Four centuries ago this month, about 100 men and boys from England landed their tiny boats on a brackish river in Virginia after a journey of some five months, setting out to build a new life.
The group barely survived, as their gold mining venture failed and they struggled to find food. They almost fled, even boarding boats to re-cross the pond when supply ships arrived at the last moment and saved the settlement.
They persevered, importing African slaves and nearly eradicating all of the local indigenous peoples. And in that confluence of swamp, river and forest, the American experience took root, with its mixing of peoples, drive for wealth and early democratic institutions.
Those are some of the themes related to the Jamestown Settlement’s 400th anniversary, an 18-month series of events culminating in “America’s Anniversary Weekend,” a three-day extravaganza at Jamestown from May 11 to 13. Events for the big anniversary—the planning of which began a decade ago and has entailed tens of millions of dollars—will continue into 2008.
At 400, Jamestown is the oldest permanently occupied English settlement in what became the United States, according to organizers, who concede that other English settlements may have come before it but did not last, and that Spanish settlers were building the future Santa Fe, New Mexico, at about the same time.
According to the Jamestown anniversary official Web site: “It is our nation’s birthplace. Traditions established at Jamestown—including representative government, the rule of law, free enterprise and cultural diversity—form the basis of American culture today. Plymouth, settled by the pilgrims 13 years later, was established primarily for religious reasons.”
Jamestown’s 400th anniversary is a big enough occasion to attract Queen Elizabeth II, who is expected to join the commemorations during her state visit to the United States from May 3 to 9—and who was also on hand to celebrate the settlement’s 350th anniversary in her first U.S. visit shortly after ascending the British throne. She is also planning to take in the Kentucky Derby on May 5 and join the president and first lady at a state dinner, in addition to considering an invitation to visit the Virginia Assembly.
“Clearly, the Jamestown 400th anniversary is an event of incredible significance to both the people of the United Kingdom and the United States,” said British Embassy spokesman P.J. Johnston. “Lots of the history and tradition of the whole United States came from these settlers.”
“And when she [Queen Elizabeth] gets here, she’s going to see a Jamestown she didn’t see 50 years ago,” said Kevin Crossett, spokesman for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
For one thing, the remains of the original fort itself, previously believed to have been washed away or buried beneath the James River, were discovered in the 1990s and have since yielded hundreds of thousands of archaeological objects, adding details and nuance to the Jamestown story.
Beyond the plantations and old tobacco farms, the road to Jamestown—the Colonial Parkway off Interstate 64, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Washington—goes through a surprisingly wild-looking world of creeks, backwaters and the ever-growing Virginia forest.
At the end of the road is the Jamestown Settlement, a complex that includes a museum and a recreation of the original site, built for the 1957 festivities. Half a mile away is Historic Jamestowne (with the “e”), a facility based around the actual fort site. Visitors to the settlement will see a replica of a Powhatan Indian village and a remake of the settlers’ fort, complete with all the period buildings—a church, gunsmith, place to store barrels, etc.
Wearing buckskin and similar 17th-century garb, folks discuss topics such as black powder riflery, hide tanning, and the ordeals of life below deck on the creaky boats that made it across the ocean. Visitors can also tour replicas of those three boats, docked on the river.
Jamestown—open year-round and a staple of the Virginia school field-trip circuit—is about 20 miles away from Yorktown, site of the decisive Revolutionary War battle, which in October celebrated its 225th anniversary. Closer is Colonial Williamsburg, with its living-history structures, tools and colonially clad, role-playing guides.
During the anniversary weekend, Jamestown will erupt with multiple stages and performances by scores of artists ranging from the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Hawaii Youth Opera Chorus to pop musicians Chaka Khan, Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs.
The commemoration began last year with the replica of the Godspeed, one of the original Jamestown ships, visiting ports from Alexandria, Va., to Boston. It attracted more than 450,000 viewers and is scheduled for a “Journey up the James” in April and May. And in July, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., will turn some of its attention to Virginia culture.
Some of the Jamestown events involve serious thinking, as well as serious thinkers. Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is the anniversary’s honorary chair and since April 2006, has served as chancellor of the College of William and Mary, which, along with Colonial Williamsburg, hosted a conference titled “Forums on the Future of Democracy”—just one of the many lectures, symposia and educational events associated with the anniversary.
A special exhibition at the Jamestown Settlement, “The World of 1607,” shows the colony in a global context, portraying the larger picture of discovery, strife, innovation and cultural exchange taking place around the world. In addition, major artifacts from collections hailing from more than 10 countries are on display, including a 15th-century copy of the Magna Carta. The exhibition, as well as several other anniversary events, will run through April 2008.
Crossett said four main legacies of the settlement are illustrated by the events. First is the notion of private enterprise fueling the American experience, with the settlers having raised money from backers who hoped for gold mining riches. (Instead, golden tobacco became the region’s lifeline.)
Second, the events note the cultural mix of the colonial experience: The first group of African slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619, and anniversary events include those related to slavery and its legacy, as well as the Indian experience. Crossett said these aspects of history are now included in nearly every event, reflecting the contemporary expectation that history provides unvarnished views of the past, complete with its flaws, rather than tales that whitewash the past.
“This is really an attempt to provide all sides of the Jamestown story,” Crossett noted. For example, reflecting the view of local Native Americans, the word “celebration” was struck from the overall name of the collection of events and replaced with “commemoration.”
Third, the legislative assembly that the Jamestown settlers began has operated as Virginia’s assembly relatively uninterrupted ever since then, making that body, now based in Richmond, the longest-running legislative body in all of North America.
Finally, Jamestown organizers are teaming with NASA on projects to highlight how the New World back then was analogous to the first explorations of space in modern times—a long, risky trip into the unknown, with consequences that would change the course of civilization.
As more and more settlers came to Virginia, the role of the original Jamestown diminished. By the end of the 1600s, the Jamestown pioneers had spread and helped to create a world beyond their dreams, with some 60,000 Europeans living in Virginia along with about 6,000 slaves. In turn, the Native American population was reduced by disease and guns to just several hundred individuals. In 1699, the state capital moved from the James River—where the water was usually too dirty to drink anyway—to nearby Williamsburg, and soon farmland and nature reclaimed the area, keeping it in the wild state that largely remains today.
About the Author
Sanjay Talwani is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.