Four Centuries

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We’re not used to measuring history in great swaths of time in this country, where a hundred-year-old house is considered an ancient survivor. So it was with a sense of going back in time twice over that I read about Virginia’s Grand National Jubilee of 1807. Two hundred years ago this coming May veterans of the Revolution gathered to mark the bicentennial of the 1607 founding of Jamestown.

The Susan Constant
 
carla davidson2006_5_29

We’re not used to measuring history in great swaths of time in this country, where a hundred-year-old house is considered an ancient survivor. So it was with a sense of going back in time twice over that I read about Virginia’s Grand National Jubilee of 1807. Two hundred years ago this coming May veterans of the Revolution gathered to mark the bicentennial of the 1607 founding of Jamestown. America’s first permanent English colony briefly seemed to thrive, then within decades succumbed to drought and disease. The knee-breeched celebrants were at an exact halfway point, recalling an era played out by men in armor who were as distant to them as 1807 is to us.

Over the centuries the state saluted its founding, with more elaborate events coming at key years. In 1957 Elizabeth II appeared at the 350th anniversary celebration on her very first visit as Queen to Britain’s former colonies. Now Virginia is gearing up to pay a multimillion-dollar tribute to the birth of English America in the presence, it is hoped, of the Queen.

Officials are expecting hundreds of thousands of visitors to descend on the few acres along the James River where it all began. But you don’t have to wait for the anniversary weekend, May 11–13, 2007. Much is already in place on this marshy peninsula 45 miles from Richmond. The setting will be familiar to anyone who has seen Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World , in which the founding narrative swirls with a certain authority around the purported romance between Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith.

On my visit last November I found that the site called Historic Jamestowne, despite the quaint e at the end, is the authentic ground upon which 104 men and boys of the Virginia Company set foot on May 14, 1607. Conversely, the more soberly named Jamestown Settlement, one mile away, is a re-creation, home to an early-seventeenth-century-era fort built for the 1957 event. Close by is the James River anchorage for replicas of the three ships that carried the adventurers: Susan Constant , Godspeed , and Discovery . This summer the latest Godspeed was introduced with a sail to historic ports along the Eastern seaboard.

Williamsburg’s Governor’s Palace.
 
carla davidson2006_5_29a

The fort, with its hand-hewn wooden structures, was at the time of my viewing partly a 1957 artifact and partly brand-new. Jamestown Settlement remains a work in progress, benefiting from on-going scholarship. The new church, for instance, will reflect research done at Historic Jamestowne that indicates it would have been somewhat less rustic than its 1950s version.

An enormously ambitious exhibition space is taking shape just a pleasant woodsy stroll from the bustle of the palisaded fort, offering all the high-tech, hands-on attractions that are familiar to twenty-first-century museumgoers. There will also be authentic and dazzling examples of the portraits, furnishings, coins, weapons, and costumes that not only summon up the world of the first Virginians but cast light on England’s competitors, the Spanish and Portuguese. For the past two decades curators have been haunting auction houses, collectors, and dealers to prepare their story and tell it right.

Getting it right has also meant a greater emphasis on the native and African contributions than at previous celebrations. A Powhatan Indian village has risen near the fort, on the grounds of its seventeenth-century predecessor, and the Angolan connection to Virginia’s first Africans will be explored in depth. These arrivals are thought to have come from a captured slave ship in 1619. A guide to Jamestown Settlement explains: “Some eventually won their freedom and acquired their own land and servants. However, by mid-century, tobacco planters began acquiring African servants and holding them for life, creating a system of slavery in the colony.”