Is Plymouth really America's hometown? There are some in Jamestown, Va., who think their town is the true birthplace of America, in large part because it was founded first. "Get out from under the rock" was one motto of Jamestown's recent 400th anniversary celebration.
Plymouth backers acknowledge that Jamestown was indeed founded 13 years earlier, but say the colony begun by the Pilgrims in 1620 proved more important to the founding of the American nation.
To settle the argument, a mock trial - conceived as half educational and half fun - was held last weekend at Marshfield's Winslow House, with experts on both sides addressing the question.
The symposium ended in an official draw after members of the largely local "jury" decided not to vote on a verdict.
The event included presentations by a Canadian professor on the lesser-known Port Royal settlement in Nova Scotia, which dates to 1605, with suggestions that it, too, is a contender for the America's Hometown title. Also offering views were two speakers connected to Jamestown, and Winslow House's Mark Schmidt, who offered brief history lessons.
Schmidt, director of a historic house built in 1699 by the grandson of Pilgrim Edward Winslow, said the fundamentally inexact concept of an "American hometown" could be expressed as "who held the first press conference."
The case for Jamestown was pleaded primarily by Crandall Shifflet, a professor of history at Virginia Tech, who addressed Plymouth's supposedly special claims on the nation's memory. Shifflet argued that religion was also part of Virginia's settlements, the Mayflower Compact was relatively unimportant, Massachusetts colonists destroyed Indian settlements in the Pequot War and King Philip's War, and no "first Thanksgiving" actually took place in Plymouth.
After mocking Plymouth's claims, Shifflet came up with a scorecard for each settlement's contribution to creating an open and democratic society, which credited Jamestown for having the first representative governing body, the first African members, economic initiatives, and other firsts. But out of a possible score of 100, Shifflet concluded, "Jamestown 60, Plymouth 20. They both fail."
Tonia Deetz Rock, a Jamestown archeologist and educator who has also worked at Plimoth Plantation for more than a decade, discussed archeological findings at James Fort, Jamestown's first site, which buttress its claim as a permanent settlement.
Plymouth Town Manager Mark Sylvia launched the hometown defense by offering his own ideas on what constitutes America's hometown - defined by the dictionary as the place where one "grew up" - concluding "America grew up because of Plymouth." The Pilgrim colony has the best claim to the hometown tag because the values of its founders influenced and reflected American values, its history paralleled and influenced the nation's growth, and it developed socially and economically in ways parallel to the nation as a whole.
Unlike Jamestown's settlers, who were employees of the Virginia Company, the Pilgrims came to the new world as families and members of a religious congregation who "risked their lives" to "create a new community." Plymouth's founders expanded westward, and the town became home to waves of later immigrants, just as the nation did.
Plymouth's symbols, Sylvia said, have come to represent American values. Plymouth Rock became a symbol of endurance (praised by de Tocqueville, the classic French student of American democracy, as "a symbol of hope"), the Mayflower Compact expressed a people's desire to govern themselves, and the First Thanksgiving represented the desire to live in peace with neighbors. And the site where the Pilgrims built their homes remains "an active, thriving community" today, Sylvia said.
In making the case that a French fur trading settlement on the Bay of Fundy - the first permanent European settlement in the northeastern tier of North America - deserves more attention than it customarily receives, Barry Moody said Port Royal's founders developed close relations with neighboring Mi'kmaq Indians but received less love from Jamestown's English settlers. Raiders from Jamestown looted and burned the settlement in 1613.
Moody, a history professor at Arcadia University in Nova Scotia, questioned the hometown concept's appropriation of the term "American." As a Canadian, Moody said, "I consider myself an American." But he also acknowledged that a discussion of a national hometown "could not happen in Canada." Panel members suggested the issue reflects the USA's sense of itself as a nation with a special identity.
When it came time for the vote, some members of the prospective "jury" said voting would oversimplify the issues raised by the speakers. Schmidt then declared a mistrial.
Karen Moseley of Marshfield and Florida said she was tired of the "Hallmark" image of Thanksgiving. "We're made to think we need America's hometown," she said. Author Bob Hale of Duxbury said America's hometown was largely "a motto," and no one place can be representative of the nation.
Motto or not, Paul Cripps, director of the tourism promotion agency Destination Plymouth, said, "America's hometown" has proven an effective marketing tool. A brief exit poll showed some voters remained staunch for Plymouth. Tom Kane of Marshfield said he would have voted for Plymouth because of "the family and the continuity."
Robert Knox can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.