Happy Birthday, Jamestown!

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

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 Newfoundland 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 St. Augustine , Florida , in 1565.

And, as all good Virginians but too few other Americans realize, for many years the 104 men of the Virginia Company of London who would found Jamestown were not even credited with being the ENGLISH founders of what would become the United States . Perhaps because the Jamestown mission centered on commerce and trade, U.S. 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 Jamestown was settled. 

And so it’s only fitting that all eyes finally and justifiably turn to Virginia this month, as we host The Queen and a huge throng of celebrants arriving to enjoy Jamestown ’s 400th birthday and honor it as the oldest permanent ENGLISH settlement in North America . 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 Chesapeake Bay — naming it after their King, James I. They made their way upriver as far as the Appomattox River near Hopewell , returning downriver to settle on May 14, 1607, on a small point of land on the north shore of the James River , 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 Far East 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 Jamestown , 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 nation’s history.

But from this hard soil of trials, tribulations, discord and difficulty, a perfect ideal, and an imperfect nation, sprouted and grew. The United States as we know it today truly began on what those hardy English adventurers called Jamestown Island . 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 Jamestown ’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 celebrating.

So Happy 400th, Jamestown ! 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 settlement of Jamestown , I highly recommend reading Jamestown : The Buried Truth ( University of Virginia Press , 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. 30). He 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 Jamestown settlers. It’s a riveting read well worth your time.


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