Image: Remembering Jamestown
Jason Reed / Reuters File
President Bush gathers for a picture with former Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, first lady Laura Bush and traditional sailmaker Josiah Freitus. President Bush toured Jamestown Sunday to mark the 400th anniversary of the English settlement, saying the United States must continue to stand by countries struggling for freedom.
updated 5/14/2007 1:40:35 PM ET 2007-05-14T17:40:35

The people who began planning a decade ago for Jamestown's 400th anniversary dreamed of getting the president and Queen Elizabeth II to help commemorate the founding of America's first permanent English settlement.

"Lo and behold they're here," former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, honorary chair of the anniversary events, said Sunday as she introduced the president before his speech on the closing day of three days of festivities — the centerpiece of 18 months of events.

England's monarch had recognized the anniversary earlier by visiting Jamestown on May 4, recreating a trip she made in 1957, the year of its 350th anniversary.

Just being able to snag such dignitaries helped make the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of America's first permanent English settlement a success, organizers said.

They predicted that the commemoration will make more people aware of Jamestown and boost tourism to Virginia for years to come.

"What we've done ... is get out the message that Jamestown is an important, interesting and fun place to visit," said Jeanne Zeidler, executive director of Jamestown 2007, part of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, a state agency coordinating commemoration efforts.

President Bush's speech Sunday — on the actual anniversary of the settlers' arrival at a swampy island on the James River — was a key event during a weekend filled with concerts, pageantry, storytelling, cultural demonstrations and children's plays.

He gave a history lesson about Jamestown's tough beginnings as a commercial venture, with the colonists dealing with hunger and an uneasy peace with the native Indians that erupted into violence.

He also urged Americans to come to Jamestown.

"I think you'll be amazed at how our country got started," he said.

The crowd cheered when the president added that the settlers founded Jamestown 13 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

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"I think everyone should come here and get a taste of the roots of America," said Lynn Greene of Franklin, who was among the more than 7,000 people gathered to see the president.

Jamestown's population dwindled after Virginia's capital was moved to nearby Williamsburg in 1699, and today only two people live on the island, an archaeologist and his wife.

The island, where archaeologists continue to dig up artifacts at the site of the settlers' three-sided fort, was much more crowded over the weekend.

About 17,000 people visited the site on Saturday alone, said Mike Litterst, spokesman for the National Park Service, which administers Historic Jamestown along with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. In May of 2006, the site averaged 1,200 visitors a day.

"If we've done our job right, the interest and excitement created by the anniversary will bring an avalanche of people, not just for the next few months, but for the next few years," Litterst said.

By midday Sunday, at least 66,000 people had attended anniversary events at Historic Jamestowne and two other places nearby, the Jamestown Settlement museum where early 17th-century living is re-enacted and a former campground that was turned into a park for the weekend.

More than half of the 90,000 tickets available for the weekend had remained unsold prior to the event. Zeidler acknowledged that advance ticket sales were "not what we had hoped for" but said walk-up sales were healthy.

The anniversary weekend was financed by $4.7 million in private and public funds. The budget for the entire commemoration, with events in Virginia, along the East Coast and in England, is about $32 million.

Virginia has recognized major Jamestown anniversaries with big bashes every 50 years since 1807; this was the first to incorporate all three cultures that converged there: English, Indian and African American. Slavery in America is traced to Jamestown, where Africans arrived in 1619.

The state already has a head start on the next anniversary.

After his speech, President Bush handed three local children some items to add to a time capsule put together during the weekend. They included commemorative coins and a letter signed by him and the first lady and addressed to those who will open the time capsule in 2057.

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