Jamestown at 400: Double helping of history takes us back

JAMESTOWN, Va. - So this guy is walking toward the parking lot with his wife, big guy with a small camera around his neck, and he's obviously not happy.

"I thought there would be buildings," he says.

The first permanent English settlement in the New World is celebrating, in a responsibly big way, its 400th birthday this year.

To put that in era-perspective: In 1607, Shakespeare's latest hit play, "Antony and Cleopatra" (follow-up to his smash "Macbeth"), was playing to standing-room crowds at the Globe.

There will be commemorative huzzahs and meaningful new stuff to see and enjoy on permanent exhibit, and we'll talk about all that.

But no, after 400 years, there are no original buildings left on the original historic settlement site, Historic Jamestowne. No original fort. No original saloon. No original slaughterhouses for your photographic pleasure. Nothing.

There are buildings, on the other hand, just up the James River at Jamestown (no final e) Settlement - which might have pleased the big guy, even if the Indians in Settlement's "Indian village" looked suspiciously Swedish ...

But the Settlement isn't the settlement.

Confused? You're not alone. Drivers approaching the drive-thru pay window at Historic Jamestowne get this well-memorized explanation from the resident collector:

"Next door is the state-run museum," he says. "That's the one that has the replica ships, fort, Indian village, people in period costumes.

"This is the site of the original colony - the ruins, the excavations, the church tower, and our archeological museum and monument. If you want to see the real site - boom, it's right here."

Naturally, Jamestown Settlement - The Replica has upgraded itself for the anniversary as well, which is good news for serious history buffs, less-serious camera-toting big guys and anyone at all curious about how we got to be what we've come to be.

Which can only help - because despite the efforts of earnest people hereabout, "Jamestown" over the years and for whatever reasons has devolved into a mere footnote in the epic nation-building story so effectively told just a few miles away in Colonial Williamsburg.

"People, when they come into the area, Jamestown isn't the first place they want to come to," concedes Curt Gaul, supervising National Park Service ranger at the site, "but they want to see Jamestown when they come into the area."

Just less than they used to. There are numbers, but just trust me.

Clearly it's one of the first stops trimmed when Williamsburg-bound families start editing for time and cost. There was a brief blip of increased interest in 1995 after Disney released its truth-stretching but lovely cartoon feature "Pocahontas"; no blip at all when last year's more faithful "The New World" (Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, filmed right around the corner) failed to find an audience.

"Very few of our visitors have seen the film," says Gaul.

And in today's society, where we're more inclined to challenge convention, the very notion of cheering England's dropping heavy anchor on these shores - 42 years after the Spanish had set up permanent shop in Florida at St. Augustine - smacks to some of ethnic snobbery and disregard for the tribes who were already here.

But that ignores what the Brit colonists planted even as their guns and diseases ravaged the Indians and their tobacco sucked nutrients from the soil in search of profit.

"It's here," reminds ranger Lisa Doak in her talks to visitors, "that so much of what we know of America is rooted. Because it's here that the first democratic English common-law government met, and it's here that Africans were introduced to a way of life that would be theirs for over 200 more years, and it's here that the tobacco plantation society (later, cotton) of the old antebellum South developed ..."

... and the first constitution and the first self-taxation ...

"It all happened here. It all started here - at Jamestown."

It's a story that, at long last, is being told onsite (or onsites) with a clarity and completeness that's been missing for centuries.

Let's start at Historic Jamestowne.

What's been on display at the genuine site is an obelisk monument built for birthday No. 300, a reasonably accurate statue of Capt. John Smith, a totally bogus statue of Pocahontas that makes her look like Susan Sarandon, some fake foundations assembled over the reburied real ones (reburied to keep the real ones from dissolving), and ongoing archeological digging and sifting.

All of which, taken together, has for generations generated shrugs and yawns among those who don't arrive pre-inspired or don't dig archeology.

The one honest, semi-intact 17th century remnant of notable size is the ruin of a 1640s church tower that's been reinforced and appended to a dull 1906-07 church. Most everything else was consumed by nature, scavengers and plows when the town, never a metropolis, became economically and politically irrelevant after the colony's capital shifted to Williamsburg in 1699.

Also here, until a little while ago, was a visitor center that was, well, not great.

The first major upgrade came last spring with the opening of the Archaearium, a really bad name (was everything else taken?) for a 7,500-square-foot building impressively displaying hundreds of artifacts recovered over the last dozen years via digs on the site, most of them formerly hidden in drawers. Storyboards give them context. Very cool: a Virtual Viewer device that allows real viewers to aim the thing in a direction and, as if by magic, see an image of what was right there in colonial times.

Then the upgrade of upgrades: an improved, much-expanded visitor center complete with a new orientation film shown in a high-tech theater, and four fresh galleries full of information and still more genuine artifacts.

All this comes with a key adjustment in its mission: Along with telling of the triumphs and travails of that very-mixed bag of English immigrants, the movie and galleries finally and fully recognize the Indians who got here 10,000 years earlier and the Africans who 1) arrived from somewhere, after all, and 2) didn't all come as someone else's property.

Much of the above knowledge is the result of intensified research and continuing archeology that discovered, among other things, that the original Jamestown Fort site hadn't been swallowed by the James River - as had been long believed - but was on land that's still above water.

The fort dig continues (you're welcome to watch) within historically accurate sections of palisade wall reconstructed to provide scale.

Those wall sections, some grave markers and the re-created foundations are the historic site's only concessions to our inevitable ache for literalness. One reason for the reluctance: No one alive knows for sure what anything back then actually looked like.

"For us to reconstruct a building, there would be much more speculation and guesswork," says Gaul, "even though we can say we have the style of architecture, we have the archeological footprint, we have artifacts that tell us what kind of roofing tiles they had and what type of window frames they had, things like that.

"What we're trying to do is take what we do have - the archeology that we do have and the history that we do have - and take the site to a certain level. Beyond that level, it's definitely the case that visitors will have to use their imagination and kind of stop and pause and ponder what was here."

For those who are imagination-challenged ... there's Jamestown Settlement.

The Commonwealth of Virginia (that's "the state" to you and me) established the "living-history" museum called Jamestown Settlement in 1957 to provide a magnet for the colony's 350th anniversary. Here can be found actual-size re-creations of the ships that delivered the 104 men and boys to the mainland on April 26, 1607, a re-created Powhatan Indian village and re-created town buildings within the re-created fort.

The open-air parts are mainly and unapologetically for schoolkids, and it's a nice try, even if some details (like the fort, which never looked as it does here) aren't quite right.

"For children," says fair-haired interpreter Lynn Williams, in Indian regalia, "a lot of times if they don't know a lot about this time period and this location in history, it's good to see something like this, because, as they often say, a picture's worth a thousand words.

"We like to give them the picture first, and then load on the thousand words. Then we're hoping that'll help it stay."

If that step-in picture - Indian lodges that can be explored, ships that can be boarded, smoke that can be coughed - isn't complete enough, wait until those children, and their accompanying adults, get a load of the museum galleries new for 2007.

Tom Davidson is senior curator at Jamestown Settlement. His first galleries went up in 1990. To say that these galleries bring this attraction, and this story, to another level is, well, dramatic understatement.

Put it his way: His Pocahontas statue doesn't look at all like Susan Sarandon.

"We know vastly more about a number of aspects of 17th century Virginia than we did (in 1990)," he says. "The last 15 years have probably been more productive than the previous 50 in terms of finding out about 17th century Virginia, both through historical research and through archeology.

"What these galleries do is tell a much-expanded, enriched story of Virginia, taking into account aspects we couldn't have even discussed before because we didn't have the knowledge."

Is there some overlap with the story now being told - better than it did before - at Historic Jamestowne? Inevitably, but not to the degree that one or the other is redundant.

"They're talking very specifically about Jamestown, and they're particularly talking about how archeology informs us about the 17th century past," Davidson says. "We're looking at Jamestown in national and international context."

One of the Settlement's interior galleries: a truly dazzling reproduction of a village in what today is Angola, ancestral home to some of the earliest Africans who came to Virginia.

What's also interesting: You have these two Jamestowns, one operated largely by the feds, the other by the state, competing for tourists' interest and dollars - and yet, there is a spirit of cooperation that's become increasingly, well, foreign in these parts.

Davidson, on which - if it had to be one or the other - to visit:

"If your specific interest were Jamestown, there is only one actual Jamestown."

Historic Jamestowne.

"That is Jamestown. If you want to see, if you will, the shrine, the holy place, that's definitely Jamestown. It can't be anywhere else."

Gaul, same question:

"There are many people who come here and say, `What did it look like?' There's definitely a need that many people have that the people next door provide.

"My response is, make a day of it and visit both."

Got that, big guy?



GETTING THERE: Closest airports to Jamestown - and to Williamsburg, just 8 miles away - are Richmond and Norfolk, each about an hour's drive away.

Fares will likely be even lower in and out of Washington's Reagan National Airport, if you don't mind an extra hour on the road or really want to immerse yourself in Americana.

The Historic Jamestowne site and nearby but separate Jamestown Settlement are on the route of the Historic Triangle Shuttle, based at Colonial Williamsburg and free to ticket-holders there from April through October; the bus also links visitors to Yorktown Battlefield and Yorktown's Victory Center museum. The Yorktown sites are about 5 miles from Jamestown, 13 from Williamsburg.

If you want to skip the car altogether: Amtrak has train service between the capital and Colonial Williamsburg.

STAYING THERE: There are no lodgings at Jamestown; many visitors stay in nearby Williamsburg, combining the two experiences. There are roughly 7 gazillion motel rooms in the Williamsburg area serving Colonial Williamsburg and neighboring Busch Gardens Europe. There are limited rooms (a motel, B&Bs) in the village of Yorktown plus the usual brands on the main roads leading into town.

ADMISSIONS: A policy change at Historic Jamestowne for 2007, which will simplify things there: $10 for adults, which covers both the site and Yorktown Battlefield; kids 15 and under free.

Jamestown Settlement tickets are $13.50 for adults, $6.25 for kids 6-12, littler ones free; for Yorktown Victory Center, it's $8.75, $4.50 and free.

Various combinations are available that include parts of the above or everything. Details: 888-593-4682;

THE BIRTHDAY PARTY: An ambitious three-day commemoration honoring Jamestown's founding is set for May 11-13 in both Jamestown sites and Anniversary Park (a converted campground across from the Settlement), featuring concerts and other performances and presentations.

Among the dignitaries expected to attend: Queen Elizabeth, though it's not certain whether she'll be there during this celebration or some other time in May. (President Bush has been invited but at this point hasn't responded.)

Single-day tickets for the weekend only: $30 for adults, $15 for kids 6-12, under 6 free. Information: 866-400-1607;

Additional Jamestown-related events will be happening through much of Virginia over much of the year. Details:

INFORMATION: On Historic Jamestowne and Yorktown Battlefield (Colonial National Historical Park): 757-898-2409; For the Historic Jamestowne Web site of APVA-Preservation Virginia:

On Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center: 888-593-4682;

On Colonial Williamsburg: 800-HISTORY;