Among Colo­nial ‘Firsts,’ Jamestown Scorns Image as Run­ner-Up

The Washington Post Sunday - - Weather -

— 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.

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