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Paul Clancy's story
Oct. 18, 2009
In mid-October 1609, George Percy, the hapless and sickly Jamestown leader, sent Captain John Ratcliffe and a contingent of men to Point Comfort "for to build a forte there" to guard against possible Spanish attacks. He named it "Algernourne Fort" in honor of a long-distant relative.
At first just a simple earthwork, but soon a sturdy, heavily armed wooden bastion, the fort endured. It was destroyed by fire and storms on numerous occasions, but its rebuilt ramparts presided over the entrance to Hampton Roads for decades.
Artist's sketch of what Fort Algernourne might have looked like. Courtesy of the Casemate Museum.
That presence, 400 years ago this week, marked the real beginning of the city of Hampton, some contend. And more importantly, they believe, it established England’s maritime and commercial power in the new world. Not Jamestown, mind you, not that hellhole of pestilence and death, but this long-forgotten fortress.
This has been the theme of an ambitious symposium going on this weekend at Fort Monroe, the successor of the original outpost. Prominent scholars and archaeologists from around the region and beyond are there to share conclusions about the significance of this spot as the Army prepares to finally abandon it. Fittingly, the conference is sponsored by the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority, the entity that has been shaping the plan for Fort Monroe's future.
One of the most intriguing questions is whether any traces of the original fort can be found, and the more experts pronounce this impossible, the more William Kelso is convinced it isn't.
Kelso, the director of archaeology for Preservation Virginia’s Jamestown Rediscovery, is credited with finding the remains of James Fort, which was assumed to have been lost to the James River. To those who say that Fort Algernourne (aka Algernoune and Algernon) can’t be found because Fort Monroe was built there, he laughs. “That sounds familiar. People said that about Jamestown. It’s not necessarily true that it’s gone.”
He assumes that, since the fort was built by the same folks who build James Fort, that it might be a similar three-sided structure, although smaller and not as elaborate.
Kelso believes there should be systematic excavations in likely places on the grounds of Fort Monroe that might lead to artifacts or signature markings by fort timbers. But before the first spade goes in the ground, there would have to be a thorough document review. "At the very least," he adds, "I could prove it isn't there."
The importance of the fort, conference participants stress, is that wasn’t Jamestown. Dorothy Rouse-Bottom, a self-described "conference junky" who spearheaded the gathering, writes that it "introduced to the New World English maritime law, imposed the nascent customs system, regulated commerce, and enforced allegiance to the British crown. Most importantly, it created a visible symbol of England's bid for sovereignty over vast stretches of the Atlantic shoreline."
Karen Ordahl Kupperman, a New York University scholar who has written extensively about Jamestown, calls Algernourne “Virginia’s gateway to the Atlantic.”
One of the odd things about Jamestown, she says, is that many Americans still don’t see it as the beginning of their country, preferring the story of the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. That’s because, aside from the period when John Smith was in charge, Jamestown was a dismal failure. “We focus so heavily on Jamestown, but if you start to look at places like Kecoughtan [the village near the fort]…what you see is the beginning of real communities.”
Fittingly, when Percy sent a detachment to build and occupy the fort, Jamestown was about to enter “the starving time,” the winter of 1609-10. Of the 500 or so men and women under his care, only about 60, mostly near cadavers, survived.
When the clueless Percy went to visit Point Comfort, he was amazed – and then outraged – to find the 40 or so men who occupied the fort were fat and healthy, living on fish, crabs and oysters, that they had used this bounty to feed their hogs and were hoarding the rest so they could escape and sail back to England, “not regarding our misery and wants at all.”
Instead of stringing them up, he announced that he’d send the Jamestown survivors to the fort – half at a time – to feed and cure them. If that didn’t work, he’d send them all at once.
But on the next tide, relief ships began arriving. And, although they almost pulled up stakes immediately to return to England, Lord De La Ware showed up and whipped the colony back into shape.
Percy then goes into a long description of how one of the starving colonists confessed – after being strung up by the thumbs – to killing his wife, chopping her up and eating her.
See what I mean about how unfun the Jamestown story is? Give me Fort Algernourne any time.