Thursday, September 25, 2008

Beyond Its Beginning; Our Legacies and Heritage from Jamestown - Part 2

In the Shadows of American History

We must also realize why Jamestown disappeared from our national consciousness and into the shadows of our history. To paraphrase another observer, most 19th and 20th century chroniclers of early American colonial history treated Jamestown as almost a side issue. They attached no long-term importance to it, but saw it only as a trivia “first” and not essential to the “creation of the American nation” and its culture. To this must be added, more significantly, they failed to look at what it has really meant for subsequent generations of Americans, including our own.

He also said, “This dismissive treatment of Jamestown has a long record, and one not helped by the veterans of the colony itself, most importantly John Smith. Smith is generally recognized as the most important influence on the earliest years of Jamestown, for reasons we…have all heard many times. He also, however, was the earliest chronicler and for an important moment, the sole chronicler of what happened those first few years. Therefore, [much of] what we know of early Jamestown and its obstacles and internal strife is seen through the eyes of Smith, who we now better understand was perhaps not the most objective observer. In his own fury and self-protection after being replaced as leader of the colony, Smith painted the expedition as one bungled by fortune seekers often unable or unwilling to help themselves and saved only by his own disciplined leadership and resourcefulness.

“For decades, and partly because of the [propaganda] of men like Smith, the Jamestown adventure was seen as a kind of get rich scheme – colonization for all the wrong reasons. This view held that Jamestown and its participants had only themselves to blame for the difficulties they encountered”.

“The Pilgrim story,” Professor Karen Ordahl Kupperman adds, “took over as our founding fiction after the Revolutionary War, when New England and the South began to pull in different directions. The Massachusetts colonists were labeled the Pilgrim Fathers in the 1790s, and the agreement they signed on arrival became the Mayflower Compact about the same time. Because Puritanism had come to be seen as repressive (think of Nathaniel Hawthorne's ‘Scarlet Letter’), early American leaders such as Daniel Webster brought the Plymouth colonists forward as the kinder, gentler Puritans.

“This is the origins story we prefer and the one we promote. We prefer it because we like to think that we are descended from a humble and saintly band, religiously motivated and communal in organization, who wanted nothing more than the freedom to worship God. The individualistic, grasping capitalists of Virginia offer much less appealing antecedents.”

However, their motivations and examples of determination are what have been driving our nation’s development ever since, and better reflect who we are today. The innovative tenets that were conceived at Jamestown are equally significant as the desire for freedom from religious intolerance that took the Mayflower passengers to Plymouth or inspired their Mayflower Compact.

While many recent books report on research into newly discovered archives and relics, Professor J. Frederick Fausz laments that too many historians continue to repeat factual errors and debunked legends about Jamestown, and their continuing “reliance on and reprinting of old, obsolete books that are readable but not reliable…Why does the general public continue to embrace such flawed, dated information when it would be unthinkable to rely on medical advice from the 1920s?” Few of those venerable sources relate the whole cloth of Jamestown and its far-reaching effect on our nation’s foundation and emergence.

That Jamestown was abandoned and disappeared in the 18th century was for a long time unfortunate for the historical understanding of all of the origins of our nation. That it was is now also fortunate, because its preserved artifacts are now giving us new facts and proof of its settlers’ determination to succeed. Archaeologist William Kelso’s recent discoveries at that site of the first James Fort and better, modern methods of research into the situation, condition and environment of the settlement and its region, as are being used by him, Fausz, Kupperman, James Horn, Seth Mallios and others, are forcing “a few historians to re-examine what they thought they knew about Jamestown’s earliest years, and reconsider what really was happening there in the larger context of our colonial history”.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jennifer Howard tells us, “What Mr. Kelso and his team have found is rewriting the history that began with the 104 men and boys who landed on this swampy bit of land on May 14, 1607. Historians have dismissed the colonists as inept, lazy, feckless, or unprepared. But they hung on by the skin of their teeth, until the European consumer craze for tobacco threw them an economic lifeline. The new archaeological finds have begun to reveal how they weathered those first hard years and decades.

“But the artifacts, the graves of settlers, and even the discarded oyster shells that have emerged have done more than begin to recast the narrative. Specialists in 17th-century material culture and environmental scientists who study the Chesapeake Bay have been reaping the benefits of Mr. Kelso's work. Their analyses, in turn, have provided new fodder for historians of the wider Atlantic world”.

These analyses and interpretations have begun to dispel many myths, such as that of Jamestown’s lazy and self-indulgent “gentlemen” playing in the settlement’s streets and romantic legends about precocious Powhatan princesses. They belie the long and widely held popular assumptions that Jamestown was merely an historical footnote and unmitigated disaster; they also put a new light on the native Algonquians’ culture and mores and offer sound reasons for their unexpected hostility when the English landed.

This is the second of nine parts

Copyright 2008

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