By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2007
Every half-century or so, Virginia throws a party to commemorate the arrival of English colonists on its shores. This year comes a biggie: the 400th anniversary. The whole world's invited, and the guest list is especially long and prestigious.
Even the queen of the mother country plans to cross the Atlantic to help mark the occasion.
Already, the cost of activities surrounding the bash is upward of $200 million. The trick has been how to celebrate something long buried under a mound of dirt: Jamestown. But major archaeological discoveries in recent years have helped Virginia piece together the outlines of the original settlement and how the colonists managed to survive.
The commonwealth hopes to wow an estimated 90,000 visitors with a three-day celebration, May 11-13, including musical performances, fireworks, exhibits and a flotilla of 17th-century replica ships, to commemorate the founding of the first permanent English colony in the New World.
Sandra Day O'Connor, the former Supreme Court justice, will be on hand to make sure no one forgets that the Jamestown expedition helped give birth to the United States and its principles of representative democracy and free enterprise. But the headliner is Queen Elizabeth II, who has announced her intent to visit the United States in May. President Bush has also been invited to the gala weekend, but the White House has yet to R.S.V.P.
The queen, who visited Jamestown for its 350th anniversary soon after ascending the throne, will not attend the three-day gala, according to a Buckingham Palace spokesman who would speak only on the condition of anonymity.
Although the spokesman declined to say more than that the queen will come that month, citing security concerns, the Times of London has reported that she will visit the United States from May 3-9, stay at the Williamsburg Inn, visit Jamestown and make a detour to see the Kentucky Derby. A White House spokesman said a state dinner in her honor is planned for the first week of May.
Festivities began last May with the opening of an archaeological museum in Jamestown and the launch of the Godspeed, a replica of one of the original ships to make the crossing. "Jamestown Live!" brought about 400 children from 49 states to Jamestown in November for a national teach-in. The event featured a webcast that went out to about 1 million students throughout the country. The commemoration will wind down with a forum on democracy in the fall.
The planning goes back more than a decade.
On April 4, 1994, William M. Kelso jabbed a shovel into the earth at Jamestown, hoping to find the remains of the original fort built by English colonists almost 400 years earlier.
Other archaeologists thought he was crazy. Previous excavations suggested the 1607 fort had been washed into the James River.
But Kelso, an archaeological crew of one, hoped to find it in time for the 400th. With 13 years to go, he did it in just under a year.
About the same time Kelso was digging, then-Virginia Gov. George Allen (R) appointed a committee to begin planning a national and international celebration befitting such a momentous event.
The committee reached out to African Americans and Native Americans in an effort to represent groups less inclined to see cause for celebration in the Europeans' arrival in the New World, which brought the displacement of natives and the beginnings of slavery. The committee also started rounding up cash.
"We put in tens and tens of millions of dollars into Jamestown," Allen said in a recent interview.
Kelso found the original fort and much more, including several colonists' graves and more than 1 million artifacts.
And Allen's committee grew much larger, including Jamestown 2007, a special state sub-agency that is overseeing the 18-month commemoration. Initially, Jamestown 2007 had one employee: Jeanne Zeidler, its executive director. Today, the state employs about 40 people to pull together an event budgeted at upward of $30 million, Zeidler said.
Most of that money has come from the state's residents, largely through the sale of Jamestown 2007 license plates. Virginia began collecting money from the plates in July 2002, when motorists could opt for a $2 voluntary fee, said Bill Foy, a spokesman for Virginia's Department of Motor Vehicles. A year later, Virginia began collecting a mandatory $1 fee on each new license plate, including the current standard-issue plate commemorating Jamestown. (A snazzier Jamestown plate, which costs more, contributes $5.) The state, through the license plates, had raised $27 million through January.
The state also has laid out more than $100 million, including about $70 million to renovate Jamestown Settlement, a 50-year-old museum with galleries and living-history exhibits about a half-mile from the site of the actual settlement.
The federal government has also pitched in. Congress created the Jamestown 400th Commemoration Commission in 2000 and funded it with $2.4 million over seven years. The commission has helped the state find financing and arranged aid from 26 federal agencies.
The State Department will contribute $900,000 to a Foundations and Future of Democracy forum in September; the U.S. Mint has produced two commemorative coins; and the Pentagon has promised military bands and a possible flyover, a commission official said.
Private corporations, such as Norfolk Southern and Anheuser-Busch, have contributed. Nonprofit groups dedicated to historical preservation of Jamestown and the region, such as the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, have given millions more.
The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities -- which manages the actual site of the fort, known as Historic Jamestowne, with the National Park Service -- raised more than $52 million to renovate its facilities and excavate the settlement, including about $8 million to find the fort and preserve its artifacts.
Elizabeth S. Kostelny, the association's executive director, said those investments have brought significant returns. News that the fort had been found, and the retrieval of more than 1 million artifacts, brought a surge of global interest including documentaries and books that have reached 350 million households since 2000. Tourism leapt 19 percent in July after the Archearium Museum opened, and a replica of the Godspeed sailed the East Coast in May.
The earliest known Jamestown commemoration occurred in 1807, Kostelny said. A century later, President Theodore Roosevelt marked the tricentennial with Booker T. Washington, Mark Twain and 1.5 million visitors.
Allen, a history buff since his days at the University of Virginia, said Jamestown deserves a grand anniversary.
"Teddy Roosevelt rightly called Jamestown the blessed mother of us all," Allen said. "It's America's first home town. It's where we encountered each other."
This time, organizers sought to create a more inclusive event that would be mindful of the negative consequences of that contact on Native Americans and African Americans. Stephen R. Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy Tribe and a member of the Virginia Council on Indians, said a key early shift was to focus the anniversary more on commemoration than celebration.
"One thing we wanted to have was full involvement in the entire process," said Rex M. Ellis, an African American who is vice president of the Historic Area for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. "And I feel that has taken place for the most part."
A symposium in October 2006 explored Virginia Indians' survival. Last month, thousands of people joined host Tavis Smiley, African American scholars and other public figures at Hampton Roads to discuss "The State of the Black Union."
Perhaps the biggest -- and luckiest -- anniversary gift was buried in the ground all along.
Kelso, 65, a state archaeologist, persuaded the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities to try to find the fort as a way of generating interest in the organization and the looming anniversary.
"I said, 'Hey, wouldn't it be a great idea if we could commemorate the 400th anniversary by finding the fort?' " Kelso said.
Problem was, most archaeologists believed the structure had vanished in the James River long ago because of erosion. Kelso remembers the day he was working at the site when a geology professor trooped by the dig with a tour group.
"He said, 'Folks, now here is a crazy person,' " Kelso said, recalling how his face flushed in embarrassment. "I started to think, 'Maybe I am crazy.' "
But Kelso felt he had to dig for the fort or live with a sense of regret until his death.
Eventually, he found the markings of the fort's walls, grave sites and an abandoned well filled with a wealth of artifacts, and the world took note.
"I was convinced the fort was there," Kelso said. "Nobody believed it."