What our society is today you can say began – actually you can say the American dream began on the banks of the James River in 1607. And whatever that is – some people make it a nightmare, most people know it as the American image whatever it is, it becomes a sense of reality which you can feel come alive at Jamestown.
I know that the work is still being done on the skeletal remains. Have you been able to establish a new base of knowledge of Indian, African and European people at Jamestown yet?
So far, because we have found almost exclusively things from before Africans were at Jamestown in large numbers, we have learned about the Virginia Indians and the European immigrants. We’ve gotten a good profile of the population of early Jamestown – of the Europeans. We have not found any American Indian burials. Jamestown was basically pre-slavery – there was some degree of it but mostly it was indentured servants here throughout most of the 17th century. The Park Service story is that three continents and nations come together. But they didn’t in the first fort and early settlement. If we’re talking about the fort and the first settlement, its a story about the Virginia Indians and the English. And that’s it. And that in itself is a big story. It’s a much richer story than the Indians were on one side of the fence and the English on the other. It was much interrelationship. We have the greatest collection, by far, of Virginia Indian artifacts that has ever been found at Indian villages in this State. It’s incredible. Pre-history archaeologists are very interested in the collection because it’s so rich. Some is here undoubtedly because of trade, but it’s likely here also because they are living together.
How are you sharing that with the Virginia Indian leaders?
Anyone that asks, I will share. And I have written all about our discoveries that relate to the Virginia Indians in our eight Jamestown Rediscovery journals and have sent copies to Deanna Beacham, the State’s United Tribes representative\. Also Oliver Perry, Nansemond Indian official has been on the Jamestown Rediscovery Advisory Board since the project began. And representatives of the Virginia Indian groups have been updated about our Virginia Indian research as we design our Historic Jamestowne exhibits for the new NPS Visitor Center and the Fort Exhibit in the APVA Archaearium Museum.
And I have become really interested in looking at the (Powhatan) nation in an English genealogical sense. No one has ever done that that I know of.
(Kelso’s book shows a family tree of Powhatan Indians with John Smith (NOTE, RECENTLY FOUND OUT THAT THERE HAS BEEN A MISUNDERSTANDING OF THR REFERENCE TO THAT AND THAT SMITH WAS NOT ADOPTED, ONLY ADMIRED BY POWHATAN…THE HARD CHANGES IN MY BOOK
I think it’s really interesting. There was a nation here, they had a very sophisticated political structure. The only difference between the two is technology. The only thing I can see. The society, they had their laws, they had their mores, and the English came in with iron and they came in with weapons and that’s sort of the way it goes. I mean, whoever has the biggest gun is the one that finally takes over the territory. It’s happened since the beginning of time. Obviously in the past their (the Virginia Indians) role is totally minimized, it’s just something to get out of the way. And that’s not the truth. And I hope that comes through in my book.
What we know is seen through the eyes of the European immigrants writings and me, with all my European ancestry behind my understanding of the Indians obviously, but it’s what we can know and there’s a lot of rich Indian history to absorb.
That’s good, because there is so much to share.
Yeah, and it’s positive in the long run….not all negative. But you can focus on it if you want.
But the tribes say we’re still here. And I say cool. And I say you can vote and participate in American society as an equal at long last and still preserve your traditions.
Archaeologist Tonia Deetz Rock removing burial fill from around JR1046B, the remains of an early colonist who may have been Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold. Photo courtesy APVA
It will be interesting to see what you’ll discover in the DNA results of Bartholomew Gosnold and what that will bring to the historical record. What if it turns out not to be Bartholomew Gosnold?
It’s a risk. The results could be inconclusive and that’s what science usually does. I don’t think we can lose just doing it because it will get Gosnold out there and he was a big time guy. But he’s just as unknown as Jamestown. And he shouldn’t be. All the people, Smith and everybody said he was the main man. He just died too early to go on to greater things and write his own memoirs.
You told me years ago that you were the person who took the risk.
This De Bry engraving, "Captain Gosnold trades with the Indians," is a representation, showing a flag with a finial, similar to the captain's leading staff found at Historic Jamestowne, on the ground between them. Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society. (1619)
That’s the one thing. People say you found the fort and that’s so great. I say it doesn’t matter if I was the one who found the fort. In fact it has taken the labor of hundreds of individuals…But I do think I deserve some credit for going out on the limb and actually put the shovel in the ground.
I talked to an astronaut about that after she gave a talk and she said I don’t want credit for the success of the pace program and all that, but I do want credit for getting in that chair. And I thought, yeah, that’s the real risk but who wants to grow old thinking … I should have….