Queen to hear fuller Jamestown history

May 04, 2007|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,sun reporter

While growing up in Richmond, Va., Bob Deans learned the history of the Jamestown settlement as most schoolchildren in Britain and the United States did.

"A few great men came here [in 1607] and built Jamestown," says Deans, recounting the drill, "and in the process, built this great country."

It's a simple enough story, one that no doubt comforted generations of Americans and Brits, if only for its clarity. Queen Elizabeth II herself heard it when she came to Jamestown for the first time 50 years ago, to celebrate the 350th anniversary of its founding.

When the monarch calls on Jamestown today as part of its 400th birthday festivities, she'll hear a fuller story - one that reflects how profoundly America's sense of itself as a nation has changed over the past half-century.

Not a celebration

"There's a reason organizers [of this year's festivities] are calling this a commemoration, not a celebration," says Deans, 52, a Maryland journalist whose recent book, The River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James (Rowman & Littlefield) presents a more textured view. "Jamestown ... represented the beginnings of a diverse and democratic country, but also of slavery and the centuries-long struggle between English people and Native Americans.

"Scholars and historians have begun to tell the more accurate, richer story of all the contributions of our people," he says, "and we're the better for that."

The bare bones are plenty dramatic. The first Jamestown settlers represented the Virginia Company of London, a business enterprise, and their goal was proto-American: to make money. On May 14, 1607, 104 men and boys climbed from three leaky boats to build a small wooden fort and several buildings on an island in the James River 5 miles south of what is now Williamsburg. They found no gold or silver, nor even a new passage to the Orient, but rather "starvation, disease, and a well-organized confederacy of Powhatan Indians," in Deans' words.

Comeback story

In a way, that was the first chapter in an American comeback story. Starvation, violence and disease killed off most of the colony by 1610. However, survivors learned to harvest and export tobacco, and set up the New World's first representative assembly within a decade.

During her 1957 visit, Queen Elizabeth called settlements like Jamestown "experiments and adventures in freedom."

Since then, the civil rights movement and other epic developments have given fuller voice to the story's other stakeholders, including African-Americans (the first American slaves arrived at Jamestown in 1619) and American Indians (the Powhatans and their ancestors have lived in the region for more than 15,000 years).

3 peoples converge

Historians like Virginia Tech's Peter Wallenstein (Cradle of America) and Williamsburg-based James Horn (A Land As God Made It: Jamestown And The Birth Of America), like Deans, see the significance of Jamestown in the early convergence of three peoples - a precursor to American diversity in all its complexity.

During today's visit, the queen will hear from African-American and Native American historians as well as those who recount the struggles of the English-born voyagers. To Deans, that would make a fitting bookend for a woman who, like most Brits, takes pride in the country's long association with America.

"The queen is paying tribute to a four-century relationship," he says. "What I hope we're commemorating is a celebration of what we've all become."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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