When Queen Elizabeth II visited Jamestown, Va., in 1957 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the first British settlement in North America, she was 31 years old and had been on the throne for less than five years.
A lot has happened since, to her and to Jamestown.
On Friday, when the queen returns for the 400th anniversary of the settlement’s founding, she will see a much different representation of the colony, complete with Indians and blacks whose fortunes crossed there.
“She got the sanitized version in 1957,” said Peter Wallenstein, a Virginia Tech historian whose book “Cradle of America” focused on the convergence of Europeans, American Indians and black slaves at Jamestown. “Now she’ll see a more inclusive view of all three of the great racial groups that met there. Jamestown represents the origins of democracy and slavery.”
Like historic sites around the world, Jamestown has gone postmodern, incorporating the history of individuals into the history of nations.
“You can’t just have celebrations of glorious Englishmen anymore,” said Joyce Goodfriend, a historian at the University of Denver. “These remembrances have all taken place before, but in this round we are much more sensitive to the role of Native Americans and African Americans.”
More than a decade ago, Virginia officials hired a team of archeologists, led by William M. Kelso, to excavate the Jamestown site. The team’s discoveries -- including more than a million artifacts as well as the markings for the original fort -- delighted historians and tourists alike.
“In 1957, everybody thought the original fort had washed into the James River,” said Elizabeth S. Kostelny, executive director of the Assn. for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. “This time, the queen can actually stand where these events happened.”
When the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, visited last time (the Washington Post then called them “the lovely British monarch and her rangy consort”), she spoke about the British settlements in the New World as “experiments and adventures in freedom.”
This time, planners are casting Jamestown as the first beacon of a pluralistic democracy. “Anniversary Weekend reintroduces the world to Jamestown, helping visitors discover how the settlement made democracy, free enterprise and cultural diversity defining characteristics of American society,” explains a news release from Historic Jamestowne, the umbrella group planning the commemoration.
To historians, Jamestown’s 400th anniversary is an occasion to mark what has been learned since the last major commemoration.
“The queen and the president are celebrating the journey of democracy, trying to put a pleasant spin on Jamestown,” said Peter Mancall, a USC professor of history and anthropology. Scholars, he said, think the significance of Jamestown is in the history of three peoples.
Despite horrific costs, including the deaths of most of the settlement’s 214 people during the “starving time” in 1609 and 1610, Mancall said, the English discovered an economic basis for survival: tobacco. In a harbinger of the conflicts that would dominate the continent’s politics, settlers also clashed with the Powhatan Indians and forcibly brought in Angolans.
Historians see the 400th anniversary as part of a debate over divergent views of U.S. origins: Who were the prototypical Americans -- the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock with their quest for personal religious freedom, or settlers at Jamestown who came to make money?
“The people who came to Massachusetts Bay already knew who they were but wanted a more congenial environment,” Wallenstein said. “In Virginia, to the extent they came voluntarily, they came to reinvent themselves.”
On some level, he said, “that is far more quintessentially American.”
Planners have been careful not to call the commemoration a celebration. Indian tribes were pushed off their lands, and the Africans who arrived in 1619 were among the origins of the slave trade in America.
But with heritage tourism now an estimated $30-billion-a-year business, planners also are eager to promote Jamestown as the original American town.
“The very essence of modern America took root on the banks of the James River in 1607, at Jamestown, Virginia ... 13 years before the pilgrims founded Plymouth in Massachusetts,” says a message by promoters at www.jamestown2007.org.
For all the efforts to highlight the historic primacy of the British settlement, it may be Jamestown’s very unsavory tale that makes it more appealing to a reality-TV generation. As film noir, said San Diego State University anthropologist Seth Mallios, “Jamestown has it all: unprovoked attacks, cannibalism” -- one of the colonists killed and salted his wife during the starving time -- “disease, treachery and mutiny; and here I am only describing the English colonists.”
Mallios said he marveled at the “density” of the artifacts the Jamestown dig turned up in 12 years. He was site supervisor.
His favorite artifact is a small silver instrument, “pierced in the middle so they could wear it as a necklace,” with a point on one end and a spoon on the other, giving the wearer both a toothpick and an ear-pick.
“These were Elizabethan Englishmen; these were Shakespeare’s people,” he said. “Here they were on this dashing adventure and they wanted to make sure their ears were clean.”
Last year, Virginia officials opened an “archaearium,” an archeological museum that tells the story of the interaction between English colonists and the Indians through the recovered artifacts.
“We found pottery that is typical of the Indians that lived in the area,” said Kostelny, adding that chemical analysis discovered that the pots were used to cook venison and corn stew, “not something the English would have known to cook themselves.”
After the queen tours some of the new discoveries this week at Jamestown, she’ll head east to watch the 133rd running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on Saturday.
A horse enthusiast, the queen has stabled horses at Kentucky farms and spent time at the 1,800-acre Lane’s End Farm, owned by Will Farish, a racehorse breeder who served as ambassador to Britain during President Bush’s first term.
On Sunday, the queen and the duke will go to Washington; they will be guests of honor at a state dinner Monday night. On Tuesday they will tour the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where the queen will have an opportunity to speak to the crew aboard the International Space Station.