Jamestown marks 400th year
Four hundred years ago.
A celebration ten years in the making.
A chorus of 1,607 voices – the youngest 6 and the oldest 93.
A 1,500-person orchestra with 400 youth members from around the country (more than 80 from Laura Bush’s high school, Robert E. Lee in Midland, TX.)
It took 500 school buses, driven by authentic, relentlessly cheerful school bus drivers three days (making time and a half), to convey the more than 54,000 ticket holders and 4,000 performers from 48 states the half hour it took from anywhere to get to the Jamestown Settlement for the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first lasting English foothold in the New World.
On the surface, it was all about three ships, 104 men and boys, one celebrated entrepreneur and one even more celebrated Indian maiden, with a nickname that was sort of the 17th Century equivalent of “wild thing,” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pocahontas) and how they came together to cope with change.
Yet, when it came right down to it, America’s 400-year tribute to colonization of the New World was all about “making it work,” a theme at once more cynical and yet probably more accurate than any previous commemoration. This year’s celebration accentuated the collision of cultures that pitted English entrepreneurs against a sophisticated society of eight Indian nations, and ended up conscripting generations of Africans who were ripped out of their native soil to grow a sweet-smelling weed.
There were plenty of reasons for both Indian and African Americans to be pretty ticked about how the whole thing turned out. But, this time, instead of sitting back and being quiet, non-white celebrants made a point of being heard. And nearly everyone observing came away with something they could hold on to.
Chief Ken Adams, chief of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, represented one of the cultures nearly wiped off the landscape by English settlers. “The story for me and many other Virginia Indians is a story of sorrow and pain; a story of growing up in a society where Indian culture had almost been completely destroyed,” he wrote in an editorial for Cooperative Living that found its way into the press packets. Today we have border patrol to keep out illegal aliens, which is what the English were to the Mattaponi, he asserts. “The first treaties with the Indians were written at Jamestown. The first treaties with the Indians were broken at Jamestown.” It was a pattern destined to repeat itself until the Native Americans were nearly wiped out.
James Earl Jones, who did readings for children of Jamestown history, was a visible reminder that African Americans also contributed to the colony, albeit unwillingly. While his presence added gravity and celebrity to the event, he had trouble pronouncing some of the Indian names, and joked when the Verizon sponsor sign blew down that that was his comeuppance for not doing his homework.
Legacy Begins at Home
To most Americans in today’s transient society, heritage may date back a couple of generations – three or four if they’re lucky and benefited from a meticulous relative who kept good records or a well-kept cemetery. Gone are the family Bibles and the church rolls; for such as we, there’s ancestry.com.
At this point, the story gets personal, because this reporter thought it would be appropriate on Mother’s Day to trace my mother’s lineage at the dot-com’s exhibit at the festival.
It wasn’t an original thought; there were no shortage of “mother” comments on a day when Virginia, the mother of American democracy, and the “mother of presidents,” played host to what was billed as the mother of all celebrations on Mother’s Day. (Even the Queen showed up last week.) Amid myriad references to Virginia as America’s “alma mater,” President George W. Bush admonished the crowd, “Call your mother!”
But it seemed too good to be true that the colony’s own “matriarch,” Pocahontas, would have made an appearance in President George W. Bush’s family tree. You may have to see this to believe it, so check out the link at http://www.ancestry.com/jamestown. According to the online genealogy resource, George W. Bush’s 8th great-grandfather Robert Bolling was married twice. His first wife, Jane Rolfe, was Pocahontas’ granddaughter. Bush descends from Robert Bolling through his second marriage, to Ann Stith. In addition, George W. Bush’s 8th great-aunt Mary Kennon married John Bolling, who was Pocanontas’ great-grandson. Through these two relationships, President Bush is related too most – if not all – of Pocahontas’ living descendants.
As for the Gipson family tree, the maternal Moran line cuts deep into the heart of Tennessee, where no fewer than five generations worked the land. Census data lists my father as a “food process worker” (technically he was that vanishing breed, a “milkman” in addition to being a carpenter), and his father was a bricklayer. The whole exercise for most who engage in it leaves the unmistakable stamp of hope for a better life for those who come after us. (On a personal note there’s always the draw of personal wealth; as my mother commented, “Great, now you can write your own version of Angela’s Ashes and get rich!” It’s probably a sentiment John Smith would have endorsed.)
Certainly the slaves conscripted to grow tobacco for the Europeans had reason to hope that their future generations could share in the equality and democracy their slave masters professed. Introducing Gov. Timothy M. Kane as “the first governor inaugurated in Colonial Williamsburg since Thomas Jefferson,” reflected the hope of Jamestown’s sponsors that history – its preservation and celebration – would continue to hold some prominence in the public psyche.
Indian Americans expressed hope that their culture would come back to center stage in such remembrances, and that reverence for the land that their ancestors understood much better than the Europeans would help foster sustainable land use.
Michael Griffin, NASA Administrator in his Sunday remarks took note of the fact that "Godspeed, John Glenn," were the first words spoken to an American voyager into space, appropriate for the occasion given the fact that "Godspeed" was also one of the three vessels that brought the nation's first English speaking settlers to Virginia. He encouraged the tens of thousands gathered for the celebration to take a look at the replica of "Godspeed" moored on the James River adjacent the historic settlement, adding, "If you're like me, you'll be amazed that such a small ship made such a momentous journey.... Perhaps future generations will look at the Space Shuttle and say the same thing."
The closing pageant, Journey of Destiny, expressed hope people can work together to make the world a better place, that lessons from the past can inspire, that you can be whoever you want to be and be accepted in society, and that, as the closing lines of the pageant finale went, “You have been given a gift – a gift for which you must ever be thankful. We stand here today breathing the blessed air of our great country. With your help she will remain a mighty and glorious work in progress.”
Hopes for 2057
And, of course there was the time capsule.
In the cornerstone-shaped object that was sealed last night and will be opened again at the 2057 celebration of Jamestown’s 450th, were placed photos of the Queen’s recent visit, the menu from the White House dinner honoring her and Prince Philip, several commemorative coins, and some music CDs, complete with player and charger, in recognition that 50 years from now when the capsule is opened, that technology may have moved on.
But it took the Gov. Kaine’s family to put a true capstone on the festivities. Besides the usual speech memorabilia, daughter Annella, who had just celebrated her 12th birthday, enclosed a Mylar birthday balloon. She may well be there to celebrate Jamestown’s next big bash, and have the opportunity to retrieve her keepsake in person. But the most touching memento came from son Woody, 14, who deposited a Virginia Tech baseball cap. The touching gesture, with no further comment, can be seen as the best prayer of all: that in 2057, we’ve put all such violence in the past and can all just get along.