By Mary Lou Beatty
As the three ships sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, a passenger noted the "faire meddowes and goodly tall Trees, with such Fresh-waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the sight thereof." It was April of 1607 and the man mesmerized by the sight was George Percy, one of the party on the fringes of what would become the first permanent English settlement in the New World—Jamestown.
This year is the four hundredth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. The occasion is being marked by television shows, new books, special teaching programs, and a variety of other activities.
At the time of Jamestown's founding, North America had been divided into two spheres by England, with the part from North Carolina to the Chesapeake assigned to The London Company, a corporation of merchants eager to make a profit. At peace with Spain for the moment, England began focusing on its long-term interests and the need to acquire colonies to maintain its political influence.
The first contingent of settlers was a mixed lot-fifty-nine of the 105 were classified as "gentlemen" and not expected to do manual labor. Among them, and decidedly not a gentleman, was the one-time pirate and former Turkish slave John Smith, who had been put in the brig on the way over for his mutinous attitude.
"The formal instructions the colonists brought with them-in a sealed box, not to be opened until after they arrived," John Wood Sweet writes in Envisioning an English Empire, "made it clear that the settlement was intended from the start to be permanent, populous, and profitable."
It also proved perilous. "A small landing party sent to scout the area around the cape was attacked by 'Savages creeping upon all foure, from the Hills like Beares, with their Bowes in their mouthes,'" recorded Percy. A couple of the settlers were wounded. Then came more Indian raids, famine, and disease.
Sweet theorizes that "their crude outpost survived because nobody saw it as worth the trouble of wiping out." After a hard first year, John Smith became leader of the colony. His dictum was "he that will not worke shall not eate" and he put the so-called gentlemen to work along with the others. Smith left the colony a year later, after being injured in a gunpowder explosion, but the colony itself would survive.
In looking at the significance of Jamestown from today's perspective, Sweet offers a number of points. "Historians of the United States," Sweet observes, "have seen Jamestown as the origin of representative government, republican ideals, and widespread economic opportunity in America. Others have seen it as the origin of the Old South's plantation system-with the conquest and dispossession of native peoples. . . . Jamestown offers a particularly revealing window into the dynamic social and cultural world of which it was a part and into the developing interconnections that made the Atlantic into a new world of its own."
The Jamestown settlers possessed a willingness to push boundaries and explore the world around them—a drive that continues today. We drop in at the White House for the annual presentation of the National Humanities Medals. The medalists for 2006 range from two scholars of the Middle East to a television producer. They also include among their number classicists, historians, a biographer, and an economist.