The Story of Us: Revisiting Jamestown's Difficult Birth

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By Jonathan Yardley,
whose e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com
Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A LAND AS GOD MADE IT

Jamestown and the Birth of America

By James Horn

Basic. 337 pp. $26

In December 1606, three ships sailed out of the Thames River in London to begin the long, slow, dangerous passage to the New World. Four months later, they made landfall at the southern part of what we now call the Chesapeake Bay. About 140 men were on board. Their mission was to establish a British colony on the Chesapeake, in part to ward off Spanish and French activity in the area, in part because British investors in the new Virginia Council had convinced themselves that this uncharted land positively bristled with gold and other riches. After several weeks of exploration, they decided to establish their settlement on a peninsula that they called Jamestown Island:

"The island seemingly had a number of natural advantages. A settlement on the island would be far enough from the coast (about fifty miles) to avoid being surprised by Spanish warships, a major concern of the Virginia Council. And the site, surrounded by water except for a narrow land bridge at the western end, could be easily defended against local Indians should they prove hostile. There was plenty of game for food and timber for building and exporting back to London. Most important, a deepwater channel ran close enough to the land for their ships to be moored near the site; thus, the laborious task of transporting provisions and equipment ashore would be eased and the settlement could be defended from the river by the ships' cannon."

So they thought. The land turned out to be swampy and unsuited for agriculture, the water was brackish and/or polluted, and the Indians were something less than welcoming. It is true that, as James Horn argues in this superb history, Jamestown "survived and, by surviving, became the first transatlantic site of an empire that would eventually carry the English language, laws, and institutions across North America," but that was accomplished at a terrible price. The beauty and serenity that visitors to Jamestown now see mask history's brutal reality. Settling and maintaining the colony were endlessly trying: People died in great numbers, food supplies were inadequate and at constant risk, warfare with Indians was constant, dissent within the colony was fierce, leadership was inconsistent and often incompetent.

It borders on the miraculous that Jamestown survived, and it borders on the inexplicable that its contribution to American history has been overlooked. Almost four centuries after the first settlers arrived there, Jamestown has been consigned to obscurity by contrast with Plymouth -- which in fact was not established until 1620 -- and Williamsburg, which draws visitors by the millions seeking the pleasures and comforts of a theme park. To be sure, in recent years, Colonial Williamsburg has taken important steps toward historical and scholarly legitimacy -- the appointment of Horn as director of its library being among the most notable of these -- but tourists still throng to its quaint attractions and gift shoppes while largely ignoring the bare, minuscule remains of Jamestown.

All that remains of it are the foundations of some of its buildings, huddled together in a space not much larger than that occupied by a suburban tract mansion. To walk around them is to understand just how bold and dangerous the British mission was, how isolated this tiny community was and how vulnerable it was to attack. Its history -- as told by Horn in spare, precise prose -- is one of step after step to the edge of extinction, only to draw back from it by courage, reinforcement from the home country or just plain luck. The first buildings had barely been completed, for example, when "a stray spark set fire to one of the houses," flames dancing from one building to the next until, "apart from three dwellings, the entire settlement was burnt to the ground," leaving the British to face the coming winter utterly unprepared.

That they managed to survive was in large measure due to the ability of Capt. John Smith to speak and negotiate with the Indian tribes, many of them part of the Powhatan alliance under the leadership of the great chief, Wahunsonacock. Smith was able to barter for enough food to tide the settlers though the winter, and later engaged in "one of the most remarkable series of encounters between Englishmen and Indians in the New World." Smith was offered many temptations to desert the English and become a powerful leader of the Indians, but he sought only "clear advantages for the English" and rejected deals that did not offer them.

The negotiations, which lasted several years and continued after Smith's return to England in 1609, were ultimately fruitless. War repeatedly broke out, and in 1621 the chief of the Pamunkey tribe, Opechancanough, engineering an exceptionally clever, devious strategy that enabled the Indians to win the trust of the settlers and then betray it, set off "a slaughter of unimaginable proportions" that killed "at least a quarter of the settlers and [left] the colony devastated." It was a brief and brutally costly battle. Soon thereafter the British crown took over management of the colony from the Virginia Council, and the policy of ruthless extinction was put in place. "Extirpating of the Salvages," as the royal governor put it, was carried out wholesale; after 1622, "the Powhatans were excluded from English Virginia other than as drudges and slaves."

By then black slaves from Africa were also in abundance, and their numbers grew steadily as the British hold on Virginia tightened: "By 1750, Virginia's enslaved population stood at 107,000 (46 percent of the colony's total population), and in many tidewater counties north of the James River slaves made up a growing majority." The price that Virginia, the South and the American nation ultimately paid for this was not exacted until more than another century had passed, but our knowledge that the Civil War was yet to come is a painful reminder that, though there might well never have been an English-speaking United States had Jamestown not succeeded, Jamestown and its legacy were anything except perfect.

Horn, whose field is early Colonial American history, has written in "A Land as God Made It" an exemplary account of the settlement and development of Jamestown. His treatment of the Indian tribes and their leaders is extensive and fair but never sentimental. He portrays John Smith in full, acknowledging his many strengths without overlooking his vanity and other shortcomings. He suggests that the myth of Smith's melodramatic rescue from execution (a myth fostered by Smith himself) by Pocahontas probably clouds a more prosaic "ceremony of adoption, in which Smith was symbolically killed and then reborn, marking a passage from his old existence as an Englishman to his new life as an Anglo-Powhatan" and that "Pocahontas merely played her role as she was instructed." He describes the suffering of the settlers and the bloody reality of warfare in chilling detail, yet he never loses sight of the incredible beauty of the natural surroundings and the British enchantment at them. All in all, an absolutely terrific book.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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