Friday, May 11, 2007

Jamestown at 400-years: What is the true story of this early American settlement?

"Sometimes I choose these really difficult subjects to write about. This is one of them."

America commemorates the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement on the North American continent, Jamestown (Virginia) this weekend with a great deal of fanfare, pomp and ceremony___ and cost (zillions of $$$). After all, there are not many 400 year-old birthdays in the United States of America to celebrate in 2007 and this one is important from a historical perspective not only for the multi-ethnic and multi-national immigrant population of the U.S.A. but it is just as important for the (remaining) Native-American tribes of the U.S. and Canada and for Africans and Europeans too.

The “Black and African History in Europe” project launched in February 2007 was the most successful series of posts ever published to Jewels in the Jungle since its inception in May 2004 (Yep, we’re 3 years old today!) so it is a special pleasure for me to be able to return to the subject of history and focus on the difficult beginnings (birthing pains) of the country of my birth and of my recent ancestral heritage for over 250 years.

Note: see my archives for February and March 2007 for a list of all the posts re: the Black and African History in Europe group project. New posts are coming soon.

I like many people from around the world am very proud and loving of my country as this is a learned behavior developed from information we receive from family and friends, our formal and informal education, and our respective national press and media such as films, television and radio programming___ and of course today the Internet. But I want my own personal feelings of patriotism and allegiance to my country to be based upon the knowledge of the hard facts about our past and the belief that we as Americans have a shared responsibility and national commitment to overcome the many errors and even atrocities against one another (and “others”) as we move forward into the 21st Century.

The diligent research carried out for my own contributions to the Black and African History in Europe project over many weeks helped me to better understand the real value of solid academic research and analysis by leading historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and various scholars that were referenced for that project. All of the project team members are deeply indebted to the scholars and fellow blog authors who helped us launch the series in February 2007 and create a renewed interest and excitement for history both in ourselves and for our readers around the world.

Some of you may have read or seen news reports about Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the United States in May for the 400th Anniversary of the Jamestown Settlement. The international press and TV news focused on everything from the Queen’s hats to the White House “white tie” dinner reception for the Queen or the “special friendship” between Great Britain and the United States or some other aspect of her visit. These news angles have nothing to do with the real significance of the Queen’s historic visit, the founding of the Jamestown Settlement in 1607. Jamestown is a story from 400 years ago that could challenge today’s best historical fiction, tragedies, mysteries, and adventure stories__ Jamestown was, in the words of New York University’s Professor Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “…the creation story from Hell.”.

In this short series of posts about the founding of Jamestown I will focus primarily on the work recently published by leading U.S. historians and writers which sheds new light on a story that has been so heaped in myth, outright lies, romantic literary excesses, and general bullshit for so long that the true history was in danger of being lost forever___ as is the case about the national history of some people who may be reading these words right now. Who are we, where did we come from, and what is the truth about how we got to where we are today? What the Hell really happened way back then?


The renowned ethno-historian and scholar on Native-American peoples, Professor J. Frederick Fausz of the University of Missouri – St. Louis, wrote a scathing article for the History News Network titled ‘Jamestown at 400: Caught between a rock and a slippery slope’. Dr. Fausz chastises his fellow historians and literary scholars, the press and film and TV networks, promoters and politicians and a host of other folks for having done a potentially great injustice to the true story of the Jamestown Settlement. We’ll get to the Professor’s article(s) at the HNN in a bit but first I would like to quote from a quote in the year 1622 that Dr. Fred Fausz used in his introduction:

Readers seldom take the pain to gather together all that hath been written on any subject but usually content themselves with one or two books and some former treatises, whereby they gain but a lame and partial knowledge, and so prejudice the Truth. -- Edward Waterhouse, Virginia Company Secretary, 1622

Edward Waterhouse was the secretary of the Virginia Company of London setup in 1606 by King James I of England to establish settlements on the eastern coast of North America. TIME Magazine explains in its April 2007 Jamestown at 400 commemorative feature article ‘Inventing America’:

The Virginia colony had John Smith, Pocahontas, slavery, famine, battles and a great Indian chief. So how come Plymouth Rock gets all the press? An in-depth look at the place where our nation began to take shape They thought they were lost. The Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Discovery had sailed from London on Dec. 20, 1606, carrying 144 passengers and crew, bound for Virginia. Howling winds pinned them to the coast of England for six weeks. After crossing the Atlantic by a southerly route and reprovisioning in the West Indies, they headed north, expecting landfall in the third week of April 1607. Instead they found a tempest. For four days they sounded, seeking offshore shallows in vain. Then, at 4 a.m. on April 26, they saw land. The three ships sailed into Chesapeake Bay and found, in the words of one voyager, "fair meadows and goodly tall trees, with such fresh waters running through the woods, as I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof." They picked an island in a river for a fortified outpost and named it after their king, James. ………………..

But it's worth remembering that Jamestown was a giant gamble. The trials were severe, the errors numerous, the losses colossal, the gains, eventually, great. Life in Jamestown was a three-way tug-of-war between daily survival, the settlers' own preconceptions and the need to adapt to a new world. Jamestown did not invent America, but in its will to survive, its quest for democracy, its exploitation of both Indians and slaves, it created the template for so many of the struggles--and achievements--that have made us who we are. It contained in embryo the same contradictions that still resonate in America today--the tension between freedom and authority, between public purpose and private initiative, between our hopes and our fears.

Jamestown spawned four centuries of myths….In reality, Jamestown was a hardheaded business proposition. The 104 English settlers who stayed when the ships went home--gentlemen, soldiers, privateers, artisans, laborers, boys (no women yet)--were late entrants in the New World sweepstakes. Spain had conquered Mexico by 1521, Peru by 1534. The mines disgorged silver, and by the end of the 16th century, Mexico City and Lima had universities, printing presses and tens of thousands of inhabitants. The Portuguese were harvesting dyewood in Brazil, and the French were trading for furs in Canada.

Note: for more information on African slaves who worked in the silver and gold mines of Mexico during the 16th-17th Century see the writing by Daniel Hernandez at Intersections (Los Angeles CA.). Also see Daniel’s Jan 14th post “But you don’t look Mexican…”

…the England of James I and his predecessor, Elizabeth I, suffered from overpopulation and poverty. Pushing people into other lands could solve both problems and even have a side benefit. As the Rev. Richard Hakluyt, England's premier geographer, put it, "Valiant youths rusting [from] lack of employment" would flourish in America and produce goods and crops that would enrich their homeland. The notion was so prevalent that it inspired a blowhard character in the 1605 play Eastward Ho! to declare that all Virginia colonists had chamber pots of "pure gold."

That would have surprised the Jamestown settlers, who faced an array of challenges, all of them together crushing…..

End of Excerpt from TIME Magazine

End of Jamestown at 400 years - Part I

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Jim said...

Jamestown’s Quatercentenary has stirred a few Americans to once again appreciate its singular place in our history. However, despite the proliferation of books, articles and chronicles that have appeared for this 400th anniversary, we still have a national lack of awareness for its most important heritage. Most of the commentators on and planners of the events seem to be overly wrapped up in who was “first!” to do what, and stitching together recognitions of supposedly cultural contributions that ride the coattails of what really are our most significant legacies from Jamestowne.

Fred Fausz is right on target with his observations and criticism of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s failure to offer an honest and meaningful understanding of Jamestowne’s vital place in our nation’s history and missing a wonderful opportunity to establish its legacies as relevant to all Americans today. The continuing mythologies and repetitious historical inaccuracies he talks to only add to the overburden that must be removed to get to what is the most meaningful story that Jamestowne has to tell us.

We must recognize that most historians have long treated Jamestown as almost a side issue, not attaching long-term importance to it, but only as a trivia “first” and also have not, with very few exceptions, looked at its relevancy for subsequent generations of Americans and us today.

So, of what long-term importance is Jamestown as a transformational event in our nation’s history? What legacies has it left us? Why is Jamestown relevant for us in 2007?

William Kelso's recent discoveries on the Jamestown site and better, modern methods of research into the conditions of the colony, as are being used by Karen Kupperman, Seth Mallios and others, are forcing historians to re-examine what they thought they knew about Jamestown’s earliest years, and about what really was happening there in the larger context of our colonial history.

The 100-plus English explorers who came ashore on in May 1607 were the first of over seven thousand English settlers who followed them over the next two decades, of whom only one of seven would survive. Those survivors established what would become called the seedbed of the American nation and its first experiment in democracy.

By 1620, or within thirteen years of their landing, we often must be reminded that they cultivated some of our most important and enduring legacies that never seem to part of what we teach students of its history.

While they generally are taught that Jamestowne was the site of the first elected representative legislature and self-rule, the free enterprise system became the form of our American economy; and, English was to be the established common language of the new American nation, we usually fail to include that it is where the settlers also created the common citizen’s right to ownership of private property (and its importance to us since and today); the principle of common law as the foundation of our legal system; civilian control of the military; and new freedoms from European traditions that had bound many generations to their ancestors’ trades, classes and economic conditions.

Another legacy was that of the experiences, losses and mistakes learned in establishing Jamestown that then served to give all succeeding English and British colonization efforts, at Plymouth and then around the world, more realistic direction, instructions and expectations that had better results. John Smith was the most vocal and articulate advocate for them.

However, the most important of their legacies was their determination to succeed – or the American “can do” spirit. With that determination, the descendants of those Jamestown pioneers also forged the unique element of our American culture: a persistent striving for the freedom to better ourselves with property, innovation and enterprise.

This is the legacy that has become our American Dream. Its first seeds were planted at Jamestown 400 years ago and today all Americans enjoy its fruits. This is why Jamestown is meaningful for each and every one of us and why we should forever remember it as the seminal incident that introduced the opportunities for the economic and political innovations and enterprise that have made our nation what it is.

As we come to look back on this Quatercentenary, its legacy should be the assurance that Jamestowne’s future anniversaries will be remembrances of it as the font of many of our nation’s most profound and fundamental principles, rights and privileges.

Black River Eagle said...

Thank you Jim for your visit and leaving one of the best comments to date on this humble series of posts about early American history and how it impacted European and African history (and vice-versa). What you wrote is important to remember and well stated. I have read a few articles by Professor Fausz of the University of Missouri-St. Louis and hope to be able to highlight his work in some later posts on this subject. After all, Dr. Fausz is a fellow St. Louisan and will definately get some "air time" on Jewels in the Jungle. Thanks again for your visit.

Jim said...

Here's a little more to think about.

Fausz also suggests that future historians should look more at Jamestown’s third decade and its era of “unprecedented independence and experimentation”. We should also look at the threads that have come down through our history from it, as well the prior two.

The personal initiative that propelled the Jamestowne explorers from England to America was also the singular force that drove their Virginian descendants farther to seek new opportunities and lives.

Their legacy is also that of the great westward expansion that spread a new American nation and culture to the western edge of the continent. Jamestowne’s pioneers’ economic motivations and goals have resonated across four centuries in the migrants that first pushed out America’s frontiers from Virginia to the Carolinas and Georgia, to Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio, and then on to Illinois, Texas and, finally, California.

In their book, "Bound Away," cultural historians David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly describe exactly (despite some inaccuracies) how the Virginia Diaspora of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became the American westward pioneering movement. The colonists’ descendants brought their intrepid vision to the far corners of our continent in pursuit of land, opportunity and fortune. Joined by immigrants from other lands and cultures, they merged diverse traditions and customs to seek economic and social betterment.

In 1803, they accomplished the greatest expansion of our new country with the Louisiana Purchase, while their New England brethren were aghast, saying that it was big enough – America didn’t need to grow!

Lewis and Clark, both of whose ancestors were early Virginia settlers, then led their famous exploration of the nation’s new acquisition to help open the way for settlement of the lands in the vast Mississippi and Missouri basins.

If we view Jamestown through our California prism, three thousand miles away, we might ironically see that the 1849 century Gold Rush was perhaps the final successful culmination of the major goal that was set for the Virginia Company’s explorers.

In addition, We also learn from "Bound Away" that a significant number of California’s own pioneers, particularly in 1850 and 1860, were native Virginians. Many probably had ancestors who were among the first colony’s founders and early settlers. Countless thousands among the California settlers that followed during the next five to ten decades undoubtedly carried that same ancestry and initiative.

Our own American culture of innovation and enterprise continues to resonate from that Jamestowne adventure.

Black River Eagle said...

Again thank you for your inputs on the history of the Jamestowne Settlement and the subsequent migration of "newcomers" from those original early American colonies. I have ancestors who originated from the colony and Commonwealth of Virginia but unfortunately have little information about how they arrived there, where they originated from, and how they traveled 1000 miles westward to what is today the states of Illinois and Missouri.

From the year 1790 onward my family does have an accurate written record of our history in America which is of course very interesting and intriguing since those ancestors were already settled near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The Lewis & Clark Expedition and the Louisiana Purchase of lands west of the Mississippi occurred in their lifetime as well as many other developments such as the growth of the City of St. Louis which in 1790 was a sprawling riverfront settlement of approx. 1000 people.

What makes me sad about all of this is the heavy price paid by Native American peoples and slaves and non-European people (i.e. Asians and the ancestors of the Aztecs) for this great expansion westward by European colonists. That history makes the end result, the America today that both you and I so obviously love and cherish, a bittersweet victory over great adversities and the hard struggle to build a new nation. Was it worth all of that suffering and death and loss? Couldn't it have been done differently, preserving the rich culture and traditions and knowledge of all peoples on the North American continent from 1600-1900? Have we lost something in that long arduous process to re-settle North America that we can never regain no matter how hard we try?

My ancestors, who arrived on that American frontier 217 years ago, were freed slaves. Other early American ancestors who later married into my family in the American Midwest came from Europe (2 sisters from England) and from the Native American people who had lived on those lands for thousands of years. Where did your ancestors come from and when did they arrive in North America? How did they get there and why did they come? Were they part of the great migration westward or did they go in another direction?

Jim said...

My ancestors came from England and Netherlands early in the 17th century, from Ulster in early in the 18th, and from Wales, Germany and central Europe by the middle of the 19th. They all came from by ship for economic and social opportunity.

By the end of the 17th century, my father’s ancestors already had begun to move to the Carolinas, and in the 18th and 19th had moved on to Georgia, Alabama, Texas and Utah. Along the way, they married those of the Scottish and other ancestries.

My mother’s earliest ancestors came to New Amsterdam and New Netherlands and stayed there. My grandfather was descended from the Welsh and Dutch lines, and married my grandmother of unknown English ancestry at the end of the 19th century.

My parents married in 1931 and lived for a while in New York and environs, then went to Chicago, where I was raised.

I came to California in 1971, but have many relatives whose families had lived here since the mid-19th century. All my siblings and children remain in the Midwest and East.

Black River Eagle said...

Thanks for that background profile on your ancestors who came to America Jim. By the looks of it, we could be cousins. I'd be particularly interested in the ones who moved west from the Carolinas into Texas and Utah. Chances are that they had to stop in St. Louis or St. Joseph, MO. to stock up on horses, mules, wagons, and ammo before going into Indian Country. Thanks again for your interest and your inputs at Jewels.

Jim said...

My paternal grandfather was orphaned in 1869 at age 5 and taken by a 20 year-old uncle from Alabama to Texas, via Tennessee, to be raised by his mother's relatives. He worked for railroads and was frequently relocated all over the South, Southwest and Colorado. He finally settled in Utah to work for the Union Pacific in Green River Wyoming. Thus, he never went through Missouri, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

my direct ancestor was at Jamestown (Andrew Buckler 1607)my family has had a stake in this experiment we call America for over 400 years which I take great pride in,but how I was raised to understand justice freedom patriotism is how my father felt and he like his father before him and my family believes truth justice freedom is for all those that also feel this way and willing at all cost preserve our right to be free ,I have a great dislike and mistrust for authority i long for freedom and a strong fear of invasion of privacy and or interference in my right to pursue happiness but these too are traits that are handed down from my ancestors, this is one of the reasons we came here and why we later came west ,and why occasionally i hang a single lamp in the upstairs window of my barn to let others know that they are coming by land to try and take that from us,its nice to see there are others that still understand, America and what we are suppose to stand for as well as what we will not stand for,
Kurt buckler