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Judging Jamestown at 400

The May anniversary shows America is still searching for meaning in its historic origins.

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Only 13 years ago, an archaeologist drove a shovel into earth along Virginia's James River and found what was long thought lost: the precise location of America's first permanent English settlement. The find has helped turn May's 400th birthday bash for Jamestown into a realistic look at the origins of the United States.

Like the dig itself, which has so far found about 1 million artifacts, Americans are still scratching for the truth about Jamestown, reflected lately in new histories. Dozens of events are planned for the commemoration, including a visit by Queen Elizabeth II on Friday.

The effort is largely driven by Virginia's attempt to raise Jamestown as high as the "Pilgrim story" of Plymouth in American history-telling. Like its first 100-plus colonists, Virginia hopes to reap bounty from exploitation – only this time in tourism.

And therein lies one aspect of America reflected in early Jamestown: unabashed commerce, including the first import of black slaves into America and the mass export of a noxious weed, tobacco.

The settlement also set other patterns: a model for English colonization around the world, a form of republican government, the right and wrong ways to deal with indigenous peoples, a culture of violence, and, most of all, an ongoing American tension between liberty and license – seen, for instance, in Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves. At its 300th anniversary, Jamestown was called "the blessed mother of us all" by Teddy Roosevelt.


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