Hidden history

Published 10:01 pm Saturday, September 3, 2011

Europeans inhabited Harbour View almost since Jamestown

While clearing farmland in North Suffolk to pave the way for the businesses and houses of Harbour View more than 20 years ago, workers and developers uncovered something that halted the project and exposed a bit of the area’s forgotten history.

After workers found a few oyster shells in the dirt, a construction site was turned into a full-scale excavation operation that uncovered evidence of a fort that had been built in 1611.

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“We found a tremendous amount of historical data,” said Bob Williams, Tri-City Developers president and one of the developers of Harbour View.

In 1987, the project that would turn farmland into a multi-use community was slated to begin, but before construction could get rolling, the development site had to be surveyed for historical significance.

By law, any project requiring or involving federal money has to go through the process.

Williams said the archaeologists who were working on the project used oyster shells as an indicator that there might be historical significance to the site, because during colonial times oysters were a primary source of food for communities near rivers.

“Oyster shells are considered to be evidence of past inhabitants,” he said.

So wherever workers found an abundance of the shells, a complete archaeological study had to be conducted to ensure nothing historically significant would be compromised in the development.

In a 1989 interview, Williams said the Harbour View developers hoped one of the digs would produce something of historical value.

“We feel we’re going to add something,” he said. “That’s what inspired us to stay with it, because it’s going to have such an educational value.”

In the end, one site turned up a wealth of history.

When the dig began on a plot of land across from what is now the Rose & Womble building on Harbour View Boulevard, workers uncovered what appeared to be trash bins used by colonial residents, Williams said.

When the trash receptacles were discovered, the excavation went into overdrive.

For two years, crews worked tirelessly, collecting any artifacts they could find.

During the summers, Williams said, students from the Monticello School of Architecture helped with the dig.

Their efforts yielded more trash bins, pieces of glass, and clay pots. One of the finds was a Spanish drinking vessel, called a costrel, from the early 17th century.

But the most important discovery came when evidence was found of posts that had formed a perimeter around the site.

Williams said the workers found a series of spots where dirt clearly had been displaced or was a different color than what surrounded it, indicating that a wooden post had rotted in the ground. It was clear a fence had been on the site at some point.

Jamestown Foundation researchers studied the site and came to believe Capt. John Smith sent a group of men to Suffolk to keep the Nansemond Indians from crossing the James River to attack the settlement, Williams said.

The men built a fence and most likely camped out for a couple weeks while performing their duty, and after two weeks, they packed up and went back to Jamestown.

But the Jamestown men weren’t the last residents on the land during the 17th century.

In addition to the fort, the site also contained evidence of a house built between the 1630s and the 1650s and another residence from the early 1700s.

“The buildings are most likely from families who moved in later,” Williams said.

The Jamestown researchers believe the families built the homes and repaired the fences, which most likely fell into disrepair after the others had left.

All of the artifacts that were uncovered in the dig were donated to the Jamestown Foundation.

Williams said the studies were time-consuming and expensive — requiring two years and $175,000 to complete — but he thinks it’s amazing to know a little piece of history was uncovered in Harbour View.