Protecting Jamestown, Then and Now

Charles Werner examines the impact that devastating fires had on the Virginia settlement four centuries ago.


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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Fire was used as a destructive force by both the English and the Indians. The personal accounts of Anthony Chester describe the retaliation for a planned attack by the Indians around the time of 1622: "When the occurrence of this massacre became known in the mother country, the English were ordered to take revenge by destroying with fire and sword everything of the Indians; consequently, they set out for Pamunkey, destroyed both the houses and crops of the Indians, took Opechankenough prisoner and shot him on the very place where his house stood before it was burned down."

Widespread discontent among the colonists resulted in what was to be known as Bacon's Rebellion. In 1676, after the colony had experienced various skirmishes and problems with the natives and after Sir William Berkeley had failed to take quick action in repelling an Indian attack, the colonists chose Nathaniel Bacon to lead an attack on the Indians. Bacon later led a rebel group to Jamestown, where he captured and set fire to the settlement at the hands of some of its own citizens. This personal account from an unknown settler describes Bacon's attack: "Bacon sets the towne on fire. He in the most barbarous manner converts the wholl towne into flames, cinders and ashes, not so much as spareing the church, and the first that ever was in Verginia." An Assembly member, identified only as T.M., further described the event: "Here resting a few daies they concerted the burning of the town, wherein Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Drumond owning the two best houses save one, set fire each to his own house, which example the souldiers following laid the whole town (with church and state-house) in ashes, saying, the rogues should harbour no more there." Recently, archaeologists found the remains of charcoal in the north bulwark area of James Fort, evidence of fire in Jamestown that corroborates with written personal accounts from the time when James Fort was standing — 1607 until the middle to late 1620s.

Jamestown grew in size and continued to serve as the seat of the colonial government until 1699. According to the website, Virginia Places (http://www.virginiaplaces.org/vacities/jamestowncap.html), "The statehouse in Jamestown burned in October 1698 (dates conflict between Oct. 20 and Halloween); speculation was that the fire may have been caused by a prisoner in jail awaiting execution who had nothing left to lose. Before that fire, proposals to move the capital to Middle Plantation nearby were considered too much effort. After the statehouse was destroyed by fire, a team of students at the new College of William and Mary presented a proposal to move the capitol to their site and with the influence of Francis Nicholson (royal governor at the time), the House of Burgesses quickly approved a bill to construct a new statehouse building at Middle Plantation, which would later become Williamsburg."

Early Building Codes

The concept of building codes in the New World appeared as early as colonial Jamestown, where roof and chimney construction was specified to prevent burning down the entire settlement. The catastrophic fires of Jamestown and Boston and Plymouth, MA, inspired New Amsterdam Governor Peter Stuyvesant to pass fire safety laws in 1648. Stuyvesant prohibited wooden chimneys, instead requiring them to be built of clay bricks or stone. He also prohibited piling straw next to a building.

It is clear that fire had a significant impact on Jamestown and its settlers. Given the type of construction with dry and combustible materials combined with the many sources of ignition, serious fires were inevitable. Sources of ignition common during this era included the use of candles for lighting, fireplaces for heating and cooking, outdoor fires for heat and to light the street at night, lightning and stray sparks from the firing of muskets. Fires often were kept burning in substandard hearths continuously for days. Attacks from Indians and settlers alike also resulted in the intentional burning of buildings in Jamestown. Tobacco was a huge part of a settler's life and there is much reference to pipes, so it is reasonable to believe that smoking also contributed to fires similar to the way smoking does today.