When National Park Service archaeologists began digging at Jamestown Island in 1934, their pioneering probe turned up find after find shedding light on English America’s first decades.
So groundbreaking was their work that they found themselves stymied more than once as they tried to interpret the unprecedented evidence unearthed by their excavations.
Some 85 years later, the field notes they made advising future investigators to return and take a second look have helped lead to a site that may rank among the most important regarding the 1619 arrival of the first Africans in Virginia.
Parsing through features and artifacts that left the trailblazing generation of the 1930s puzzled, a new study has turned up what may be not just the lost structure where the only one of the first Jamestown Africans known by name is believed to have lived but also the kitchen where she may have worked.
“We’re just in the early stages of discovering what this structure is, but we know that the first Africans walked right up that road over there from the James River — and that one of them, Angela, may have turned off and started her new life here,” says project archaeologist David Givens, who is leading the investigation for Colonial National Historical Park and Preservation Virginia.
“The center of the structure was blown out by a later building in the 1690s, but there are some pretty big areas that are still intact, and they tell us that the early town where she lived is still out here. We just have to dig away to find it.”
Organized as part of a 2019 observance marking the 400th anniversaries of the first representative assembly in the New World, the arrival of the first recorded Africans and the arrival of a sizeable group of women in the new English colony of Virginia, the new excavation reaches back to a partnership formed in 2016, Deputy Park Superintendent Steven Williams says.
That’s when the park joined with Preservation Virginia’s Jamestown Rediscovery team to revisit the 1930s investigation, combining new technology, new findings from a landmark early 2000s property study and the accumulated experience of more than two decades of digging at nearby James Fort to see if they could uncover and identify the residence of prominent early settler Capt. William Pierce, where Angela is listed as living in two census records from the mid-1620s.
“The people at Preservation Virginia are the subject-matter experts, not only from a history standpoint but also from the standpoint of early 1600s archaeology,” Williams says.
“So forming a partnership made perfect sense.”
Using the first of three NPS grants totaling about $550,000, the Jamestown Rediscovery staff began the preliminary discovery phase of the project before the year was out, poring over the history, the previous archaeology and the artifacts, Givens says.
That included a meticulous review of all the field notes and maps left by the NPS archaeologists as well as the reports from a comprehensive archaeological assessment conducted in the late 1990s for the observance of Jamestown’s 400th anniversary in 2007.
Among the most valuable pieces of evidence were the field notes recommending that a site near the ruins of the 18th-century Ambler Mansion be investigated again because of unanswered questions.
“We’re always building on the work done here in the past,” Givens says.
“They saw the remains of this structure. They just didn’t have the experience to know what it was.”
Equally instructive was a new map from an early 2000s study that combined the NPS archaeologists’ surveys with surviving property records from surrounding counties, new finds at the National Archive and Library of Congress and previously unknown documents discovered as far away as Minnesota and England.
Superimposed upon the boundary ditches exposed by the NPS excavations, they fit together like pieces of a giant, multiacre puzzle, cracking much of the seemingly insoluble problem left by scanty colonial records and a Civil War fire that destroyed James City County’s court papers.
“A lot of times it was like playing pin the tail on the donkey,” historian Martha McCartney says, describing how each piece of information was superimposed and jiggered into place through digital mapping.
“But when you have a few plats to plunk down, they start to fall into place and fit together quite nicely.”
Among the project’s most important discoveries were the long-lost locations of two properties where the first Africans are believed to have resided.
Verification came from the Jamestown Rediscovery team’s review of new aerial surveys that pinpointed the road traces and boundary ditches with LiDar, a laser light and distance ranging system.
“We wanted to confirm and add to what we knew about locating Pierce’s property,” Givens says.
“If we can find Pierce we can find the world where Angela lived and where her life played out.”
Referred to as “Angelo” by the surviving records, Angela was taken from the west coast of Africa to the West Indies, where she was among the captive blacks seized from a Portuguese slave ship by Dutch and English Dutch privateers in 1619, says McCartney, author of “Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary.”
About “20 and odd Negroes” from this group arrived off Old Point Comfort on the Dutch ship White Lion in late August, John Rolfe reported, describing how they were exchanged for “victuals” and sent to Jamestown.
Three or four days after the White Lion departed, its English consort — the Treasurer — sailed in with a second band of Africans.
But before Rolfe and Pierce arrived from Jamestown it put out to sea, leaving Angela at Old Point.
“There’s no question she came in on the Treasurer. The 1625 muster tells us she did,” McCartney says.
“But she’s the only one we can be absolutely sure came from that ship.”
Exactly what Angela did or how long she lived is unknown, except for the 1624 and ‘25 records that describe her as a “Negro” and a “servant.”
It’s also unlikely that the excavations, which started last May, will turn up any artifacts with a direct, personal connection.
“Whether we’ll find any artifact that was owned or used by Angela is doubtful,” Jamestown Rediscovery curator Merry Outlaw says.
“But we have found some artifacts that date to Pierce’s time — and they can tell us something about the world in which she lived.”
Though slavery was not institutionalized in Virginia until the late 1600s, Angela’s race and African origin most likely led to different treatment from that experienced by white indentured servants, McCartney says.
And though she escaped the fate of the other Africans on the Treasurer — who were described as “slaves” after being sold in English Bermuda later in 1619 — she faced challenges in Virginia.
“The Africans’ distinctive appearance, unfamiliar language and exotic cultural background, which set them apart from the European colonists, would have placed them at a distinct disadvantage,” McCartney explains.
That’s one reason why the park wanted to take a new look at the property and rebrand it as an interpretive site “fleshing out the story of the first Africans,” Williams says.
Already, both the park rangers and Jamestown Rediscovery educators are incorporating the new research in their tours.
“It’s more than special to walk down that road from the river, to look at that kitchen, to walk around that site,” Williams says.
“And because I’m an African-American, it’s a sacred place.”
At Historic Jamestowne
Where: 1368 Colonial Parkway, James City.
What and when: Tours, living history demonstrations and ongoing archaeological excavations from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, including a “First Africans Walking Tour” at 3 p.m.
Cost: $14 adults, children 15 and younger free.
Info: 757-229-4997 or 757-898-2410 or historicjamestowne.org.
At Jamestown Settlement
Where: 2110 Jamestown Road, James City.
What and when: Living history demonstrations at recreated fort, Indian village and 1607 ships, plus museum exhibits from 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.
Cost: $17 adults, $8 children 6-12.
First Africans Walking Tour
Where: Leaves from the Jamestown Tercentennial Monument near the Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center, 1368 Colonial Parkway, James City.
When: 2-3 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Cost: Included in Historic Jamestowne admission ticket of $14 adults, children 15 and younger free.
Info: 757-229-4997 or 757-898-2410 or historicjamestowne.org.