Friday, December 9, 2011

Toward a Holistic History of Jamestown; A Book Review

      by Martha W. McCartney
      Virginia Department of Historic Resources (distributed by the University of Virginia Press)
      134 p.

Archaeology is belying many long-held educators' and popular beliefs about Jamestown as America's first permanent English colony. A century and a half after New England historians, principally Henry Adams, denigrated and desecrated its heritage and place in our history in the cause of Union superiority, a more factual picture is gradually emerging from Historic Jamestown and other proximate sites.

At America’s most important archaeological dig, Bill Kelso and his Jamestown Discovery team have enabled us to learn about the size and features of James Fort and the first Protestant church in America that both date from 1608. We know where Pocahontas was wed in 1614, who then was to become one of the parents of our nation’s first economic boom with the birth of the tobacco industry, which has continued, like it or not, for almost four centuries.  He also has investigated and reported on Kingsmills Plantations, one of Jamestown important proximate settlements.

Martha W. McCartney has now produced a well-researched, wide-sweeping and detailed examination of Jordan’s Point, another important early contemporaneous outpost up the James River from Jamestown. In nine chapters over 134 richly illustrated pages, she relates archaeological findings that explore its history from prehistoric to our own times. She also interweaves a needed historical context of the colony’s beginnings and formational events with descriptions of who was living and what was happening at Jordan’s Point, along with results of the archaeology that was performed there from the 1930’s into the 1990’s.

She begins by telling us about what has been found of the indigenous inhabitants of this peninsula just east of the convergence of the Appomattox with the James. This a formidable start for the average reader, who must plow though detail that is replete with arcane reference points about Native American dwellings, graves and other sites. Then she unfolds her more readable contextual chronicle of Jamestown’s early years in the following chapters on the continuing history of Jordan’s Point.

One of her features is the two-page reproduction of a rare, colored version of John Smith’s extraordinary 1612 map of Virginia. It offers a unique opportunity to appreciate its accuracy and detail that are useful even today, as it was used to settle geographical disputes well into the nineteenth century. Now preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, it is the best example of the quality of the book’s many fine illustrations. Many of these are of artifacts recovered by highly respected archaeologists that help us understand what daily living implements were then employed. Among them are well done renditions by Jamie May, Senior Staff Archaeologist at the Jamestown Rediscovery.

Her following chapters describe how Samuel Jordan, an Ancient Planter who arrived in 1611, established his “substantial” settlement (“Jordan’s Journey”) in 1620 with 450 acres from his (and his wife’s) entitlements under the headright system, and then relate its history down to 1986, together with the archaeological findings. She offers good evidence of how the settlers lived, their economic status and relationships with neighbors. Jordan appears to have had some stature in what was then the small Jamestown community as reflected in his providing refuge, following the March 1622 Indian attack, to nearby settlers from Berkeley Hundred, Causey’s Care, Westover and Chaplins Choice and other outposts.

She continues with what happens after Samuel Jordan’s 1623 death, his widow’s defense of a breach of promise suit by a spurned suitor and her subsequent marriage to William Farrar, a former neighbor and plantation owner, and offers an account of “The Archaeology of Jordan’s Journey” together with a history of mid-17th century Jamestown. She then arrives at the somewhat ambiguous assumption of its ownership by the Bland family, prominent and influential London merchants, from Captain Benjamin Siddway and his wife, the widow of Benjamin Harrison II.  

Again, however, when reading about archeological findings from this era, the average reader should be prepared for another appearance of arcane archaeological reference points that relate the discovery of key Jordan’s Point artifacts.

McCartney then documents Jamestown’s late 17th century history, and how the Bland family developed Jordan’s Point into prosperous plantation in the 18th  and Richard Bland II prominently served Virginia in the years leading up to the Revolution. She goes on to recount the Blands’ lifestyles from accounts of their estate inventories and the subdivision of Jordan’s Point for distribution among Richard bland IV’s children in the early 19th century. She continues with how the Blands held the property up until the Civil War.

The book concludes with her account of Tidewater events and the undetermined destruction of the plantation’s major buildings during the War. She then relates the disposition of the property by Bland heirs in the late 19th century, and its acquisition by the City of Hopewell in the 20th.

This book is an important testament to the need to explore, document and characterize other proximate settlements before modern development obscures and destroys all evidence of their heritage. This has happened at Jordan’s Point, which has been obliterated by “Jordan on the James.”

The reader would have been better served with an index and a list of illustrations and maps with the table of Contents. Equally, there should have been an earlier introduction of a regional map locating Jordan’s Point; the first one (as a detail from the John Smith map) appears at page 17, and the first modern (and small) one at page 42. The archaeological reference points could have used some kind of indexing or comprehensible locators on maps.  In addition, McCartney would have benefited from some judicious editing.

These are but minor points. All in all, this is a useful book for anyone seriously interested in a gaining a more holistic understanding of Jamestown’s history. 


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