JAMESTOWN, Va. — Plymouth tends to hog the attention, with its buckle-shoed Pilgrims and the story of the first Thanksgiving.
But in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, three ships deposited a group of explorers on a swampy peninsula on Virginia’s James River that became America’s first permanent English settlement and the birthplace of the United States.
A new replica of one of those ships will embark May 22 on a tour of six East Coast ports to drum up interest ahead of the big 400th birthday bash for Jamestown a year from now.
The 80-day Godspeed Sail starts an 18-month series of anniversary events, and organizers are counting on it to attract tourists and private sponsors to the commemoration.
They recognize that many people, especially outside Virginia, know little about Jamestown’s significance as the spot where American traditions of representative government, free enterprise and cultural diversity took root.
“Getting the message across that this is a national event is critical,” said Colin G. Campbell, vice chairman of the Jamestown 2007 state steering committee.
Jamestown 2007 is a part of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, a state agency that runs two history museums and is coordinating efforts to commemorate the 400th anniversary. The federal Jamestown 400th Commemoration Commission is helping on some activities.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is honorary chairwoman of the commemoration. Also involved is television and radio host Tavis Smiley, who will bring his annual State of the Black Union symposium to Virginia on Feb. 9-10.
Mr. Smiley said he wanted to participate in the commemoration because the country changed profoundly when the first Africans arrived at Jamestown in 1619, as slaves or indentured servants.
Organizers are hoping 2.4 million visitors will attend the commemorative events. President Bush, first lady Laura Bush and the British royal family will be invited to the premier event — “America’s Anniversary Weekend.” The event is scheduled for May 11-13, 2007, and is expected to attract 90,000 people.
The budget for the commemorative events is $40 million to $42 million, with about half coming from state funds. Organizers want to raise the rest from private sponsors, who have been slow to join. The three major sponsors so far are the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Norfolk Southern Corp. and Verizon Communications.
Mr. Campbell, the foundation’s president, expects more will sign on as momentum builds with the Godspeed Sail and subsequent events.
Jamestown was a business venture, with the settlers sailing from London in December 1606 and enduring harsh conditions upon their arrival. The first representative assembly in the New World convened in a Jamestown church in 1619. Jamestown was Virginia’s capital until 1699.
Jamestown has been somewhat overlooked because “the Plymouth story of freedom of religion and Thanksgiving and all these things just plays happy and sweet in a way,” said William P. Kelso, the archaeologist who led the successful search for the remains of the Jamestown settlers’ triangular fort.
Virginia has commemorated Jamestown’s birthday with big events every 50 years since 1807. But the 2007 commemoration is the first to focus on all three cultures that converged at Jamestown: English settlers, Indians and Africans.