Four Centuries

Jamestown Settlement, a mile from the original colony, is a living history museum.
carla davidson2006_5_30

In a recent book on the Jamestown colony, A Land As God Made It , James Horn devotes a very few pages to slavery but in his notes remarks, “Whether or not the first Africans continued to be slaves in Virginia is a controversial topic.” Underlying the anniversary events and those of centuries past is the affirmation that 17 years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, this is where our America was born: its laws, freedoms, Revolutionary ardor, and entrepreneurial spirit. It will be interesting to see if the quadricentennial will finally reveal how and when its most indelible stain really began.

Reversing the order of time, i walked from the re-created fort to the real thing. Historic Jamestowne is the archeological site that for the past dozen years has yielded a treasury of mute evidence to what happened in the colony’s first desperate decades of existence. Beverly Straube, the curator, shows us buttons, glass, a piece of armor, tools, calling this “the richest site I’ve ever worked on in 30 years.” She cites the unexpected discovery of articles that depict Catholic iconography and asks: “What does that mean? Perhaps that Spanish spies were here, reporting on what was going on in Jamestown.” Many of the recovered items will be displayed in the awkwardly named Archaearium.

So far the most important revelation has been the true location of the original 1607 fort, which was long thought to have been swallowed by the river. Mike Litterst, public affairs officer for Colonial National Historic Parks, explains that “archeologists recently discovered the remnants of the palisade walls. All that remains are stains in the soil where the original timbers have long rotted away.”

Richard Schumann: a vivid Patrick Henry.
colonial williamsburg2006_5_30a

Archeology can temporarily capture our imaginations, but after a while the sight of people hauling wheelbarrows around and digging in the ground becomes hard on most attention spans. The Jamestown curators know this and are planning to deal with it by creating a virtual-reality experience, says Litterst, where you will be able to peer through “binoculars” and see the city at its hectic birth. “Then the scene will morph, and we’ll be back to the present. The designers say we can even bring the three ships back up the river if we want.”

The site’s most eloquent survivor is the partly ruined 36-foot brick tower, the only seventeenth-century aboveground relic at Jamestown, erected in the 1690s as an addition to a 1639 church.

You may eventually overdose on artifacts, or exhibits, no matter how artfully conceived. When you decide to save something for another day, it’s time to go for a scenic ride on the Colonial Parkway. Designated an All-American Road and administered by the National Park Service, it connects the three points of what became known in 1930 as the Historic Triangle—Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. Wherever you take it, the gently winding three-lane thoroughfare (with the middle lane reserved for passing) offers views of the James and York Rivers, wetlands, bird-life, and the big skies of a Dutch painting. It makes you want to take a deep, clean breath. It’s surprising to learn that this bucolic stretch was influenced by the same late-nineteenth-century aesthetic that gave rise to New York’s Bronx River Parkway.

Let the road lead you 13 miles to Colonial Williamsburg, a fine base camp for quadricentennial explorations; there are no accommodations at Jamestown itself. Williamsburg, first called Middle Plantation, became Virginia’s capital in 1699, taking over from the moribund Jamestown. As its fortunes grew, the town became known for elegance of style, intellectual fervor, and the fierce debates about independence that raged in its coffeehouses and taverns. In 1780 the capital moved again, this time to Richmond, and by the 1920s, when a local minister, W. A. R. Goodwin, persuaded John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to restore it, Williamsburg had slept away at least a century.

What the visitor sees today, thanks to the funding and devotion of Rockefeller and his wife, Abby, is a lively 300-acre community. Its diminutive working farms, cottages, hatters, wigmakers, carpenters, drinking places, and public buildings all speak of eighteenth-century prosperity and optimism. Eighty-eight of the several hundred buildings that form this appealing townscape are original; the others are re-creations, built in almost every case on their original sites.