Inventing America

By Fredrick Kunkle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

We know so little about them. One hundred and five adventurers, men and boys, boarded three cramped ships in England in December 1606 and risked everything on a six-month voyage to a place that almost no one in Europe had ever seen.

They are like a 17th-century portrait, clouded by time yet surprisingly true to who we are in 21st-century America. And like all true portraits, the image is not entirely flattering.

They were the ones who established the New World's first permanent English colony on the shores of the James River in Virginia, who formed the New World's first representative government before the Mayflower crew ever spied land. They spoke English, a relatively new and remarkably pliant language that would easily absorb bits of Spanish, French and Algonquian. Despite their rocky start, these fortune-minded adventurers would be models of entrepreneurial thinking for generations to come.

But Jamestown's settlers also vowed to exterminate the Indians after they could not win them over by gentler means. They blithely tossed aside egalitarian instincts when they saw that slavery could make them rich. And the crop that secured their fortunes -- tobacco -- condemned millions to servitude and millions more to an early death from its smoke.

We may trace our fondest ideals to Plymouth Rock, but it is in Jamestown, in all its shame and glory, that we catch the earliest glimpse of the powerful, prosperous, wild, weird and burgeoning nation we have become.

The story of Jamestown is a tale of trial and error, folly and innovation, fecklessness and derring-do. It is a portrait of life as it is lived, not as we might wish it to be: messy, contradictory, without obvious moral lessons. Here, three ancient and complex cultures --European, African, Indian -- collided. Somehow, between fitful bouts of exploitation and cooperation that forged a new culture, Jamestown became the embodiment of the American experiment.

It's easy to see why the Pilgrims, driven by conscience and fired by a desire for religious freedom, have peopled our national myth for so long. The men of Jamestown were a different lot altogether.

This bunch came with soft hands and eyes filled with gold, and their venture was compelled by the hawk-eyed calculations of the investors behind the Virginia Company, a forerunner of the multinational corporation. Many were indentured servants.

Their leaders were gentlemen from the upper classes of English society for whom real work was something crass, best left to others. Some were second sons who stood to inherit nothing from their fathers. Others were working stiffs who gambled on a better future in Virginia than the likely odds of starving in London's slums. At one low point, their sovereign, King James, was said to have called the settlers "terrible people" who deserved to perish.

True, part of their mission was creating a Protestant counterweight to mighty Spain's Roman Catholic empire in the New World. But mostly the Jamestown colonists came here to get rich. Instead, they mostly died.

They died of typhoid, dysentery, famine. Drought worsened their predicament, and the brackish river water was slimy with waste. Their location -- chosen to defend against attack by Spanish warships from the sea and Indians from the mainland -- put them in the middle of a mosquito-infested swamp. Their ability to live off the land depended on good relations with the Indians, who supplied food through trade or under duress, and sometimes not at all when they were in a mood to starve the colonists out.

In the "Starving Time," winter 1609-10, some colonists dug their own graves and lay down in them resigned to die. They boiled their fancy collars, or ruffs, for the starch. They ate their animals, then they ate their dead. Henry Collins would achieve lasting infamy for murdering his pregnant wife and feasting on her body -- or so the colonists wrote at the time. By March 1610, more than half -- by some accounts, 80 percent -- had perished.

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