The Author’s Corner with Paul Musselwhite

urban dreams, rural commonwealthPaul Musselwhite is Assistant Professor of History and the Vice-Chair of the History Department at Dartmouth College. This interview is based on his new book Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake (University of Chicago Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake?

PM: As an undergraduate taking courses on medieval and early modern Europe, I became fascinated by the idea that towns and cities were miniature self-governing communes. In graduate school I decided to pursue early American history, but I wanted to know more about how that vision of the city shaped early colonialism beyond the archetypal New England town. Although I was in Virginia, I assumed that I would need to look elsewhere for examples because the scholarly literature was so adamant that the Chesapeake was completely rural. After a little digging, though, I was astonished to come across Robert Beverley Jr., the famous champion of Virginia’s early plantocracy, sponsoring an act in 1706 to establish incorporated self-governing towns across the colony, replete with guilds, markets, and provincial representation.

I quickly realized that this was the tip of the iceberg. Everywhere I looked through seventeenth-century Virginia and Maryland, people were talking about building towns—what it would achieve, how it should be done, and where others had gone wrong—and they were unmistakably drawing from the rich traditions of European chartered boroughs and self-governing cities. The Chesapeake’s rural character, which has largely been portrayed as a product of environmental determinism, suddenly appeared as an active choice made by a particular section of colonial society in response to these questions. I realized that in looking for towns, I had found some of the critical building blocks of rural plantation society.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake?

PM: Our usual picture of the colonial Chesapeake is of a starkly rural society of tobacco and slavery that inhibited the development of towns and cities, but I reveal that urban development was actually one of the most hotly contested topics in the region throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I argue that the absence of major urban places was not a product of plantation agriculture; rather, the relationship was quite the opposite, because decades of failed urban development were instrumental in forging the political structures and economic policies that facilitated big plantations in the Chesapeake and in shaping the agrarian outlook of the planter class in the new republic.

JF: Why do we need to read Urban Dreams, Rural Commonwealth: The Rise of Plantation Society in the Chesapeake?

PM: Urban Dreams will challenge the way you think about the development of the plantation system, early American urban places, and the roots of agrarian republicanism. For those interested in the relationship between slavery and the birth of capitalism, the book offers a new deep backstory, tracing the way large-scale plantations emerged in dialogue with the idea of the incorporated town just at the moment when the role of distinct urban civic communities in local market regulation was being co-opted and liberalized by the state. By exploring places that are traditionally overlooked in early American urban history, the book also argues that we have fundamentally misunderstood how contemporaries thought about cities and towns; it makes the case that urban history needs to pay closer attention to constitutional, legal, and ideological significance rather than simply counting populations or the volume of trade. Finally, Urban Dreams will also appeal to anyone interested in the roots of Jeffersonian agrarian republicanism. Historians have long searched for the reason why planters in the Chesapeake were particularly drawn to “country” ideology and classical republicanism, but they have never looked far enough back because they have mostly dismissed the seventeenth-century Chesapeake as a kind of “wild west” where pragmatism ruled. Civic republican ideas, though, were a critical part of debates over urban planning from the foundations of Jamestown, and the book uncovers planters’ gradual and conscious shift from viewing cities as the bastions of civic order to envisioning private plantations as the foundations of an agrarian republic.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

PM: I’m an American historian because of the birth of online discount flight booking. When I was a teenager growing up in the UK, every summer my dad would scour very rudimentary websites for flights to corners of the US that didn’t normally attract British tourists, and then we would embark on mammoth road trips. That travel, especially around the South, introduced me to so many complex and contradictory facets of American society that as soon as I got to university, I signed up for early American history. From then on, I was hooked

JF: What is your next project?

PM: My new project, tentatively entitled Plantation: From Public Project to Private Enterprise, is a study of the long-noted but unexplored transformation in the meaning of “plantation” around the English empire during the seventeenth century. In the late sixteenth century, “plantation” in Ireland, Scotland, and America was predominantly understood as a process by which private individuals established new civic societies in conquered lands, but by 1700 it was widely recognized as a place of private commercial agriculture that pursued profit by exploiting enslaved laborers. The adaptation of “plantation” to describe this evolving socioeconomic system was conscious and highly significant; colonists engaged in particular forms of economic enterprise chose to call their estates “plantations” because the term allowed them to claim particular forms of authority within the imperial state and the commercial market. One particularly exciting part of this project involves building a database of the names given to plantations around the Atlantic world; I hope that tracking changing patterns in these naming practices will reveal shifts in the implicit assumptions about the social and economic structure of the plantation

JF: Thanks, Paul!

The Author’s Corner with Albert Louis Zambone

daniel morgan a revolutionary life

Albert Louis Zambone is an independent historian and writer.  This interview is based on his new book Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life (Westholme Publishing, 2018).

JF: What led you to write Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life?

AZ:  a. I was asked to write it.

b. However, this project was a delight rather than an assignment: As a child, the first American Revolution monograph I read was Don Higginbotham’s Daniel Morgan, Revolutionary Rifleman. Higginbotham so inspired me that I persuaded my mother to make me a hunting shirt so that I could be Daniel Morgan for Halloween. I was astonished to discover that no-one knew who Daniel Morgan was.

c. I’ve long wondered how a few people were able to rise in the status-conscious, hierarchical world of colonial Virginia. When the opportunity to write about Morgan arose, I realized that he was the perfect case study of social mobility in a relatively immobile and hierarchical society.

d. I’ve always been drawn to story, and Morgan’s life is by turns sprawling, romantic, tawdry, tragic, heroic, cinematic, operatic. Once I bit into it I couldn’t let go.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life?

AZ: Daniel Morgan—by turns homeless runaway, illiterate, wagoner, brawler, literate, freeholder, plantation owner, militia captain, victorious general, Federalist Congressman, owner of immense acreage—demonstrates both that colonial America was a time of boisterous, churning possibility and that the Revolution provided yet greater possibilities that would have otherwise been unimaginable. Morgan’s life also complicates the cherished American ideal of individual self-fashioning, illustrating how community, fortune, and place shape individuals.

JF: Why should we read Daniel Morgan: A Revolutionary Life?

AZ: First, it’s a good story, since it’s based on an interesting life. Second, as historians, biographies provide us with a “lab” for testing historical hypotheses. I think Morgan’s life gives us the opportunity to examine everything from the historical geography of the Shenandoah and the status theory of elites, to the radicalism of the Revolution and the eighteenth century market revolution.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

AZ: Probably when I was about four years old, living in Greenwich, New Jersey, the colonial village a drawing of which decorates your blog. In Greenwich, the past remains a presence, and it captivated me. More importantly, my family encouraged my interest in history, and fed it with book after book. I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history of all kinds, especially the history of early America. Maybe when I was three or younger—as P.G. Wodehouse said, what I was doing before then, I don’t know, just loafing I suppose. Then, for many reasons, I was first trained as European medievalist, and then left it for the history of early America. It felt like coming home—though I think that training as medievalist is the best historical training that there is, as you must interrogate sources of all kinds, learn peculiar technical, and grapple with perspectives unusually different from your own.

JF: What is your next project?

AZ: My colleague Lendol Calder and I are working together on a project that uses his “uncoverage” model of teaching history and historical thinking to create a textbook of American history. Naturally we refer to it as the “untextbook.” After that, I hope to return to thinking about colonial elites in the early American South. I’d like to focus on a family, or several families, in part to explore the change in family life over a century and a half; their cultural inculcation; and their fashioning of the surrounding society, and how it fashioned them. In the meantime, I stay busy at work on my podcast Historically Thinking, found on iTunes and all the other usual places, having conversations interesting people about the fascinating nooks of the past, and how they think about them.

JF: Thanks, Al!

When You’re Teaching Edmund Morgan’s *American Slavery, American Freedom* and a Student Brings Some Tobacco Leaves to Class…

Tobacco was life in seventeenth-century Virginia.  It defined everything about Chesapeake society–race, class, gender, labor patterns, family life, marriage, religion, economy, and politics.  So far I am having a great time teaching Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. (I hope my Colonial America students are enjoying it as well).

Today one of my more inspired students showed-up with some tobacco leaves.  He got them from an Amish tobacco grower here in south-central Pennsylvania.

Morgan Tobacco

Bacon’s Rebellion in the Age of Trump

Bacon's

We covered Bacon’s Rebellion yesterday in my U.S. survey class.  Like last year, the subject seems more relevant than ever.  I wrote this piece a few months ago at The Panorama:

In Spring 2017, I gave a lecture to my history students about a man of privilege, wealth, and power who took up the cause of a growing band of disgruntled, poor, fearful, white Americans. These Americans believed that the government was not listening to their concerns. They were angry about their lack of opportunity and political representation. They felt threatened by their encounters with people from another race and culture. The man of privilege heard their cry and led them in a rebellion that temporarily drove the ruling class from power. To the extent that some of the ruling class owned land near major rivers, it might even be fair to say that this rebellion was an attempt to “drain the swamp.”

Read the rest here

Slavery and the 1619 Fallacy

jamestownvasign

Over at Black Perspectives, Davidson College early American historian Michael Guasco complicates our understanding of the “20. and odd Negroes” who arrived in colonial Virginia in 1619.  He concludes: “Unfortunately, 1619 is not the best place to begin a meaningful inquiry into the history of African peoples in America.”

Here is a taste:

...the most poisonous consequence of raising the curtain with 1619 is that it casually normalizes white Christian Europeans as historical constants and makes African actors little more than dependent variables in the effort to understand what it means to be American. Elevating 1619 has the unintended consequence of cementing in our minds that those very same Europeans who lived quite precipitously and very much on death’s doorstep on the wisp of America were, in fact, already home. But, of course, they were not. Europeans were the outsiders. Selective memory has conditioned us to employ terms like settlers and colonists when we would be better served by thinking of the English as invaders or occupiers. In 1619, Virginia was still Tsenacommacah, Europeans were the non-native species, and the English were the illegal aliens. Uncertainty was still very much the order of the day.

When we make the mistake of fixing this place in time as inherently or inevitably English, we prepare the ground for the assumption that the United States already existed in embryonic fashion. When we allow that idea to go unchallenged, we silently condone the notion that this place is, and always has been, white, Christian, and European.

Where does that leave Africans and people of African descent? Unfortunately, the same insidious logic of 1619 that reinforces the illusion of white permanence necessitates that Blacks can only be, ipso facto, abnormal, impermanent, and only tolerable to the degree that they adapt themselves to someone else’s fictional universe. Remembering 1619 may be a way of accessing the memory and dignifying the early presence of Black people in the place that would become the United States, but it also imprints in our minds, our national narratives, and our history books that Blacks are not from these parts. When we elevate the events of 1619, we establish the conditions for people of African descent to remain, forever, strangers in a strange land.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Virginia’s House Resolution 297 and the “Christian Heritage” of the Commonwealth

christian-american-photoA lot of Christian nation stuff has been coming across my screen in the last few days.  I have some time today to address it, so stay tuned.

First, we have the Virginia General Assembly’s House Resolution 297.  Here it is:

WHEREAS, on April 26, 1607, a chartered expedition, subsidized by the Virginia Company to establish colonies on the coast of North America, disembarked upon the banks of Cape Henry, now Virginia Beach; and 

WHEREAS, the Reverend Robert Hunt, the expedition’s official cleric, and the members of the expedition erected a wooden cross in symbolic reference to the Christian faith, invoked a public prayer of dedication, and pledged that the Gospel message would be spread throughout the region and, from that region, abroad; and

WHEREAS, the ensuing Jamestown settlement was the site of the first public communion ceremony in Virginia, in the tradition of the Lord’s Supper of the New Testament; and

WHEREAS, the Jamestown settlement was the first permanent English colony in North America and included a recognized church wherein Christian worship, teachings, and baptisms were conducted in accordance with the Gospel message, as exemplified by the baptism of Pocahontas, a member of the Powhatan tribe of Native Americans in the region; and

WHEREAS, the Judeo-Christian principles, as established in the Law of Moses and set forth from the earliest days of recorded history, of equality, human dignity, and equal protection under the law have provided an incalculable influence on law and thought throughout history, and in particular to our shared English common law tradition and Western civilization; and

WHEREAS, these same principles of equality, human dignity, and equal protection rooted in Mosaic law influenced America’s foremost Civil Rights leaders, including the esteemed Virginia Civil Rights attorney and leader Oliver White Hill, Sr., whose own paternal grandfather founded Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Richmond, which the Hill family attended and where Oliver Hill attended Sunday School; he worked diligently, influenced by his Christian faith, to end racial discrimination and helped end the doctrine of separate but equal; and

WHEREAS, according to the Pew Research Center, millions of Virginians, representing various denominations, identify as Christians, carrying on the faith traditions brought to North America by its first settlers; and

WHEREAS, thousands of churches in the Commonwealth continue to provide spiritual leadership and education; care for the poor, indigent, and homeless as commanded by the Gospel message; and conduct generous outreach in their communities; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED by the House of Delegates, That the enormous influence of Christian heritage and faith throughout the Commonwealth’s 400-year history be recognized; and, be it

RESOLVED FURTHER, That the Clerk of the House of Delegates transmit copies of this resolution to Rodney Walker and First-Landing Festivals, requesting that they further disseminate copies of this resolution to their respective constituents so that they may be apprised of the sense of the Virginia House of Delegates in this matter.

As Brooke Newman points out in a recent Washington Post op-ed, the real problem with this Resolution is not that its sponsors got their facts wrong.  (Although some do appear to be wrong).  It is how the facts are interpreted and explained.  This is an important point. Christian nationalists like David Barton and others often have their facts straight. Most of us can read from historical documents and quote them.  But this is not history.  History requires that we put those facts in context and avoid manipulating them for the purpose of making political points in the present.  As I have said a hundred times, both the left and the right are guilty here.  I have written a short primer on how think historically titled Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  It is a quick read.  Some of you may find it helpful.

The authors of this resolution are not interested in providing a full picture of the Jamestown experience.  They are politicians.  And although the resolution does not make any direct demands in terms of public policy, the very fact that these Virginia politicians feel the need to pass such a resolution implies that they are trying to lay a foundation for their view that America was somehow founded as a Christian nation and should somehow return to being one.

Anyone who has studied colonial Virginia and Jamestown cannot deny that religion played a role in its founding.  But to suggest, as this resolution does, that religious motivations were more important than economic self-interest is not fair to the historical record. (I just spent the last week with my U.S. History Survey students discussing these very points).

In addition to Newman’s op-ed, I would encourage you to read my fuller take on these matters in chapter 5 of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction. The chapter titled “Were the British-American Colonies Christian Societies.”

History is Relevant

ibaconn001p1

Bacon

As I was preparing for class today I was hit once again with the relevance of the past.

Today in my U.S. History to 1865 survey course I will be lecturing on Bacon’s Rebellion.  In a timely e-mail, my friend Ben Wetzel of Notre Dame reminded me just what Bacon’s Rebellion was all about.  I have been teaching the rebellion for years, but Ben’s e-mail infused my preparation with even more relevance than usual.

Bacon’s Rebellion is the story of a rich, landed white guy named Nathaniel Bacon who gathered a group of disgruntled, poor, white frontier settlers to rebel against Virginia’s colonial government. His rebels burned the Virginia colonial capitol of Jamestown on September 19, 1676.  Bacon’s troops did not appreciate the fact that the colonial government was not protecting them against Indian raids on the Virginia frontier.  They opposed what they believed to be unfair taxes. They were sick and tired of living under a colonial government controlled by a few elites.  (There were a lot of swamps in colonial Virginia, but I am not sure if Bacon wanted to “drain” them).   I should also add that their hatred of Indians was heavily motivated by race.

Later in the day, in my Pennsylvania History course, I will be teaching about William Penn and religious freedom.  Pennsylvania was the second British-American colony (behind Rhode Island) to offer religious freedom to its inhabitants.  Eighteenth-century religious freedom often had its limits, but in Penn’s era it was a radical concept.

I don’t preach politics in my history classes, although I will bring up the subject if something a politician says or does provides an illustration of good or bad historical thinking.  Tomorrow I probably won’t mention Donald Trump, the 21st-century white working class, our present-day race problems, or the vetting of Muslim refugees. But one cannot ignore the fact that history can offer perspective on contemporary events.

It’s always a great time to study history!

The Author’s Corner with Kristalyn Shefveland

anglonativevirginiaKristalyn Shefveland is Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Indiana. This interview is based on her new book, Anglo-Native Virginia: Trade, Conversion, and Indian Slavery in the Old Dominion, 1646-1722 (University of Georgia Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: During my PhD program at the University of Mississippi, I took two seminars on the American colonies, with emphasis on the Southeast. One was a history seminar in which we discussed at length the Chesapeake school and the evolving issues of race, particularly as it related to the work of Edmund Morgan and Winthrop Jordan, and the seminal work of Powhatan’s Mantle. The other was an anthropology seminar in which we were introduced to the body of scholarship on the Eastern Woodlands and the emergence of the trade in skins and slaves. Out of these two courses I came away with many questions about the Stegg/Byrd family and the role of Virginia in the Indian slave trade. I was inspired by the work of Alan Gallay, Robbie Ethridge, and Charles Hudson and wanted to know more.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: Anglo-Native Virginia argues that attempts to regulate and control trade and indigenous peoples via a tributary system was at the foreground of Virginia’s native concerns from Governor Sir William Berkeley to Lieutenant Governor Alexander Spotswood. This tributary system and its accompanying categories and rules represent an era of deep upheaval in the indigenous communities of the coastal plain and piedmont, resulting in the enslavement of native peoples as the colonies used the frontier exchange economy to finance their emerging plantation complex.

JF: Why do we need to read Anglo-Native Virginia?

KS: As an interdisciplinary work of ethnohistory, I hope this book finds an audience in a number of venues, including but not limited to scholars of Atlantic trade, colonial settlement, Southern Studies, slavery studies, and Indigenous peoples. The book asks us to consider the central role that indigenous and colonial interaction played in the larger narrative of the plantation South. It asks us to look more closely at how trade with Native peoples shaped Virginia history as it transitioned from a fledgling colonial outpost to a settler society dependent upon slave labor. I argue that the Southeast cannot be understood without understanding Virginia and one cannot understand Virginia without understanding the tributary system. The framework of this project came from my interest in demonstrating the importance of Native history for broader narratives. Until fairly recently, Native peoples of Virginia have been in the background of important studies that have focused on the Atlantic slave trade, mercantilism, and the plantation economy. A full understanding of the important role that Virginia tributary and foreign Natives played in the trade in skins and slaves as it relates to the Atlantic economy and mercantilism has been the subject of important recent scholarship and I think my work complements this emerging field.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KS: I started writing stories at an early age and they always had a historical element. I split my childhood between the small Mississippi river town of Wabasha, Minnesota and a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I was always drawn to the historic sites of the two very different communities, one barely 2,500 people and the other a sprawling rustbelt town where suburbs converged into one another. In Minnesota, I was raised on the history of Euro-Native interaction, trade and settlement, and the folklore of the river valley. Across the river in Wisconsin was the Big Woods that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about and the town of Maiden Rock. In sum, I always loved a folktale and a yarn, a lifelong love affair that my parents greatly encouraged by going through historic towns and stopping at roadside markers, even when it added an hour or three to our regular road trips to Minnesota or Florida. In Ohio, I had the opportunity to work with an incredible high school teacher, Steven Abbey, who allowed me to take independent studies on a wide variety of historical topics and then I had the pleasure to attend Bowling Green State University where I studied under the Great Lakes historian, Edmund Danziger. He fostered my love of stories and helped to guide my scholarship towards the field of ethnohistory. In his seminar courses as well as the eye-opening classes I got to take with the Latin American historian, Rob Buffington, I knew that I wanted to pursue the field of history beyond undergrad. I was lucky to land at the University of Mississippi to work in interdisciplinary collaboration on indigenous peoples with Sheila Skemp and Robbie Ethridge. In a bit of kismet, I moved south to study peoples who came originally from Lake Erie.

JF: What is your next project?

KS: I am currently at work on a book on historical memory of indigenous peoples in Florida, particularly the town of Vero Beach, on the Indian River. This is a project of personal importance to me as it is a place I have known all my life and yet its deeply manicured history of settler pioneers and adventurous rogues reveals an incomplete narrative. I came to this study because of a large Spanish-mission style building that overlooks the town center with a relief carving of Pocahontas. Indian River produce advertisements from the 1880s-1970s depict idyllic jungle scenes, complete with friendly and noble Indians of vaguely Plains motifs—a vision at odds with the region’s indigenous past. Yankees, calling themselves pioneers and colonizers, moved to the region in waves throughout the early 20th century, viewing Southerners with scorn as the wealthy Northern investors built empires of citrus and sugar.

The Indian River Farms Company of Davenport, Iowa made the greatest strides toward conquering Florida. While settling the region, the company created a romantic narrative to sell land to potential Yankee colonizers. Street names included Seminole, Osceola, Cherokee, Mohawk, Kickapoo, and Ute. Buildings included the Chief Sleepy Eye Lodge and the Pocahontas Arcade. All names considered “picturesque” by would be settlers. Situating these endeavors within the broader context of Yankee imperialism in the Caribbean, particularly Cuba, I am reconsidering the legacy of a colonial southern past alongside the emergence of the vacation south to explore its potential impact on studies of the Indigenous south.

JF: Thanks, Kristalyn!

Benjamin Carp on Edmund Morgan’s “Slavery and Freedom”

Morgan

Edmund Morgan

As some of you may recall, Edmund Morgan’s 1972 Journal of American History article “Slavery and Freedomwon the 2016 Junto Blog “March Madness” tournament for the best journal article in early American history.

Over at Process: A Blog for American History (the official blog of the Organization of American Historians), Ben Carp of Brooklyn College reflects on the significance of Morgan’s essay.  I can’t think of a better person to do this right now.  Carp recently published a great essay on Morgan in Reviews in American History and has been tweeting about Morgan in honor of what would have been his 100th birthday (Morgan died in 2013). Follow along at #edmorgan100

Here is a taste of Carp’s post:

“Slavery and Freedom” is an article about Puritans, even though it doesn’t mention them at all; it’s about what happens when you try to colonize a place without them.

The article purports to be about how the Revolutionary leaders’ “dedication to human liberty and dignity” arose alongside “a system of labor that denied human dignity and liberty every hour of the day.” And indeed, we largely remember the piece for articulating “the central paradox of American history”: how the United States emerged as a beacon of freedom when so many African-Americans remained in chains, with entangled repercussions that still define the nation.

And yet the article spends surprisingly little time on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence or Virginia’s slave society, and neither does American Slavery, American Freedom. It’s an irony that Edmund S. Morgan (1916–2013), the article’s author, would have appreciated (call it the “the ‘Paradox’ paradox”): how an unintended argument became his most enduring legacy.

“Slavery and Freedom” began life as Morgan’s presidential address to the Organization of American Historians in April 1972. Morgan had analyzed the Puritan work ethic and the way that the Founders applied it to their rebellion. But when he tried to attribute the ethic to elite slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson, he realized the argument wouldn’t quite hold. So he looked more closely at history of early colonial Virginia to figure out why the South turned out differently. “Slavery and Freedom” was primarily interested in the problems of work and discipline, which led Morgan into discussions of English ideas about debt and idleness, Francis Drake and the Cimarrons, the cultivation of tobacco, the fate of laborers who completed their indentures, and Bacon’s Rebellion.

Read the rest here.

2014 Gilder-Lehrman "13 Colonies" Seminar: Day Two Recap

Firestone Library–Princeton University

It was a full day in Princeton.  The Gilder-Lehrman “13 Colonies” seminar is off to a great start (or at least it is from my perspective as the instructor).  We started the day problemetizing the “Whig” interpretation of history and trying to imagine what the history of the American colonies might look like if we did not view the colonies solely as a precursor to the American Revolution.  Alan Taylor’s American Colonies was very helpful on this front.

We spent the rest of the morning on native American history.  Most of what we discussed was informed by Taylor’s American Colonies, James Merrell’s The Indians’ New World, and Dan Richter’s Facing East from the Indian Country.  My goal was to get these K-8 history teachers to see the world through the eyes of the native Americans, to get them to think culturally (rather than geographically) about the concept of the “New World,” and to see moments of native American agency on the “middle ground.”

After lunch we began our exploration of the early Chesapeake by exploring death and mercantilism in Jamestown.  This morning we will finish that story.

Nate McAlister is my partner in crime this week.  Yesterday afternoon we met with Stephen Ferguson, the rare book librarian at Princeton’s Firestone Library.   On Thursday afternoon we are taking the teachers into the Firestone so that they can touch, hold, read, and discuss some seventeenth and eighteenth-century books.  I get the privilege of creating the book list.  Nate and Stephen suggested that the list should include everything read by Philip Vickers Fithian.  We may also get to look at the original diaries that I worked with for The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  This should be exciting.

James Horn Takes His Turn on the Jamestown Cannibalism Story

At yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page James Horn, the vice-president for research and historical interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg and the author of “A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America, chimes in on the Jamestown cannibalism story.  Here is a taste of his piece, “Consuming Colonists.”

As weeks turned to months and winter set in, the colonists became increasingly desperate. “Now all of us at James Towne,” George Percy, their leader, wrote, were “beginning to feel that sharp prick of hunger” that no one can describe “but he which has tasted the bitterness thereof.” 
To satisfy their cruel hunger, some colonists went into the woods in search of snakes and wild roots, where they were killed by the waiting warriors. In desperation, those left behind devoured their horses, dogs, cats, rats and mice, and when these ran out even their boot leather. But worse was to come.
Percy describes what happened, detailing carefully how English society unraveled in the appalling conditions. Driven out of his mind by despair, a colonist named Hugh Price, “in a furious distracted mood did come openly into the marketplace Blaspheming exclaiming and crying out that there was no god. Alleging that if there were a god he would not suffer his creatures whom he had made and framed to endure those miseries.” He, like others, met his end in the woods nearby, slain by Indians who killed as fast outside the fort “as famine and pestilence did within.”
As hunger became etched “ghastly and pale in every face,” Percy recalled, nothing “was spared to maintain Life.” Starving settlers dug up corpses out of graves and ate them. Some colonists, who died in their beds or were killed seeking food beyond the palisade, were taken up and eaten by those who found their bodies. Sometime during the winter, 14-year-old Jane died, was eaten and then discarded in a trash pit.
The famished looked hungrily on those alive who still had some meat on their bones. One settler murdered his pregnant wife “as she slept on his bosom,” then “ripped the child out of her womb and threw it into the River and after chopped the Mother in pieces and salted her for his food,” for which “barbarous” and unnatural act he was tortured to extract a confession and summarily executed.

Cannibalism in Jamestown

This semester in my British Colonial America course we read Edmund Morgan’s classic American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia.  At one point in the book Morgan described cases of cannibalism in the early years of the Jamestown settlement.  Here is the pertinent quote, from page 73:

[In Jamestown we find] the only authentic examples of cannibalism witnessed in Virginia.  One provident man chops up his wife and salts down the pieces.  Others dig up graves to ear corpses.

Indeed, during the so-called “starving time” in colonial Jamestown (winter of 1609-1610) there are at least six accounts of people describing acts of cannibalism.

According to this article in The Washington Post, we now have some skeletal remains that lend support to these accounts of cannibalism.  Here is a taste:

The proof comes in the form of fragments of a skeleton of a girl, about age 14, found in a cellar full of debris in the fort on the James River that sheltered the starving colonists. The skull, lower jaw and leg bone — all that remain — have the telltale marks of an ax or cleaver and a knife.

“Historians have to decide whether this type of thing happened,” said Owsley, who has examined thousands of skeletal remains, both archaeological and forensic. “I think that it did. We didn’t see anybody eat this flesh. But it’s very strong evidence.”

James Horn, head of research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and a historian on the colony, said the discovery “adds a significant confirmation to what was reported to have occurred at Jamestown.” Further, it’s the only physical evidence of cannibalism of Europeans in any New World colony, although, as with Jamestown, there are written accounts of the practice in others.

“I tend to be sparing in the use of words like ‘unique.’ But I think this is one of those finds that literally is,” Horn said.

About 300 people inhabited the fort in November 1609. By spring, there were only 60. The girl, most likely a maidservant but possibly the daughter of a colonist, was one of the casualties.

Her bones were unearthed last August as part of the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project begun in 1994. About 18 inches of fill remain in the cellar, so it’s possible more of her skeleton will be found. Enough of her skull exists, however, to imagine what she might have looked like, using CT scanning, computer graphics, sculpture materials and demographic data.

While I was doing some research for this post I came across Rachel Hermann’s 2011 William and Mary Quarterly essay “The ‘tragiccall historie’: Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown” and her 2011 Chronicle of Higher Education essay “On Becoming a Cannibal Girl.”