Colonial history quiz: Bartholomew who?

A skeleton in Jamestown, Va., brings new fame to one of America's forgotten founders

Seventh-grader Vivienne Clark from Albuquerque, N.M., can rattle off facts about Bartholomew Gosnold: In 1602 he sailed to New England, becoming the first English explorer to set foot on Cape Cod. He captained one of the ships that carried settlers to Jamestown, Va., in 1607.

"I actually think he may have made a better leader in Jamestown than John Smith," Vivienne says with some authority. Smith is widely credited with establishing what would become the first permanent English settlement in North America, but Vivienne concludes: "John Smith was kind of an opportunist."

She first came across Gosnold while researching relations between early settlers and native Americans. This week, Vivienne is in Washington to present her paper in the finals of the National History Day competition - the culmination of a yearlong program sponsored by the University of Maryland.

But Vivienne, who is home-schooled, is unusual among middle-schoolers. She might even stand out in a university lecture hall.

That's because Bartholomew Gosnold is a man history classes have largely left behind.

His minor role in the Jamestown historical record, and near invisibility in popular legend, is partly a matter of who writes history. In this case, it was Smith, the brash adventurer who recounted his version throughout his long life.

But a skeleton believed to be that of Gosnold may change all that. The discovery in 2003 at the site of the Jamestown fort has captured the attention of Colonial historians, who are closely following efforts this week in England to determine - through DNA testing of relatives' remains - whether the bones are in fact Gosnold's.

Perhaps more important, the Gosnold excavation has refocused a spotlight on the true seat of this country's founding. William Kelso, director of archaeology with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which uncovered the bones, has called him "a founding father of modern America."

After Gosnold and Smith's arrival in Jamestown, it would be another 13 years before the Pilgrims sailed the Mayflower to Plymouth, Mass., using Smith's navigational maps. But that outpost has long overshadowed the Jamestown Colony - which will celebrate its 400th anniversary in 2007.

It's also been easy to let a few major characters dwarf all the other players.

Gosnold, a lawyer turned privateer, played a pivotal role in organizing the expedition and securing a charter from King James. He captained the Godspeed with its 52 passengers.

On his first trip to North America, in 1602, Gosnold discovered Cape Cod, naming Martha's Vineyard after his first-born daughter.

"[Gosnold's] name is well known to specialists," says David Price, author of "Love and Hate in Jamestown." "With the unearthing of the skeleton, it's a chance to educate the public about who he was and what he did."

Smith was a colorful character, swaggering and proud, and has even inspired a movie. "The New World," centered on the story of Smith and Pocahontas, is scheduled for release in November. Smith also chronicled his life in writing.

By contrast, Gosnold "was a more retiring figure," says Crandall Shifflett, history professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and project director of the online archive, Virtual Jamestown. "He never really tooted his own horn."

Though crucial in organizing the expedition to Jamestown, Gosnold, once there, didn't live long enough to leave a large footprint on the colony. He died just three months after entering Chesapeake Bay. Mr. Price's book jacket calls Jamestown "one of the great survival stories of American history." But in the end, Gosnold was not one of its survivors.

As Vivienne and her mom made their way from Albuquerque to Washington, they stopped in Jamestown. As a little girl, Vivienne says, she "absolutely loved" exploring the replicas of ships at the Jamestown Settlement in Williamsburg, Va.: the Susan Constant, Gosnold's Godspeed, and the Discovery. Now, like other Jamestown enthusiasts, she's eager for news about Gosnold's remains.

On Monday, Mr. Kelso from Virginia and a team of British archaeologists began uncovering remains that are believed to be Gosnold's sister, Elizabeth Tilney, in Shelley, a village in Suffolk, England. The plan is to extract a sample of mitochondrial DNA. At the same time, they are searching for DNA from Gosnold's niece, Katherine Blackerby, in Stowmarket. It's the first time the Church of England has granted permission for such excavations.

Kelso hopes a positive identification will help "realign the record." To that end he has already made the lecture circuit, speaking to undergraduates earlier this year about the man he calls an "unsung hero," who, until now, has been "sidestepped" by history.

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