JAMESTOWN, Va. - The "Eureka!" moment, as Bill Kelso recalls it, occurred in June 1994, when he discovered post holes forming an outline of the long-lost fort built by the Jamestown settlers.

What he really found, though he didn't realize it then, was the key to understanding the American idea, unraveling a mystery that had been buried for nearly four centuries and changing everything for true believers in the Jamestown saga.

Through the three-sided, palisaded structure and the nearly one million artifacts unearthed at the site, a story could be told of 104 immigrants determined to survive and succeed - a counterargument to scholars who portrayed a colony of indolent Englishmen, decimated by disease and famine, reduced to extorting food from the Indians and eating rats and, eventually, one another.

Today, Jamestown and Virginia launch an expensive, expansive three-day commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English colony in America, an event designed to make a small island loom large in our national consciousness as the foundation of our society.

For those keeping score, that means Jamestown's inhabitants were setting up housekeeping 75 years before Philadelphia said "Yo."

Queen Elizabeth II was here last week; President Bush arrives Sunday. More than $160 million has been spent on visitors' centers, museum galleries, and new replicas of two of the three ships that delivered the colonists to these shores May 14, 1607.

"This is about reintroducing Jamestown," said Jeanne Zeidner, executive director of Jamestown 2007, who is hoping to sell all the allotted tickets of 90,000 each day for the reenactments, food and entertainment. She concedes organizers are "not there yet."

Zeidner, who has been planning "America's Anniversary Weekend" for three years, is also the part-time mayor of Williamsburg, and is keenly aware of how much that John D. Rockefeller-funded colonial theme park has overshadowed its precursor.

And, yes, this is Virginia, a quirky, politically schizophrenic state that is split by red-state religiosity and Beltway technocracy, where Civil War-bred resentment against the Union fuels a certainty that Northerners hijacked a legacy in favor of some Massachusetts Pilgrims.

Jamestown is fighting a tide of history and myth, from the Disneyfied portrait of Pocahantas and John Smith to the New England-led historical hegemony of Plymouth Rock over that paper colony down south.

"There's still a reluctance to look at Jamestown and see it as a place of first origins.. . . These are messy beginnings," said James Horn, vice president for research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and author of A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America.

"Plymouth is constructed as a romantic vision - friendly Indians, God-fearing hearty folk who separate themselves from England," Horn said. "And overcoming that Thanksgiving myth is a tough one."

For some protesters, who object to the way Indians were pushed off their land, the foundation story has weird echoes of Iraq - conquering adventurers expecting to be greeted as democracy-givers by the natives.

Diane Christopher, visiting Jamestown from San Antonio, Texas, said: "What I really believe is they should have stayed in England, 'cause I have Indian blood in me. They should have studied more on that first adventure, how to live in the wilderness and get along with Indians."

The settlement is often derided for exporting tobacco - the cash crop that ultimately sustained the colony - and importing slaves. The first Africans from Angola came up the James River in 1619.

But the champions of Jamestown note the beginnings of representative government, perhaps the colony's most significant legacy, when the Virginia Company created a general assembly, including representative "burgesses" elected by property owners.

Democracy's line, they say, can be traced straight from the banks of the James River to Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

One thing everyone agrees on, as foundation stories go: It ain't pretty.

"This is a complex story of encounters with the Indians," Zeidner said. "The fact that settlers came and survived was not always a happy circumstance for either side."

The modern interpretation has the hapless envoys of English venture capitalists fighting through disease, starvation, Indians and, yes, stupidity to prevail and establish a beachhead for a new society.

"If we move away from a group of greedy merchants trying to rip off the land to a discourse about opportunity - for ordinary people to make a living - why wouldn't we want to celebrate that?" Horn asked.

"Somehow it just seems a bit tawdry compared to the higher motives of religious freedom," he added.

Tom Davidson, senior curator of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, said that public awareness of Jamestown "is lagging behind" and said that his group is trying to correct "a very old stereotype."

"Jamestown is the beginning of a process of change and development that really gives structure to a lot of what America is today," said Davidson, a Father Christmas figure clad in khaki. "It's a group of English moving into a new land, meeting new people, making decisions - both good and bad - and forging a new life that is going to be very important to the future United States."

Inside the museum galleries at Jamestown Settlement - the off-island, staged replica of the real thing a few miles across the bridge - Davidson's point was brought home. Visitor after visitor couldn't correctly select from a display the motivation that brought the settlers to Jamestown: To make money.

Money is among the objects on display at the $4.6 million Archaearium on James Island, which holds about 1,000 of the artifacts that have been bursting out of the settlement site.

"We joke that the artifacts get in the way of the dirt," said Bly Straube, senior curator at Historical Jamestowne, as the fort site is known. The visiting queen was treated to a view of a nest of swords, just uncovered, their corroded tips poking from the earth.

But the most important artifact to Kelso, 66, a snowy-haired archaeologist, is the fort itself, which he admits has been a fascination of his since he was a college student in Ohio in 1963. In 1993, when he became the director of archaeology for the group that controls the site - the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities - Kelso pursued what had become an obsession.

Doggedly rereading the histories of the three-sided wooden fort, which was thought to have eroded into the James River, and using his own instincts, Kelso started digging a quarter-mile away from the nearest suspected site. Within weeks in 1994, he found it: a line of discolored earth imprinted by the fort's timbers.

Kelso waited almost two years to be certain and to announce his discovery to the wider world; too much was at stake in his view. Even now, with only about 40 percent of the fort uncovered, it's a find that most historians say has no parallel in American archaeology.

Kelso is convinced the real story of this benighted colony can emerge from the ground.

"We're not sugar-coating it; before it was just hidden," he said. "We've taken this mythological story of failure to a three-dimensional level and a realistic look, warts and all, of what Jamestown was like and how it's been overlooked."

"After all," Straube added, "how many people can point to a time and place where their country began?"

Visit the official Jamestown anniversary Web site via http://go.philly.com/jamestownEndText

Contact staff writer Steve Goldstein at 202-408-2758 or slgoldstein@phillynews.com.