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Historians Eye Jamestown’s Legacy on 400th Anniversary

England's Queen Elizabeth II visits the historical settlement of Jamestown Friday to mark the 400th anniversary of the town's founding. Three historians discuss the settlement's significance and how views of its history have changed over time.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Finally tonight, thinking differently about Jamestown. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Four hundred years ago this month, in 1607, 104 settlers — all men — completed a five-month voyage from England and began establishing the first permanent English colony in America at Jamestown, Virginia.

    Most schoolchildren are familiar with two of Jamestown's historical figures: John Smith, the English soldier and adventurer credited with keeping the struggling settlement alive; and Pocahontas, the local Indian leader's young daughter, who brokered cooperation amid the settlers' conflicts with the native population.

    Bly Straube, a Virginia archaeologist, says whatever the true nature of the relationship between the two, it's always been surrounded by myth.

  • BLY STRAUBE, Senior Curator, Jamestown Discovery:

    Personally, I sort of think that there was a relationship. You know, it may not have been sexual in nature. It may have been just caring, but maybe she thought of him more as a father figure or something.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    And Jamestown long had been thought of as a failure, riven by conflict among the settlers, laziness, mismanagement, disease and starvation, and nearly wiped out by an Indian rebellion. It never achieved the iconic stature given the pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, 13 years after Jamestown.

    William Kelso is head archaeologist of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

    WILLIAM KELSO, Director of Archeology, Jamestown Rediscovery: First, I learned about Jamestown as a footnote in the history book, in the high school history book, just a footnote. "And also Jamestown, but it failed." And there was, you know, a huge chapter about the settlement of Plymouth, and Boston, and New England.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    So, in 1994, Kelso and his team set out to find archaeological evidence that would fill out the sketchy history of Jamestown, beginning with the belief that the original fort built by the settlers simply was washed away by the James River.

  • WILLIAM KELSO:

    There was no proof of that. It's just sort of accepted, you know, story. So I put the shovel to the ground and, fortunately, right away found one fragment of, as it turned out, a tobacco pipe, symbolically. I mean, of course, tobacco is what made Virginia stay on and be permanent.

    But that and a piece of pottery, and I knew it was old enough to be the time of the fort. It's the oldest fragments I'd ever found anywhere in America. So I thought, "It's a good sign." You know, I was very excited. This is going to be — this is going to work.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Kelso and his team now have unearthed nearly a million artifacts and say they've developed a far fuller picture of the Jamestown settlers. They see a resilient and resourceful group that established a profit-making settlement based on tobacco — and later, slaves — and were the first practitioners of what would become American representative government.

  • WILLIAM KELSO:

    There was a problematic group of people here, but not all of them. And, yes, over half died, but the other half lived. You know, that's the story. And so this goes on to be a permanent settlement, because somebody was succeeding.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Jamestown thrived as the Virginia capital through most of the 1600s, until a fire destroyed the capital building. The area became farm land, a use that helped preserve the archaeology that's now rewriting Jamestown's standing in the history of the nation, 400 years after its founding.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Jeffrey Brown takes it from there.