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History Happened Here

Four Centuries

May 2024
6min read

How Jamestown Got Us Started

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
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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. 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.
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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.”

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

The most important revelation has been the true location of the colony’s original 1607 fort.

Colonial Williamsburg is famous for its holiday celebrations, especially at Christmas, but I was more than content with a visit in early November, embellished by autumn’s shafts of golden light and free of crowds. Take it at a leisurely pace and you’ll find serendipitous moments as pleasurable as any scheduled event. Rounding a corner, I came upon an outdoor stage that occupied the site of the first theater in English America, dating from 1716. A hefty actor, not your usual Hamlet, performed “To be or not to be” to shouts of “huzzah, bravo, encore,” from onlookers. Later I watched a dozen black schoolchildren playing in a small park on the very spot where two African-American preachers had held outdoor services for free blacks and slaves sometime in the late eighteenth century. By 1818 they occupied a wooden church here. Now there is just grass and a marker.

In a garden behind the Governor’s Palace, I encountered Patrick Henry, Virginia’s great patriot and first governor, as portrayed by one of the costumed interpreters, Richard Schumann. With mounting passion he presented “a few remarks on the present state of affairs of 1774.”

“All is not well,” he began. “An ill wind blows from Massachusetts Bay. There are armed British mercenaries in Boston, and the rest of us can expect the same rough treatment.” Truck traffic that occasionally rumbled by on the main road just behind him did nothing to shake Henry’s eighteenth-century persona, as he accused Thomas Jefferson of “spreading lies tainting my reputation for generations” and admitted “it is with considerable shame that I am drawn to the owning of slaves.” Schumann, who has been portraying Henry since 1998, says that he’s now convinced this was “the greatest American patriot who ever lived. His heart was with the American people and American liberty first and last.”

By the time of Jamestown’s 1807 bicentennial celebration, Henry had been dead for nearly eight years. But other members of the Revolution’s Greatest Generation concluded the festivities with a dinner at Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern (burned in 1859, rebuilt in 1932). When they offered up a toast, they surely looked back over the 200 years. But I wonder if they spared a thought for us.

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