“Jamestown, Québec, Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings” Opens at the Smithsonian’s International Gallery

May 11, 2009
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An important part of world history will be on display in the exhibition “Jamestown, Québec, Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings” at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center beginning Monday, May 18. The exhibition is co-organized by the Virginia Historical Society and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and will be on view through Nov. 1.

The year 1607 marked the beginning of a turning point in world history. It was a collision of empires, cultures and ideas. The first permanent English settlement was established at Jamestown, Va., but that was just the beginning. In the following years, the French would establish Québec (1608) and the Spanish would push north from Mexico to establish Santa Fe (1609). The “New World” offered the hope of opportunity to Europeans, but Native Americans and, soon, Africans would pay the price. The exhibition tells the story of dramatic twists of fate, strategic alliances and violent conflict between the three mighty European empires and the Native people living in North America. It is a story that changed the face of the world as we know it today.

Presented in three languages and with multiple perspectives, “Jamestown, Québec, Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings” uses rare surviving Native and European artifacts, maps, documents and ceremonial objects from museums and royal collections on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The result is a ground-breaking exhibition. A 1622 broadside advises English settlers on what to pack for their journey to Virginia. A wampum belt from the French royal collection illustrates how gift giving became an important tactic as the French sought alliances with the Huron people. Spanish armor engraved with Christian symbols exemplifies the religious dimension of the Spanish conquest of New Mexico.

“This exhibition is going to give audiences a broader perspective,” said James C. Kelly, director of museums at the Virginia Historical Society and co-curator of the exhibition. “People tend to think of Jamestown as an isolated incident, but in many ways, Jamestown is a small part of a much larger story. The stage had been set for quite a few years before Jamestown. Many Native people had prior contact with Europeans and trade had already been established in several areas. It was the permanence and eventual expansion of the colonies that intensified all the forces that had been set in motion by initial contact.”

Through objects and text, visitors are reminded that the colonization of North America was not just a westward movement from a single starting point.

“The English, French and Spanish were all establishing these three permanent settlements almost simultaneously,” said Barbara Clark Smith, co-curator of the exhibition and curator of Colonial history at the National Museum of American History. “This exhibition helps museum visitors understand the multinational nature of North American history and absorb the implications of the legacy.”  

The exhibition is made possible with the support of LandAmerica, Robins Foundation, Jamestown 2007 and the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. The Smithsonian’s International Gallery is the final stop on a five-city tour. A companion book, “Jamestown, Québec, Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings” was published by Smithsonian Books and distributed by HarperCollins Publishers.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To learn more about the museum, please visit http://americanhistory.si.edu or call Smithsonian Information at (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).

The Smithsonian’s International Gallery, located in the S. Dillon Ripley Center on the National Mall at 1100 Jefferson Drive S.W., is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25, and admission is free.

Founded in 1831, The Virginia Historical Society is a private, non-profit institution that is the Official State Historical Society of Virginia and is located in Richmond, Va. For more information, visit www.vahistorical.org or call (804) 358-4901.

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Melinda Machado