Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition of 1907


The Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, marking the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown and the Virginia colony by settlers from England, was held in Norfolk, Virginia, from April 26 to November 30, 1907. The event was one in a series of large fairs and expositions held across the United States, beginning with the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, which commemorated the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s landing in America. Such events were designed as international showcases for arts and technology and were often linked to important anniversaries in order to highlight the notion of historical “progress.” More than its predecessors, the Jamestown exhibition emphasized athletics and military prowess, the latter drawing some protests. Among many dignitaries who visited the exposition were U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt, the author Mark Twain, the educator Booker T. Washington, representatives from more than twenty nations abroad, and a number of foreign naval ships. Although the exhibition on African Americans was considered to be particularly successful, the event in general was a financial fiasco, plagued by poor management, overly ambitious plans, insufficient resources, and tight deadlines. The naval display, however, was impressive enough that in 1917 the exposition’s site became home to Naval Air Station Hampton Roads (later Naval Station Norfolk).

Financial Problems

Big expectations came with Norfolk’s approval as the official site of the Jamestown Ter-Centennial. World’s fairs in Chicago; Buffalo, New York (1901); and Saint Louis, Missouri (1904), were considered to have been successful and to have reflected highly on the communities that hosted them. (This was true even in the case of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, an event that famously featured the first X-ray machine. Unfortunately, the device was still too new to assist in the care of U.S. president William McKinley, who was shot by an assassin at the fair and later died.) Norfolk hoped for increased commercial development and investment, and the New York Times sounded an optimistic note ahead of the fair’s opening, suggesting that “Uncle Sam has been very generous with the project, as if in atonement for his neglect in the matter of restoring everything south of Cape Cod to Virginia” (Sept. 16, 1906).

That generosity did not come without controversy, however. In February 1907, the U.S. House of Representatives issued a one-million-dollar loan to the cash-strapped Jamestown organizers, a move that drew what the New York Times, on February 5, called “violent and vociferous opposition.” Congressman Richard Bartholdt, of Missouri, “created amusement,” according to the Times, “when he read the list of entertainments to be featured—naval parades, sham battles, army reviews, &c.—and declared that the main purpose of the exposition seemed to be a glorification of war.” In fact, members of the exhibition’s own advisory board had issued a written protest the month before, decrying “the diversion of the exposition to the service of militarism.” As it happens, the fair’s midway, called the “Midway” in Chicago and the “Pike” in Saint Louis, was officially dubbed the “War Path” at the Jamestown event in Norfolk

Invitation to the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition

By opening day, only about one-third of the fair’s grounds and buildings were complete, and the Times suggested that visitors postpone their excursions until construction was finished. (On August 8, the Washington Post could report only that the exhibitions were “practically” in place.) The Times also bemoaned Norfolk’s limited and expensive lodgings and its poor transportation services. There were other problems, too. Organizers had originally intended to focus on Virginia history, but in pursuit of a more national and international audience, they changed the program, causing more confusion and missed deadlines.

A Virginia building featured presidential art and there was a re-enactment of the Battle of Hampton Roads (1862) between the ironclads CSS Virginia and USS Monitor. The state of Kentucky, however, also built a $40,000 replica of Daniel Boone’s first fort, and Georgia reproduced Bulloch Hall, the home of Mittie Bulloch Roosevelt, President Theodore Roosevelt’s mother. In addition, the Dominican Republic sponsored a building, and the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Haiti, Mexico, and Venezuela were represented by either an exhibition or a warship. The deepwater harbor at Norfolk also attracted international yachters, rowers, and hot-air balloonists.

In the end, however, the fair’s national and international flavor failed to draw the expected attendance. Jamestown planners were hoping for six million visitors, but fewer than three million actually showed up. Tickets were fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for infants, and because of low turnout the event earned only $1,070,149 against its projected revenue of $3,780,000. The financial problems led to the director’s resignation mid-festival—an event that, in turn, led to a tiff between the festival board and President Roosevelt—a $2.5 million debt, and the festival ending in receivership.


In addition to the various state exhibitions, the Jamestown Ter-Centennial is especially interesting for the way in which it portrayed three important groups: Indians, African Americans, and the military.

The Negro Building at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition

The New York Times, in previewing a re-creation of the original Jamestown settlement, made passing reference to “an Indian village close at hand” (April 21). This was a historical exhibition by the Powhatan Indians, who hoped that by participating in the Ter-Centennial they would remind fellow Americans of their existence and raise awareness of their low standard of living in the state. Their actual presentation, however, only exacerbated the public’s misconceptions of Virginia Indians. They were not permitted to contribute to any official attractions of the Ter-Centennial exhibition but were relegated to the “amusement” area. There, they were compelled to stage Pocahontas‘s rescue of Captain John Smith, thus giving visitors the impression not of the forefathers of a modern or civilized people, but of savages in feathers. In addition, the Powhatans were further overshadowed by a program by the Plains Indians of the 101 Ranch Wild West Show, whose whooping, showy presence was more recognizable and attractive to paying customers.

By contrast, the African American exhibition was fairly popular. The U.S. government spent $100,000 on what the Times called the two-story “Negro Building,” a space for organizers to “show the life of the colored race from the days they were brought from Africa to the present.” The Negro Development and Exposition Company estimated that the exhibition drew between 3,000 and 12,000 spectators per day, and its subjects enjoyed more control in creating their exhibition than did the Powhatans in creating theirs.

The sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller became the first African American woman to win a U.S. government commission when she was asked to build dioramas depicting African American life from 1619, when the black slaves first arrived at Jamestown, until the years following the American Civil War (1861–1865). Still, while the exhibition’s focus was the active role that black Americans played in the country’s advancement, not everyone was satisfied. The separate building struck some black critics as an example of segregation. Booker T. Washington also expressed concern, but he ultimately praised the exhibition in an August 3 speech that was not widely covered by the press.

300th Anniversary Celebration of the Founding of Jamestown

American military might was on conspicuous display at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial, which was held less than a decade after the American triumph in the Spanish-American War (1898) and during a time when the hero of that war, Theodore Roosevelt, occupied the White House. Exhibitions on the Civil War battles of First and Second Manassas (1861, 1862) and Gettysburg (1863) were especially popular, and there were various demonstrations involving U.S. Army units and military school cadets. Warships from a number of foreign navies paraded off the coast, impressing upper management from the U.S. Navy Department’s Bureau of Navigation who were considering where to locate a new naval station. Unsure that the U.S. Congress would appropriate money on the scale needed to build a naval training station on the Great Lakes, they looked to the already-built structures at Norfolk for a cost-effective solution. The result was a facility that would eventually become Naval Station Norfolk.


A day after it closed, the New York Times called the Jamestown Ter-Centennial “the most colossal failure in the history of exhibitions” and reminded its readers that the fair’s board still owed the government $900,000 on its million-dollar loan from February. Despite this shortfall, Virginia had been afforded an unusual chance to showcase itself to the rest of the world, with its first families leading the way. Harry St. George Tucker, a descendant of the famed colonial-era jurist St. George Tucker, occupied the honorary position of festival president, while Lulah Preston Beale, daughter of former U.S. senator, U.S. secretary of the navy, and Confederate senator William Ballard Preston, hosted the Virginia building. The exposition also showcased less visible Virginians—to their advantage, in the case of African Americans, but perhaps less so in the case of the Powhatan Indians. Finally, Jamestown allowed the United States to flex its military muscle in front of the rest of the world and resulted in Norfolk becoming the site of one of the U.S. Navy’s most important bases.

February 4, 1907
The U.S. House of Representatives agrees to loan the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition in Norfolk one million dollars against the fair's anticipated receipts. The New York Times reports "violent and vociferous opposition," and when the fair closes in November, it will be $2.5 million in debt, $900,000 of which is owed the government.
April 26, 1907
The Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, a world's fair celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown, opens in Norfolk.
August 3, 1907
Educator and civil rights activist Booker T. Washington speaks at the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition in Norfolk, using his remarks to praise the fair's exhibit on African Americans.
November 30, 1907
The Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition, a world's fair celebrating the three hundredth anniversary of the English settlement at Jamestown, closes in Norfolk.
  • Abbott, Carl. “Norfolk in the new century: The Jamestown Exposition and Urban Boosterism.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 85:1 (1977): 86–96.
  • Brundage, W. Fitzhugh. “Meta Warrick’s 1907 ‘Negro Tableaux’ and (re)presenting African American historical memory.” The Journal of American History 89:4 (March 2003): 1368–1400.
  • Franklin, Lucy Brown. “The Negro Exhibition of the Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition of 1907.” Negro History Bulletin 38:5 (1975): 408–414.
  • Gleach, Frederic. “Pocahontas at the Fair: Crafting Identities at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition.” Ethnohistory 50:3 (Summer 2003): 419–445.
  • Taylor, Robert. “The Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition of 1907.” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 65:2 (1957): 169–208.
APA Citation:
de Ruiter, Brian. Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition of 1907. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/jamestown-ter-centennial-exposition-of-1907.
MLA Citation:
de Ruiter, Brian. "Jamestown Ter-Centennial Exposition of 1907" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, February 09
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