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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Historic Jamestown



Somehow it’s impossible to get Virginia off my mind, and I return to the Williamsburg area again in favor of other sections of the historic triangle. We go for the real thing—historic Jamestown, the place where the American way of life was born.

Historic Jamestown as well as historic Yorktown (in a future issue) is operated through a partnership between APVA (Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities) which received 22.5 acres of the town site in 1893 and The National Park Service which acquired the balance of the 1,500 acres in 1934 and designated it as a Colonial National Historic Park. What this means for us is reasonable admission fees, or none since Rob has the Golden Passport, trained professional U. S. Park Ranger Guides, committed and knowledgeable APVA volunteers, actors, and working archeologists all prepared to enhance our ability to step back in time and step up in understanding. For me it is a glorious experience!

Jamestown never fulfilled the destiny of becoming a great city as John Smith envisioned, and so attuned are we to bits and pieces of the romantic Pocahontas legend that the real significance fades in our understanding. Life was harsh, desperate and demanding. Only ninety of the original three hundred colonists survived the 1609-1610 winter. We know this because John Rolfe, the man who married Pocahontas told us so himself! Yes, there beneath the trees lining the James River’s banks stood that colonist who explained why so many others died. The original settlers were “gentlemen,” not craftsmen, and they did not possess the necessary survival skills. The only thing they shared equally among themselves was death!

Someone finally came up with a novel idea: work more; eat more. If one did not take from the common store, he would be given an additional three acres. Nothing like a bit of motivation to make a fellow want to be independent! James I chartered the Virginia Company, after all, to make money, not to coddle. Remember how the Virginia Company stymied wine production (see in archives Williamsburg Winery Nov. 30,2006) by insisting on tobacco. Here the insistence on tobacco caused a shaky, never really successful economy. The company used the “headsight” system to recruit colonists: Pay your own way. The husband receives fifty acres, the wife fifty, and the indentured servant fifty. Seemed like a good deal—in England.

John filled us in on the details of his and Pocahontas’ life here and in England where she died in her early 20s, unable to fight European disease. There is a statue in her honor in historic Jamestown.

Was I listening to Paul Harvey telling me “the rest of the story”? No, I was listening to Richard A. Cheatham of Living History Associates, Ltd. After his illuminating performance, I had a chance to chat with Dick Cheatham. This actor is actually a 14th generation descendent of John Rolfe and Pocahontas. How cool is that?

With this background information we met our park Ranger, Lee Penham Cotton, enthusiastic, humorous, and highly knowledgeable. Intriguing during our time with Lee were some of the archeological facts surrounding the settlement. In trying to unearth John Smith’s original fort, for instance, archeologists had to go through Civil War earthenworks. The drawings, by the way, existing of John Smith’s fort were actually drawn by a Spanish spy!

We were greeted by another colonial settler in the Jamestown Church where we could see the original footings and walls excavated and protected by glass. From its inception, Jamestown was a full-fledged Parish of the Church of England, a fact that remained for more than 150 years until the outbreak of the American Revolution. Reincarnated several times because of fires, the church, in 1614, was where John Rolfe married Pocahontas. The partially ruined church tower is the only 17th century structure standing above ground in Jamestown and one of the earliest English built edifices standing in the United States.

On the royal seal above the entryway, I saw the Lion, representing the power of mighty England, and the emblem of the Royal Order of the Garter. A wonderful story surrounds this oddly named rank. It seems that Edward II was dancing with his mistress when her garter fell off. He said, “Evil to those who think evil,” and he then elevated the garter to the highest order.

Here, too, the first representative legislative assembly in the New World met in 1619. Imagine. This is OUR history.

Even Queen Elizabeth has visited. She came in 1957 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding.

Outside we were able to see ongoing archeological digs of John Smith’s 1607 fort. We received explanations from an APVA guide. We wandered through the rest of the area, looking at the different monuments to Smith and Pocahontas. There is also a Tercentery Monument. We visited the glass house where artisans demonstrated 17th century glass blowing techniques, one of Virginia’s earliest industries, begun in 1608 by German and Polish craftsmen.

By 1699 after a tumultuous life and burning by back country settlers and a Statehouse fire in 1698, the government moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg. The town never recovered.

Once again, I wholeheartedly recommend our National Park Service for protecting and maintaining not only our natural resources but also for preserving our heritage through their dedicated Park Rangers. From the East Coast to the West Coast, we’ve never been disappointed with a visit to a National Park.

BTW, you can also visit nearby Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum, but after the major part of the day in Historic Jamestown, we were just unable to do it this time. Guess we’ll just have to go back!






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