“We are approaching Jamestown the same way our ancestors did,” says a member of the Jamestowne Society at the front of our bus. We have been following along Virginia’s scenic James River. It is at this precise moment that our foray into history is halted by a reminder that, for good or ill, we are denizens of the 21st century: a random check for dangerous materials by explosives-sniffing dogs. “We must be one of the safest groups in America,” says a bemused member of the society, savoring the irony of Jamestown descendants being inspected for explosives as they prepare to set foot on the hallowed isle. It is May 12–400 years since a group of Englishmen first laid eyes on what would become the first permanent English settlement in the New World.
The Jamestowne Society officially commemorated the anniversary of the settlement’s founding on May 13, the day that the original settlers went ashore. We shared the occasion with the Order of the First Families of Virginia, a group that requires, for membership claims, a rather strict early arrival on these shores. The Jamestowne Society is slightly more liberal: Our list of about 1,500 “qualifying ancestors” opens membership to descendants of those who arrived in Jamestown before 1699.
Because the Jamestowne Society is a lineage society, it might appear to be at odds with America’s democratic spirit. But I’ve never had a more authentically American experience than I had on Jamestown’s anniversary weekend. The settlement’s “family tree” has ramified fantastically over 400 years: There are millions of settler-descendants–though the society itself currently numbers about 4,000 active members, about a fourth of whom came to Jamestown last Saturday. I can think of nothing more intrinsically American than hoping that some smidgen of the courage and fortitude and downright orneriness of the original settlers has made its way down to the 21st century.
As the weekend approached, I had wondered how ye olde colonial gene pool was holding up. The answer, as it turned out: pretty well. There were the to-be-expected genealogy buffs, a contingent of whom planned to drive to Washington, D.C., for that most delicious of pursuits–further research in the National Archives! A patrician-looking older lady, a member of the First Families of Virginia gang, went everywhere with her well-behaved little Lhasa Apso. But most of the group–far from being the effete relics–were robust citizens, many of them young professionals. For obvious reasons, we have a lot more men than the Daughters of the American Revolution. Though I met Jamestowners from San Diego and Denver, I sensed that the majority of us were Southerners. “If you’ve got one Jamestown ancestor, you’ve got a dozen,” says Brenda Schilling, a vivacious, auburn-haloed real-estate lady from outside Atlanta. Brenda and I delightedly discover a shared ancestor.
The weekend drew some people who were not nearly so charmed by the anniversary as we were. Protesters nearby, including Malik Shabazz of a group called Black Lawyers for Justice, dubbed their own “celebration”: “Jamestown, VA 400th Anniversary of Genocide.” “Make no mistake about it,” the Associated Press quoted Mr. Shabazz as saying, “our … demonstration” is “designed to crash this illegitimate party and pursue the overdue case for reparations and justice for the victims of slavery, mass murder and genocide… The ill effects of what happened at Jamestown still fester in the community today.”
Truth to tell, I was finding our “illegitimate party” quite moving, especially when the replicas of the three ships that originally came to Jamestown–the Godspeed, the Susan Constant and the Discovery–could be seen gliding on the James River. Later I spoke to an archaeologist, working on a settlement site, who stopped shifting dirt long enough to explain that he and his colleagues were trying to unearth the scant remains of those who had died in 1610, known as “the starving time.”Survival at Jamestown was not easy. In that one year, 440 of the 500 settlers perished. Other years were, if not equally devastating, arduous and dire. Yet despite the tremendous suffering of the Jamestown pioneers, they do not occupy the same hallowed place in the American memory as other settlers. On anniversary weekend, historian James P. Hunt–the author of “A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America” –evoked spontaneous applause and knowing giggles over lunch when he referred to “the Plymouth mythology.” His remark was an allusion to the greater fame enjoyed by the Pilgrims, who actually arrived 13 years after “our” men put ashore at Jamestown.
What explains the short shrift given to Jamestown? Though the Puritans came for religious reasons, they were in fact dissenters who opposed the established church. By contrast, the settlers at Jamestown were stalwarts of the Church of England, hardly the mavericks that the modern mind prefers.
There was another important difference between the two settling groups. The Pilgrims came primarily for an idea–that is, the freedom to worship as they preferred. Those who came to Jamestown did so primarily for entrepreneurial reasons, sponsored by the Virginia Co. in London. Over anniversary weekend, the importance of private property in saving the colony was repeatedly stressed. “It was here on this sacred ground that the principles of representative government, private ownership of land and civilian control of the military were firmly rooted in the New World,” said Harrison Schroeder, the society’s esteemed governor. It should be noted that slavery also came to Jamestown, but, having been abolished more than a century and a half ago, it “festers” today mostly for professional provocateurs.
I couldn’t help wondering how the talk of property rights and military might was going over with my fellow reunion-goers. I overheard one woman talking about President Bush. She hadn’t known he was coming the next day and now wanted to change her travel plans. Had Bush derangement reached to Jamestown? I struck up a conversation with her. It turned out that she did want to change her ticket–to be with the president. She admired him and had joined the Jamestowne Society because she felt that its patriotic values are needed today.
An automobile sticker, if you will, said it all: “Jamestown. Survival is not a game.”
Ms. Hays is senior editor at the Independent Women’s Forum.