Jamestown, Virginia: How to Make History Cool

Newsweek, April 30, 2007 | Go to article overview

Jamestown, Virginia: How to Make History Cool


Byline: Beschloss's next book, "Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America, 1789-1989," will be published in May.

In April 1994, at Jamestown, an archeologist named Bill Kelso looked into the hole he had just dug and cried, "Holy Moses!" What inspired Kelso's outburst was a fragment of pottery--evidence that he had discovered the exact site of the first English-speaking settlement in North America. The British fort known to Capt. John Smith and the Indian princess Pocahontas was built in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Until Kelso's discovery, most people thought the fort's remains had been washed away by the James River. Starting with Pocahontas, what little we knew about Jamestown's founders--sent by London's Virginia Company to dig for gold, Christianize the natives and find a way to the Orient--sprang from half-remembered stories and outright fable. Now science is coming to the rescue. And just in time. Next month the settlement's 400th anniversary will be celebrated with visits from President Bush and Queen Elizabeth II. Since Kelso's "Eureka" moment, his archeological detectives and other scholars have been changing the public's understanding of Jamestown, which may have been heavily influenced by Walt Disney's cartoon "Pocahontas," whose miniskirted heroine falls in love with the dashing John Smith and persuades her father, Chief Powhatan, not to execute him.

In fact, as New York University historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman writes in her new book "The Jamestown Project," the settlement was to some extent "the creation story from hell." One starving resident cannibalized his pregnant wife; others ate rats and shoes, and extorted and killed the Indians. By the time Jamestown gave way to Williamsburg as Colonial Virginia's capital (1699), its denizens had mortgaged themselves to tobacco-growing and African-American slavery.

One reason that American children, obsessed by laser tag and videogames, have been so turned off by history is that the traditional airbrushed version of the American past seems so unreal. Visitors to the new Jamestown won't have that problem. Just opened on the site is a state-of-the-art structure dubbed an "archaearium," which displays some of the Kelso team's most dramatic discoveries--including some actual Jamestownians. While digging near one of the fort's walls, the team found a surprisingly well-preserved skeleton with a bullet in what used to be its leg. Another skeleton on display probably belonged to Capt. …

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