Judging Jamestown at 400

The May anniversary shows America is still searching for meaning in its historic origins.

Only 13 years ago, an archaeologist drove a shovel into earth along Virginia's James River and found what was long thought lost: the precise location of America's first permanent English settlement. The find has helped turn May's 400th birthday bash for Jamestown into a realistic look at the origins of the United States.

Like the dig itself, which has so far found about 1 million artifacts, Americans are still scratching for the truth about Jamestown, reflected lately in new histories. Dozens of events are planned for the commemoration, including a visit by Queen Elizabeth II on Friday.

The effort is largely driven by Virginia's attempt to raise Jamestown as high as the "Pilgrim story" of Plymouth in American history-telling. Like its first 100-plus colonists, Virginia hopes to reap bounty from exploitation – only this time in tourism.

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And therein lies one aspect of America reflected in early Jamestown: unabashed commerce, including the first import of black slaves into America and the mass export of a noxious weed, tobacco.

The settlement also set other patterns: a model for English colonization around the world, a form of republican government, the right and wrong ways to deal with indigenous peoples, a culture of violence, and, most of all, an ongoing American tension between liberty and license – seen, for instance, in Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves. At its 300th anniversary, Jamestown was called "the blessed mother of us all" by Teddy Roosevelt.

The freedom of the New World let loose the best and worst of its settlers. "Here every man may be master of his owne labour and land," wrote Capt. John Smith, who saved the colonists from their own ruin and from the Indians. He was the most important Englishman in the Americas until the Pilgrims landed 13 years later. Yet his name is stuck in a dubious myth about a romance with Pocahontas.

Why does America need such foundation myths? The answer lies in the first generation after the American Revolution. With official ties broken with the Old World, white Americans looked for past models to create a unique future and impress immigrants, Indians, and blacks with their civic and social values. Rather than pick Jamestown with its record of unruly and greedy men living in violence, they chose the Pilgrims (and Puritans) for their piety and fortitude. Plymouth became the church side of America; Jamestown its selfish, commerce side.

Fortunately, Virginia has tapped into that pious side, largely because of the 400th anniversary. In February, its lawmakers issued the first official state apology for slavery and the exploitation of native Americans by the country's white settlers.

Indeed, Jamestown's colonists were really indentured servants whose English masters found their gold in tobacco. The hard work and near-slave arrangement set the stage for black slavery in America.

The apology is another example of Americans looking to history to shape the present. They find a constant need to strip away old concepts and find the underlying reality. The adventurous Smith referred to an "abounding America." The Jamestown anniversary will serve again to awaken that spirit for new discoveries, whether in the past or the future.

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