Thursday, May 17, 2007

Jamestown at 400 Years - Part II: New perspectives on Anglo-America's birth in the 17th Century

Note: Part I of this series on the 400-year commemoration of Jamestown (Virginia) was posted to Jewels in the Jungle on May 11th. The story continues…

The Harvard University Press blog wrote on March 26th about an AP article and quote from NYU Professor Karen Ordahl Kupperman’s new book “The Jamestown Project”. Much of the information contained in this post is taken from Professor Kupperman’s book and from selected essays written by leading U.S. scholars who participated in the NEH Summer 2000 Institute at the Folger Institute/Folger Shakespeare Library: Texts of Imagination and Empire: The Founding of Jamestown in its Atlantic Context.

The research on the subject of America’s first permanent English settlement published to the Net by historians, archeologists, educators, and other scholars is so interesting and comprehensive that it would be a distraction for our readers to say (write) anything more at this stage in the series. Without any further ado, here is the latest historical re-mix on colonial America’s early ‘birthing pains’. Professor Kupperman writes in the introduction to her book “The Jamestown Project”:

Introduction - Creation Myths (selected excerpts)

“In May 1607 a party of just over a hundred men and boys landed on the James River in Virginia and planted the colony they named Jamestown in honor of the English king. The little colony struggled through a horrible first decade in which it barely held on before the settlers began to find their footing on the path that would lead to stability and, eventually, success. Jamestown has always occupied an equivocal position in American history. It is celebrated as the first permanent English settlement in the territory that would become the United States. These colonists planted the tiny seed from which would grow a powerful nation where all [of] the world’s people would mingle.

And yet Jamestown makes us uncomfortable. The portrait of it that has come down to us depicts greedy, grasping colonists in America and their arrogant backers in England. The settlement’s first years were marked by belligerent intrusions on the Chesapeake Algonquians which manifested mainly the ignorance of the English. Within Jamestown, life degenerated into a shambles of death and despair. When John Rolfe finally developed a marketable crop—tobacco--the colonists exploited the land and one another in the scramble for profits. Ultimately they would institute slavery for imported Africans in their insatiable search for profits. This is the creation story from Hell.

England was a laggard in overseas ventures. By 1606, when the Virginia Company was organized and plans for the colony were laid, English merchants in collaboration with political leaders had begun to establish a role for their nation in the newly opening trades around the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and in the East. In these endeavors they were attempting to emulate, and often intrude on, the Spanish and Portuguese, united under the Spanish crown since 1580, who were the pioneers in creating the connections and bases through which trading operations were carried on.

New Spain was almost a century old when Jamestown was founded, and French traders had established firm partnerships with Indian nations in the fur trade along the St. Lawrence [river] to the north. Spanish ships had scouted Chesapeake Bay repeatedly before concluding that the region would not repay the effort required to sustain settlement. The Spanish had planted St. Augustine on the Florida coast, and this, not Jamestown, was actually the first permanent European colony within the future Untied States; it was settled in 1565, almost half a century before Jamestown. And Santa Fe in New Mexico* was founded shortly after Jamestown.

*Blog author's note: Recent historical findings indicates that Juan Martinez de Montoya founded Santa Fe between 1601-1602. Also read the article An Uncertain Founding: Santa Fe by New Mexico research historian James Ivey at Common Place Vol. 3 Issue 4, July 2003.

By 1607 English fishermen had been visiting the Newfoundland Banks [off the eastern coast of Canada] and the New England coast for a century or more, and they built temporary settlements there, but no permanent English presence existed. In the last decades of the sixteenth century, a time when England and Spain were at war [Anglo-Spanish War 1585], English ships participated enthusiastically in privateering—licensed piracy against Spanish fleets traveling from the Caribbean to Seville. In the 1580’s Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony at Roanoke [Roanoke Island or Lost Colony], within the Outer Banks of North Carolina, was initially designed to serve as a base for those patriotic privateers.

The first group of settlers sent to Roanoke in 1585 conformed to the classic model: a group of young men under military authority. Their governor was Captain Ralph Lane. As always with such a design, Lane found the settlers, whom he characterized as the “wylde menn of myne owene nacione,” hard to control and motivate. By the end of the colony’s first winter, relationships with the coastal Carolina Algonquians [Pamlico], on whom they depended for food, had broken down completely. They deserted the site early the next summer, and Lane scorned the whole enterprise, writing that “the discovery of good mine by the goodnesse of God, or a passage to the Southsea, or someway to it, and nothing els can bring this country in request to be inhabited by our nation.”

English venturers were very conscious of being newcomers in all these places where they sought a foothold, and the keynote of their activities was improvisation. Everywhere they went, they necessarily employed trial and error—and error often predominated. Promoters laid plans, but the ordinary people who carried them out, often very young men and women, were the ones who had to deal with realities on the ground and who ultimately founded a successful colony. Many involved in early-seventeenth-century America—Indians, Europeans, and Africans—had had experience of other Atlantic and Mediterranean regions before they came together on the James River. Often their experience was as captives or as individuals left behind when the ships on which they had arrived departed hurriedly in the face of dangers ranging from armed resistance to violent Atlantic storms. Those who could improvise were the ones who survived. And the knowledge of transatlantic others gained from these people informed planning and responses on all sides when Europeans attempted to create bases in America. All players brought vast experience, some relevant and some irrelevant, to the changed situations that Europeans ventures created; and they drew on this experience, for good or ill, when confronted by the necessity of making choices.

END of excerpts from “The Jamestown Project”
Note: Links to Wikipedia sources have been added to the original text for clarification and to provide resources for further reading.

In a May 13th opinion article for The Washington Post online titled “America’s Founding Fictions” Professor Kupperman contrasts the two popular historical versions of colonial America’s early beginnings (Plymouth vs. Jamestown).

America's Founding Fictions
By Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Sunday, May 13, 2007; B02

The colonists landed, short of food and supplies, after a long and harrowing transatlantic voyage. The initial exploring party stole a large quantity of corn that the Indians had carefully stored away for the hard winter. They then dug up some graves, looted items that had been buried with the dead and ransacked Indian houses. Furious fighting with the natives soon ensued. Once they had selected a site for their settlement, the migrants endured a winter of death in which they lost more than half their number.

Ah, of course, you're thinking -- Jamestown. All that looting and fighting and stealing and death. It's the creation story from hell. But think again.

That description is not of the troubled Virginia colony settled by a group of men popularly derided, then and now, as the scum of the Earth. Rather, it depicts the arduous first days of Massachusetts's Plymouth colony, our favorite myth of the nation's founding.

These aren't the kinds of events we remember the Pilgrims by, even though the description is drawn from their own words. Instead, our national mythmakers have accentuated the positive to carve the story of the pious Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving out of Plymouth's more complicated, less pure beginnings. In contrast, the earlier Jamestown colony, whose 400th anniversary we commemorate tomorrow, is depicted as a saga of unrelieved degradation and failure, relegated to second-tier status in the history books. But it shouldn't be.

American history today begins with the Pilgrims because their experience in Plymouth has been molded to offer a more acceptable foundation story than the exploitative dog-eat-dog world of the early Chesapeake. The Puritans' arrival in Boston, where they built John Winthrop's "city on a hill," clinched it for Massachusetts.

The Pilgrim story took over as our founding fiction after the Revolutionary War, when New England and the South began to pull in different directions. The Massachusetts colonists were labeled the Pilgrim Fathers in the 1790s, and the agreement they signed on arrival became the Mayflower Compact about the same time. Because Puritanism had come to be seen as repressive (think of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter"), early American leaders such as Daniel Webster brought the Plymouth colonists forward as the kinder, gentler Puritans.

This is the origins story we prefer and the one we promote. We prefer it because we like to think that we are descended from a humble and saintly band, religiously motivated and communal in organization, who wanted nothing more than the freedom to worship God. The individualistic, grasping capitalists of Virginia offer much less appealing antecedents.

Encasing our national founding in a myth of immaculate conception feeds the assumption that the United States is unlike other nations, that it acts in the world only to serve the greater good…

But America's true founding story is much more interesting and much more real. All early colonies had tremendous difficulties becoming established. The reports sent home from Jamestown were overwhelmingly dismal; it was all harder than anyone had expected, and everyone had different ideas about how to proceed.

Dismayed by the high death rate and the disorder of Jamestown's first couple of years, the colony's London sponsor, the Virginia Company -- a kind of early venture-capital outfit -- decided to compel the settlers to be virtuous. It imposed the most severe martial law, regulating every aspect of life to force the men to work for the collective interest. The death penalty was ordered for almost any infraction. If civic virtue could be achieved by force, the Virginia Company was going to do it. (Read more at the Washington Post)

End of excerpt from article “America’s Founding Fictions” by Karen O. Kupperman

Resources used for this post and additional online resources:

Karen Ordahl Kupperman “
The Jamestown Project” ( and (Powell’s Books)
Plymouth vs. Jamestown: America’s Founding Fictions (Washington Post, 05/13/07)

Virtual Jamestown Project by Crandall Shifflett (Virginia Tech University) - Jamestown Interpretive Essays
Women in Early Jamestown by Kathleen M. Brown (University of Pennsylvania)
First Hand Accounts (documents from 1570-1705)

The Folger Institute / Folger Shakespeare Library Washington, D.C.
Texts of Imagination and Empire: The Founding of Jamestown in its Atlantic Context
Introduction by Professor Karen Ordahl Kupperman (Includes references to arrival of first African slaves to Jamestown in 1619)
Forced Afro-Atlantic Migration and the Middle Passage by Phyllis Peres (University of Maryland, 2000)
The Shadow of the ‘Black Legend’ in John Smith’s General History of Virginia by Eric Griffin, Milsaps College
The Three Turks’ Heads: Travels in the Middle East before Jamestown by Karen Ordahl Kupperman (profiles of Capt. John Smith and George Sandys)
Bibliographies - primary sources and web resources

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