The 400th Anniversary of 1619 Sparks a New Look at the New World

by | Apr 2, 2019

For James Horn, the facts are clear.

"When it comes to English America, there is a point of origin, and it's Virginia," says Horn, the author of two books on the Jamestown settlement, including the recent 1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy. The British-born historian is one of the many advisors behind a yearlong initiative called American Evolution, designed to loudly spread the word about Virginia's place in history.

Kickstarted by a $24 million state investment and buoyed by a bevy of high-powered corporate sponsors, American Evolution intends to rebrand the Old Dominion as the nation's birthplace and maybe even talk openly about the difficult birth. Statewide conferences, symposiums, film festivals, panel discussions, historical exhibits, interactive displays, games, even a newly commissioned ballet, are on the schedule. In conjunction with American Evolution, the state has released a special Virginia History Trails app—quite snazzy—on iTunes and Google Play.

Horn, the founder of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, says that the nation "starts in Virginia, and if you had to pick a single date in American history that tells us about who we are and where we came from, it would be 1619 and not 1620," when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock.

In 1619, the first assembly of American lawmakers was convened. It was also when the first Africans arrived and the year that the Virginia Company, the joint-stock corporation funding Jamestown, began a campaign to recruit groups of women from England. It was also—sorry, Massachusetts—the year Virginia celebrated the first English Thanksgiving. 

No fooling. This 1619 Thanksgiving was a simple religious prayer that included no Pilgrim-style smorgasbord. It happened in Charles City County, 30 or so miles upriver from Jamestown, convened by would-be settlers sponsored by another English joint-stock venture, the Berkeley Company. This thanks was mandated in the Berkeley charter.   

"People often don't want to trace back beyond the American Revolution, and we are very regional about our origins," Horn says. "There is kind of a collective amnesia when it comes to Virginia too, because Virginia is also dealing with issues of race and racism by 1619, first with the Africans and then with [Native Americans] … but if we don't know about our history, then how can we learn from it?"

Kathy Spangler, the executive director of American Evolution, says that the grand commemoration affords Virginia the opportunity to reclaim history from the Pilgrims. "[This Thanksgiving] was two years ahead of what happened in Plymouth. So we are really looking at this as a way of taking back the spirit of Thanksgiving and also include our Virginia Indians and all Americans." Another thing the campaign celebrates this year, she says, is the "entrepreneurship" of the original colonists. 

The 1619 meeting of the first legislative assembly in English North America was a world-shaking event, Horn says. "It is key. Jamestown is the first of the English colonies to develop what we might say is the first modern, recognizable form of government." The nascent lawmakers met in a Jamestown Church, with tobacco rates the initial topic of debate. This important site is now being excavated. Horn also says that the influx of women was pivotal, even essential, to early America's survival.

"Prior to 1619, there had been only a small number of English women in Jamestown," says Katherine Gruber, adding that Native American women had been present in the area for hundreds of years. Anne Burras was among the earliest and most famous. Even with the hardship she had to endure—at 14, she was the only female at the settlement for some time—she married and gave birth to Virginia Laydon, the first child born in the New Colony. 

Gruber, the historical curator of the Tenacity: Women of Jamestown exhibit at Jamestown Settlement, says that a first wave of English women in the colony were not exactly the marrying kind. "These are women from prisons like Bridewell, the streets of London, vagrants, and they are primarily coming over to act as indentured servants. So, it's a labor force push. It was forced migration."

The men complained about these ladies, Beverly "Bly" Straube says, "and there was a big movement toward attracting so-called decent women to establish a society like England where you had established families." The former Jamestown archeological curator adds that "one way to do that was to get women of a certain status, ones having gentle conversation and refined skills like needlework and so forth." 

How much those skills actually helped these women in the Virginia wilderness, history does not record. "There's only a handful of women where we've been able to find out more about their lives," Gruber says. "We know that some of them were able to find husbands and survive here. We know that some of them were taken captive [by Native Americans] in 1622, we know of some that, by 1625, were still unmarried, some living in the households of other couples and members of the community … We can only imagine what their reactions must have been like to Jamestown." 

"The most obvious misconception about all of this is that Jamestown was a failure and therefore insignificant," Horn says. "But by the time of the early 1620s, it's the most populous of the colonies, and it’s the most populous during the mainline [Protestant] period. We've lost sight of just how significant this all was. Jamestown still matters to people, and that's what 2019 is going to be about." 

African Arrival Day Commemoration, Hampton
African Arrival Day Commemoration

First Thanksgiving by Sidney King
First Thanksgiving by Sidney King

Annibale Carracci portrait of an African-American woman holding a clock
Annibale Carracci portrait of an African-American woman holding a clock

The folks behind American Evolution aren't the only ones firing 400th anniversary musket balls in the air.

"I'm proud of what the state of Virginia is doing with this commemoration. We're going to be talking about things we don't normally talk about, women and Africans and Thanksgiving," says Terry Brown of the National Park Service, one of the country's few African-American park superintendents. He oversees Fort Monroe, which was called Point Comfort when the first Africans landed there.

"My goal is that when people mention the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty, they also mention Fort Monroe," he says.

"First, the American Indians were here. Then Captains Newport and Smith came here before Jamestown. You have the first enslaved Africans, and you later have Africans building the largest stone fort. You have the contraband decision of 1861, and you have the first black president [Barack Obama] making the first African arrival a national monument. Here's the beauty of it all: Robert E. Lee was a young officer there, Jefferson Davis a prisoner there … it is truly America's story."

The Park Service has planned a series of anniversary events with the City of Hampton, which has launched its own formidable 400th anniversary campaign, a year-long series of conferences and events mostly centered around those 20-odd Africans who arrived in 1619 at Point Comfort, taken as contraband from a Spanish slave ship.

"I think it's important to have people understand what kind of culture those Africans represented and brought with them," says Norfolk State University Professor Colita Fairfax, the co-chair of the Hampton 2019 Commemorative Commission. She wants the 400th anniversary to prompt serious conversations about Native American culture and the formation of American slavery. Hampton K-12 teachers are already prepared to continue these discussions in the classroom, thanks to special Commission-sponsored workshops. 

Angelo and Isabel, Virginia's first African women, also arrived in 1619. Isabel, claimed by Hampton, is believed to have been among the 20 odd Africans that came off of the White Lion at Point Comfort; she later gave birth to the First African-American child, William. 

Angelo is known to have landed a few days later in Jamestown on a vessel called the Treasurer. "Historians have been fighting over these details for a long time," Superintendent Brown says. For the longest time, it was assumed the first Africans arrived at Jamestown, he explains, until recent evidence was unveiled. "History is constantly evolving, and historians have to evolve too," he says.

"The primary source documents actually don't say where the first Africans came to shore," says Hampton History Museum Registrar Bethany Austin. "It does say that their ship landed in Port Comfort first. Our stance is that there's no reason to believe that they didn't get off of the ship here, but … we know that the White Lion was in Jamestown before she sailed out of Virginia. Some of the Africans probably sailed to Jamestown after leaving Point Comfort."

Hampton History Museum Curator Allen Hoilman says that, "If a ship came to Jamestown, it would have stopped first at Point Comfort. The whole point of there being a Fort Algernon at Point Comfort was to stop any incoming traffic before it was sent on to Jamestown … think of it as being like a custom's station."  

Ground penetrating radar is being used to examine the graveyard of the historic Hampton home of William Tucker, where Isabel lived. “There is digging on National Park Service property [near Jamestown], where they are looking at the site of the Pierce household, where Angelo was housed," Bly Straube adds. "I feel like there's so much that still needs to be done." 

Straube was part of the team that discovered the remains of the original Jamestown Fort. "Here it is, 25 years later, and they are still digging out there, and the project is still going on," she marvels. "I think that the interior of the original fort has been pretty much examined, there's still areas where they could look, or relook, it's a learning process."

Surviving Jamestown documents tell us little about ordinary settlers. For that, Straube says, researchers look to the soil, at the garbage left behind. "It's like a jigsaw puzzle where you don't have all the pieces. It's frustrating, but it can lead to interesting interpretations, and you can end up down paths you wouldn't reach just looking at the documents."

One macabre discovery was the physical confirmation of cannibalism during Jamestown's very early days. "We also found plenty of other evidence of the 'starving time' in the bones of the animals that were eaten, rats, cats and dogs,” Straube says. “They ate all of their horses. They were really suffering and in bad shape."

Objects of beauty and complexity were also found: A Roman oil lamp from the first century, books, a luggage tag, arcane military shields, musical instruments, even a silver grooming pick in the form of a dolphin. "Somebody spotted that Johnny Depp had [a reproduction of the pick] hanging from his hat in one of the Pirates movies," Straube adds with a laugh.

"We found Nutting spoons, shell beads in the process of being made … it was like it was a production site. To us, it appeared to indicate the presence of Indian women because they were the ones who were the craftworkers. Before women started arriving in Jamestown, we believe that Chief Powhatan was sending a lot of women to the fort."

Fifes and Drums at the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival
Fifes and Drums at the Virginia Thanksgiving Festival

African Arrival Day 2018
African Arrival Day 2018

Virginia Thanksgiving Festival Chickahominy dancer
Virginia Thanksgiving Festival Chickahominy dancer

Replica ship at African Arrival Day
Replica ship at the African Arrival Day

It should be noted that not everyone agrees on what happened 400 years ago. Little wonder. "The records give you hints, they show you direction, from time to time they contradict each other," Allen Hoilman says.

"Jamestown Island is 1,559.5 acres of failure, monument to one of the truly magnificent blunders in mankind's history," H.H. Morris wrote in an infamous 1972 review in The New York Times. "It provided the British with a temporary foothold in the New World. Its wharves received the first shipment of black slaves to America. Its swamps and forests were the scene of a half‐hearted, sporadic guerrilla campaign, which the Indians managed to lose only by making more mistakes than the British. And in 1699 Jamestown became perhaps the only capital in the world to be abandoned because of mosquitoes."

"1619 was not the first time Africans could be found in an English Atlantic colony," argues Michael Guaso in a recent Smithsonian magazine essay. "And it certainly wasn’t the first time people of African descent made their mark and imposed their will on the land that would someday be part of the United States."

In his new book Marooned, College of Charleston Professor Joseph Kelly postulates that many early settlers were little more than slaves themselves. "If there's a villain in the book, it's the Virginia Company," he says. "That's not to say that I don't think entrepreneurship had an important role in this. The joint stock companies and the way they were constructed and their internal governments were kind of a training in democracy." 

But early Virginia history, he adds, has been written from the company perspective. "No one is really looking at what happened from the point of view of the common laborer or the tradesman, the people who were not members of the aristocracy, who signed on to this as adventurers and who got their one share by venturing their body."

History has portrayed these settlers as lazy defectors, unwilling to plant and build. Kelly maintains that they were trying to survive. "When you look at it from their point of view, they are not unruly at all, or lazy, they just aren't doing what the company tells them to do … they wanted to go out into the woods and establish their own villages and create their own governments, and they were prevented from doing that. Some were executed. It's very clear that the common laborer, the common settler, had a very different notion of interpreting these events."

"There's a realization in our current historical moment that things were complicated," Bethany Austin says. "The Virginia narrative plays right into that. We don't like to think of Virginia history as our nation's origin story because it's based on profit and slavery, not on virtue or religious freedom. But these are the things we need to talk about. It's long overdue."

Colita Fairfax agrees. "We can't water this down. There are many themes that I hope we can unravel. There's a strong and rich history there that hasn't been taught and addressed, at least not in the right way. With this anniversary, we can explore the reasons for why and how all of this happened."


First Africans in Virginia

Mobile History

Available on iTunes, Google Play and at

Travel back in time with the Virginia History Trails mobile app. Users can follow 20 different Virginia history trails and more than 400 specific historic locations on their devices.


Selected 400th Anniversary Events across Coastal Virginia

For many more events planned for the region, visit and


Tenacity: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia

Jamestown Settlement
Runs through Jan. 5, 2020

A rich exploration of women in early Virginia with many rare papers and items never seen. The exhibit starts, appropriately, with Native American women.  


Historic Jamestowne: Democracy and Diversity 

Opens April 15 at Historic Jamestowne

New interactive exhibits and programs will open Jamestown Island, including a recreation of the original church where the first assembly met.  


Dance Theatre of Harlem World Premiere

May 3–5 at Chrysler Hall, Norfolk

The world premiere of a modern ballet about the first Africans, with music by Jessie Montgomery and choreography by Claudia Schreiber.


Hampton Heritage Day

May 18 in Mill Point Park, Downtown Hampton

A free festival that celebrates the Native American, European and African cultures that have shaped Hampton's history. 


International Forum on the Future of Representative Democracy

July 31–August 1 at William & Mary

In conjunction with the First Assembly commemoration at Historic Jamestowne and Jamestown Settlement on July 30, this two-day conference on the future of democracy will involve political leaders from across the globe.


African Arrival Commemoration and Fort Monroe Visitor & Education Center Dedication

Aug. 23–25 at Fort Monroe, Hampton

A multi-day celebration centered around the First African arrival, including dedication and remembrance ceremonies, gallery exhibits, historical tours, conferences, cultural workshops and a concert featuring Rhiannon Giddens and Sounds of Blackness.


Virginia Thanksgiving Festival

Nov. 3, 2019 at Berkeley Plantation, Charles City County

This scenic festival celebrates a big birthday with a historic reenactment of the very first English Thanksgiving in 1619, plus music, food and Chickahominy dancers. 

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