betterdeadthanred: (you're keeping the outfit right?)
gwen demarco ([personal profile] betterdeadthanred) wrote2013-05-01 10:00 pm

it's glory, god and gold and the virginia company

here is an obligatory John Smith gif because he is the best ok ok

So as I have already babbled about on plurk, today was a very exciting day for those interested in archaeology and American history. I've also decided to take the opportunity to give a (hopefully) short explanation as to why Jamestown gets such a bad reputation among popular historians, and how it's pretty much completely not fair, as it's a subject few people know much about thanks to it being largely glossed over in history text books in favor of "more successful" colonies like Plymouth, Massachusetts.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but perhaps the most significant is that the Pilgrims really have a better narrative than the Jamestown colonists, which often earns them the title "Founders of America" and the first democratic Americans because of the Mayflower Compact, when in reality, Jamestown was founded 13 years earlier and even started the legacy of representative government a year before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.

The Pilgrims were simply a lot luckier than the Jamestown colonists. While their first winter was unquestionably difficult, plague had killed off most of the local Native American groups, which meant the Plymouth settlers and the locals could live in relative peace without encroaching on their territory for several years. Although the soil was rocky, it was still decent for farming crops on, and as any American kindergartener learns, they had help from Squanto in learning how to grow corn, beans and squash. Because the Pilgrims came in family units, when people died, it was easier for the population to be replaced with new children, as well as new settlers coming in from England to replace those who died. There is also the matter that the Pilgrims were fleeing religious intolerance in England, which makes them better candidates for the first Americans because we, as a nation, hold our right to religious freedom as one of our most sacred, progressive traditions. This completely ignores the fact that the Pilgrims were extraordinarily intolerant towards any other religious groups or cultures, which sort of puts a dampener on the idea that they were really being progressive at all.

In comparison, the original Jamestown colonists were 104 men and boys, who arrived in the new world hoping to make a fortune like the Spanish had in Central and South America. They arrived in the middle of a very bad drought, and settled on an island that - while strategically brilliant because of how close they could bring the ships in to land and how well they could see down the river in case any Spanish ships tried to attack them - was marshy, near a malarial swamp, with no fresh water. Although the local Powhatan groups only used the island as a hunting ground, they were still nearby and weren't exactly thrilled with these new people making themselves at home in their territory. There is also the popular myth that the Jamestown colonists were entirely incompetent, had no idea what they'd gotten themselves into, and effectively chose to starve to death because they were so obsessed with finding gold and other riches.

This is partially true. As this was 1607, we have to remember that no one really had a good idea of what they were getting into in the New World period, because it was new to them and they didn't have the luxury of satellite images, formal education and Wikipedia to double check what kind of flora and fauna they were going to run into. Although the men who originally colonized Jamestown were not farmers, they were soldiers who had served in military campaigns all over Europe, often as mercenaries, and they did also bring skilled laborers to help build the fort, shelters, wells, tools and goods. Although it is true that some gentlemen refused to do work, modern historians have investigated that being a social issue versus a psychological/physical one. Not much was known about mental illness of any kind in this period, so when John Smith wrote about the other settlers literally needing to be bullied into feeding themselves, let alone doing actual work, he wrote that they were lazy and people took him at his word for centuries. Modern historians have begun to suggest that this "laziness" might have actually been a manifestation of a deep sense of homesickness and depression, as these men were far away from everything they ever knew, had definitely not gotten what they'd come here for, and now faced the very real threat of starvation and death by horrible disease. They simply lost the will to do anything, just as soldiers in desperately bad situations in World War II and Vietnam did. They showed similar signs of listlessness, reluctance to eat food (which was often unfamiliar and not particularly appetizing) or do much of anything because they just felt so hopeless, exactly like the Jamestown colonists.

John Smith was able to bully them into staying alive until he was forced back to England after suffering serious leg injuries from a gunpowder explosion, which was likely an assassination attempt. After he left, things quickly fell apart. Relations with the Powhatan completely broke down, largely because unlike Smith - who viewed the natives as intelligent, shrewd traders who needed to be treated with respect - the new president George Percy and the other senior members of the colony (notably John Ratcliffe, Gabriel Archer and John Martin) thought they could bully the Powhatan into giving them more food for less supplies. Again, the settlers arrived in the middle of a several year long drought, which made growing food difficult for even the Powhatan, who at some point simply could not afford to support the colonists and themselves. This meant they had to stop trading with the colonists, and obviously were not exactly happy when the colonists tried to take their food by force. The colonists' solution was to try taking food by force, which obviously made the situation escalate. They were hoping to get more supplies from the Sea Venture, but the ship wrecked in Bermuda, which meant the colonists had to make do with what little they had on hand. To make matters worse, survivors of the Sea Venture wreck arrived in the colony, putting further pressure on supplies, and bringing the total population to the colony - which by now included women and children - up to about 300.

All but 80 of these people would die during the winter of 1609-1610 during the period appropriately known as the Starving Time. Relations with the Powhatan had gotten so bad that settlers were afraid (and rightly so) to leave the confines of the fort which provided limited safety to hunt or scavenge for food. Archaeological evidence has shown us that they ate literally anything they could get their hands on, including their horses, dogs, rats, poisonous snakes, an eagle and even the bodies of the recently deceased. This is not something the English would have done lightly, and shows that they really were starving and couldn't leave the fort to look for more food, not that they were stupid and didn't know how to provide for themselves. Because their well was also only giving them brackish water at that point, it was likely the colonists weren't even in their right minds for some of this period between starvation and dehydration, not to mention the other horrible things in a well not all that far from where people threw out food or relieved themselves. They planned to flee the colony, but Lord De La Warr arrived in June with more colonists and supplies, and effectively told everyone to get back in the fort and pull yourself together.

The colony would eventually find economic stability when John Rolfe introduced a hybridized form of tobacco to Virginia, which quickly became a cash crop and encouraged more people to come to Virginia to make it rich growing the plant. The death toll evened out, and the colony eventually boomed to be a fairly sizable town. Jamestown was the first capital of Virginia, before it was moved to Williamsburg in the early part of the 18th century to be more centralized in the growing colony.

Getting back to the whole relations with the Powhatans business, after Paramount Chief Wahunsenacawh (Chief Powhatan, for those familiar with the Disney movie) died, his younger brother Opechancanough decided enough was enough and he wanted these English off his land. The settlers and Native Americans engaged in a series of brutal massacres and wars for the next three decades, with each side being incredibly brutal to the other, until the English finally overwhelmed them with numbers and the Powhatan were forced to concede defeat. This is far less wholesome and fun than the story of Squanto and the Pilgrims getting along, although I'd also like to point out that the English settlers in New England preformed some pretty brutal attacks against the native peoples of that region and vice versa, too. (The Pequot War, anyone?) The difference is that it's easier to see Jamestown settlers specific involvement in the Anglo-Powhatan wars, while the Pilgrims are safely removed from atrocities like the Mystic Massacre, although it occurred in 1637 and thus was somewhat contemporary with both the Anglo-Powhatan wars and the Plymouth colony's success and continued existence.

I've already discussed how the colonists weren't actually lazy or incompetent, but that's not the only incorrect legacy historians have falsely attributed to the colony. Most of this bad press is actually 150 year old war propaganda. Leading up to, during and after the American Civil War, historians decided to editorialize their books and papers to better suit their anti-Southern agenda, which meant that Jamestown was now no longer the birthplace of America, but now something barely worth mentioning except to mock the settlers for being so stupid. John Smith likewise turned from an American hero to a pompous, arrogant braggart, who therefore couldn't be taken seriously and all his work should be questioned and deemed an exaggeration or false. (Apparently they missed the memo that Smith was actually from Lincolnshire, England, not actually Virginia. Oh, and he named and mapped New England too.) Historians after Reconstruction apparently decided to just take this propaganda as fact and went with it, and we're still seeing the legacy of it today. So again, that stuff your high school textbook said about Jamestown being useless and unimportant? Civil War propaganda. I wish I was making this up.

To ignore Jamestown in favor of Plymouth is really incredibly unfair to the people who struggled to work and live there. To put it simply, Plymouth provides a more wholesome narrative - as long as you don't scratch beneath the surface - of democracy and freedom of religion, while Jamestown tells the story of people desperately trying to survive by any means necessary in a hostile environment. There really isn't a question as to why no one thinks to teach kindergarteners about cannibalism during the Starving Time, but it's still disappointing that this generalization after generalization after outright lie has basically destroyed the legacy of the actual birthplace of America. Some of the stories and legacies certainly aren't pleasant - as Rolfe's introduction of tobacco meant the establishment of the plantation system that would make slavery economically justifiable, which would lead to generations of injustice to Africans and African Americans and eventually the American Civil War - but it is still important to remember where we came from and how we got here today. To say that the Pilgrims were somehow hardier, better people than the Jamestown colonists is grossly untrue, and both sites deserve a lot more scrutiny and attention than people are generally willing to give them rather than these sweeping generalizations.