JAMESTOWN, Va. -- We Americans love our Pilgrims, from their tall hats down to their buckle shoes. The Mayflower is a household word, Plymouth Rock is a tourist attraction, and Thanksgiving is arguably our favorite national holiday.
So it's easy to forget that when the Pilgrims reached Plymouth in 1620, escaping religious persecution in England, their arrival did not mark the first permanent English settlement. That had happened 13 years earlier, when 104 English men and boys landed on Virginia soil some 600 miles south. And they weren't totally lacking in name recognition: think Captain John Smith .
So why do the Pilgrims, latecomers that they were, still get so much press?
"People fleeing for religion, that story sells," says Jaie Pizzetti, a costumed interpreter at Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum similar to Plimoth Plantation. "Also, after the Civil War, a lot of Southern history was de-emphasized. I can say that because I'm from New England." Pizzetti, who grew up in Webster, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000.
The men who came to Jamestown were in search of gold and silver, not religious freedom, and their venture was backed by an investment outfit, the Virginia Company of London.
Jamestown, which is marking its 400th anniversary this year, is seeking to regain what its backers see as its rightful place in history. Its marketing campaign, "commemorating America's 400th anniversary," is open to debate since the oldest city in the United States, St. Augustine, Fla., was settled by the Spanish in 1565. But Jamestown was the New World's first permanent English colony.
These days, the area called Jamestown, 7 miles south of Colonial Williamsburg, is the site of two historical attractions and a landing for a car ferry across the James River. After 1699, most of Jamestown's residents left when the colony's capital moved to Williamsburg, before later relocating to Richmond.
Events marking Jamestown's quadricentennial are expected to draw about 2 million visitors this year. The highlight is scheduled May 11-13, billed as "America's Anniversary Weekend," to honor the May 14, 1607, landing date. On May 3, Queen Elizabeth II, who was on hand in 1957 at Jamestown's 350th anniversary, is scheduled to visit Virginia.
The celebration actually started last summer with a tour by a replica of the Godspeed, one of the three merchant ships (with Discovery and Susan Constant) to make the voyage from London that began on Dec. 20, 1606.
The replica, which was built in Rockport Harbor, Maine, stopped in South Boston, where Pizzetti was part of the costumed "landing party" greeting visitors. The timing was unfortunate; the Godspeed arrived in mid-July, just days after the deadly Big Dig tunnel roof collapse, so those visitors had a harder time reaching the ship's berth. (A replica of the 50-foot Discovery, built by a crew at Boothbay Harbor Shipyard in Maine, was delivered to Virginia in late January.)
Now the Godspeed is docked at Jamestown Settlement, a hands-on museum featuring an exhibition gallery and a re-created Indian village, settlers' fort, along with replicas of the other two merchant ships that landed here 400 years ago. A mile down the road, on Jamestown Island, is the actual site of James Fort, of which no structure remains.
Dubbed Historic Jamestowne, the 1,500-acre site is run by the National Park Service. Here, the focus is on the natural setting and archeology, and tourists can watch excavations in progress. A driving loop takes visitors to the center of the island, where reeds wave in the wind and one can easily imagine a canoe filled with Powhatan Indians sliding by. Both visitor centers, housed in gleaming new buildings, boast newly updated exhibits and films. During a recent visit to Jamestown, I found it helpful to first stop at Jamestown Settlement for a look at the way life was lived in the early 1600s.
At the Powhatan village, adults and children can converse with re enactors about their lives, sit in their replicated huts, play games, and help tan hides. Near the river, visitors can watch Indians weave fishing nets and burn into a log to create a dugout canoe.
The re-created James Fort area is filled with sleeping and working quarters and staffed with costumed colonists making baskets, tools, and meals. A small cluster of crops grown here includes tobacco, which became the settlers' gold and helped save the settlement.
Down at the dock are the beautifully crafted replicas . Pizzetti, decked out as a sailor, was aboard the Susan Constant, which at 55 feet was the largest of the three vessels. He leads tourists through the ship's quarters, inviting folks to "try out the beds, try on the clothes. We're hands-on."
That day the Godspeed was closed to visitors while a group of sailing volunteers was learning the ropes -- more than 100 of them control the ship. The group plans to sail up the James River later this month to re-create parts of the settlers' original route.
At Historic Jamestowne, there are no vessels, but there are sweeping waterfront views that, for now, are only slightly altered by development.
The real excitement is in the dirt. The long-held assumption that the land under James Fort had washed away was shattered after head archeologist William Kelso started an excavation in 1994 called the Jamestown Rediscovery project. Since then, he and his staff have made loads of discoveries. Weather permitting, visitors are treated to seeing archeologists at work.
That up-close philosophy was exported from Plimoth Plantation, says Tonia Deetz Rock, who was on the Historic Jamestowne archeology team for three years and now runs its education programs. Her father, the late James Deetz, a historical archeologist, was the lead researcher and assistant director at Plymouth's living-history museum from 1967 to 1978 and served on the Jamestown Rediscovery advisory board.
Deetz Rock's brother, Eric Deetz, oversaw the Jamestown excavation crew for almost a decade. "We grew up at Plimoth Plantation," she says. "Eric's experience in public history, learned at Plimoth, helped model the accessibility of the archeology to visitors to Jamestown."
Since the dig began, archeologists have located the sites of the fort, houses, fences, and other structures, and 1 million objects have been excavated, Deetz Rock said. "And we're only about 40 percent done." A recent find involved three tobacco seeds, plucked from ooze in a colonial well.
Deetz Rock was on the team that made an earlier discovery that attracted international attention: the skeletal remains of a man believed to be Bartholomew Gosnold, one of the principal Jamestown founders.
Gosnold's earlier exploration of Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard opened those areas up to colonists. His tentative identification is based on historical, archeological, and forensic evidence.
The archeologists here are not only digging, but they also are constructing by building frames of some structures, such as barracks and a post fence.
"We're not trying to create another living history museum, but we're physically re-creating for visitors what the evidence tells us," Deetz Rock said.
Nowhere does their work shine brighter than in the Archaearium . More than 1,000 excavated items are on display in the glass-walled building, which opened last spring. The structure partly sits over the excavated foundations of the Jamestown settlement's last capital building. Everything from jewelry and cooking utensils to weapons and even colonists' remains are on display here.
Perhaps all this history, so easily accessible, will help bring Jamestown out from under the shadow of that little rock up north.
Diane Daniel can be reached at email@example.com.