They were not the first.
The Indian peoples had been living on the North American continent
successfully for thousands of years.
They weren’t the first
Europeans to visit either, by a long shot. There’s evidence in
of the Vikings visiting around the year AD 1000.
And they weren’t even the
first Europeans to establish a permanent foothold on the continent. That
honor lies with the Spanish, who settled what would become
, in 1565.
And, as all good Virginians
but too few other Americans realize, for many years the 104 men of the
Virginia Company of
who would found
were not even credited with being the ENGLISH founders of what would become
. Perhaps because the
mission centered on commerce and trade,
popular mythology instead directed its adoring glances at Founding Fathers
and Founding Mothers pursuing more “noble” ideals.
And thus was born and
perpetuated in millions of textbooks and televisions across the land the
notion that the nation was founded by Pilgrims fleeing religious
persecution. In fact, the Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower onto Plymouth
Rock (and into virtual sainthood status) in 1620, a full 13 years after
And so it’s only fitting
that all eyes finally and justifiably
this month, as we host The Queen and a huge throng of celebrants arriving to
’s 400th birthday and honor it as the oldest permanent ENGLISH settlement
. After being on the rough seas of the north Atlantic for more than five
months, we can only imagine the relief that must have been felt by those
adventurers as they entered the largest river feeding into the
— naming it after their King, James I. They made their way upriver as far
as the Appomattox River near
, returning downriver to settle on May 14, 1607, on a small point of land on
the north shore of the
, a point that at high tide became an island.
This small English band
selected this island — which they would also name in honor of their
reigning monarch — in part because they thought it would be defensible
against invaders and in part because the river channel was close enough to
shore to allow them to tie their ships — the Susan Constant, the Godspeed
and the Discovery — to the stately trees that clothed the island.
And despite their early
optimism, many hardships and horrors would threaten the settlers’ resolve,
and indeed their very existence. A decidedly different, difficult
semitropical climate. Scarcity of fresh water and food. Drought. Disease.
Skirmishes with the local Indians. Their hardships were perhaps best
embodied in the horrific winter of 1609-’10, the notorious “starving
time” that wiped out all but 60 of the Jamestown settlers.
It’s probably safe, and
fair, to say that the settlers failed to achieve their original mission —
to find both a shorter route to the
and gold and other valuable raw materials. And yet ... before the Pilgrims
first set buckled shoe onto Plymouth Rock, the Jamestown settlers had
already recovered from the worst of their early hardships; had found a cash
crop, tobacco, that would ensure the colony’s existence; and had
established a General Assembly that met in a Jamestown church in 1619,
thus marking the first display of representative government in English
America, and the longest-running such display in the Western Hemisphere.
This early display of
entrepreneurial commerce and democratic government initiated and
foreshadowed the best yet to come of the American Dream. At
, too, there were the beginnings of the worst yet to come of the American
Experience, as the subjugation of Native Americans and the practice of
slavery would mark what surely are the most shameful chapters in our
But from this hard soil of
trials, tribulations, discord and difficulty, a perfect ideal, and an
imperfect nation, sprouted and grew. The
as we know it today truly began on what those hardy English adventurers
. The dream in 1607 of easier ship routes and imagined riches has become in
2007 a reality of freedom and democracy and opportunity for all, unequalled
in human history.
How, then, can we sum up
these 400 years? And what’s the best measure of
’s success, and of its importance? How about this: From landfall in 1607
and continuously for the four centuries since, there has been a long and
eager line, stretching beyond the horizon, of folks from every corner of our
planet, hoping to follow the Jamestown settlers and start a new and better
life in what one of the colony’s founders, Captain John Smith, called this
“fruitfull and delightsome land.”
Now that’s a legacy worth
So Happy 400th,
! And here’s hoping that many of you can be there for the festivities,
outlined in this month’s cover story.
And for those who want to learn more about the
, I highly recommend reading
: The Buried Truth (
, 2006), from which many of the facts recounted in this editorial were
drawn. This fine work was written by William M. Kelso, who is head
archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project (see related story, pg.
describes the unearthing and discovery since the mid-1990s of thousands of
objects and artifacts that paint a vivid picture of the complexity and
difficulty of daily life for the
settlers. It’s a riveting read well worth your time.