Jamestown doesn’t much make the news except when someone famous visits. Queen Elizabeth II has come twice, in 1957 on the 350-year anniversary of the founding of this first permanent English colony in North America, and in 2007 on the four hundredth. Presidents sometimes stop by, too, most recently Donald Trump on the four-hundredth anniversary of 1619, marking the coincidence of the first representative assembly in America and the arrival in Virginia of the first African slaves. In these hyper-race-conscious times, the second half of that coincidence has occasioned considerably more comment than the first, with The New York Times even launching a “1619 Project” for the breathtaking purpose of reframing all of American history.
Less specious and more enduring, a rather different project began here in 1994. “Jamestown Rediscovery,” an immense work of archaeological and historical retrieval, began on a hunch of the archaeologist William Kelso and others that one of the myths about Jamestown—that the site of the original 1607 James Fort had been lost to the James River through erosion— wasn’t true. Records indicate that the first English settlers had built a church near the center of their fort. A brick church tower is the only seventeenth-century structure still standing, the fourth iteration of a vanished wooden original that was, they surmised, likely close at hand. They were right, as careful digging soon disclosed wood-stained earth marking the postholes that once held up the first Anglican church in America. With that, the hunt was on.
The results have revitalized the whole Jamestown endeavor and more. Endless artifacts (currently two million or so) dramatize the lives of individuals largely lost to the written record. Tools and trade goods, arms and armor, coins and jewelry, religious artifacts and medical kit, food remains and, yes, bones, tell of daily life, and death, among the settlers attempting to plant themselves on this distant shore four centuries ago. “Jamestown Rediscovery” has become one of the world’s largest such archaeological projects and, for its concentration of treasure in such a small place, certainly one of the richest.
There are two ways to see it. A 7,500-square-foot “archaearium” was opened in 2006 over the remains of Jamestown’s seventeenth-century statehouse, which can be seen through a glass floor. The building houses artifacts dating from 1607 to 1624, when the Virginia Company dissolved and Virginia became a royal colony. Display pieces are organized to weave a narrative of what happened nearby. It is a remarkably open museum affording views—the context, as it were—of the very sites where the artifacts on display once were used. What is not glass is copper-clad, a nod to copper’s importance in early trade between natives and newcomers. In more than a nod to those natives, “The World of Pocahontas” exhibit was added in 2014, relating not just her sad personal story but the lost opportunity it represented for lasting amity between the English and the Powhatans. Pocahontas, who married the Englishman John Rolfe, died and was buried in England. Near her exhibit in the archaearium lies a skeleton now revealed by forensics to be that of another Englishman, Matthew Gosnold, who captained the Godspeed, the second of the three ships of discovery. Described by his more famous contemporary Captain John Smith as one of Jamestown’s true founding fathers, Gosnold died as far from his home as Pocahontas from hers: in Virginia at age thirty-six, just three months after the Jamestown landing.
The other way to see Jamestown is simply to walk around, preferably right at the 9:00 a.m. opening before crowds gather. There is not much here but big trees, marshland, some ruins, and a few archaeologists quietly scraping away for more clues. The fact that Jamestown was so long forgotten explains why so much of it is so well preserved. After the colonial capital was moved to Williamsburg in 1699, Jamestown Island reverted to a backwater where a few farmers raised livestock and tobacco. During the Civil War, the Confederates fortified it with a small battery (the earthworks are visible today), which the Federal soldiers ignored.
To see Jamestown, one way or the other, in 2019 is to bump up against the four-hundred-year anniversary that prompted President Trump’s visit in July. As his speech acknowledged, much began here, for good and ill: the first seed of representative government in America as well as America’s “original sin” of slavery. The great temptation on such occasions is always to interpret: to pronounce what it all means for us today. The archaeologists, those patient retrievers of lost things, may be wiser. As they are quick to tell you, they don’t dig things up. They uncover and disclose. Much of it is dirty, sweaty handwork. They do it gently and respectfully, and they are slow to judge.
Rich written records survive too, from which we know a great deal about 1619. Inspired by Sir Edwin Sandys, the treasurer of the Virginia Company and a member of the House of Commons in the reign of James I, the Company determined to re-conceive the colony as a Christian commonwealth, a political structure emergent, but untried, in sixteenth-century Europe. Sandys’s Great Reforms, put forth in the church at Jamestown that summer of 1619, embraced the rule of law, political representation, private property, and Christian morality as the keys to human betterment and a good society. Virginia, Sandys intended, was to be the test. As the historians tell us, Virginia, which still calls itself a commonwealth, both passed and failed. One propitious historical thread reaches from 1619 to 1776 and 1787. A malevolent one reaches from 1619 through the colonial slave trade, the antebellum Cotton Kingdom, the failed first Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and the inadequate Second Reconstruction to, as The New York Times would have us believe, irredeemable institutional racism today.
Monarchs and presidents come to Jamestown by air. Most ordinary visitors come by land. The best approach is by water, crossing on the ferry from Scotland in Surry County on the south side of the James to Jamestown landing where are moored replicas of the three ships: Gosnold’s Godspeed, the flagship Susan Constant, and the tiny Discovery. The ferries are free and frequent and run year-round. With names like Virginia, Pocahontas, and Powhatan, each makes a graceful S-curve across the great stream, and if you stand on the starboard rail you can watch the tree line grow as you approach the low swampland of Jamestown Island. So those early English adventurers, and no doubt many more natives long before them, first beheld this place.
“Get into the other fellow’s shoes,” our parents admonished, hoping we might learn some humility. Before rendering emotivist judgments about the meaning of what happened on some spot of ground long ago, it helps to behold it as others beheld it then. At Jamestown this is still possible. Those natives and newcomers who first beheld the town and its environs are remote from us. But they left a trail along which, slowly and sometimes painfully, we got to where we are today. It is in such a spirit that we ought to remember anniversaries like that of 1619.