Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Jamestown Jubiless: "State Patriotism" and Virginia Identity in the Early Nineteenth Century

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Jamestown Jubiless: "State Patriotism" and Virginia Identity in the Early Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

Next Friday is the Jubilee,

And then we will repair,

Unto the Scene at old Jamestown

If weather's good and fair.1

THIS bit of doggerel from a verse entitled "The Old Dominion" may have caught the eye of many readers in eastern Virginia, turning the pages of their newspapers in early May 1834. In the middle of the poem, more an advertisement for the Old Dominion Steam Ship Company of Norfolk than anything, the writer referred to a forthcoming local event that was only recently planned and was just beginning to be publicized: the Jamestown Jubilee. Holiday excursions to Jamestown Island were a common entertainment in the early decades of the nineteenth century, but celebrations on the scale of a jubilee were not. On only four occasions between 1800 and 1860 were such grand commemorative events organized, and although none of these jubilees was especially well planned or executed, they were all well attended.2 All four celebrations drew thousands of men and, as promoters were always careful to point out, "ladies." In 1834, organizers assured potential guests that there were "special accommodations" for the ladies, whose comfort and "exclusive entertainment" were particular concerns. As an inducement, steamship operators offered special rates and announced their intention to remain at Jamestown overnight to "afford shelter" to their passengers. Crowds were drawn by the promise of a fine day on the river, the chance to hear eloquent speakers hold forth on patriotic themes, and the opportunity to see a theatrical performance, enjoy a festive dinner and genteel ball, or perhaps even to partake in the more "vulgar" attractions of drinking and gambling.3

The early nineteenth century has been called the "Augustan age of picnics," and the jubilee celebrations at Jamestown were clearly opportunities for an outing for those in eastern Virginia with enough money and time for such excursions. According to one report, the trip from Norfolk to Jamestown Island took about six hours, and throughout the early nineteenth century there were regular sight-seeing excursions up the river. For day-trippers, the leisurely pace might be enlivened by a recitation of the "history of every spot" delivered to the appreciative passengers. In 1834, the reporter for the American Beacon of Norfolk, who had initially made up his mind to forego the jubilee after hearing that none of the invited speakers would be in attendance, finally "determined to take a holiday and enjoy the recreation of a run up the river." In 1857 David Hunter Strother, the artist and correspondent for Harper's Weekly Magazine, described his expectation that the jubilee would be merely a "spree." When he arrived at the island, however, and found himself overwhelmed by the romantic and patriotic feelings of the place, his opinion changed.4

One particular attraction for visitors was the island itself. Rising from the tawny James River, with its landscape cleared for cultivation, stretched out flat and smooth with a vista broken by only a few ruined structures, Jamestown's image was a familiar and appealing one to Virginians. "The traveler's memory pictures in a moment the ivy-mantled ruin of old Jamestown," wrote novelist William Alexander Caruthers. And it was not only the day-tripper who was familiar with the scene. Steamships plying the route between Norfolk and Richmond, stopping at the island to let off or take on passengers, daily afforded their customers a view of the seventeenth-century church tower. Travelers often had enough time to examine the ruins before reboarding to complete their journey.5

Yet promoters of the jubilees saw their visitors coming as "pilgrims" as well as picnickers, strolling meditatively among the ruins and communing with the past. As part of the landscape, the crumbling structures often drew visitors into romantic reveries and sentimental "fancy." Some of the structures were indeed ancient, like the church tower, the graveyard, or the powder magazine; others were of more recent vintage, like the Travis mansion, which was "dilapidated and deserted" after fire destroyed it during the 1822 Virginiad celebration. …

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