JAMESTOWN, Va. -- Jamestown is not Disneyland, but a brief visit to this early settlement in America can inspire the young (and the old) and makes a wonderful transition from vacation to school. Jamestown abounds in tales of romance, rapacity, courage and determination hard to fathom today. It's in a beautiful natural setting on a bend in the James River. (If you want to be taken for a native, pronounce it "Jeems.") The settlers of Jamestown had no leisure to celebrate a holiday called Labor Day; every day required hard, long labor. Out of their labor American democracy grew.
Jamestown has none of the patriotic mythology of Plymouth Rock, although it was the first permanent English settlement in North America, established 13 years before the Mayflower Compact. Our forbears arrived on three small ships, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery. Virginians, with a twinkle in their eye, point out that the New England pilgrims were actually looking for Virginia and ended in Plymouth by mistake: They missed the highway signs. Jamestown settlers had no great thanksgiving feast because the Indians were not particularly friendly and the Englishmen were starving soon after they arrived. They came in search of gold and spent most of their time searching for something to eat.
Karen Kupperman, a scholar of Jamestown, summed it up at a Washington symposium earlier this year celebrating the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the first colony: "Jamestown is the creation story from hell." Indeed. The history is a devil's brew boiling with good and evil, opportunism and heroism, barbarism and slavery.
But an understanding of Jamestown better captures the complexities inherent in our founding than the experience of the pilgrims of New England, who get considerably more space in the history books. "You can't airbrush out the tragic consequences of colonization," says James Horn, author of "A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America." He shows the brutality and the perseverance, the toughness it took to overcome human nature and the nature of beasts and vegetation at the mercy of a climate that dictated a hardscrabble life. "But Jamestown," he writes, "provides us with a mirror. If we don't understand our history, we can't understand ourselves."