The Field Plan of WMCAR: hard lines show recent work, dotted lines show previous archaeology

The Field Plan of WMCAR: hard lines show recent work, dotted lines show previous archaeology (WMCAR, Eric Agin, William Moore, Charles Hodges)

Yeardley’s Fort Salvage Project

Contributed by Charles Hodges, Senior Research Assistant at the William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research (WMCAR).

A rising sea level and an unusually high water table near the shoreline of the James River prompted William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research (WMCAR) archaeologists to rescue critical information about a circa 1619-1632 English artillery fort before it became lost to the river. 

The Block House

The Block House is shaped like a bastion with two flanks and two faces but with the sharpest point cut off into a pan coup. Similar works at Henrico were called  “commanders.” It protects the fort entrance and defends the entire south wall. (2a) the post mold pattern found in the ground; (2b) an isometric view of the core frame; (2c) the vertical frame is clad in horizontal beams which are fitted with musket and artillery loopholes and at the top crenulations (Drawing by Charles Hodges, 2003)

The project was carried out in 2010-2011 with permission from the Harrison family and funding from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. William and Mary archaeologists had mapped and filmed the complete fort envelope between 1971 and 1978, but the lowest eastern end of the site had not been fully investigated due to constant standing water. George Yeardley, a veteran of English wars in the Netherlands who was commander of the Virginia militia at the beginning of the organized attacks by the Indians against English settlements (1622-1632), built the original fort. Records indicate that it was fully palisaded by 1622, and mounted with six cannon and probably two breech-loading swivel guns. It was strengthened with earthworks on the “water side” by the next spring. In 1626 the fort, now a publicly-supported Burough fort, was described as “paled & palizadoed” with “10 or 12 pieces of ordnance [cannon] well mounted & planted for ye defense of ye place.” 

Specialized Rampart

What did the walls of the fort look like? Facing the river on the “Water Side” (3a): a moat, a doubled parapet, and an earthen rampart were constructed to defend against European rival cannon from ships; (3b) typical wall construction in contemporary Europe, which Yeardley’s fort used in some places. On the “Land Side” not facing the river, a ditch-set palisade was the main defense. Soldiers stood on rammed clay or an elevated plank system called a “wall walk,” which raised their gun ports, preventing enemy use. (Drawing by Charles Hodges, 2003, 2009)

It then boasted roughly half of the large artillery in Virginia.  By replacing the decayed forts at Henrico and Charles City that the Virginia Algonquians had sacked and the English had abandoned, and by seizing these forts’ artillery, Yeardley’s fort quickly became the most important artillery fort in Virginia during the colony’s transition from Virginia Company administration to Royal Colony, which began circa 1624. In addition to providing defense from Indian attack, the fort’s purpose was to halt hostile Spanish or French ships in the upper river channels and force a land assault without major artillery support—which would doom them to failure against Yeardley’s fort. The features recovered within the fort, which would have measured 240 feet long and an estimated 120-240 feet wide, included a commander’s house, a garrison house, a storehouse doubling as a church, a well, and a penned space for livestock. The James River has claimed the north side of the fort.


Southeastern corner of the fort as it was found by archaeologists (1971-1978) (4a); bird’s eye view of what the fort might have looked like ca. 1623-1632 (4b) (Drawing by Charles Hodges, 2003, 2009). In the surviving portions of the site, archaeologists found a commander’s house, garrison house, storehouse, and well.

Employing large water pumps and sumps, WMCAR archaeologists located portions of a hypothesized “water side” moat (originally 7-8 feet wide), which would have provided earthworks for the fort’s ramparts while also creating a physical obstacle to entry. They discovered rare catenas and evidence of the cannon mount reinforcements used to create a raised terreplein—platform where the cannon are placed. Researchers also sampled portions of a demi-bastion, two ditch-set palisade parapets, and an interior “counter fort” system intended to strengthen the timber-reveted earthen ramparts in a “trench and palisadoe” system. This type of expensive fort construction employing turf earthworks was also noted at James Fort, Henrico, and Charles City—the three sites that had served as capital of the colony successively between 1607 and 1617. In 1623 Grivell Pooley of Flowerdew Hundred became the parish minister for both Henrico and Charles City. Overall, this data suggests that Flowerdew Hundred was outfitted as an emergency capital and replaced Henrico and Charles City as Virginia’s final defensive trump card.

For more information on this project please see Charley's Hodge's thesis.