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Randy Treadway

Is Jamestown worth celebrating any more?

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The Bicentennial of Jamestown's founding was celebrated with a big shindig in 1807, called the Grand National Jubilee. Attendance was about 3,000, and included a ship parade.

The 250th Anniversary, in 1857, featured a slightly larger celebration, and was attended by six to eight thousand people.

The 300th Anniversary was the big one. The 1907 Jamestown Exposition is generally regarded as one of the early 'World's Fairs'.

Attendees included President Roosevelt, Kaiser Wilhelm, and many other dignataries and celebrities. It went all summer, rather than one day or weekend.

One of the reasons to make it so grand was that it was held about 30 miles downriver from the original Jamestown settlement site, on the grounds of the Norfolk-area military bases. And Teddy Roosevelt wanted to make it a big display of American military power, with the centerpiece being the just-returned "Great White Fleet", to be seen by visiting heads of state and government figures.

Postcards like this one were not unusual.

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I'm sure 'Meet me on the war path' was not taken as particularly threatening in 1907, right after the U.S. had whipped the Spanish in a war. It certainly contrasts with the 1964 'Peace through Understanding' theme, and would be downright bashed in 2011 by left-wingers. But this was 1907, so we can't take it out of context. This was the President whose motto was 'speak softly but carry a big stick'. Of course Teddy wasn't known for actually speaking softly very often, and his expansion of the Navy makes a big stick seem like a toothpick. But I like Teddy. I wonder how he would deal with Ghadafi in Libya?

Anyway, in 1957 (350th Anniversary) there was another celebration although smaller than 1907. It *was* visited by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. That celebration marked the opening of the restored settlement site, which is open to visitors even today.

2007 (4ooth anniversary) had a celebration too, but this time it had shrunk to tiny proportions. The Vice-President of the U.S. was the sole 'name' visitor.

So what has happened to the legacy of Jamestown? Has the U.S.'s historical legacy been downplayed because it is now viewed as too much of a European ethno-centric focus? The 1907 Exposition featured the role of native Americans very big. Powhatan and Pocahontas and their relationships with the Jamestown settlers. The story of how Pocahontas went to England.

When the 450th Anniversary roles around in 2057, will Jamestown be totally ignored by dominant people who want to rewrite history? Is the Jamestown story now 'politically incorrect', and needs apology instead of celebration? Or by 2057, will the pendulum have swung back again?

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'Meet Me on the Warpath' actually became a popular song title in late 1906, early 1907. The copyright is registered in Washington, D.C.

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A couple of cartoons purporting to illustrate Teddy's 'Big Stick diplomacy'. These ideas were not hidden at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, but were front and center. American pride may have been at its peak about this time.

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I don't think American pride peaked in 1907. Not even close. If it had, that would not account for the remarkable achievements of the "greatest generation"--the Depression and WW2 era Americans.

However, I do believe the vast majority of Americans, today, know very little about their nation's history. I teach college students who cannot locate Iraq, Afghanistan or the entire Middle East on a map. Some don't even realize young Americans are fighting in those far away places. Many students do not vote and have no clue about the issues of the day. Some semesters, the majority of my students tell me they do not vote and never have.

I would bet that most, if not all, have no idea that 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War or that 2009 was Lincoln's 200th birthday or that this is the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth or the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Fire and on and on.

We have become a culturally poor and ignorant nation and it has been a continuting process for decades. Now, the uninformed may actually out number the informed. This is a guess, but I would bet I am correct. Just watch one single segment of Jay Walking on the Tonight Show. The ignorance and outright stupidity of the people he meets strongly suggests we have seen better days.

Compare Americans today with the young people who flooded recruiting stations to defend this nation in 1941. Reading Flags of Our Fathers will convince any person that the generation which fought WW2 was far and away more aware of our history and our freedoms than Americans today.

So, I would bet that there are very few Americans who even know about the history of Jamestown. Very few. Furthermore, the cost of an event like the Jamestown celebration in 1907 made it an unreasonable proposition in 2007.

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I found a bunch of stock certificates on-line, where the 1907 Jamestown Expo organizing committee sold stock. Much like other World's Fairs.

However, the federal government no doubt threw in a WHOLE bunch of freebies like rent-free use of land.

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In answer to Randy's questions: Yes, yes, yes and yes.

And Jim is right on the money, too.

I'm a history buff, and I'm appalled at what I don't know. But what the "general public" doesn't know is truly frighting.

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I believe a large portion of the site is a part of a US Navy base in the Norfolk area. I recall that a number of the buildings constructed for the event are now used as officer housing. There must have been some sort of post event consideration during the planning and construction phase. Nevertheless, such government funding for such and event today wouldn't make it beyond the notes on a napkin stage.

PS: I notice that Fizhugh Lee (whose photograph appears on the exposition advertisement) is listed as the "late president" of the event. He was involved in the planning in its initial stages. This is very significant because he was the grandson of "Lighthorse Harry Lee," the great cavalry officer during the Revolution and the nephew of the great Confederate general, Robert E. Lee. His involvement was significant because it was another opportunity to draw North and South together at least in a symbolic sense.

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Mike, I totally agree with you. A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to have an op-ed piece about the history and lessons of the Triangle Fire published in the Syracuse Post Standard. They included the headline, "Remember Triangle," and two vintage photographs. I received a good deal of positive feedback. However, virtually every single person told me that while they liked the article, they had never heard of the fire. It was reprinted in a union newsletter for UUP--a union of higher education teachers. Again, I received compliments. However, not one of those who read it and then contacted me had heard of that fire. Not one. And they are college level instructors in a variety of academic disciplines. Holy crap.

Our history is our foundation. Without it, we are shifting on the sands of arrogant ignorance. What is even more troubling is that it is not just that knowledge of our collective history is disappearing but so is the pride in the good things our nation has done along with the lessons learned by our mistakes. These concepts were the heart and soul of American education throughout the 19th Century and deep into the 20th. Without these foundation blocks, we are in real trouble. When we can send young people off to endless wars with no consequences on the home front, then we are no better than the Romans in the days of their fading empire. When more people vote for American Idol than for local, state or federal officials, then we are collectively screwed.

These issues truly concern me.

Jim

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...However, virtually every single person told me that while they liked the article, they had never heard of the fire...

Boggles the mind - it's like we have no common culture. How can you even have casual discourse if you have to explain every reference first? It seems that the job of a teacher is made nearly impossible if the students don't have a common basis of knowledge to build on. I am not a voracious reader of history, but just on TV I have seen the Triangle fire mentioned many times, usually on the anniversary, on news programs or news magazine programs like CBS Sunday Morning. The fact that it is memorialized by raising a fire ladder to the sixth floor (the top that could be reached at the time) is so dramatic that it sticks in your mind. So where is people's attention being spent? It truly seems it must be on too much worthless garbage if such serious and dramatic subjects do not ever cross people's awareness.

Edit: thinking about it, I'm sure the Triangle fire was well covered in various documentaries on PBS or the History Channel.

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Yes, PBS had a special presentation a few weeks prior to the 100th anniversary and HBO presented a documentary on March 21. What do you want to bet that their demographic share was somewhere near 1% of the viewers those evenings--or lower. There is too much junk food for the mind on the broadcast networks in the evenings.

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Interesting about Fitzhugh Lee.

The government also built a long breakwater for the Expo to provide shelter for visiting yachts, boats etc. (a LOT of people came to this expo by water transportation), that was a natural for post-fair military use.

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