Among Colonial ‘Firsts,’ Jamestown Scorns Image as Runner-Up
— St. Augustine, which was founded by Spanish explorers in 1565. Still, historians say that the Florida city’s fortunes may be on the rise as Spanish-speaking immigrants reshape U.S. culture.
“We’ve heard it all before — many times,” said William R. Adams, director of St. Augustine’s Heritage Tourism Department. “St. Augustine has generally been ignored because it’s of Spanish origin, and not English. Obviously, all the firsts belong to St. Augustine.”
But this is Jamestown’s year, and Virginians and students of the early colonial period are working to make sure that attention is paid. The 18 months of events commemorating the settlement are focusing attention on a colony that has long been overshadowed, organizers say.
“Ain’t it great that everybody’s having that kind of discussion?” asked Elizabeth S. Kostelny, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, a nonprofit agency that oversees the site of the original fort with the National Park Service. “It’s engaging everybody in a debate about what it means to be an American.”
Blame Thanksgiving. Blame the Civil War. Blame Harvard University and the educational hegemony of New England. Or, blame the colonists and their conduct: The Pilgrims were seen as pious seekers coming for religious freedom, but the Jamestown colonists were highsociety fops and lower-class riffraff hoping to strike it rich. Even Capt. John Smith, the colony’s bona fide hero, famously complained that some of his fellow colonists preferred to starve rather than work.
But less than 200 years after the Pilgrims struck land aboard the Mayflower in 1620, the flinty New Englanders had laid claim to the nation’s founding myth. Jamestown and St. Augustine were virtually airbrushed out of the picture, historians say. St. Augustine and Jamestown might have been first to figure out how to create permanent colonies, but, the feeling goes, Plymouth was the cradle of the nation’s soul.
“It’s because of popular culture. It’s not even because of a concerted effort,” said James W. Baker, who says he is sympathetic to Jamestown’s plight despite having served 26 years as head of research at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Mass.
Former Virginia governor and senator George Allen said in a recent interview that it used to bother him that so many people gave all the credit for the nation’s founding to Plymouth.
“The foundational principles of our country came from Virginia,” Allen said, citing its contributions to self-government and religious freedom. Whenever he helped lure companies to Virginia, he gave them copies of the original Virginia Co. stock certificates to remind them of Jamestown’s importance to free enterprise.
“Never call it the Rodney Dangerfield of history,” Allen said. “It’s the yet-to-be-discovered-by-everyone jewel. It’s the Rosetta stone of American liberty.”
Part of it is the story itself. The Jamestown colony seesawed from one catastrophe to another — starvation, Indian wars, even cannibalism — until its fortunes were turned around by the discovery of tobacco as a transatlantic cash crop. The importation of African slaves and the destruction of Virginia Indians also clouded its legacy.
But the Pilgrims’ settlement has been occupied since 1620, and they got along with the natives, more or less. One of the nation’s oldest and most beloved holidays, Thanksgiving, helps burnish their image.
“It really was in many ways the birthplace of the American spirit,” said Mark Sylvia, town manager of Plymouth, Mass., who also tries to downplay the rivalry. “There are those who would love to have us get into this national argument about ‘Who’s first?’ From our perspective, it’s not a ‘We’re-better-than-you’ scenario.”
Nonetheless, Sylvia can’t resist pointing out that Jamestown ceased to exist as a community, unlike Plymouth. “We’re very comfortable in our historical skin,” he said.
Historians say the rivalry begins in the earliest days of the colonies and the economic and cultural competition between sections of the country. In the early years of the republic, Jamestown held an esteemed place in the nation’s history, and Thomas Jefferson even made a pilgrimage there.
But with the advent of the Civil War, Northerners began discrediting any claim that the South might have had to the nation’s founding principles and attacked the pretensions of the aristocratic Tidewater families who could trace their heri- tage to Jamestown’s founders.
With the South vanquished, the North portrayed everything about it as a benighted backwater — and it did not hurt that many of the nation’s educational institutions and textbook producers were in New England.
Now and then, the rivalry among the three regions still breaks out. In the 1980s, New England newspapers splashed headlines in big type and talk-radio hosts foamed over a Florida historian’s assertion that the first Thanksgiving ceremony occurred the day Don Pedro de Menendez de Aviles established St. Augustine and celebrated with a feast for his crew and the natives.
“They were just furious in New England,” said Michael Gannon, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida who wrote about the first St. Augustine Thanksgiving in one of his books. New Englanders dubbed him the “Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.” New Englanders also scoff at the assertion by the Berkeley Plantation, an offshoot of the colony at Jamestown, that the first official Thanksgiving occurred there Dec. 4, 1619.
But if you think the Augustinians are too mature for that, try calling up the city of St. Augustine to ask about the rivalry, and you’re liable to get this response from a clerk who answers the telephone: “St. Augustine was going through urban renewal about the time Jamestown began.”
In some respects, St. Augustine has Plymouth and Jamestown beat: It was first to create a city plan, establish courts of law, set up a school, establish an Indian mission, create a hospital (with six beds) and found a church, Gannon said.
But the fact that you are reading this in English, not Spanish, also has a lot to do with why St. Augustine is often overlooked.
“It’s lost because the victors wrote the history, and the people in what I like to call the ‘powderwigged states’ of the North just ignored it, as if it never existed,” Gannon said.
But, Gannon said, all descendants of European colonists should keep things in perspective. To him, the very first settlers were the folks who walked across Beringia during the Ice Age about 16,000 years ago, probably following game across the land bridge between present-day Russia and Alaska.
“I call them the first discoverers, the first land developers,” he said.