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If Winners Write History, New York Trumps Jamestown

May 25, 2006

Promotion of the upcoming 400th anniversary by Sam Roberts


A replica of the 17th-century sailing ship Godspeed made its way down the James River on Monday. The ship is being used to promote the 400th anniversary of Jamestown's founding, which will occur next year.

Hungry for gold, committed to converting savages and seeking a shortcut to the Orient, on May 14, 1607, settlers landed on a marshy peninsula they christened Jamestown.

According to an official account, they came ashore "never to leave." Except for one thing. By the end of the 17th century, after creating a legacy that included slavery and profiteering from tobacco, the Jamestown settlement had all but vanished. Jamestown, Va.'s permanent population today? Two — an archaeologist and his wife.

Jamestown has been billed as the nation's birthplace, the first permanent English colony, and has already begun an extended celebration of the site of America's 400th anniversary.

While plenty of other locations stake a claim, some New Yorkers maintain that if any place deserves to be known as the nation's birthplace, it is New York, population 8.2 million. And a real birthday is almost here.

Perhaps it slipped your mind, but 2009 is the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Hudson up the river that would within a few years bear his name. It's also 400 years since Champlain sailed down his lake upstate. The 200th anniversary of Robert Fulton's inaugural steamboat voyage up the Hudson in 1807 is also being marked in 2009.

Kenneth T. Jackson, the Columbia University historian and editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City, doesn't begrudge Jamestown its celebration. It's not that Jamestown wasn't important, he says. Just that the contrast with New York couldn't be greater.

"In Jamestown, they discover a town that disappears into the mud," Professor Jackson said. "New York becomes the greatest city in the world. The Hudson becomes the river west, the river of empire."

Not surprising, Barbara C. Fratianni, executive director of the state's Hudson Fulton Champlain Quadricentennial Commission, agrees. "New York has never been given the credit that it's due," she said. "They went to Jamestown but never stayed there. New York was the entryway."

So far, though, plans and resources for New York's celebration pale in comparison with Virginia's, where scholars, archaeologists, civic boosters and the tourism industry have diligently joined forces to mount an 18-month celebration. Just last week, a new exhibition center opened there.

"Every American should visit here," said Elizabeth Kostelny, executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. "This is where our nation began."

But Kent Barwick, the president of the Municipal Art Society in New York, described Jamestown, half-jokingly, as "a swamp" and said its "place in history, the present and the future is not comparable" to New York's. The Hudson celebration, he said, "gives us an opportunity to reclaim the river."

Ms. Fratianni's commission began a Web site on the anniversary this month (www.exploreny400.com). Plans for a federal commission are being drafted. Separately, a joint American-Dutch group called Henry Hudson 400 is planning commemorations in Amsterdam and New York to evoke the legacy of New Netherlands, which, once permanent settlers began arriving in 1624, has included Dutch names sprinkled throughout gazetteers and street signs, cole slaw, bowling and the ethnic and racial diversity that distinguished New York from most other New World settlements.

The New York State Library and the Holland Society of New York have been sponsoring the research of Charles T. Gehring, who has been translating Dutch colonial records for the New Netherland Project.

In 1909, less than two decades after Chicago stole New York's thunder with the Columbian Exposition, the 300th anniversary of Hudson's voyage up the river was an extravaganza that lasted two weeks. Six years after his first flight, Wilbur Wright flew up the Hudson from Governors Island to Grant's Tomb and back. Hundreds of vessels paraded up the river, including a replica of Hudson's ship, the Half Moon, which, unfortunately, sailed smack into the facsimile of Fulton's Clermont.

In "The New World," Terence Malik's recent film about Jamestown, the role of the colonists' lead ship was actually played by a new Half Moon replica, which, captained by William T. Reynolds, director of the New Netherland Museum in Albany, normally plies the Hudson.

In 1909, Americans looked back 300 years, to when the Half Moon's mate wrote that the first New Yorkers weren't all that different from today's — at least on one count: "They desire clothes," the journal said, "and are very civil."

They also looked ahead, to 2009. Stephen Chalmers, a New York Times reporter turned novelist, drolly predicted the obsolescence of the automobile and the triumph of pedestrians, and a race by air to Chicago and back by competing pilots from Hoboken and from Mars.

The chief controversy then was whether Hudson, who was English but was commissioned on this voyage by the Dutch East India Company, should be referred to as Hendrik or Henry.

This time, there's no such controversy — "we call him Henry," Ms. Fratianni said — although there might be some confusion again over a name, since the Hudson Fulton Champlain initials evoke not so much the state's rich heritage as the Household Finance Corporation. "It's important that we celebrate New York's place in history," Ms. Fratianni said. "Life in America started right here in New York City."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company