From the start, Virginia’s hardships made harsh words inevitable: There was back-breaking, hand-blistering labor to do, and at least half of the work force were gentlemen unaccustomed to, not to mention unskilled at, manual labor. First, they had to find a suitable place to settle: Sailing more than forty miles up the wide river that they named the James after King James I, they chose a small, wooded peninsula about two miles long and a mile to a mile and a half wide. It was actually an island, separated from the mainland by a shallow creek, but the James River here was six fathoms [36 feet], deep enough to moor their ships a stone’s throw from the shore. Good for ships, but bad for humans: they failed to notice that much of the island was a swamp, and the water they drank was brackish.
By June 15, seven weeks after they arrived, 104 men and boys (one man had died on the voyage) had built a fort. Working and sweating (and no doubt, swearing) in the hot Virginia sun, they dug over 1,600 feet of trenches nearly three feet deep to form a huge triangle by the river’s edge. They chopped down hundreds of pine and oak and elm trees. They dragged heavy logs of up to one foot in diameter, one by one, to set vertically in the trenches to make a palisade with walls eleven to fifteen feet high.
When it was finished, the fort covered about an acre and a half, or roughly the area of two football fields. It was a triangle 140 yards long on the side facing the river, and 100 yards on each of the other two sides. With guns mounted at each angle and only one entrance, a massive log gate on the side facing the river, this palisaded fort would be a comforting defense against invaders—either Indian or Spanish.
But log walls could not keep out another enemy: disease.