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Jamestown Colony Shaped Future United States

Nearly five months after they had left England, three small ships, with 104 men and boys aboard, sailed up what is now the James River and ended their voyage on May 14, 1607.

They were looking for gold, silver and a passage to the Pacific. They were also hoping to take advantage of natural resources," says historian James Horn, author of A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America.

Colonists Lay Foundation for a New Nation

While the early English did settlers did not strike it rich, Horn says they made a life here, learning "how to maintain a colony long term."

"They discovered it was important to introduce private property. It was important to introduce self government," Horn says, noting, "the first legislative assembly in North America or any part of America was held right here in 1619."

Those political legacies, experts say, helped lay the foundation for the United States, a nation still more than a century and a half in the future. "The founding of Jamestown really begins the modern history of the United States," says Jeanne Zeidler, executive director of Jamestown 2007, one of the several groups coordinating this year's commemoration.

She says this sense of Jamestown as the template for the America that would follow is why it is being commemorated 400 years after its founding, and why it has always been the focus of historic interest.

Commemorations of Past

Zeidler says past anniversies focused "much more on the English, which is still a very important theme for us. After all, our form of government came from English law and we speak the English language."

On the 300th anniversary, an exposition was held that drew more than one million visitors, and a monument was erected on Jamestown Island.

Fifty years ago, a living history museum, now called Jamestown Settlement, was established to show the everyday lives of the English settlers and the Powhatan Indians who were already living here when the English arrived.

But descendents of those Indians did not play a central role in the 350th anniversary. "I was nine years old in 1957, when the anniversary took place then. And I don't even remember hearing about it," says Kenneth Adams, chief of Virginia's Upper Mattaponi Indians.

Virginia Indians See 400th in New Light

Adams says many members of Virginia's eight tribes did not want to participate this year either, because for them, 1607 marks the beginning of a decline. "In 1607, the native population of this region was about 15,000. In 1707, it was around 1500, so 90 percent of our people were gone within that first 100 years."

He says this anniversary provides an opportunity to let people know that Virginia Indians did not disappear. "Everyone after this event takes place, everyone in America is going to have a bit of a glimpse of the Virginia Indians and realize we are still here."

Historical research continues at Jamestown. Archaeologists are currently excavating the original fort that the colonists built in 1607. It was long believed to have washed into the James River, but researchers discovered it in 1994.

First Africans Arrive

"We are constantly learning new things about Jamestown in the early years here. One thing we have learned quite a bit about are the early Africans," says Nancy Egloff, chief historian for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.

"The first recorded Africans to come to Virginia came in 1619. In the last 10, 15 years we have learned from research and documentation that these people actually came directly from the Portuguese colony of Angola in West Central Africa."

Cassandra Newby-Alexander, associate professor of history at Norfolk State University, says the Angolans were being shipped to Spanish New World colonies to serve as slaves, when they were captured by the Dutch. "We know the Dutch man-of-war (battleship) seized everything aboard, including the enslaved Africans, and brought them to this part of the world and began selling them," says Newby-Alexander. "But the English didn't have a tradition of slavery at the time, so as far as academicians can tell they were treated more as indentured servants."

But that would change. By 1662, slavery was the law of the colony.

Jamestown Marks Beginning of U.S. Melting Pot

One of the themes of this 400th anniversary, says Newby-Alexander, is that Jamestown marked the beginning of the cultural diversity that Americans now celebrate. "There were three different cultures that came together from Europe, Africa and here in North America," she says. "Without those three cultures coming together, America would not have been the nation that it became."

Many more cultures have contributed to the United States in the 400 years since Jamestown was established, but when we speak of America as a cultural melting pot, this is where it all began.