Friday, September 10, 2010

What’s Jamestown’s Future?

Many of those of us with ancestors at Jamestown have enjoyed the opportunity to tread where they lived; some us have even been able to visit the sites of their homes. Now, we find it discomforting to contemplate that our own descendants may not have these opportunities.

Coming on the heels of news of the possible discovery of the settlement’s first church, there is now speculation that global climate change and rising ocean levels may inundate much of Jamestown island in the coming century. What will it be like for its 450th or 500th anniversaries?

As difficult as this may be to imagine, the earliest reports by John Smith, Gabriel Archer and others told of Virginia’s wintry climate and described its frigid weather and chipping through ice to fish and land and launch their boats. At the same time, London chroniclers were describing religious processions crossing the frozen Thames River. It was certainly much colder then than today’s Virginian and London winters.

Four centuries later, we know that the level of Chesapeake Bay and the James River have risen about three feet and the probable mooring place for the first landing fleet is well offshore from the site of the recently uncovered James Fort. Jamestown was then on a peninsula; it has since become an island. While some of the Fort has been eroded, much of it remains, but is on the river’s edge. It would not have been constructed at such an exposed and insecure position.

William Kelso vividly relates the story of rediscovering the Fort, Jamestown’s earliest years and the lives and habits of those settlers in his fascinating book, Jamestown; The Buried Truth; (Charlottesville, The University Press of Virginia; 2006.) What we learn from him is a critical part of our American heritage that we have a chance of losing.

He tells of two British tourists who interrupted his very early dig and asked what he was finding. When told it was “only” a stain in the dirt (evidence of the Fort), one of them posited whether he should find something more permanent, such as ruins or “…something real?” Kelso answered, “No, there was just dirt. But you know what else? I guess plenty of, well, just hope.” “Brilliant, indeed,” the tourists responded unanimously.

Global warming and climate change is one of the great controversies of our time and its rhetoric raises inordinate political hackles. However, no matter what your own outlook on this, should we not err to help assure that we preserve what we have learned about our nation’s genesis and our ancestors’ legacies to us? We have nothing to lose if we generously support those preservation efforts; we may lose everything if we don’t.

For more about the speculation about Jamestown’s future, go to:

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