The following essay is posted at George Mason University's History News Network.
Jamestown at 400: Caught Between a Rock and a Slippery Slope
By Fred Fausz
Mr. Fausz, an ethnohistorian at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is in the process of completing two books on early Jamestown. Portions of this essay were delivered at the April 2007 Virginia Forum in Richmond.
Readers seldom take the pain to gather together all that hath been written on any subject but usually content themselves with one or two books and some former treatises, whereby they gain but a lame and partial knowledge, and so prejudice the Truth. -- Edward Waterhouse, Virginia Company Secretary, 162
The Commonwealth of Virginia is hosting an ambitious 400th birthday bash on May 11-13 to commemorate Jamestown as England's first permanent colony in North America. That festive weekend is expected to attract 90,000 visitors to the tiny, uninhabited tidal peninsula, still so heavily wooded that it belies the estimated $200 million spent to herald its prominent place in American History.
Virginia has celebrated Jamestown anniversaries every fifty years since 1807, but until Queen Elizabeth II's participation in 1957, those were largely local affairs, attracting little national or transatlantic attention. Global recognition and respect for the significance of Jamestown is the goal in 2007.
But that carefully-coordinated public relations campaign will be hard pressed to compete with the more extensively-publicized random tragedy at Virginia Tech--symbolizing Jamestown's perennial problem of a reputation tarnished by violence and cruelty. That colony's X-rated history, which included internecine feuds, interethnic warfare, and the introduction into Anglo-America of African and Indian slavery, capitalistic profiteering, nicotine addiction, massive terrorism, and even cannibalism, has never been able to compete with the G-rated fairytale of the Plymouth "Pilgrims" in the beloved, mythic memories of our citizenry. Obsessing about the bogus Rock of Plymouth--the Cape Cod Conundrum--as the cause of popular ignorance and indifference toward the senior Virginia colony, historians in this overly-hyped anniversary season have descended down a slippery slope of shameful pandering and inexcusable errors that are symptomatic of a sick profession corrupted by commercialism and cavalier attitudes about accuracy.