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Jamestown:  Where It All Began

(Reprint from News: July 18, 2001)

July 17, 2001

 

After leaving the battlefield at 2 p.m., I got some gas in Petersburg and headed east.  The battlefield was interesting, but Petersburg itself is a pretty seedy town and I was glad to leave.  I still had two more National Parks to visit that afternoon before crossing over the Chesapeake Bay, so I had to hustle.  Fortunately, though, Jamestown and Yorktown are pretty close together since they're both on the York Peninsula.  Imagine the peninsula being your index finger, with Jamestown being on one side of your knuckle and Yorktown being on the other side, with Colonial Williamsburg sitting in the middle.  Jamestown (1607) and Yorktown (1781) represent the beginning and end of colonialism in America, and they're joined by a beautiful 23-mile long parkway maintained by the National Park Service.

 

About an hour after leaving Petersburg, I pulled into Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World.  By the early 1600s, the Spanish were well-ensconced in Central and South America and were moving north from Florida, while the French had been paddling around Canada for a while, so the English figured that they better get going.  A group of eager English colonists sailed to the New World in 1606 hoping to find either gold or the spices of China, a country which they figured was nearby, and landed on the south edge of the York Peninsula.  They'd seen lots of Indians around, so they couldn't figure out why this particular site was vacant.  "Hey guys, what a great place to settle, huh?  No Indians!"

 

Of course, the reason there weren't any Indians there was because it was a swamp with lots of malaria, which soon decimated the small colony.  Then the crops failed, settlers starved to death, and there was lots of fighting -- kind of like the TV show, "Survivor."  Seriously, it was a real horror story despite the efforts of their hard-nosed leader John Smith, who was about the only competent person in the group.  After several more years of starvation, Indian uprisings, disease, and other calamities -- not to mention an affair with Pocahontas -- the colonists found salvation in a newly-discovered plant called "tobacco."  

 

As they discovered, this crop flourished here.  Soon, the colony was sending boatloads of it back to England... although each colonist first had to swear before a Congressional panel that, to the best of his knowledge, smoking tobacco did not cause cancer nor was it addictive.

 

In 1699, the capital of the Virginia Colony was moved from swampy Jamestown to the more healthful environs of colonial Williamsburg, located about 10 miles inland (and already sporting a $28 admission fee, plus tax).  Jamestown faded from view and today the area is managed by the National Park Service, which has a wonderful Visitor Center filled with historic artifacts excavated from the site.  Jamestown is usually pretty crowded because of its proximity to the Disneyland-ish "Colonial Williamsburg" with its 4,000,000 annual visitors (and its mega-buck admission price), but it's definitely worth a stop... especially since the Visitor Center is air-conditioned.

 

       

Above left:  Jamestown, settled in 1607, was the site of the first English settlement in the New World.  From left to right, here's a Park Ranger, Pocahontas, and a bald head.

Above center:  A painting of Jamestown as it looked during its heyday in the late 1600s, before the Virginia capital was moved to nearby Williamsburg.  That's the walled "Old Town" on the left and "New Town" on the right.  Jamestown was in a pretty poor location, very swampy with lots of malaria, so it never prospered.

Above right:  Foundations of New Town, which petered out around 1700.

 

 

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