- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

JAMESTOWN, Va. — The first permanent English settlement in North America has more personality than many other historic attractions.

Capt. John Smith, the pint-sized adventurer, left a breathless narrative of his exploits.

Commerce took root here, and so did tobacco and slavery.

Then there was the cannibalism.

Still, as the country prepares to commemorate Jamestown’s 400th anniversary in May, many see this swampy outpost on the James River only as a coming attraction to the Pilgrims’ arrival at Plymouth Rock about 13 years later.

New Englanders, for example, point to the Thanksgiving feast, the Pilgrims’ pure pursuit of religious freedom and the Mayflower.

Jamestown, on the other hand, “is the creation story from hell,” Karen Ordahl Kupperman writes in her new book, “The Jamestown Project.” Conflict, disease, horrific killings and starvation are all part of the back story of Jamestown, founded in 1607 as a business venture.

But if not for Jamestown, scholars say, there may not have been a Plymouth, and we all might be speaking Spanish. The Spanish, intent on spreading Roman Catholicism, were turned away twice from the nearby Chesapeake Bay during the early years of the Protestant Jamestown settlement.

“There’s no question that Jamestown throws down the gauntlet to the Spanish,” said James Horn, who wrote “A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America.”

Now, during an 18-month commemoration, Jamestown finally could outshine Plymouth and fully embrace what historian and writer Nathaniel Philbrick calls its proper claim as “the rightful birthing ground of America.”

“Not only was the [Jamestown] settlement found more than a decade before, but the colony that developed from those beginnings was, in many ways, more quintessentially American since it was all about making money,” said Mr. Philbrick, the author of “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War.”

Part of Plymouth’s enduring popularity is pure arithmetic.

An estimated 35 million people worldwide claim to be descendants of the Pilgrims.

In addition, Virginia and Southern history became tangled in the Civil War, knocking down Smith and Pocahontas a few notches in the American consciousness, said David A. Price, author of “Love and Hate in Jamestown.”

“Most importantly, we look back on the Plymouth Colonists and see an idealized, sepia-tinted version of ourselves — hardworking, earnest, seeking religious liberty,” he said. “We look back on the Jamestown colony and see an earthier, less appealing, but equally truthful version of ourselves: beset by jealousy and politics, motivated by dreams of money.”

The Pilgrims’ story has been a familiar part of every child’s public education, often an inspiration for school recitals.

“Certainly, growing up in Massachusetts, everyone goes to Plimoth Plantation,” said Mark Sylvia, town manager of Plymouth, which has grown to 60,000 residents. “It’s ingrained in the American culture — that’s where the first Thanksgiving was held.”

Plymouth had an edge from the start. It was a family-based settlement, unlike the male-dominated Jamestown venture. The settlers learned to coexist with native populations for more than a half-century, unlike those in Jamestown, who had a complicated, often violent relationship with the Powhatan Indians.

“They are the pilgrims,” Mr. Philbrick wrote. “They have an easily identifiable monument: Plymouth Rock [even if it is one of the biggest letdowns in American tourism]. They have a ship: the Mayflower.”

Jamestown had three ships: the Godspeed, Susan Constant and Discovery.

Plymouth’s higher profile may have been on Vice President Dick Cheney’s mind when he addressed the Virginia General Assembly in January at Jamestown.

“The history of our country did not begin on Cape Cod in 1620,” he said to a rousing response from legislators.

Mr. Horn, a scholar at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said the public is poorly informed about Jamestown.

“It is a great story in terms of survival of the English and also the strategies employed by the Powhatans,” he said.

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