Jamestown Fights Its Second-Rate Image

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007

Four centuries later, Jamestown is still looking for a little respect.

True, breathtaking reproductions of the tall-masted ships will set sail to mark its 400th birthday, and Virginia is hosting a multimillion-dollar bash next month with pageantry, celebrities and fireworks to honor the first permanent English colony in the New World.

Even Queen Elizabeth II is coming to the Old Dominion to acknowledge her countrymen's role in giving birth to a prosperous new nation.

In the American psyche, however, Plymouth Rock is where it all began.

Despite efforts to assert itself as the home of U.S. democracy and free enterprise, Jamestown has lagged in stature and recognition, becoming the Rodney Dangerfield of early colonial settlements.

"Jamestown has been forgotten," said James Horn, vice president of research for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and author of "A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America."

The only permanent European colony whose contributions could be said to have been even more obscured is truly the oldest -- St. Augustine, which was founded by Spanish explorers in 1565. Still, historians say that the Florida city's fortunes may be on the rise as Spanish-speaking immigrants reshape U.S. culture.

"We've heard it all before -- many times," said William R. Adams, director of St. Augustine's Heritage Tourism Department. "St. Augustine has generally been ignored because it's of Spanish origin, and not English. Obviously, all the firsts belong to St. Augustine."

But this is Jamestown's year, and Virginians and students of the early colonial period are working to make sure that attention is paid. The 18 months of events commemorating the settlement are focusing attention on a colony that has long been overshadowed, organizers say.

"Ain't it great that everybody's having that kind of discussion?" asked Elizabeth S. Kostelny, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, a nonprofit agency that oversees the site of the original fort with the National Park Service. "It's engaging everybody in a debate about what it means to be an American."

Blame Thanksgiving. Blame the Civil War. Blame Harvard University and the educational hegemony of New England. Or, blame the colonists and their conduct: The Pilgrims were seen as pious seekers coming for religious freedom, but the Jamestown colonists were high-society fops and lower-class riffraff hoping to strike it rich. Even Capt. John Smith, the colony's bona fide hero, famously complained that some of his fellow colonists preferred to starve rather than work.

But less than 200 years after the Pilgrims struck land aboard the Mayflower in 1620, the flinty New Englanders had laid claim to the nation's founding myth. Jamestown and St. Augustine were virtually airbrushed out of the picture, historians say. St. Augustine and Jamestown might have been first to figure out how to create permanent colonies, but, the feeling goes, Plymouth was the cradle of the nation's soul.

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