Talk Transcript: The Real Jamestown

In April 1994, at Jamestown, an archeologist named Bill Kelso looked into the hole he had just dug and cried, "Holy Moses!" What inspired Kelso's outburst was a fragment of pottery—evidence that he had discovered the exact site of the first English-speaking settlement in North America. The British fort known to Capt. John Smith and the Indian princess Pocahontas was built in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Until Kelso's discovery, most people thought the fort's remains had been washed away by the James River. Starting with Pocahontas, what little we knew about Jamestown's founders—sent by London's Virginia Company to dig for gold, Christianize the natives and find a way to the Orient—sprang from half-remembered stories and outright fable. Now science is coming to the rescue. And just in time. Next month the settlement's 400th anniversary will be celebrated with visits from President Bush and Queen Elizabeth II. Since Kelso's "Eureka" moment, his archeological detectives and other scholars have been changing the public's understanding of Jamestown, which may have been heavily influenced by Walt Disney's cartoon "Pocahontas," whose miniskirted heroine falls in love with the dashing John Smith and persuades her father, Chief Powhatan, not to execute him.

In fact, as New York University historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman writes in her new book "The Jamestown Project," the settlement was to some extent "the creation story from hell." One starving resident cannibalized his pregnant wife; others ate rats and shoes, and extorted and killed the Indians. By the time Jamestown gave way to Williamsburg as Colonial Virginia's capital (1699), its denizens had mortgaged themselves to tobacco-growing and African-American slavery.

One reason that American children, obsessed by laser tag and videogames, have been so turned off by history is that the traditional airbrushed version of the American past seems so unreal. Visitors to the new Jamestown won't have that problem. Just opened on the site is a state-of-the-art structure dubbed an "archaearium," which displays some of the Kelso team's most dramatic discoveries—including some actual Jamestownians. While digging near one of the fort's walls, the team found a surprisingly well-preserved skeleton with a bullet in what used to be its leg. Another skeleton on display probably belonged to Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, an early Jamestown leader. Gosnold was the Briton who discovered and named Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard.

Thanks to CSI-type technology, you can see three-dimensional renderings of what these men probably looked like. Still other discoveries—tools, medicine jars, Indian beads, body armor—offer hard facts about their warfare, diseases, trade and physical labor.

Outside the archaearium, you can walk up to the edge of the pit where Kelso and his team are digging and sifting. Nearby, you'll see a historic American community coming back to life, starting with the framework of a barracks rebuilt on its original site.

Presumably to the delight of teenage visitors, those discoveries help illuminate a chapter of American history that is both murky and menacing. Unlike the child-friendly tale of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock—often portrayed as a feast of freedom-seeking Pilgrims abetted by Squanto the friendly Indian—Jamestown's tale includes murder and deceit. By the end of the 17th century, the Powhatan had been murdered or scattered.

In stark contrast to the way (white) Virginians have usually presented the town, the new museum treats Jamestown as a compelling, sometimes tragic, intersection of English, Native American and African-American cultures. One diorama shows the rich African culture from which Jamestown slaves were wrenched. We see how the Pocahontas story was later embroidered to raise new London money for Jamestown. In fact, the Indian maiden (actually called Matoakah) was only about 12 years old when she first met the British. They kidnapped her to prevent an Indian war before she was baptized as Rebecca and married to the Jamestown elder John Rolfe, who found her "manners barbarous." For his part, John Smith was accused of mutiny during the 1607 voyage.

If there is any justice, Jamestown's startling new rendering of itself—offered at the moment of its 400th birthday—should bring the old settlement new visitors and national attention. If it does, future visitors will come to recognize our national origins in that flawed, pugnacious group of men and women on the banks of the mighty James.