Editorial: Preserving Jamestown’s history

·3 min read

With the tolling of the bell at historic Jamestown Memorial Church and a flurry of meetings, announcements and news coverage, an urgent call has gone out to save Jamestown Island before it’s too late.

Strong, wise action is needed now and going forward to protect this site that’s so rich in history and central to the story of the commonwealth and the nation.

The urgent call for help came last month when Jamestown Island was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2022 list of America’s 11 most endangered historic sites. As the National Trust said, the site is at a crucial turning point. The choices are stark. Those in the commonwealth and beyond who care about this valuable site and all that it tells us about ourselves and our nation can intensify efforts to preserve what’s here. Or we can concede that the fight is lost and turn our efforts to documenting what we are about to lose.

The answer should be clear: It’s essential for the nation and for this region to do everything we can to preserve Jamestown Island and all its history.

The Jamestown settlement is central to the country’s story. English settlers came in 1607, but indigenous people built and sustained communities there for thousands of years prior. Virginia recently celebrated the 400-year anniversaries of the first Africans arriving here in chains, the first women who came to the settlement and the first legislative assembly, all of which happened in Jamestown.

As Americans are trying to understand the complexities of our history and its lingering effects, this place where these important stories first intersected is invaluable. When the colonial capital moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg, too little thought was given to preserving the remnants of the settlement for posterity. Over the years, as Virginia grew and changed, farming, development and erosion erased many traces of early Jamestown.

Fortunately, Preservation Virginia, the National Park Service and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation now control the island’s historic sites. Tourists can visit the recreated fort, Native American village and ships at Jamestown Settlement. They can see the site of the first structures settlers constructed at Historic Jamestowne, where archeologists continue to find artifacts that help tell the stories of the various peoples who have lived there.

But all that’s there now, and treasures that might yet be found, are increasingly in danger from the rising James River, frequent storms and increased flooding. Erosion is eating away at the island, and what’s left is becoming swamp and wetland. A seawall was built in 1902 and other measures have been implemented in recent years, but these are inadequate to handle the growing threats as climate change rapidly makes matters worse.

The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation has come up with a plan that could mitigate the effects of climate change through the rest of the century, including building berms, repairing the seawall and elevating some areas.

To make the plan a reality, the nonprofit foundation will need more partners and millions of dollars. That urgent call for help is asking others to join in the effort and to make donations.

The importance of saving Jamestown should be apparent. Jamestown and the colonial, Native American and Black history that converges there is essential to the story of America, one we collectively are, slowly, beginning to understand more fully.

For those of us who live nearby, saving Jamestown Island is even more critically important. On a practical level, heritage tourism is a vital part of our economy. Beyond that, this is a place we treasure, a place that is central to the identity of Hampton Roads.

What a terrible shame it would be to lose this treasured site from lack of interest or an unwillingness to do what it will take to save it. Let’s help make possible the emergency measures needed to hold back the rising waters — and let’s stop postponing the actions needed to forcefully address the forces affecting the climate.