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Judging Jamestown at 400

The Christian Science Monitor, April 3, 2007 | Go to article overview

Judging Jamestown at 400


Only 13 years ago, an archaeologist drove a shovel into earth along Virginia's James River and found what was long thought lost: the precise location of America's first permanent English settlement. The find has helped turn May's 400th birthday bash for Jamestown into a realistic look at the origins of the United States.

Like the dig itself, which has so far found about 1 million artifacts, Americans are still scratching for the truth about Jamestown, reflected lately in new histories. Dozens of events are planned for the commemoration, including a visit by Queen Elizabeth II on Friday.

The effort is largely driven by Virginia's attempt to raise Jamestown as high as the "Pilgrim story" of Plymouth in American history-telling. Like its first 100-plus colonists, Virginia hopes to reap bounty from exploitation - only this time in tourism.

And therein lies one aspect of America reflected in early Jamestown: unabashed commerce, including the first import of black slaves into America and the mass export of a noxious weed, tobacco.

The settlement also set other patterns: a model for English colonization around the world, a form of republican government, the right and wrong ways to deal with indigenous peoples, a culture of violence, and, most of all, an ongoing American tension between liberty and license - seen, for instance, in Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves. At its 300th anniversary, Jamestown was called "the blessed mother of us all" by Teddy Roosevelt.

The freedom of the New World let loose the best and worst of its settlers. "Here every man may be master of his owne labour and land," wrote Capt. John Smith, who saved the colonists from their own ruin and from the Indians.

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