Happy 400th birthday, America!


Surely you’ve heard America is celebrating a benchmark birthday this year. Four hundred years ago in 1607, settlers landed on the shore of the James River and established America’s first permanent English-speaking settlement in Jamestown.

Plans have been under way to celebrate the anniversary since 1996 when the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation was established to be the lead agency responsible for planning America’s 400th anniversary.

Since then, communities from England to Colorado to Florida have gotten involved with the commemoration, which will culminate during America’s Anniversary Weekend May 11-13 in Jamestown.

The landmark event will feature pageantry, musical performances, cultural presentations and celebrity appearances.

Though Jamestown has taken center stage during all this pomp and circumstance, many individuals involved locally with the planning will tell you that it is not all about Jamestown.

There are roughly 170 official Virginia 2007 communities representing every region of the commonwealth. Each is hosting events and programs that highlight its unique history and culture. So, it’s possible to celebrate Jamestown’s history, and learn about your own local community’s history, without making the two-hour-plus trek south.

In Fairfax County, seven community programs representing Falls Church, George Mason University, Herndon, McLean/Great Falls, Vienna, Fairfax County and Fairfax City have been planning commemorative events.

Carole Herrick, co-chair of the McLean/Great Falls committee, said her group was the first committee in Virginia to form five years ago. “We’ve promoted our history like there’s no tomorrow,” she said.

One of the group’s biggest projects has been to identify and mark historic houses, buildings, trees and other noteworthy sites with bronze plaques to highlight their historical significance in the development of the community.

“There are a lot of new people who’ve moved here who have no idea what went on here,” Herrick said. “It’s a very rich area in history.”

One of the McLean/Great Falls area’s biggest historical claims to fame occurred in 1608 when Capt. John Smith set out to explore the Chesapeake Bay. In Smith’s travels, Herrick said Smith came up the Potomac River and made it as far as what we call “Little Falls,” about where the west end of the Memorial Bridge is today. It is believed Smith was unable to go beyond the falls, which were very expansive at the time.

In other projects, Herrick wrote the historical book, “August 24, 1814: Washington in Flames,” which was published in 2005. She said it sets the record straight about what happened in 1814 when enemy forces burned Washington, D.C., including information about how James Madison fled the city on a trail that cuts across McLean’s Chesterbrook Elementary School property today.

The McLean/Great Falls group also organized a 499-page legacy book, “Yesterday: 100 Recollections of McLean & Great Falls,” a compilation of memories by 100 area residents, six of whom have since passed away. (See box for information about a related tribute event).

The Fairfax County VA 2007 committee is working on a legacy book covering the last 400 years of the county. Once completed, it will feature 30 articles written by individuals with historically interesting stories about varying aspects and areas of the county. The book is slated to come out in time for the Celebrate Fairfax festival June 8-10.

I think there will be quite a bit of interest,” said Sally Ormsby, chair of Fairfax County’s Virginia 2007 committee. One hundred years from now, folks will be delighted we did this.”

The county is partnering with the public library system, Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and FXVA, the county’s convention and visitors corporation, to sponsor other events and programs, such as suggested online historical tour itineraries of various sites throughout the county at www.fxva.com .

The county committee is working with Channel 16, the Fairfax County Government Channel, to run public service announcements about the Jamestown anniversary and other local historic tidbits.

Paul Snodgrass, chair of Vienna’s Virginia 2007 committee, has been working the past few years to establish various legacies and special events in and around Vienna.

Last year, he spoke to roughly 20 community groups and clubs gathered to learn about the Jamestown anniversary. One point he said he has emphasized during his speeches is that Jamestown is, in fact, our nation’s birthplace.

Some people think Plymouth is America’s birthplace, he said. That’s wrong. Jamestown was settled 13 years before the pilgrims came to Plymouth.

If you are still set on going to Jamestown next month for the big anniversary celebration, it is advised that tickets be purchased and lodgings reserved as soon as possible. Many rooms are already booked, and organizers are only allowing a maximum of 30,000 people per day in the celebration areas.

And, remember, none of the historical sites and attractions are going anywhere. You can visit anytime before or after the May extravaganza for smaller crowds and less hassle. 

America’s 400th Anniversary
When: Friday-Saturday, May 11-13
Where: Historic Jamestown, Jamestown Settlement and Anniversary Park Tickets: $30/adults per day, $15/youth (ages 6-12) per day, free/ages 5 and younger
Information: Call 866-400-1607 or visit