It seems weird to promote the anniversary of a settlement that doesn't exist anymore.
? Why not party at Santa Fe, N.M., which has been occupied for almost 400 years? Why not vacation in world-class Quebec, which the French started in Canada in 1608? St. Augustine, Fla., was home to Spanish and French warriors in 1565 and remains a thriving beachfront city today.
On Jamestown Island now there are a lot of trees and archaeologists.
Should Englishmen planting a flag at Jamestown in 1607 matter to us in the 21st century, or is this just a field day for the marketing and tourism people?
Are all the events with people in costume any more important than the
or Bay Days or any other family weekend festival? ("Sail Virginia 2007, featuring Horse Carriage Rides! Antique Car Exhibits! Souza Bands!")
A lot of people are spending a lot of money to sell the message that the 400th anniversary of Jamestown is "America's 400th Anniversary."
But there were a lot of Europeans planting flags in a lot of remote, wooded places 400 years ago. And they looked pretty silly to the Native Americans already thriving on the continent - putting an outpost on the coast of
to claim control of it would be like claiming the Apollo 11 lunar module gave the United States control of the entire moon.
These were all fragile operations. Why should we remember Jamestown, which lasted only 92 years and then quickly reverted to farmland?
"Jamestown is a success story because it survived. It's the first successful English colony in
," said James Horn,
vice president for research and author of "A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America."
If survival is the standard, we could just as easily have been commemorating the story of
's Roanoke, "The Lost Colony." The difference is that Jamestown got supply help when it needed it and Roanoke didn't - a question of lucky timing.
Roanoke might have been wiped out by Native Americans. But Jamestown got help from the Powhatans and so did not starve to death. (Instead of "Jamestown 2007" we might as well have "Powhatan Day," an annual celebration when we all bow to the native peoples for giving Europeans a seat at their table - before the Europeans took the whole table by force.)
Roanoke's supply ship from England got delayed by the Spanish Armada. By the time it arrived, the colony had disappeared into the unending woods. Jamestown's supply ship showed up just in the nick of time.
On a day in June 1610, settlers abandoned James Fort but were met in the James River by a ship carrying the new colonial governor, who ordered the settlers to turn around and keep the colony going.
Let's go beyond survival. Jamestown matters because in its 92 years it incubated the free enterprise, race relations, democratic government and Protestant religion that dominate American culture today.
"When I tried to argue that we were important because we were first, I would get challenged. But when I do a discussion of the legacies of Jamestown, that works," said Joe Gutierrez, senior director of museum operations and education at the
In the late 1500s,
had the largest empire the world had ever seen, stretching across
and much of the Americas. Spain had reaped the wealth of gold from Central America and the Caribbean. Its aim was to unite people under a Catholic monarchy, "one monarch, one empire, and one sword."
The northern end of the Americas was stalked by the French, another Catholic power. They were building strong alliances with the Native Americans through fur trading.
The English wanted to squeak in between those two regions. Roanoke failed. Jamestown tottered on the edge of failure for decades.
"Protestantism, the English language, English legal traditions - we trace the base of our culture back to England. If those things are important to you, then Jamestown is important to you," Gutierrez said.
Given the rise of that culture to world dominance in the 1800s and 1900s, it's easy to forget Jamestown was the fragile outpost of a fragile nation.
The interesting thing about Gutierrez' 2007 message is it incorporates the failures into the pitch of Jamestown's significance:
Jamestown wasn't the flight for freedom that we hear about in
' story in
. It wasn't about the joy of exploration. It was about getting rich. There aren't many impulses more "American" than that.
paid for an effort to colonize Mars next year and to split whatever profits resulted. That was the aim of the Virginia Company of London in 1607.
And as a colony run by businessmen, Jamestown failed. After years of glassmaking and silk growing and other false starts, the settlers found a money-making strain of tobacco. But the London businessmen still couldn't manage the colony efficiently or keep its settlers from dying. England's king took control of Virginia in 1625.
The natural resources North America provided and the trade routes it promoted fueled the English economy. The economic success of Virginia and
and the Carolinas gave England the wealth it needed to compete with
and Spain, tipping the balance of world power. Jamestown's story is the birth of an economic empire.
And trade routes aren't a one-way affair. England didn't commit to military control over its colonies and didn't manage the Virginia economy to the degree the Spanish crown controlled its American colonial economies. Private enterprise and private land ownership had its toehold and would drive immigration and race relations for centuries to come - and would eventually cause a split between colony and crown known as the
The economics led to a pattern of race relations that is still traceable in American society today.
The English settlers liked to say they weren't as harsh on the natives as the Spanish were, and the English Americans didn't commit to a formal system of slavery of Africans until two centuries after the Spanish did.
But the English also didn't treat the Native Americans as well as the French did. Once it was clear the natives weren't going to convert to Christianity in droves, the English proceeded to push them off the valuable land.
And once it was clear the Virginia colony needed tobacco to survive, English Americans grabbed all the labor they could to pick that crop - even if those laborers converted to Christianity in large numbers.
The first Africans to live and work in a British North American settlement came to Jamestown in 1619. Those first "20 and odd" people may have won their freedom and owned land. But there is no mistaking they were brought here against their will. Millions more would follow them over the next two centuries.
The economics drove the English American colonial society into an ordering where race and class were almost the same thing. It took a vicious civil war to end the system on paper. The social practices of the ordering lasted until late in the 20th century.
"All colonial societies are always more diverse than they were before they began the colonization," Horn said.
That's the nice way to say it. The planners of Jamestown 2007 have worked hard to bring in the Native Americans' story and the West Africans' story to this year's commemoration.
And that is worth the hype and the effort - to correct past omissions. This is Virginia's window of opportunity. Now is when we get the cover of National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine and have 10 minutes on the news channels.
Because Santa Fe's 400th anniversary happens in three years and St. Augustine's 450th is in a few more, Jamestown's hype could easily be washed away by the rising tide of Hispanic influence in the culture of the United States.
The big selling point to Jamestown's significance is the start of representative democratic government.
The Virginia gentlemen formed a House of Burgesses to make local laws by majority vote in 1619, a year before
Compact and the same year the first Africans were brought to the colony for work. (Historians have loved that symbolism because there's no mistaking that slave labor gave American gentlemen such as
the time to work out a free and democratic society for themselves).
Again, that idea almost didn't survive. England's King James I wanted to end the House of Burgesses at the same time he erased the Virginia Company of London's control of Virginia, but he died just after he tore up the company's charter. His son, Charles I, appointed a royal governor to supervise the colony but let the House of Burgesses remain to advise the governor.
And from that practice grew the idea that all people should govern themselves. It took until 1920 to get women the vote across the United States and until 1964 to remove major barriers to voting by blacks and the poor. But that first gulp of air at Jamestown has become the longest living democracy in the past 2,000 years.
Modern, secular Americans don't realize how big a role religion played in the thinking of Europeans four centuries ago. The first Jamestown settlers wanted to make money, but they also put on their to-do list converting the Native Americans to Christianity and establishing a base to counteract the New World successes of Catholic powers France and Spain.
Few Native Americans were converted.
But the official religion of many English colonies, the Church of England, did eventually give way to a broader religious freedom that included Baptists and Quakers and Methodists and Presbyterians and Lutherans and...
Every president of the United States of America has been Protestant except one. Voters who claim Christianity as their guiding principle continue to hold great political power in our elections.
THE LEGACY LEGACY
If Jamestown can claim all this, why do most Americans think the British colonies started at
Plantation in New England?
Jamestown has the dates and facts on its side. And Virginia was the richest and most powerful of the British colonies before the American Revolution. But the New Englanders were the loudest patriots at the time of the break from
. Once freedom was secured, they then rushed to put their own stamp on the national founding story.
The Civil War only cemented that claim. The victors write the history, and when the Northern states won the war, they made few allowances for the South's role in the founding of the United States. It's no mistake the Thanksgiving holiday in November that is New England's greatest advertiser was first declared by
as the Civil War raged.
Actually, the idea that the Puritans were the model for all of European development through British North America is a bigger myth than the myth of Manifest Destiny (Europeans marching across the continent given them by God), said Jim Whittenburg, a history professor at the
All this marketing for the 400th anniversary helps, but it still may take another 50 years for the story to sink in and Jamestown to get free of the New England story, but, he said, "I don't see that disappearing any time soon."