A team of archaeologists has been digging for decades at a site in Jamestown, Va., believed to be home to the United States' first Protestant church.
In December 1606, a group of about 104 settlers known as the Virginia Company sailed from London and landed on Jamestown Island on May 14, 1607. This group went on to establish what came to be known as Jamestown, a colony along the banks of the James River (just 60 miles from the Chesapeake Bay), according to the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project.
Among some of the structures built at the settlement, which was under frequent attack by the Algonquian natives, was a 64 feet by 24 feet church, constructed in 1608.
It was also at the Jamestown church that "the first representative assembly in the New World" gathered on July 30, 1619, to establish laws to "govern Virginia," according to Jamestown Rediscovery Project.
William M. Kelso, chief archaeologist at the site, insists that his group has found evidence that the site of the nation's first permanent colony is also home to the nation's first Protestant church - or what remains of it.
According to Kelso, Jamestown is also the birthplace of another first; it is believed that Indian princess Pocahontas, daughter of the Algonquian chief, was baptized (and renamed Rebecca) and married to John Rolfe in 1614 at the Jamestown church.
"I'm standing where Pocahontas stood," Kelso told The New York Times during a recent tour of the site. "I can almost guarantee you that."
Kelso has been digging at the site since 1994 and his team has since unearthed about 1.4 million artifacts, many of them stored in a locked, fireproof laboratory, according to the Times.
While Kelso has said "the church would have been a statement about how important the colonists considered religion," according to Archaeology magazine, some experts contend the wooden house of worship was likely erected by the British settlers as a show of force.
"To put up a big church on this island in the Chesapeake region was a very clear political sign as well, saying, 'We're here, stay out, we claim this area, and we’re willing to fight you’," Paul A. Levengood, president and chief executive officer of the Virginia Historical Society told the Times.
One visitor to the region the Times spoke with agreed with Levengood's assessment, while another saw the Jamestown church as the birthplace of religious liberty.
"The rights that we enjoy today had their roots here. This is where they first started," Myron Semchuk, 64, said. "And those religious beliefs, I think, were the foundation."
The historic house of worship is seen as a sort of "New Jerusalem" by H. Wade Trump III, a pastor in Williamsburg, Va., who has ancestors listed among the original colonists.
"This church would be a place for Christians from all over the country to see where their roots are," Trump said. "This is really the birthplace of the Judeo-Christian faith in America."
Although the nation's oldest Protestant church, the Jamestown church is not the oldest house of worship, according to Kelso. The archaeologist informed the Times that a church may have been erected in North Carolina much earlier and that remains of 16th-century Catholic churches have been discovered.
Archaeology magazine has named the Jamestown church one of the 10 most significant archaeological discoveries of 2010.
According to the publication, Kelso and his team were searching or a men's barracks when they came upon the remains of the church.
The Jamestown Rediscovery Project published a video of the church's excavation over the summer, which features William Stracey, secretary of the colony, describing the its construction: