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Wolstenholme Towne

Wolstenholme Towne

Note: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation has closed its Carter’s Grove property to conduct a comprehensive assessment of all facilities, grounds and programs located on the 750-acre complex.

Ship left England in 1618 bound for plantation on James River

In October 1618, the ship Gift of God nosed into the Atlantic bound from England for Virginia. Its 220 male and female passengers planned to settle a new plantation on the James River. The skeletons of some may well have been among the graves of murdered colonists uncovered by archaeologists three and one-half centuries later at Carter's Grove.

Martin's Hundred owned by Virginia Company of London

In the 17th century, the sprawling farm was named "Martin's Hundred," and it was among the subsidiary "particular plantations" of the joint-stock Virginia Company of London. The Society of Martin's Hundred, named for Richard Martin, recorder of the City of London, was its owner. Sir John Wolstenholme was among its investors. William Harwood was the farm's commander.

Martin's Hundred (hundred defined a subdivision of an English county) fronted on 10 miles of the north shore of a bend in the James River, about nine miles below Jamestown. The administrative center was Wolstenholme Towne, a fortified settlement of about 40 souls finding shelter in rough cabins of wattle and daub woven on wooden posts thrust into the clay subsoil.

Land had belonged to Powhatan Indians

Like all of the land the English claimed along the river, the plantation's 21,500 acres had been part of the domain of the Powhatan Indians, an association of Tidewater tribes formed at the end of the 16th century by the Indian chief Powhatan. For seven years after the first English settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607, the English and the Indians often fought for control of the Tidewater lands and resources. By the time the Gift of God arrived in Virginia, however, Chief Powhatan had died, the confederation was headed by his brother Opechancanough (pronounced O-pa-CHAN-ca-no), and the two peoples had been at peace since April 1614, when Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas had married Englishman John Rolfe.

Settlers' mortality rate nearly 50 percent

Although they were spared death in combat with the Powhatans, many of the settlers died. Mortality rates some years climbed so high the company worried its trading colony would get the name of a slaughterhouse. Of the 280 people shipped to Martin's Hundred by the winter of 1621-1622, only about 140 remained alive, scattered about the plantation.

Powhatans killed 400 English in Massacre of 1622

Still, fresh settlers came, and on March 22, 1622, the Powhatans rose to kill as many English as they could surprise in their homes and fields. From near modern Richmond to Newport News, the Powhatans burned and looted dwellings and desecrated corpses. Death counts vary, but about 400 English died. Martin's Hundred, the plantation hardest hit, lost more than 50, perhaps as many as 70. Wolstenholme Towne's death toll was not separated in the death rolls.

Called at the time – and for centuries afterward – "the Massacre of 1622," the attack is viewed by some modern historians as more of an uprising or even a revolt. By any name, it nearly accomplished its purpose. The English withdrew from their scattered settlements to the safety of Jamestown.

Wolstenholme Towne abandoned after 1645

Wolstenholme Towne was resettled a year or more later but abandoned sometime after 1645. It may be that no trace of the town was apparent by the time planter Robert "King" Carter bought the land about 1709. What remained of Wolstenholme Towne and its dead lay forgotten beneath the plantation's fields and woodlands until 1976.

Colonial Williamsburg acquired plantation in 1969

Archaeological examination of Carter's Grove was part of the plan from the day Colonial Williamsburg acquired the plantation in 1969. Preliminary work in 1970 turned up signs of 17th-century occupation. Five years later, excavations began.

Before they were finished in 1981, the archaeologists had discovered six sites of habitation dating from about 1620 to after 1645. Half or more of the village site had been lost to riverbank erosion, but much remained.

Archaeological dig reveals fort for fleeing attacks

The soil preserved shadows of 17th-century post holes, which formed outlines of buildings. The trapezoidal shape of a fort with a watchtower, a gun platform, musketeer platforms, and, perhaps, a flanker emerged as the loamy topsoil was scraped away. Inside the 10,000-square-foot enclosure were the remains of a well, a cattle pond, and Harwood's home. An outlying pen protected livestock at night. Less than one-fourth the size of the 42,800-square-foot Jamestown Fort, Wolstenholme Towne was built as a place for villagers to flee during attack.

As the excavations proceeded, the remains of a company barn, a company compound, and a palisade dwelling near the river emerged. Today, Wolstenholme Towne buildings are represented by schematic reconstructions on the sites where they stood.

First American find of armor found in well of fort

In the fort's well, diggers made the first American find of a hinged-faced (or close) helmet from a suit of armor. It had been reduced to a thin shell of rust, but it was carefully restored. A potter's pond protected a second close helmet, plates from an armor shirt, examples of 17th-century earthenware, and a spectacular piece of a colonial still called an "alembic."

Bits of broken crockery, tools, links of chain mail, fire lock muskets, frying pans, skillets, fireplace tools, and scores of other artifacts emerged from the soil. Many are displayed at the adjacent Winthrop Rockefeller Archaeology Museum.

Human remains reveal historic information

The ground also gave up remains of the dead. Two graves have strong associations with the 1622 uprisings. Survivors had slung into one grave the body of a man whose skull had been holed by a blow (perhaps from a spade) between the eyes.

In a trash pit, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a woman curled on her right side as if asleep. Perhaps she hid there after escaping an attempt to scalp her but bled to death or died of exposure in the night chill. She had rested in the same position for almost 320 years when she was found.