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Standing where America began – a visit to Jamestown


Jamestown (Virginia) : Approaching the site where British settlers established their first permanent colony in North America, visitors feel as if they have crossed back in time.

A swampy marsh stands much as it did in 1607, when the colonists built a fort on a peninsula jutting out into the James River and named their settlement Jamestown.

Today, the Historic Jamestown site commemorates the 104 men and boys, many of who died here.

After passing through an initial visitors centre detailing the challenges faced by the colonists and the local American Indian tribes, visitors see a church steeple that is the last remaining 17th-century structure on the site.

Statues erected in the early 1900s remember the era’s most famous residents – Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. But most strikingly visitors encounter the wall of a fort formed with pikes stuck in the ground exactly where such a structure shielded the colonists.

The remnants of the fort had long been thought lost to history – washed away into the river. But archaeologist William Kelso dared to challenge that belief and uncovered the original fort in time for its 400th anniversary.

The outlines of several buildings are now visible, and visitors can watch archaeologists actively digging. An “archaerium” displays some of their finds, including the remains of several colonists, one of whom is believed to be an influential leader.

A more lively presentation is available just down the road at the Jamestown Settlement, a living history museum built for the 350th anniversary and recently renovated.

A new museum features exhibits on the three cultures that converged here – British, Native American and African. Visitors can listen to snippets of the Algonquin Indian language, similar to that spoken by area tribes. They can also walk a London street circa 1600 and see a model of an African village.

The exhibits focus on the clash of cultures and what life was like in early Jamestown, tracing the roots of US government and commerce.

Outside visitors tour a recreation of a Powhatan Indian village, where costumed staffs demonstrate skills like basket weaving and tanning.

Recreations of the colonists’ three small ships, the Susan Constant, the Discovery and the Godspeed are docked on the James River for tours, making many visitors grateful for modern travel comforts.

“I really admire them, I don’t see how they put up with the hardships that they had,” said Mercedes Jeffords, 78, a retired schoolteacher visiting with her granddaughter.

“I wouldn’t like to be on that ship,” her seven-year-old granddaughter Sarah added.

A mock Jamestown fort features demonstrations by staff on 17th-century weaponry and other topics, but seems somehow larger than the real thing next-door at Historic Jamestowne.