Thursday, April 7, 2016

Slavery At Jamestown

Our “peculiar institution” of slavery did not initially exist at Jamestown. The first recorded group of “20.and Odd” Africans is known to have been landed in Virginia in late August 1619 in what was to the settlers an unknown state of bondage. Those Africans joined a number who were already there, which would gradually increase from between thirty and fifty to the low hundreds during the colony’s first four decades, while the English influx grew by tens of thousands.[1]
Those that came in 1619 may have come as slaves, but were not after they landed.  They are thought to have been initially bound to agricultural labor and service under terms similar to English servants’ contracts or indentures, as “no such condition of lifetime servitude was recognized in English or Virginia law at that time.” [2] When they completed the terms of indenture as servants, several achieved their freedom and the capacity to acquire land and property of their own, but others found themselves bound by what proved to be indefinite terms.
The earliest Jamestown settlers were joined over the following decades by over a hundred thousand more who were lured from an economically distressed and overpopulated England by demand for cheap labor and opportunity. As historian James Horn relates, “…about three-quarters of all English settlers arrived in Virginia as indentured servants…[who] (not enslaved Africans) would comprise the main source of labor in the tobacco fields during the entire century"[3] and presaged those who subsequently were brought involuntarily. Many of those so indentured were treated little better than slaves, but some of those that survived and satisfied their contracts went on to play important roles in the colony and local economy.
Virginia’s tobacco labor force was predominately composed of English indentured servants until the 1670s, when that immigration flow slowed to a trickle and increasing numbers of laborers were needed to work the colony’s tobacco fields. Historian Martha W. McCartney wrote, “It is estimated that 75,000 whites emigrated from the British Isles to the Chesapeake colonies between 1630 and 1680, when tobacco consumption was on the rise. Half-to-three-quarters of these people were indentured servants, many of who were poor, unskilled youths. Planters were especially eager to procure male workers to work in their tobacco fields and during the 1630s six times as many men as women became indentured servants”. However, she also tells us that for several decades onward, “…approximately four out of five newly arrived immigrants still perished”.[4]
Involuntary African immigrants and slavery began being introduced in the 1650s following the leads of the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies. In the 1640s, the Virginia Assembly began enacting policies and laws that fated almost all Africans and African Americans in the colony to a permanent underclass and involuntary servitude. In 1661, with the imposition of new royal rule and aristocratic domination, the nascent Commonwealth began institutionalizing racially based slavery. Charles II’s imperial initiative fostering the slave trade would also result in more bonded Africans being deployed by plantations that had depended on indentured English.
The emergence of the new elite ruling class during William Berkeley’s second governorship also established an attitude among its members toward the lower classes, particularly Africans and African-Americans, that reflected much less humanity and tolerance, and a facility to arbitrarily relegate them to the lowest positions in society.

[1] James H. Sweet notes in his essay, African Identity and Slave Resistance in the Portuguese Atlantic that, “William Thorndale has demonstrated that, in the 1619 census, thirty-two Afro-Virginians were already in the colony”, in Mancall (ed.), The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550-1624. 225. They were in addition the group that more famously arrived that year. Anthony Parent, in Atlantic Outpost in, Heinemann, et al., Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, says that Governor Berkeley “reported that there were but 300 blacks in 1649, many of whom were free.” 29
[2] Excerpt from Parent’s Atlantic Outpost in Old Dominion, New Commonwealth, 37
[3] Excerpt from James P. P. Horn’s Leaving England: The Social Background of Indentured Servants in the Seventeenth Century; (Jamestown Interpretive Essays, Virtual Jamestown, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia at

[4] Excerpts from Martha McCartney’s, A Study of the Africans and African Americans on Jamestown Island and at Green Spring, 1619-1803 (Williamsburg, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation – prepared for the Colonial National Historical Park, National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior Cooperative Agreement CA-4000-2-1017; 2003) 32.

Other Sources:

Horn, James P. P: Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake. (Chapel Hill and London, published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1995)
Swingen, Abigail L.; Competing Visions of Empire; Labor, Slavery and the Origins of the British Empire (New Haven CT, Yale University Press, 2015).

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A New Film About Bill Kelso

With Jamestown Rediscovery, Archaeologist Bill Kelso is creating an extraordinary legacy to help us understand our earliest American origins. He first turned his spade at Historic Jamestowne about twenty-two years ago and found evidence of James Fort, where Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, was established in 1607. This led him and his teams to many other important finds, including the remains of the first Protestant church in America (where Pocahontas and John Rolfe were wed in 1614) and the chancel graves of four of the settlement’s founders (including two that arrived in 1607.)

These discoveries have received international acclaim and recognition and were made with the cooperation of organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, Preservation Virginia and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; all under Kelso’s leadership and direction.

Now, director Dale Schierholt, in cooperation with Jamestown Rediscovery, is preparing to make a documentary film focused on Dr. Kelso to foster the public’s personal acquaintance with him and to help contribute to his legacy.

The working title is Bill Kelso: The Art of the Dig. Schierholt will profile him using his style of making a conversational portrait, much as he has done with many recognized artists from coast to coast. Schierholt films his subjects at work and sits with them to talk about their work and lives. Working one on one without a crew, Schierholt builds a rapport with his subjects, engaging in the intimate and candid discussions that have become a hallmark of his work. Schierholt creates a unique level of intimacy in his films, which give viewers the atmosphere of a personal visit, offering an exclusive insight into the subject’s inspirations and motivations.

We are seeking individual donations of any amount to make this film possible. Our initial goal is $12,000 for the critical seed funding needed to launch its production. Checks, with the memo note "Kelso Film," can be sent to Jamestown Rediscovery, Historic Jamestowne, 1365 Colonial Pkwy., Jamestown, VA 23081. These donations will enable an initial shoot between Director Schierholt and Dr. Kelso. All donors will receive film credit for helping to support the production. Please go the film’s website for more details.  

During this first shoot (3-5 days) Schierholt and Kelso will initiate the on-camera conversations to form the core of the film. Additionally, Schierholt will shoot atmospheric location footage of Kelso at the dig and other venues for visual context.

After the initial shoot, Schierholt will edit and prepare a short teaser film (3-5 minutes) to be used to promote the upcoming film and help secure the additional completion funds and for its promotion, distribution and exhibition.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

New Essay: Jamestown's Place in Our Nation's History

First California Company, Jamestowne Society has revised its website’s About Jamestown page with new content: Jamestown's Place in Our Nation's History.

Jamestown was Virginia’s colonial capital for almost nine decades. What the Society's ancestors accomplished over that time is as important as who they were and when they came.

What they did is why Jamestown has a deeper and more profound meaning than being just one among our national origins; the best evidence is their contributions towards our own nation building. This page chronicles and summarizes those contributions and explains why they are in the shadows of our history.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Army Corp of Engineers Wants You!

You now have a unique opportunity to voice your concern to the US Army Corps of Engineers about Dominion Power's ill-planned proposal to build 300' tall transmission line towers across the James River and desecrate views of our Founding River from several historic and important sites.

The Army Corp of Engineers Wants You!
Comments Due by June 20, 2015

Late last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Norfolk District, USACE published a notice on its web site seeking public input on Dominion Virginia Power's plan to build the Surry-Skiffes Creek project, 17, high-voltage, transmission towers across the James River from Hog Island to just east of Carter's Grove Plantation.
The Corps of Engineers is seeking comments to assist in their evaluation of the impact of the project on historic properties and evaluation of alternatives, which could avoid, minimize or mitigate the adverse effects of this project. The comment period ends on June 20, 2015.  

Comments may be submitted by email or in writing to:

Norfolk District, Corps of Engineers
Attention: Randy Steffey
803 Front Street
Norfolk, VA 23510-1096

Public meetings hosted by the Corps of Engineers should follow this comment period.

Please let your voice be heard.  Write to the Army -- before June 20!

It is very important that USACE and Dominion be convinced that there is national interest in this. Dominion is using scare tactics, e.g., threatening brownouts, etc. to avoid very feasible alternatives to the transmission towers. However, we are advised that those threats would be unlikely as it is obliged to offer service despite probably getting fined for air quality regulatory non-compliance at the coal-fired generators it must replace.

The James River is worth protecting. Here are some compelling reasons for joining us in submitting YOUR comments.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Our Next Lecture: Comparing our American Origins; April 21, 2015

We will give the 3rd in our series of lectures on Comparing Our 17th Century American Origins; Our Own Lessons in Nation Building, which focus on relevant legacies from the first seven decades that contributed to our nation building. These lectures stem from our interest in the lives of our own ancestors in early colonial times.

We are covering basic elements of our unique American culture and society that have evolved over 400+ years from their beginnings in Virginia, Massachusetts and New York, and offer a comparative overview of our origins from one of those 17th century colonies. Proceeding from our previous two lectures on Jamestown, we are exploring the events, developments and interrelationships among the three colonies during their earliest and most formative years, and what they contributed to the building of our nation.

In this program, we will discuss the four decades' history and legacies of New Netherland and New Amsterdam (which became New York). Some of what we will cover will include the links of Dutch settlers with the Pilgrims, Dutch culture and society in the New World, the settling and development of Manhattan, Dutch historical religious tolerance, civil liberties, role of women, and a historically classless society.

This lecture will be one of the Peer Presenters series at the Osher Life Long Learning Institute at the University of California, San Diego at 10 AM on Tuesday, April 21, 2015.

Prior lectures in this series have included:

An Ancestor Comes to Jamestown (May 21, 2013): Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the New World and one of our American origins. We review the events, crises and accomplishments during its founding seventeen years. Archaeology is presenting us with new insights into the colony. Its attraction for our ancestors, among the earliest families to settle, was economic opportunity. Richard and Isabella Pace exemplified middle class English entrepreneurial immigrants who were the backbone of Jamestown’s establishment and its contribution to the building of our nation. 

Pocahontas and Jamestown’s Legacies (May 20, 2014): 2014 was the 400th wedding anniversary of Pocahontas and John Rolfe (yes…not John Smith), which triggered lasting effects for the building of our nation and what we have become. She was an important historical figure in our nation’s early history; much more than the mythological caricature she has become. She and Rolfe also had long-lasting impacts on Jamestown’s development and, ultimately, its survival. We cover her role and effect as a young, short-lived woman on Jamestown’s viability and the following five decades after her life as the Paces moved up the James River.

For more information, please contact the editor. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

A New Book on Jamestown: The Latest Captain John Smith Biography

Captain John Smith’s iconic shadow still falls over Jamestown 400+ years after his 34-month sojourn in helping to found it. That specter is replete with mythology about a certain prepubescent Powhatan girl, disciplining settlers and facing down indigenous chieftains.

A new and readable biography helps to brighten that shadow and add human dimensions to that icon: A Man Most Driven; Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America, by Peter Firstbrook (London: Oneworld Publications. 2014).

Firstbrook acknowledges that he relied heavily on the seminal works on Smith by Bradford Smith and Laura Striker and Philip Barbour. But he also used his journalistic skills and new, original sources in describing more obscure episodes that Smith chronicles in his writings, such as his birthplace and early life, soldiering adventures in Eastern Europe and escape from slavery from Turkey through Russia. He enhances them them with illustrations from Smith's works and maps. We learn more details about the captain's dealings with his fellow settlers and the Powhatans (and their perspectives on him), his explorations and naming of New England and, finally (though briefly), his final decades of reflection in England.

This is a worthy addition to anyone’s library collection on Jamestown. It is a fitting complement to the superb The Jamestown Project by Professor Karen Ordahl Kupperman.

Here are two reviews:

From Kirkus Reviews:

“A nuanced account of the English captain saved by Pocahontas reveals an astonishingly complicated personality.

“Former BBC producer Firstbrook (The Obamas: The Untold Story of an African Family, 2011, etc.) finds in the roguish, quarrelsome, fearless adventurer Capt. John Smith a sterling example of the tenacious early-American character. Before the 27-year-old Smith ever came to Virginia to make his fortune in 1607, he proved himself an ambitious knight-errant, as he later recounted in his autobiography and elsewhere.

“A Lincolnshire tenant farmer’s son, Smith wanted to find adventure rather than inherit the family farm when his father died, so he became a mercenary sailor fighting the Spanish, making connections to better himself and filling the gaps in his education. His adventures took him across the continent, from Spain to Austria-Hungary, where he enlisted to fight against the incursions of the Ottoman Empire, battling duels to the death and even being taken captive and enslaved by the Turks. Having escaped and returned to London, he ingratiated himself with British merchants hoping to capitalize on the recent discoveries in the New World, such as the ill-fated Roanoke Colony of Virginia, sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh.

“Resentful of the aristocrats in control of the London Company–funded expedition, Smith managed to get locked up for mutinous behavior during the trip out, and only his much-needed skills as a soldier and farmer kept him from being hanged once they arrived in Jamestown.

“Firstbrook gives Smith the benefit of the doubt in his account of being saved from the Powhatans’ chopping block by chief Wahunsenacawh’s favorite daughter, Pocahontas—as befits an intrepid leader who was fiercely committed to the New World effort and instrumental in its survival over the first two murderous winters.

“Exciting historical tales with romantic overtones.”

By Robin S. Hall, an Amazon reader/reviewer:

Detective work and original source materials illuminate the truth about Captain John Smith's exploits.

“From the evidence of his own writings, John Smith has a claim to be the foremost Founding Father of the early British presence in North America. But there is controversy about how reliable a witness he was. Some facts are independently documented, like the time he spent leading the Jamestown settlement and his later trip to New England where he mapped and named much of the coastline - the same map that guided the Pilgrim Fathers six years later to Plymouth Rock.

“Peter Firstbrook approached the controversy over Smith from a reverse direction. In this book, he attempted to check the veracity of Smith's own autobiography of his life as a mercenary fighting the Ottoman Empire before his American expeditions. If the apparently fanciful accounts of shipwrecks, duels, battles in the political snake pit of Transylvania and his escape from slavery on the eastern shores of the Black Sea were probably true, this would give credence to Smith's reports of what happen later in his life in America. His researches took Firstbrook into the troubled heart of Eastern Europe, where he provided new insights and evidence of Smith's likely progress.

“In concluding that Smith was probably an honest witness of a turbulent time, Firstbrook gives a new perspective on the realities of the Jamestown settlement. Applying information about the local Native American social and political structures at the time, he offers an explanation about a seminal moment in early American history, the intervention of Pocahontas in Smith's impending execution. Alas, this does nothing to support the Disneyfied romance story between a twelve years old girl and a grizzled 27-year-old soldier.

“This book presents a fascinating account of the detective work needed in historical research in going back to the original source materials and validating the contents. Whilst the (necessary) accounts of the complexities of Balkan history are not an easy read, they are essential to proving that John Smith was not a fantasist. Thus, Smith's own writings and maps endorse him as a very significant contributor to early American history.”

From the News Page at

Monday, July 14, 2014

New Development Towards Saving the James

In a development that further forestalls Dominion Power’s attempt to obstruct and impair the historically significant James River view shed, the Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal by James City County of the Virginia State Corporation Commission’s Final Order allowing the construction of the 300+ foot transition towers. As announced on July 12, the court will consider issues raised by James City County with the help of the Save the James Alliance, especially the James River Association. 

This appeal seeks to dismiss the SCC’s final order or order a new hearing. According to one source, the appellants’ area of focus on errors is on the complete disregard of state statutes that protect historic and cultural resources, and secondly, a challenge to a land use ruling which, if not overturned, would set a precedent in the state regarding a utility's right to use land any way they see fit, regardless of local laws and zoning.

There remains the separate issue of the section 404 permit by the Army Corps of Engineers and its adherence to public hearing and comment process as required by law and regulations.