Protecting Jamestown, Then and Now

April 1, 2007
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 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 — and regarded as the first documented structure fire in America — 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 destroyed…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.

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 (, "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.

Every State House where the legislature met in Jamestown burned. In each case, fire forced the move of the Assembly to another location. The last fire, in October 1698, which destroyed the fourth Jamestown State House (Ludwell State House Complex), resulted in the move of the capitol to Williamsburg. In his 1903 book, The Site of Old Jamestown, Colonel Samuel Yonge described what he found at the site of the State House and based on his research concluded that the building burned. The move of the State House to Williamsburg resulted in the decline of Jamestown into ruin and gradually became an agricultural area. It also resulted in the rise of Williamsburg to a heightened social and cultural center. According to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), there is a reference to the removal of bricks from the State House ruins at Jamestown to be used for construction in Williamsburg. As an additional note of significance on the ravages of fire during this colonial era, the fifth and sixth state houses in Williamsburg were also destroyed by fire.

Fires of colonial days were fought by bucket brigades, but with the extremely dry, combustible building materials and breezes off the river, fires spread so quickly that bucket brigades were believed to be ineffective. Beverly (Bly) Straube, senior curator for Jamestown Rediscovery/APVA, advised that while researchers have unearthed wooden buckets, axes and shovels that could have been used for firefighting, there has been nothing discovered that revealed any organized firefighting effort. Straube further explained that the belief is that once a fire got underway, the only thing left to do was to salvage whatever possible and just watch it burn. Even during the fire of the State House during Bacon's Rebellion, there is no mention of attempts to extinguish the blaze. Instead, writers mention throwing the government documents out the window to safety.

Protecting Jamestown Today

Visitors to Historic Jamestowne may see the remains, which are jointly administered by the National Park Service and the APVA. Currently, much of the island is preserved as a park. There are three buildings dating to the early 19th century, three modern buildings, one 18th-century ruin and a number of historical monuments at Historic Jamestowne. The only above-ground 17th-century structure is a brick church tower.

Today, the site of James Fort and its supporting museum buildings are protected by the James City County Fire Department under the command of Fire Chief Tal Luton. The current response for a building fire on Jamestown Island is three engines, one ladder, one medic, one heavy rescue, one tanker and a battalion chief on the initial alarm. The response also includes one engine from Williamsburg (the Williamsburg station is third due to the island and included under James City County's automatic mutual aid program). Equipped with modern fire apparatus, thermal image cameras, 800-MHz radios and exceptionally trained firefighters; this is quite a contrast to the bucket brigades of colonial firefighting.

While the fire protection is much better today, the dangers of fire in colonial Jamestown parallel problems that plague present-day America. Carelessness with fire from candles, cooking, outdoor fires and smoking are still prevalent reasons for serious fires and civilian deaths. Arson remains a retaliatory tool or a tool for profit.

400th Anniversary

While Jamestown fell into obscurity following the fire that ended its heyday, it has re-emerged and will be celebrated appropriately as "the birthplace of America." From May 11 to 13, 2007, Jamestown will observe its 400th anniversary with more than a dozen major events. Additional challenges will be imposed on the James City County Fire Department as 30,000 visitors per day are expected to arrive in Jamestown and the surrounding region during this three-day event. To add national and international attention, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine announced that Great Britain's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip will attend the May festivities. Additionally, dignitaries from around the world are expected to attend the commemoration. The James City County Fire Department has been working with local law enforcement and state and federal agencies for over a year in the planning for public safety at the event.

Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, located in Virginia's Historic Triangle, are a testament to the American spirit. The original James Fort was mistakenly believed to have been located in an area submerged after years of encroachment of the waters surrounding it. Most of James Fort was recently discovered to be on dry land and is now one of the most exciting archaeological sites in the country.

More information on the commemorative activities may be found on the official "America's 400th Anniversary - Jamestown 1607-2007" website at

CHARLES WERNER, a Firehouse contributing editor, is a 29-year veteran of the fire service and is fire chief of the Charlottesville, VA, Fire Department. Werner serves on a number of local, state and federal interoperability working groups, and is technology chair for the Virginia Fire Chiefs Association and chair of the Commonwealth of Virginia First Responder Executive Committee. In addition, he serves on the SAFECOM Executive Committee and Advisory Group.

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