The English faced two threats when they landed at Jamestown - fellow Europeans and Native Americans. At the start of colonial settlement, the Europeans were perceived as the greater threat.
John Smith complained that military defense after landing at Jamestown was delayed by the President of the Council, Edward Maria Wingfield. Wingfield may have been trying to comply with instructions from the Virgina Company in London to maintain peaceful relationships with the Native Americans, a potential source of food and information about the territory and its resources:1
Smith accused the first president of the council in Jamestown of delaying the fort for reasons other than diplomacy. According to Smith, who was not an ally of Wingfield, the first President of the Council was excessively concerned about his personal authority:2
Wingfield quickly changed his mind and ordered construction of a fort surrounded by palisade, after an attack in which a child was slain and the colonists repelled the assault only after cannon fire from a ship frightened the Native Americans into retreat. By June 15, 1607, the wooden fort (a rough triangle, with a wall of tree trunks 120 yards long facing the river and the other two walls 100 yards long) was finished:3
Building a fort was consistent with another part of the instructions, which directed that 30 of the colonists should be assigned to build fortifications and storehouses. Ten other colonists were directed to:4
Fort Algernon (and later Fort Henry, Fort Charles, Fort George, and Fort Monroe) was built on Point Comfort after the colonists displaced the Kecoughtans from their village
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia / discovered and discribed by Captayn John Smith, 1606
The fortification ("stoure") for ten men at Point Comfort, and the choice of the location so far upstream at Jamestown, were based on fear of European attack rather than concern about the "naturals." A member of the Nansemond tribe succinctly noted in 2004, during the preparations for commemorating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown:5
That comment may gloss over the legitimate concerns of the first English colonists regarding the Native Americans, but the Spanish, the Dutch, the French, and even pirates were serious threats from the Atlantic. The location of Jamestown was chosen in part because anyone sailing up the river would be clearly visible before they could reach the English fort. In the time required for a European attacker to sail up the James River, the English would have time to gather everyone inside the palisaded James Fort and to defend it with their cannon and muskets.
The English colonists first visited Point Comfort in April, 1607, just after the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery arrived and the colonists were first exploring the Chesapeake Bay. He reported that the English applied the name "Point Comfort" because the deep river channel there ensured easy access by boat:6
The "little stoure at the mouth of the river" (Point Comfort) was very near the town occupied by the Kecoughtan tribe, thought to be near the site of the Veterans Administration Building in Hampton now. John Smith reported that there were 18 houses in the town scattered across three acres. He had to use force to compel them to trade for food earlier in 1607, but the Native Americans did not try to expel the English from their new camp at Point Comfort.7
In 1609, George Percy (president of the colony) ordered the construction of Fort Algernon at the mouth of the James River where the "early warning" site had been established on Point Comfort in 1607.
Fort Algernon was never a major fortress intended to withstand assault by Spanish, French, or Dutch raiders. Instead, it was still part of a distant early warning system. Fort Algernon was intended to provide intelligence to Jamestown regarding new ships arriving in the Chesapeake Bay - plus some logistical support such as fish for feeding the colonists, and safe access to fresh water for sailors after a long journey. As described by Percy:8
the shipping channel is deep at Point Comfort/Fort Monroe
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Geophysical Data Center
Captain James Davis commanded the 40 settlers who spent the winter of 1609-10 at Fort Algernon (named after an ancestor of George Percy). The colonists survived far better than those who suffered at Jamestown during the Starving Time.
When Percy finally visited Fort Algernon in the Spring of 1610, he accused Davis of hiding their healthy condition. Percy claimed the settlers were hoarding food and feeding their surplus crabs to fatten hogs rather than sharing the wealth with those who were starving upstream at the Jamestown fort, so the few colonists at Fort Algernon could escape back to England:9
One of the first ships spotted by the guards at the fort in 1610 was the Deliverance, a ship constructed at Bermuda from the wreckage of the Sea Venture.
That ship, commanded by Christopher Newport and carrying Sir Thomas Gates to serve as the new governor of the colony, had failed to make it across the Atlantic Ocean in 1609. A hurricane separated the Sea Venture from the rest of the Third Supply, but resourceful English sailors had constructed two smaller ships to carry the 150 stranded colonists to Virginia. When the Deliverance arrived off Point Comfort on May 21, 1610:10
In 1610, a year after building Fort Algernon, the colonists expelled the Kecoughtan tribe and occupied their village while the Kecoughtans fled north across the York River to the territory once occupied by the Piankatank tribe. Sir Thomas Gates seized the already-cleared land so the English could be more self-sufficient in food. Expelling the Kecoughtan tribe also moved closer to completing the original 1606 instructions, to remove the native people of the country who inhabited land between Jamestown and the sea coast.11
In 1611, Lord de la Warre ordered construction of Fort Charles and Fort Henry near the site of Fort Algernon (plus Fort West upstream from Jamestown at the Fall Line). Fort Charles was built on the Strawberry Banks, just west of where modern I-64 leaves the solid land of the Peninsula and goes south on piers and into a tunnel underneath the mouth of the James River. Fort Henry was built near modern Hampton University, on the east side of the Hampton River.
The forts may have been intended just as short-term defenses against possible retaliation for expelling the Kecoughtans, or (according to John Smith) designed primarily as rest stops for new immigrants arriving from England to recover from the journey before moving upstream. When Sir Thomas Dale arrived in 1611, he assigned people to live at the forts and grow corn. Permanent occupation of Hampton dates to Dale's decision, and Kecoughtan/Elizabeth City/Hampton has been represented in the House of Burgesses since that organization's first meeting in 1619.12
the town of the Kecoughtans seized by Sir Thomas Gates in 1611 is now part of urbanized Hampton, perhaps where the Veterans Administration is located
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Labor was scarce in the early days of the colony, so the investment in fortifications at Point Comfort was limited. According to a contemporaneous report by a Spanish spy, Diego de Molina, the three fortifications at Point Comfort (Forts Algernon, Charles, and Henry) would have offered little resistance if the Spanish had chosen to enter the James River and sail upstream:13
Diego de Molina was familiar with the forts because he had been held a prisoner there. In 1611, the Spanish sent a ship to assess the English colony. Diego de Molina and two others came ashore, and according to George Percy were captured before they recognized Fort Algernon had been constructed. The Spanish ship pretended to be lost and the English provided a pilot, but the ship sailed away and abandoned its three people onshore. Only Diego de Molina survived to report on the condition of the colony in Virginia.14
Fort Algernon burned accidentally in 1612. Forts Charles and Henry would also have decayed, but the English continued to live on the Peninisula near the old Kecoughtan town. Ships arriving from trans-Atlantic trips would stop there to obtain fresh water and food, and identify their peaceful intent in order to receive clearance for entering the colony.
In 1619, a year before the colonists renamed Kecoughtan as "Elizabeth City" (and later Hampton), an privateer sailed into the Chesapeake Bay with a new cargo. The White Lion was flying the Dutch flag, but was financed by the Duke of Savoy in France. In the Gulf of Mexico, it had captured a Spanish slave ship carrying Angolans to Mexico. To sell that cargo, the privateer went to the nearest market beyond the boundaries of Spanish occupation. The first slaves brought to the new English colony in Virginia landed at Point Comfort.15
John Rolfe reported in a letter back to the Virginia Company in London:16
In that same letter, he provided a report on the weak condition of the fortifications at Point Comfort, and the colony's exposure to attack by the Spanish:
Another fortification was built in 1632 at Point Comfort, but it decayed in the humid climate from lack of maintenance. Governor Berkeley wanted a new fort to be located at Jamestown, facilitating the collection of tariffs from ships trading with the colony. The English Civil War intervened and Berkeley was deposed as governor. During the Anglo-Dutch wars in the 1660's, Virginia once again tried to re-establish a fort at Point Comfort but a 1667 hurricane washed away the construction materials before the new fort was completed.17
The additional taxes imposed on all colonists to defray the costs for the failed fort were unpopular, and one factor that led to Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. After that rebellion, grievances collected from Nansemond County included the complaint that taxes to build forts on the frontier were used to construct structures that would become houses for the wealthy when everyone knew mobile rangers were needed:18
slaves first arrived in Virginia at Point Comfort in 1619
Source: National Park Service, Africans in the Chesapeake
That left the colony undefended in 1673; Dutch raiders were able to sail through Hampton Roads without being disturbed by any cannon on the tip of the Peninsula or elsewhere. After the Dutch sailed away, the General Assembly authorized constructing a fort at Norfolk in the shape of a half moon at Town Point, known then as Four Farthing Point. That Norfolk fort was completed by 1680, but not maintained. Today's Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center at Town Point is named after the 1680 fort.19
Reportedly there was a battery constructed at Point Comfort in 1711, but only in 1728 did the English commit the resources to build a new fort there. By that time, fear of Spanish attack had been replaced by concerns regarding the French. Governor William Gooch and the General Assembly agreed to build Fort George at Point Comfort. According to one report (written a century later), the outer brick wall was 27" thick, the interior brick wall was 16" thick, and there was 16" of earth fill between those brick walls.20
Fort George was washed away by the great hurricane of 1749, the same storm that created Willoughby Spit. No fortifications were constructed on that site during the French and Indian War. The threat to Virginia at that time was invasion from the west, until Fort Duquesne on the Ohio River (now the site of Pittsburgh) was captured in 1758.
On October 26, 1775, British ships fired on the town of Hampton in "the first battle of the Revolutionary War south of Massachusetts." The small British craft were forced to retreat by rifle fire from American rebels on the shoreline, not by any cannon at a Point Comfort fort.21
When Benedict Arnold led the British invasion of Virginia in January, 1781, there were still no effective American defenses along the James River. Arnold's force landed at Westover without harassment, marched 30 miles to Richmond, and burned the public buildings and warehouses on January 5, 1781. Governor Thomas Jefferson watched the fires helplessly from across the James River in Manchester. The British returned to Richmond again in May, 1781, forcing the General Assembly and governor to flee to Charlottesville and ultimately further inland. No defensive forts had provided an opportunity to defend the state capital, or block invaders from moving deeper into the interior of Virginia.22
At the end of the American Revolution, there was one last opportunity to build a fort at Point Comfort. General Cornwallis declined to use the site; he chose to fortify Yorktown instead. In contrast to Point Comfort, Yorktown offered existing structures for shelter, easier access to drinking water and construction materials, and an equally-accessible deepwater port for the expected resupply fleet from New York.
The site remained undefended until after the War of 1812, when the British destroyed Hampton and sailed unhindered through Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay. Starting in 1816 the US Congress funded the Third System of forts. Fort Monroe was built on Point Comfort between 1819-1834, and was the first and largest of the Third System forts. All were large masonry structures based on French designs, rather than the earth-and-wood structures previously built by the colonists.23
The cannon at Fort Monroe provided effective defense against enemy attack through World War I. The fort remained an active military base until the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission decided in 2005 to close it. Since the closure of Fort Monroe was completed in 2011, there have been no active military installations on Point Comfort.
1. "Instructions for the Virginia Colony 1606," American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond, University of Groningen, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1600-1650/instructions-for-the-virginia-colony-1606.php (last checked December 22, 2014)
2. John Smith, The generall historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles, together with The true travels, adventures and observations, and A sea grammar, 1612, p.87, http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/lhbcb:@field(DOCID+@lit(lhbcb0262adiv11)) (last checked December 19, 2014)
3. "Observations By Master George Percy, 1607," republished in Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Narratives of Early Virginia 1606 — 1625, Barnes & Noble (New York), 1959, p.19, https://archive.org/details/narrativesofearl1946tyle (last checked December 22, 2014)
4. "Instructions for the Virginia Colony 1606," American History from Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond, University of Groningen, http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1600-1650/instructions-for-the-virginia-colony-1606.php (last checked December 19, 2014)
5. Keith Smith, March 4, 2004, quoted in "A Seventeenth Century Chronology Drawn from Colonial Records with Contemporary Native Perspectives," in A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century, Colonial National Historical Park (National Park Service), December 2005 http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/jame1/moretti-langholtz/chap7.htm (last checked October 2, 2011)
6. "Observations By Master George Percy, 1607," republished in Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Narratives of Early Virginia 1606 — 1625, Barnes & Noble (New York), 1959, p.5, https://archive.org/details/narrativesofearl1946tyle (last checked December 20, 2014)
7. Helen C. Rountree, The Powhatan Indians of Virginia, University of Oklahoma Press, 1989, p.60; Jacob Heffelfinger, Kecoughtan Old and New — or Three Hundred Years of Elizabeth City Parish, Houston Printing & Publisbing House, Hampton (Virginia), 1910, p.4, https://archive.org/details/kecoughtanoldnew00heff; "Archaeological Assessment - Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel Study," Virginia Department of Transportation, VDHR File No. 2011-0804, July 30, 2012, p.5, http://www.virginiadot.org/projects/resources/hampton_roads/HRBT_EIS/TechReports/Archaeological_Assessment.pdf (last checked December 23, 2014)
8. George Percy, "A Trewe Relacyon," in First Hand Accounts of Virginia, 1575-1705, http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/jamestown-browse?id=J1063 (last checked December 22, 2014)
9. George Percy, "A Trewe Relacyon," in First Hand Accounts of Virginia, 1575-1705, http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/jamestown-browse?id=J1063 (last checked December 22, 2014)
10. William Strachey, A True Reportory, 1625, republished in Edward Wright Haile, Jamestown Narratives, Roundhouse (Champlain, Virginia), 1998, p.418
11. William Strachey, A True Reportory, 1625, republished in Edward Wright Haile, Jamestown Narratives, Roundhouse (Champlain, Virginia), 1998, p.435
12. Lord De La Warre, "The Relation of Lord De La Warre," 1611, republished in Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Narratives of Early Virginia 1606 — 1625, Barnes & Noble (New York), 1959, p.212, https://archive.org/details/narrativesofearl1946tyle; John Smith, "The General History," Fourth Book, 1624, republished in Lyon Gardiner Tyler, Narratives of Early Virginia 1606 — 1625, Barnes & Noble (New York), 1959, p.300, https://archive.org/details/narrativesofearl1946tyle; Jacob Heffelfinger, Kecoughtan Old and New — or Three Hundred Years of Elizabeth City Parish, Houston Printing & Publisbing House, Hampton (Virginia), 1910, pp.7-9, https://archive.org/details/kecoughtanoldnew00heff (last checked December 22, 2014)
13. Diego de Molina letter in Tyler, Lyon Gardiner, Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625, p.223 http://www.archive.org/details/narrativesofearl1946tyle; Frank E. Grizzard, Jamestown Colony: A Political, Social, and Cultural History, ABC-Clio Inc, Santa Barabara, California, 2007, p.106, https://books.google.com/books?id=555CzPsGLDMC (last checked December 15, 2014)
14.href="http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/jamestown-browse?id=J1063">http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/jamestown-browse?id=J1063 (last checked December 22, 2014)
15. "Slavery, Freedom, and Fort Monroe," Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Colonial Williamsburg, Winter 2010, http://www.achp.gov/fort_monroe_final_story.pdf (last checked December 24, 2014)
16. "John Rolfe Reports on Virginia to Sir Edwin Sandys, 1619," Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/colonial/virginia/rolf.html (last checked December 24, 2014)
17. "The Architectural Heritage of Fort Monroe," National Park Service, 1987, p.5, http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/nnps/fort_monroe.pdf (last checked December 23, 2014)
18. Brent Tartar, The Grandeees of Government: the Origins and Persistence of Undemocratic Politics in Virginia, University of Virginia Press, 2013, p.62, pp.73-74
19. "What's in a Name? | Half Moone center in Norfolk," The Virginian-Pilot, July 30, 2012, http://hamptonroads.com/2012/07/whats-name-half-moone-center-norfolk (last checked January 10, 2015)
20. John V. Quarstein, Julie Steere Clevenger, J. Michael Moore, Sara Johnston, Old Point Comfort Resort: Hospitality, Health and History on Virginia's Chesapeake Bay, The History Press, 2009, pp.19-20, https://books.google.com/books?id=EqHVUV_3GR4C; "The Architectural Heritage of Fort Monroe," National Park Service, 1987, p.5, http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/nnps/fort_monroe.pdf; "Journals of the Council of Virginia in Executive Sessions, 1737-1763 (Continued)," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Virginia Historical Society, Vol. 14 No. 2 (October 1906), pp.119-120, http://www.jstor.org/stable/i392776; "Fort Monroe, Hampton, VA, Reconnaissance Study," National Park Service, May 2008 p.14, http://www.fmauthority.com/wp-content/uploads/NPS_ReconStudy-5-08.pdf (last checked December 22, 2014)
21. Woody Holton, "'Rebel against Rebel': Enslaved Virginians and the Coming of the American Revolution," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 105, No. 2 (Spring, 1997), http://www.jstor.org/stable/i393148 (last checked January 10, 2015)
22. Harry Kollatz Jr, True Richmond Stories: Historic Tales from Virginia's Capital, The History Press, 2007, pp.20-22, https://books.google.com/books?id=UHMVBAAAQBAJ (last checked January 10, 2015)
23. "War of 1812," Fort Monroe National Monument, National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/fomr/historyculture/1812.htm (last checked January 10, 2015)