Over the centuries of Jamestown's existence, a series of celebrations honoring Jamestown as the birthplace of America have been held at this site. These celebrations have themselves become traditions, and therefore they are part of Jamestown's history. Below is a chronology of the major celebrations held at Jamestown.
In 1807, a dignified celebration marked the bicentennial of Jamestown. Sometimes referred to as "Virginiad," the celebration was most commonly called the Grand National Jubilee. No less than 3,500 people attended the event. Twelve to 14 vessels anchored in the river near the island to deliver many of the participants. College of William and Mary students gave orations and a company of players from Norfolk performed, converting an old barn on the island into a temporary theater. There were many dignitaries, politicians, and historians among the celebrants. One of these, Jamestown's own Colonel Champion Travis, was honored as a surviving member of the Virginia Convention of 1776--first to declare for state independence. May 13th was the opening day of the festival, which began with a procession which marched to the graveyard of the old church. The attending bishop reportedly stood on a tombstone to deliver the prayer. The procession then moved to the Travis mansion. The celebrants dined and danced in the mansion that evening. Jamestown claimed the life of another victim when a young man succumbed to heat stroke and "too free use of ice in cider." Visitors attended his funeral on the 14th. The Bicentennial celebration concluded with a dinner and toast at the Raleigh Tavern in Williamsburg.
On May 24-25, 1822, Jamestown hosted the Jamestown Jubilee or Third Virginiad. The Norfolk based paper American Beacon, which sponsored the event, provided no background information on where the previous Virginiads were held. (Virginiads, celebrations held every five years, may have been held in Virginia at various designated sites across the state--the one in 1822 being held at Jamestown). It was a festive occasion of entertainment and games, with little organization. Many different vessels and steamboats anchored offshore. Fruit, confectionery and grocery shops were set up under tents, and the Ambler house may have been used as well, with arbors bedecking the garden grounds. Rockets were set off at intervals and lively musical bands performed. However, it was reported that there was too much gambling and rowdiness, courtesy of a faro table and a wheel of fortune. The visitors and guests were curiously referred to as "pilgrims," and some may have been staying in the Travis mansion when a newspaper reporter on the scene witnessed it burn before his eyes. The cause of the fire was unknown, but it was surrounded by suspicious circumstances. A man named Rosainville had temporarily stored some fireworks in the house and removed all of them before the fire.
In 1857, the Jamestown society organized a celebration marking the 250th anniversary of Jamestown's founding. With an estimated crowd of six to eight thousand, including military companies, this was one of Jamestown's largest celebrations. Sixteen large steamers anchored offshore and were gaily decorated with streamers. According to the Richmond Enquirer, the site for the celebration was on ten acres on the spot where some of the colonists' houses were originally built. However, it is also speculated that the celebration was moved further east on the island closer to the Travis grave site, in order to avoid damaging Major William Allen's corn fields. Some of the highlights of this celebration were a record-breaking two and a half hour speech given by ex-president John Tyler, military displays, a grand ball and fireworks.
In 1907, Norfolk and Jamestown hosted an international celebration proclaimed by former President Theodore Roosevelt. Called the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, it was similar in scale to the big Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. Opening on April 26 (Cape Henry Day), the majority of the celebration was held at the site of today's Norfolk Naval Base. Special buildings were constructed to house the public exhibitions depicting educational, scientific, artistic and industrial achievements. The celebration included other cultural events as well as animal acts and a wild west show. It featured perhaps the largest display of naval vessels in America, including the entire North Atlantic Fleet and fleets of various other countries. The president personally reviewed many of the naval and military displays. At Jamestown, special dedicatory ceremonies were held marking the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America's donation of the newly finished Jamestown Memorial Church to the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. The 103-foot granite Tercentenary Monument, erected by the government, was also dedicated at this time.
In 1957, the Jamestown Festival 350th Celebration united the National Park Service, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Colonial Williamsburg Corporation for a special preservation effort. This celebration finalized plans for enhanced visitor facilities, better protection and greater appreciation of Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown. To improve the historical atmosphere, State Highway 31 and the ferry wharf were moved west of Jamestown, and the scenic Colonial Parkway, linking the historic triangle, was completed. The staging area for the celebration, known as the Festival Park, was located near Jamestown and today remains the site of the Jamestown Festival Park. Along with the National Park service site, it hosted special activities during the celebration. At the Park Service site, the reconstructed Glasshouse, the Memorial Cross and the visitors center were completed and dedicated. Other events included army and navy reviews, air force fly-overs, ship and aircraft christenings and even an outdoor drama at Cape Henry. This celebration continued from April 1 to November 30 with over a million participants, including dignitaries and politicians such as the British Ambassador and Vice President Nixon. The highlight for many of the nearly 25,000 at the Festival Park on October 16 was the visit and speech of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
In 1987, a five day commemorative celebration called the Jamestown Celebration for the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution took place between July 30 and August 3. The dates chosen mark the period in 1619 when the first representative legislative assembly in the New World, known as the House of Burgesses, met at Jamestown. This first meeting established the idea of self-government and provided the seedbed for the eventual institutionalization of representative government in the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Special activities included an official Constitution Day ceremony with state senators and historians as guest speakers, a fife and drum corps, reenactments of the First Assembly by the St. Marie's Cittie Militia, a band concert and a day full of fun-filled activities for children. The highlight of the final day was a naturalization ceremony held at the Robert Hunt Shrine to indoctrinate new U.S. citizens.
The Jamestown Quadricentennial will be in 2007. Planning is already at the national level. It will no doubt be another major celebration commemorating the settlement of Jamestown and the birth of English America.
Richmond Enquirer. May 19, 1807; May 5, 1807; May 28, 1822.
Jamestown, 1607-1957. Final Report to the President and Congress of the Jamestown-Williamsburg-Yorktown Celebration Commission. Washington, D.C., 1958.
Tyler, Lyon G. The Cradle of the Republic. Hermitage Press, Richmond, Virginia, 1906.
Stallings, Diane G. Historical Research Paper, Lesson #6: Jamestown Celebrations of 1957 and 1907, 1987.
Last updated: February 26, 2015