In its 400th year, Jamestown rising to Plymouth's prominence

Associated Press • Mar 25, 2007 at 12:15 PM

JAMESTOWN, Va. - The first permanent English settlement in North America has more personality than many historic attractions.

Capt. John Smith, the pint-sized adventurer, left a breathless narrative of his exploits.

Commerce took root here, and so did tobacco and slavery.

Then there was the cannibalism.

Still, as the nation prepares to commemorate Jamestown's 400th anniversary in May, many see this swampy outpost on the James River as a coming attraction to the Pilgrims' arrival at Plymouth Rock, even though fans of the buckled shoe will have to wait until 2020 to mark Plymouth's fourth century.

New Englanders, for example, easily tick off why the Massachusetts attraction trumps Jamestown - the Thanksgiving feast, the Pilgrims' pure pursuit of religious freedom, and the Mayflower.

Jamestown, on the other hand, "is the creation story from hell," writes one historian in a new book on the settlement, "The Jamestown Project." Conflict, disease, horrific killings and starvation - including a man dining on his pregnant wife - are all part of the back story of Jamestown, founded in 1607 as a business venture.

"It's pulp nonfiction compared to the family friendly tale of pious Pilgrims dining with gentle Indians," author Tony Horwitz writes in reviewing a raft of new Jamestown books for The Washington Post.

But if not for Jamestown, scholars say, there may not have been a Plymouth, and we all might be speaking Spanish. The Spanish, intent on spreading Roman Catholicism, twice were turned away from the nearby Chesapeake Bay during the early years of the Protestant Jamestown settlement.

"There's no question that Jamestown throws down the gauntlet to the Spanish," said James Horn, who wrote "A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America."

Now, with Virginia amid an 18-month commemoration, Jamestown could finally outshine Plymouth and fully embrace what historian and writer Nathaniel Philbrick calls its proper claim as "the rightful birthing ground of America."

"Not only was the (Jamestown) settlement found more than a decade before, but the colony that developed from those beginnings was, in many ways, more quintessentially American since it was all about making money," the author of "Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War" wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Part of Plymouth's enduring popularity is pure arithmetic.

An estimated 35 million people worldwide claim to be descendants of the Pilgrims, including Miles Standish, Plymouth's own intrepid military leader, and William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony.

"A lot of Mayflower descendants are proud of their ancestors. People get attached to them," said Stephen O'Neill, associate director and curator of collections at The Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth. Among its collections: the wicker basket that carried Peregrine White, who was born in the Mayflower as it anchored off of Provincetown, Mass.

David A. Price, author of "Love and Hate in Jamestown," said Virginia and Southern history became tangled in the Civil War, knocking down Smith and Pocahontas a few notches in the American consciousness.

"Most importantly," Price wrote in an e-mail, "we look back on the Plymouth colonists and see an idealized, sepia-tinted version of ourselves - hardworking, earnest, seeking religious liberty.

"We look back on the Jamestown colony and see an earthier, less appealing, but equally truthful version of ourselves: beset by jealousy and politics, motivated by dreams of money."

The Pilgrim's story has been a familiar part of every child's public education, often an inspiration for school recitals.

"Certainly, growing up in Massachusetts, everyone goes to Plimouth Plantation," said Mark Sylvia, town manager of Plymouth, which has grown to 60,000 residents. "It's ingrained in the American culture - that's where the first Thanksgiving was held."

Plymouth had an edge from the start. It was a family based settlement, unlike the male-dominated Jamestown venture; the settlers learned to coexist with native populations for more than a half century, unlike the Jamestown gang, who had a complicated, often violent relationship with the Powhatan Indians; and it had some powerful symbols.

"They are THE PILGRIMS," Philbrick wrote. "They have an easily identifiable monument: Plymouth Rock (even if it is one of the biggest letdowns in American tourism). They have a ship: the Mayflower."

Jamestown had three ships - the Godspeed, Susan Constant and Discovery.

Plymouth's higher profile may have been on Vice President Dick Cheney's mind when he addressed the Virginia General Assembly in January at Jamestown. "The history of our country did not begin on Cape Cod in 1620," Cheney said to a rousing response from legislators.

Price and other scholars would second Cheney's pronouncement. Price said if Jamestown had failed, Plymouth's settlers might have found their religious freedom in Holland, where Separatists already had established a presence. Horn, a scholar at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said the public is poorly informed about Jamestown. "It is a great story in terms of survival of the English and also the strategies employed by the Powhatans," Horn said. Jamestown is still revealing itself, due to archaeologist William Kelso's relentless pursuit of history, which led to the discovery in the 1990s of the footprint of the fort in which Jamestown's settlers first sought shelter. Roughhewn locust now mark one perimeter of the fort. The site still gives up shards of pottery and, most recently, a tobacco seed - a crop that helped define Virginia for centuries. During a warm spring day, Kelso said as he strolled the carefully marked archaeological dig that the work that continues at Jamestown has created a broader interest and understanding, and one that is likely to multiply. "Jamestown was first, and it has so many legacies - private enterprise, representative government, the American Dream," Kelso said. Most historians say any historical reckoning of Plymouth and Jamestown is a good thing because each story has much to say about our nation. "The Pilgrims are the ones we look on more fondly, but we draw just as much of our national spirit from the Jamestown colonists," Price said. --- On the Net: Pilgrim Hall Museum: http://www.pilgrimhall.org/ Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities: http://apva.org Historic Jamestowne: http://historicjamestowne.org. AP-CS-03-24-07 0856EDT

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