How Jamestown Embraced Slavery

Cultivation_of_tobacco_at_Jamestown_1615

At Zocalo, Dartmouth historian Paul Musselwhite explains how it all happened.  Here is a taste of “How Jamestown Abandoned a Utopian Vision and Embraced Slavery“:

In the summer of 1619, some of England’s first American colonists were carving up land seized from the Powhatan empire along the James River in Virginia. While the first settlers had arrived back in 1607, they had only recently discovered that they could turn a profit growing tobacco. Tobacco production had increased 20-fold over the past two years, and agricultural land was suddenly at a premium.

Yet the surveyors, instead of laying out private estates for upwardly mobile colonists, were mostly tracing the bounds of thousands of acres of common land. These vast tracts of public land were intended to accommodate hundreds of new colonists and their families, who would serve as tenants, raising crops and paying rents to support infrastructure while learning agricultural skills.

This symbiotic vision of common land and public institutions was one of the most dramatic innovations in the history of English colonialism to that point. But we have lost sight of that original vision and how it was undermined.

Read the rest here.

What About Powhatan and His People?

Trump at Jamestown

Jamestown is in the news lately.  This week Donald Trump visited the site of the first British settlement in America to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Virginia General Assembly.  Others are commemorating the “20 And odd negroes” who arrived on Virginia shores in August 1619.  And today the Washington Post‘s Dana Hedgpeth reminds us that we should not forget the story of Powhatan and the native American tribes he governed at the time of English settlement.  Here is a taste of her piece, which includes quotes from historians James Horn and William Kelso:

The powerful American Indian chief, known as Powhatan, had refused the English settlers’ demands to return stolen guns and swords at Jamestown, Va., so the English retaliated. They killed 15 of the Indian men, burned their houses and stole their corn. Then they kidnapped the wife of an Indian leader and her children and marched them to the English boats.

They put the children to death by throwing them overboard and “shooting out their brains in the water,” wrote George Percy, a prominent English settler in Jamestown.

And their orders for the leader’s wife: Burn her.

Percy wrote, “Having seen so much bloodshed that day now in my cold blood I desired to see no more and for to burn her I did not hold it fitting but either by shot or sword to give her a quicker dispatch.”

She was spared, but only briefly. Two Englishmen took her to the woods, Percy wrote, and “put her to the sword.”

The woman was one of 15,000 American Indians living in the Tidewater area along the shores of the York and James rivers in 1607 when the first English settlers arrived in Virginia. Her violent death is symbolic of the underlying tensions that lasted for centuries between the whites and the Indians.

On Tuesday, President Trump mentioned the Native Americans in passing at the 400th anniversary of the first representative government in Jamestown. The colonists, he said in a speech, “endured by the sweat of their labor, the aid of the Powhatan Indians, and the leadership of Captain John Smith.”

Read the entire piece here.

Trump Says That Colonial Virginia Teaches Us “Our nation’s priceless culture of freedom, independence, equality, justice, and self-determination under God.” Really?

Here is his speech:

5:00ff: Glad to see that Trump gives a shout out to the Jamestown Rediscovery Project and other preservation organizations.  He has no idea what the Jamestown Rediscovery Project does, but at least he recognized it.

5:54ff: Trump says that  the House of Burgesses was founded in 1619.  Yet if I understand my Virginia colonial history correctly, the House of Burgesses was not established until 1642.  Prior to 1642 the Virginia legislature was known as the Virginia General Assembly.

6:00ff: Trump says that the first members of this Virginia General Assembly had “struggled” and “suffered” and “sacrificed” in “pursuit of one wild and very improbable dream.  They called that dream ‘Virginia’.”  Last time I checked, very few of these settlers were “dreamers” in the way Trump makes them out to be.  Yes, they dreamed.  But they dreamed that they would strike it rich growing tobacco or, in the early years, some other cash crop.  They dreamed about using indentured servants and later enslaved Africans to maximize profits.  They pursued their own freedom at the expense of slave labor, a paradox that historian Edmund Morgan has described as “American Slavery–American Freedom.”

6:50ff:  Trump says that the first settlers to Jamestown came to “carve out a home.”  Far from it. Most of them came to get rich and get out.  The settlers did not have dreams of permanence. They did not dream about a future United States.

6:58ff:  Trump said the settlers “came from God and country.”  Not sure what this means.  Probably another teleprompter issue.

7:05ff:  Trump overplays the Christian founding of Jamestown and gives the history of settlement a providential spin. I wrote extensively about the way the Christian Right does this kind of thing in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

8:00ff:  Trump’s speechwriters are aware of the so-called “starving time” at Jamestown  Trump doesn’t mention, however, that the problem was not “crop failure” but “failure to grow crops.”

9:00ff: Trump says that the Jamestown settlers practiced what would become the “American character.”  He says they “worked hard, they had courage in abundance, and a wealth of self-reliance. They strived mightily to turn a profit.  They experimented with producing silk, corn, tobacco, and the very first Virginia wines.”  He then says that the Virginians “endured by the sweat of their labor, the aide of the Powhaton Indians, and the leadership of Captain John Smith.”  This, Trump says, “brought a way of life that would define the New World.”

This, of course, is all spin and very ahistorical. Many of the white leaders of Virginia did not “work hard.”  Many of them were “gentleman adventurers” who had no idea how to work. Very few of them “endured by the sweat of their labor.”  Yes, they tried to turn a profit, but they did so at the expense of feeding themselves and their neighbors. And, as noted above, they eventually relied upon indentured servants and slaves to help the settlement, and later colony, survive.  I don’t recognize Trump’s Jamestown.

10:30ff: Trump makes the Virginia Assembly sound like a popularly elected legislative body.  This was a body in which only the wealthy and powerful had representation and the right to make laws.  Whatever populism existed came later–when frontier settlers (former indentured servants) revolted (Bacon’s Rebellion) and burned Jamestown to the ground, forcing the royal governor to flee for his life.

12:30:  Trump mentions the so-called “20 And odd negroes” who arrived in 1619.  I am glad he did not ignore this.  To his credit, he also shows that Americans struggled, and largely failed, to apply equality to all people. But he fails to develop the implications of this argument.  It is like he merely checked-off a box.  The rest of his speech goes forward without any recognition of what slavery did to America.  This history is shallow. As might be expected, it is overwhelmed by Trump’s patriotic narrative.

Of course future historians who study this speech will interpret it in the context of Trump’s recent tweets about sending members of the House of Representatives “back to their countries” and his attacks on Elijah Cummings and the city of Baltimore.

14:45ff:  Trump makes the Whiggish leap from Jamestown to the American Revolution and the birth of American democracy.  His exceptionalism here completely ignores the fact that the English colonies got their ideas of representative government from England and that much of the Revolution could be understood as the consistent application of the British ideas that the colonies had imbibed by being loyal subjects of the empire.

15:15:  The protests begin.

16:00ff: Trump connects the great names of the Virginia founding era–Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Henry, Mason, Wythe, and Lee–to the founding of Jamestown and the founding of the United States.  Again, Trump needs to read Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  All of these families were able to produce sons of liberty because of the wealth they accumulated through slavery. This paradox, Morgan argues, is at the heart of the American republic.

17:55ff:  It is absurd to connect Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” to what happened in 17th-century Jamestown.  But Trump makes this connection with no nuance or complexity.

18:26ff:  Do we really want to “cherish the traditions” born in Jamestown, as Trump suggests we do?

19:30ff: Trump says that early Virginia has taught us that:

  • “The people will always be sovereign”
  • “Americans always take ownership of their future and control of their destiny.”
  • “Americans will always “take action,” “seize opportunities,” and “pursue the common good.”

No, Jamestown teaches us none of these lessons.  Instead it teaches us that only the wealthy are sovereign, most of the population could not control their destiny, only a few could “seize opportunities,” and no one was looking out consistently for the “common good.”

20:00ff:  Trump now draws a direct line between the settlers of Jamestown and the settlement of the West, the winning of the American Revolution, the ending of slavery, the securing of civil rights, the invention of the airplane, the end of communism, and the placing of the American flag on the moon.   This is Whig history run amok.  And somehow he even manages to connect Jamestown to the American exploration of Mars!

21:26: Trump keeps going: “But among all of America’s towering achievements, none exceeds the triumph we are here to celebrate today: our nation’s priceless culture of freedom, independence, equality, justice, and self-determination under God.”  Are these really the lessons history students should learn from colonial Virginia?

The one-minute protest at Trump’s speech is getting all the attention today, but we also must come to grips with the fact that Trump completely mishandled the past.

Tweet of the Night

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John Smith coat of arms

It comes from Central Michigan University historian Andrew Wehrman.  He comments on Trump’s visit to Jamestown tomorrow:

Trump is Going to Jamestown Tomorrow

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Jamestown, Virginia will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first representative government in British America.  Donald Trump will be there.  Virginia’s black lawmakers will not.

Here is a taste of Gregory Schneider’s piece at The Washington Post:

Virginia’s black state lawmakers will boycott Tuesday’s commemoration of 400 years of representative democracy, saying the Jamestown event “will be tarnished unduly” by the participation of President Trump.

“It is impossible to ignore the emblem of hate and disdain that the President represents,” the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said in a statement Monday. The group said Trump “continues to make degrading comments toward minority leaders, promulgate policies that harm marginalized communities, and use racist and xenophobic rhetoric.”

And in a direct challenge to Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), the rest of the Democratic Party as well as Republicans, the caucus said: “Those who have chosen to attend and remain silent are complicit in the atrocities that he incites.”

Northam is slated to begin day-long festivities at a 7:30 a.m. ceremony on the site of the original English colony at Jamestown Island, but his office said he never intended to be present for the 11 a.m. session featuring Trump. Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) will also be present with Northam for that event.

Read the rest here.

I imagine that Trump will have a lot to say about the Virginia General Assembly (which would eventually become the House of Burgesses) as a forerunner of American democratic government.  While this is true to an extent, the General Assembly was run by the wealthy tobacco planters of  colonial Virginia.  In other words, it was far from a “democratic” government.  The member of the Assembly were chosen because they had elite family connections and land.

Moreover, I am guessing that Trump will not be in Virginia next month to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first slaves to arrive on British-American shores.

Angela: A Slave Who Arrived in Jamestown in 1619

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400 years ago, “20 And odd Negroes”-they were slaves–arrived in Jamestown.  One of them was named Angela.  DeNeen Brown writes about Angela in her recent piece at The Washington Post.  It draws on the work of James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation.  Here is a taste:

By the time Angela was brought to Jamestown’s muddy shores in 1619, she had survived war and capture in West Africa, a forced march of more than 100 miles to the sea, a miserable Portuguese slave ship packed with 350 other Africans and an attack by pirates during the journey to the Americas.

“All of that,” marveled historian James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, “before she is put aboard the Treasurer,” one of two British privateers that delivered the first Africans to the English colony of Virginia.

Now, as the country marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of those first slaves, historians are trying to find out as much as possible about Angela, the first African woman documented in Virginia. They see her as a seminal figure in American history — a symbol of 246 years of brutal subjugation that left millions of men, women and children enslaved at the start of the Civil War.

Two years ago, researchers launched an archaeological investigation in Jamestown at the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America to find any surviving evidence of Angela.

She is listed in the 1624 and 1625 census as living in the household of Capt. William Pierce, first as “Angelo a Negar” and then as “Angela Negro woman in by Treasurer.” By then, she had survived two other harrowing events: a Powhatan Indian attack in 1622 that left 347 colonists dead and the famine that followed.

Yet little is known about her beyond those facts.

Read the rest here.

The Author’s Corner with Karen Kupperman

Pocahontas and the English BoysKaren Kupperman is Silver Professor of History Emerita at New York University. This interview is based on her new book, Pocahontas and the English Boys: Caught between Cultures in Early Virginia (NYU Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Pocahontas and the English Boys?

KK: In the years around 2007, marking the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding, I spoke to many groups of high school history teachers, and those experiences made me see that they needed this story whose actors played key roles and were the ages of the kids they teach. As I worked on the book, I realized that the story has a broader impact and that it contributes to histories of consciousness and boundary-crossing in the early modern period.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Pocahontas and the English Boys?

KK: Native and colonial leaders in the early colonies left kids with the other to learn the language and culture from the inside. The English saw kids as malleable and somewhat expendable, but they never foresaw that these go-betweens would form close relationships with the Virginia Natives who sheltered them. Colonial leaders ultimately came to mistrust them and disregarded their information, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

JF: Why do we need to read Pocahontas and the English Boys?

KK: Virginia’s beginning as an English colony has been seen as inferior, especially after New Englanders began to push the Pilgrims as the superior founders in the nineteenth century. Pocahontas and the English Boys works toward getting beyond the dominant narrative and finding the varied stories of people on all sides in these colonial situations, and how they coped with many different kinds of challenges. Through Pocahontas’s and the boys’ experiences we see Virginia’s Native people as real human beings with feelings and doubts.

To reinforce these insights, I was able to do a new transcription from the original pages of Henry Spelman’s Relation of Virginia, which is in the Harlan Crown library in Dallas. This is the first edition from the original manuscript since 1872, and it presents the memoir as it was actually written, correcting errors in the version we have all been using. Henry Spelman, Relation of Virginia, is out as a separate book from NYU Press.

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

KK: I went to Cambridge University for my PhD in 1973 expecting to become a Tudor-Stuart historian. But as I worked on my dissertation on eyewitness writing about the land and the people of America in the earliest period of English colonization, I came to think of myself as an American historian. Finally, through my scholarship and teaching, I realized that I am an Atlantic historian, meaning that relations around the Atlantic as well as those between London and Boston or Williamsburg are crucial to true understanding. I began the Atlantic history program at NYU and those of us at NYU construe the field broadly, moving as far as possible from the little boxes early American history had been constrained by.

JF: What is your next project?

KK: My next project looks at music as a mode of communication. In encounter situations where the new arrivals and the Native people did not have knowledge of the other’s language, participants on both sides sang and played musical instruments. This happened around the world. Music indicated peaceful intentions, but it could also be used as a ruse to cover hostile plans. Some intellectuals, such as Thomas Harriot who had been in Roanoke as a young man, began to think that music might be a way to create a universal language that could be understood by all. Harriot created a syllabary for coastal Carolina Algonquian and argued that recording languages by sound rather than meaning would facilitate universal communication.

JF: Thanks, Karen!

Were the “20. and Odd Negroes” Slaves or Indentured Servants?

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Is this sign factually correct?

In an interview with Gayle King of CBS News, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam referred to the first enslaved Africans to Virginia in 1619 as “indentured servants.”

Blogger Kevin Levin has a short post on Northam’s comment here.  A taste:

At the outset of the interview the governor references the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia’s shores in 1619, only he chose to refer to these slaves as indentured servants. King quickly responded by correcting the governor that he meant to say slavery. My social media streams quickly lit up with reactions to the oversight.

They included some people who suggested that the governor was correct in referring to the first Africans as indentured servants. They noted that a system of African slavery took time to evolve as the primary form of labor in colonial Virginia. This is true. Historians such as Ira Berlin have shown that for much of the seventeenth century African slaves worked side by side Native Americans and even white indentured servants. It was even possible for a small number of Africans to gain their freedom.

The larger question, however, of how Virginia went from – in the words of historian Edmund Morgan, ‘a society with slaves’ to a ‘slave society’ – is separate from the status of the Africans who arrived in 1619. Earlier today historian Rebecca Ann Goetz clarified this question with a twitter thread clarifying that these Africans were indeed slaves.

Read the entire post here.

Rebecca Goetz‘s tweet thread is worth reading.  She is a history professor at New York University and the author of The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race.  Here it is:

Addendum from reader Matt Gottlieb:

While I appreciate the post, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources retired this sign and put in a replacement in 2015. The updated marker includes newer research that emerged since the original’s 1992 installation. An image of it may be seen here: https://www.latimes.com/dp-pictures-african-landing-day-commemorated-on-fort-monroe-20150820-photogallery.html

Please contact me if you have any questions. Physical markers, to borrow the cliche on political polling, are snapshots in time.

The “First Africans Tour” at Historic Jamestowne

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2019 is the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in the Jamestown colony.  The Historic Jamestowne historical site is commemorating the arrival of these Africans and the legacy of slavery in the settlement with its “First Africans” tour.  Learn more in this Associated Press article.

A taste:

On a recent afternoon, tour guide Justin Bates pointed to the spot where historic Jamestown’s legislature first convened in July 1619. He then gestured toward a spot nearby where some of the first slaves in English North America arrived a few weeks later.

“Freedom over there,” Bates told visitors near the banks of Virginia’s James River. “Slavery over here.”

Jamestown has long been associated with the legend of Pocahontas and more recently as a place where a harsh winter turned some colonists into cannibals. But the historic site is now offering a regular tour that encourages visitors to consider the beginnings of American slavery.

The “First Africans” tour is the first of its kind at Historic Jamestowne, a heritage site at the location of the 1607 James Fort. But it’s part of a much larger reckoning over slavery, an institution that took root in England’s first permanent colony 12 years after its founding.

In January, President Donald Trump signed into a law the “400 Years of African-American History Commission Act.” It requires a commission to develop programs that acknowledge the Africans arrival in 1619 and slavery’s impact.

Meanwhile, Virginia has launched its 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution. It recognizes the first English-style legislature in North America in Jamestown and other historical milestones from four centuries ago, including the Africans’ arrival.

In 1619, the Africans came on two ships, the White Lion and the Treasurer, that had recently raided what’s believed to have been a Spanish slave vessel in the Gulf of Mexico. Sailing into the Chesapeake Bay to what is now Hampton, Virginia, the ships traded more than 30 Africans for food and supplies.

Read the rest here.

2017 Princeton Seminar: Day 2

Tour

Today the teachers got a tour of early American Princeton

Monday was a long and busy day at the Princeton Seminar.

We began with a morning of lecture and discussion about how we should think about “colonial America.”  I tried to get the teachers to think historically about the colonies and try to rid themselves of a Whig-centered interpretation of the period.  In the process we spent a lot of time talking about the difference between a “civics” approach to the past and a “historical thinking” approach to the past.   I challenged the teachers to try to understand the colonial American past on its own terms and, at least for a week, pretend that the American Revolution never happened.

I also introduced the teachers to what has been called “The New Indian” history.  What might our understanding of colonial America look like if we examine it from the perspective of native Americans?  I focused this lecture around three concepts: “Facing East” (Dan Richter), the “Indians’ New World” (James Merrell), and the “Middle Ground” (Richard White).

Finally, we got started with a lecture on the colonial Chesapeake and tried to make sense of why so many people starved to death in the early years of Jamestown.  We will be finishing this discussion today by carrying the Virginia story through Bacon’s Rebellion.

In the afternoon, Nate McAlister introduced the teachers to their lesson-plan assignment. Every teacher needs to pick a primary source from the colonial era and write a lesson that they can use with their students.   It is always fun to see the documents that they choose and the lessons that they design.

After dinner we split into two groups and got a historical tour of Princeton.  My tour guide, Leslie, was excellent.  She took us through Princeton University, Princeton Theological Seminary, the home of Albert Einstein, the home of Richard Stockton (Morven), and the Princeton Battlefield Monuments.  We got caught in the middle of a thunderstorm while visiting Einstein’s house, but Leslie pushed us through.  There we were–standing outside of Morven in the pouring ran listening to Leslie expound upon the life of Stockton.  These teachers are real troopers!

About half of us ended the night at the Yankee Doodle Tap Room at Princeton’s Nassau Inn.  This is the place where the Princeton Seminar goes to solve all world problems. Tonight was no exception!

Looking forward to day 3!  Stay tuned.

The National Endowment for the Humanities Helped Archaeologist William Kelso and His Team Find Jamestown

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Donald Trump’s current budget proposal will eliminate government funding for the humanities.  This means that local communities and American citizens will need to come up with other ways to fund important programs.

It is probably the greatest archaeological discovery in American history. For over two hundred years historians and archaeologists had assumed that Jamestown, the first successful English colony in America, was decaying somewhere at the bottom of the James River.  Archaeologist William Kelso had other ideas.  In 1994 he took a shovel and started digging.  With the help of over $300,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities he found the fort!

Here is a small taste of the story, courtesy of the NEH website:

…Soon joined by a rotating team of scientists, curators, and volunteers, Kelso began to uncover postholes (pits that once held upright structural timbers), old cellars, and all sorts of cultural detritus: ceramic shards, tobacco pipes, food scraps, and pieces of European armor, some of which had been modified for New World combat. By 1996, the team was confident enough in their finds to announce publicly the rediscovery of James Fort, the first settlement’s first structure, and begin aligning the physical evidence they had gathered with the sparse written records of Smith and others who lived there.

The story that the documentary and archaeological evidence tells is one of hope and industry set against the brutal realities of life in the New World. The colonists built impressive fortifications but struggled for power among themselves (the first grave found at the site contained an Englishman likely killed by a musket ball). They manufactured glass and copper beads for trade with local Powhatan tribes but never managed to establish enduring peace with the native people (Smith himself was abducted but, according to his own account, saved by Pocahontas). For the sake of claiming a share of the New World, they endured disease, the constant threat of violence, and, during the winter of 1609, hunger so dire they resorted to cannibalism.

That last grisly item—recounted in a number of seventeenth-century sources—was confirmed in 2012, when the Jamestown Rediscovery team disinterred the bones of a young English woman. Her skull bore markings consistent with what forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley of the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum describes as “postmortem processing.”

Read more here.  And here is some information about the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.

And a couple of cool videos:

For other posts in this series click 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.”

Jamestown is Coming to the Small Screen

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Naomi Battrick will play a female settler in “Jamestown”

In England.

And it is being produced by the people who brought you Downton Abbey.

Here is a taste of an article in Variety:

“Downton Abbey” creator Carnival Films is to produce eight-part drama series “Jamestown,” which charts the early days of the first British settlers as they embark on their new lives in America.

The show, which has been commissioned by European pay TV operator Sky, is written by Bill Gallagher (“Lark Rise to Candleford,” “The Paradise”), and will go into production this month.

Leading the cast of male settlers are Max Beesley, Jason Flemyng, Dean Lennox-Kelly, Shaun Dooley, Stuart Martin, Steven Waddington, Matt Stokoe and Burn Gorman. The female settlers are played by Naomi Battrick, Sophie Rundle and Niamh Walsh.

Set in 1619, “Jamestown” follows the settlers as they establish a community in the New World. Amongst those landing onshore are a group of women destined to be married to the men of Jamestown, including three spirited women from England: Jocelyn (Battrick), Alice (Rundle) and Verity (Walsh).

Leaving their old lives behind, these women have embarked on this journey to start afresh, fulfill their dreams and become the female pioneers of an exciting new western outpost.

“Jamestown” was commissioned for Sky by head of drama, Anne Mensah, commissioning editor, Cameron Roach, and director of Sky 1, Adam MacDonald. Carnival’s Gareth Neame, Nigel Marchant and Richard Fell will executive produce, and the producer is Sue de Beauvoir. The series will be distributed by NBCUniversal Intl. Distribution.

Does anyone know if they have hired historians to consult on the film?  James Horn? Karen Kupperman?  William Kelso? Lorri Glover? Lorena Walsh?

Here’s my favorite line from the description: “Leaving their old lives behind, these women have embarked on this journey to start afresh, fulfill their dreams and become the female pioneers of an exciting new western outpost.”

Interesting.  Especially since Jamestown was a place where “dreams” went to die. Jamestown in 1619 was far from “exciting.”  And what’s the deal with calling it a “western outpost.”  They make it sound like they are producing a remake of Gunsmoke.

The Author’s Corner with Russell Lawson

Russell M. Lawson is Professor of History at Bacone College. This interview is based on his new book, The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith’s Exploration of New England (University Press of New England, 2015).
JF: What led you to write The Sea Mark: Captain John Smith’s Exploration of New England?

RL: I grew up in Oklahoma and moved to New Hampshire to attend the University of New Hampshire; there I fell in love with coastal New England. I began to study the early explorers of the New England coast, and found Captain John Smith to be the most intriguing. Yet no one had ever written at length about Smith’s voyage to New England; the focus, rather, had been on Smith’s role as a founder of Jamestown. Part of the reason for this omission is that Smith wrote at length about New England, but was vague about the particulars of his voyage. I studied him for so long that I came to know him, as it were, well enough to re-create his voyage.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Sea Mark?

RL: Captain John Smith was a visionary, seeing the northeast coast of America as a place for settlement and English fishing villages, who acted upon his ideas with a voyage in 1614 followed up by numerous books promoting the colonization of the land that he christened, New England. Smith brought all of his beliefs and assumptions—about England, Christianity, colonization, conquest—to bear in his voyage and books; New England was in his mind a reflection of himself; New England was a sea mark for English explorers and colonists.

JF: Why do we need to read The Sea Mark?

RL: After Smith departed Jamestown in 1609 and returned to England, New England became the sine qua non of his existence, the focus of his activities, dreams, plans, existence, and self. After Smith’s voyage along the New England coast in 1614, he spent years planning a return, leading a group of adventurers to establish a colony that would be the vanguard of England’s activities in America. Yet he never returned. Failure, happenstance, frustration, even pirates, kept Smith from returning to New England. He turned to the pen, writing about what he wished he was doing: journeying, exploring, fighting, fishing, establishing colonies. He became the foremost advocate of English colonization. All of his many books and activities on behalf of English colonization were based on a three month voyage from Maine to Massachusetts in 1614. The Sea Mark shows a side to John Smith, reveals a part of his life, rarely contemplated by historians and their readers.

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

RL: I grew up being fascinating by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and read all of the great classics in high school and college. I earned a Master’s degree in Ancient Mediterranean history. But I was also intrigued by Renaissance explorers, and after I met Linda Phillips, whose family came from New England, and we married, and I had the chance to visit and explore New England, I became a committed historian of early America, focusing in particular upon the northeast. So we moved to New Hampshire, where I earned my Ph.D. in early American history at the University of New Hampshire.

JF: What is your next project?

RL: I have signed a contract with Praeger to produce a nonfiction trade book on servants in colonial America. This book will re-create the experiences of English, Scottish, Irish, French, German, Spanish, African, and American Indian servants in colonial America. The book will focus not only on indentured servants, English felons transported to America, redemptioners arriving to America from the Rhineland, and apprenticeship, but also on servants in the Caribbean Islands, servants in English Canada, Dutch servants in New Netherlands, and American Indian and African-American servants in the colonies.

JF: Sounds intriguing! Thanks Russell.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

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.”