Thursday, October 2, 2008

Beyond Its Beginning: Our Legacies and Heritage from Jamestown - Part 8

The Virginia Diaspora: Jamestown’s Legacy of
America’s Great Westward Migration


One lesser-known legacy was the lessons learned from the experiences, losses and mistakes in launching Jamestown. John Smith went on to use them and others’ reports of settlers’ “seasoning” and travails to make and promote recommendations for the organization and conduct of future model colonies for those who also would want to emigrate to America for any of several reasons, such as the religious persecution suffered by the Pilgrims.

This legacy then gave succeeding English and British colonization efforts, first in Massachusetts and Maryland, and then elsewhere in America and around the world, more realistic direction, instructions and expectations that had better results. Smith was its most articulate and effective advocate, and it served to help establish the British Empire. It also went on to later serve in our own nation’s vast expansion and settlement.

By 1640, the first generation of descendants of Jamestown’s ancient planters and other early settlers began searching for new lands to settle north and west of Jamestown in the upper Chesapeake and the uplands and foothills – away from the Tidewater. Other colonists soon were joining them, and also started an incessant quest even farther; a few were encouraged by Berkeley’s efforts and promotions to settle Carolina during Jamestown’s third and fourth decades, which also was named for and chartered as a new (albeit West Indies-based) colony by Charles II in 1663.

The changed social structure and class and economic pressures that had been evolving since the 1630s also impelled marginal farmers and new landowners (who had fulfilled their servitude obligations) to the extremities of the settled colony, where they faced displaced native tribes and the many other challenges of pioneering settlers. The 1670 disenfranchisement of small landowners and tenants also likely added to the nascent wave. Dr. Horn tells us, “…increasingly after 1675 [there was] a significant movement of people out of the region” that included “thousands of ex-servants for whom the Chesapeake held no future”.

Unfortunately for them, they were also soon followed and challenged for the land by Virginia’s new elite. Cultural historians David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly tell us, “During the late seventeenth century, …former servants moved into the piedmont and settled as squatters on the land. They were quickly pushed aside by the grandees of the tidewater who acquired title to the best soil through their access to power”. Together, though, they expanded the colony ever farther as the displaced settlers moved onward.

The new century also brought a new and unprecedented immigration flow from the politically volatile border regions of England and Scotland, Ulster (northern Ireland) and Germany that also brought new customs, architecture and religious beliefs to the growing colony. By then, according to business historian Richard Tedlow, “Great Britain boasted the most advanced advertising. …Among the items being sold, few if any caused more excitement than the New World itself. Signs and handbills touting its wonders were so ubiquitous in London that [historian] Richard Hofstadter has observed that America was conceived amidst ‘one of the first concerted and sustained advertising campaigns in the history of the modern world.’ Daniel J. Boorstin [Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987] believes that such promotion may have had a significant impact on the speed of emigration and has wondered about the impact on American civilization of the fact that ‘there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe advertising’”.

Virginia’s piedmont, Southside and backcountry frontiers and beyond were the ultimate destinations for many of these new immigrants, plus Americans from other colonies. There, they joined the settlers who were already on those outskirts seeking new opportunities, land and independence from the planter aristocracy of the Tidewater and Northern Neck.

By the 18th century’s third quarter, Virginians began moving over the Appalachians and westward along the banks of the Ohio River. “Along with ‘Plenty of good land,’ Adam Smith wrote in his section on the ‘Causes of Prosperity in New Colonies’ in the Wealth of Nations, ‘liberty to manage their own affairs [in] their own way’ was one of the ‘two great causes of the prosperity’ of the British colonies in America”.

Within two decades, Virginia would give its Revolutionary War veterans warrants for bounties of potential farmland in the Commonwealth. The infant nation had no other resources but land to compensate them (similar to the Virginia Company’s impecunious position at the end of the colony’s first decade). These bounties took the settler veterans farther into its hinterlands; they soon were in western Virginia and the future states of Kentucky and Ohio and as far as Illinois along the Mississippi. The legacy of land ownership by the common citizen that had been established at early Jamestown (with the headrights system) manifested itself with these bounty claims as our nation’s early history unfolded.

This is the eighth of nine parts; next: The Virginia Diaspora continues and Jamestown’s Most Important Legacy.
Copyright 2008

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