In 1606, King James I of England, in hopes of colonizing the New World, chartered the London Company. In 1607, a company of 105 fortune-seeking settlers set sail for the New World in the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery. On the shores of the James River, this settlement faced many challenges...
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In 1606, King James I of England, in hopes of colonizing the New World, chartered the London Company. In 1607, a company of 105 fortune-seeking settlers set sail for the New World in the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery. On the shores of the James River, this settlement faced many challenges to its very existence - especially from the ravages of fire.
Trees were cleared and erected into a log fort for protection. The fort, known as James Fort, was designed as a large triangle. At each corner was a rounded bulwark built where cannons were mounted for protection from the Spanish and the Indians. The main gate faced the river. The fort enclosed about one acre with small dwellings along the walls with a church, storehouse and guardhouse at the center. The buildings were constructed of wood beams and clay bound with straw and, possibly, marsh grass. Most of the first homes were basic and primitive. These homes were intended to provide simple protection from the elements as the residents planned to stay only long enough to make their fortunes before returning to England. (The first buildings at James Fort were Company Buildings, built to house supplies for the colonists and the commodities that they were preparing to send back. Many individuals lived in tents and crude pit structures during the early years.) The chimneys of the first dwellings also followed this pattern of construction, such that fire was always a threat.
America's First Structure Fire
On Jan. 7, 1608, a fire of conflagration proportions â€” and regarded as the first documented structure fire in America â€” was reported to have destroyed "all the houses in the fort." As historian James Horn reported from research, the first buildings had barely been completed when "a stray spark set fire to one of the houses," flames raced from one building to the next until "apart from three dwellings, the entire settlement was burnt to the ground," leaving the settlers to face the coming winter utterly unprepared.
From the writings of Edward Maria Wingfield, "Our towne was almost quite burnt, with all our apparell and provision; but Captn. Newport healed our wants, to our great comforts, out of the great plenty sent us by the provident and loving care of our worthie and most worthie Councell." Captain John Smith, who became the colony's leader in September 1608, reflected, "Most of our apparel, lodging and private provisions were destroyedâ€¦I begin to think that it is safer for me to dwell in the wild Indian country than in this stockade, where fools accidentally discharge their muskets and others burn down their homes at night."
The following excerpts from a 1609 personal journal reveal a personal experience with fire: "James towne being burnt, wee rebuilt it and three Forts more, besides the Church and Store-house, we had about fortie or fiftie severall houses to keepe us warme and dry..."
The following excerpt from a 1610 personal account of William Strachey describes the progress of building construction of their homes: "The houses have wide and large country chimneys, in which is supposed (in such plenty of wood) what fires are maintained; and they have found the way to cover their houses now (as the Indians) with barks of trees, as durable and as good proof against storms and winter weather as the best tile, defending likewise the piercing sunbeams of summer and keeping the inner lodgings cool enough, which before in sultry weather would be like stoves, whilst they were, as at first, pargeted and plastered with bitumen or tough clay." The blaze was the last straw for what was left of the colonists. In 1610, after drought, famine and finally fire, they packed up their belongings, abandoned Jamestown and set sail for England. But this was not the end. Fortuitously for America, the colonists met a supply ship sailing up the James River and they returned to Jamestown.