Wednesday, May 9, 2 p.m. ET

Jamestown -- 'Savage Kingdom'

Benjamin Woolley
Wednesday, May 9, 2007; 2:00 PM

As we approach the 400th anniversary, author Benjamin Woolley separates fact from fiction about the founding of Jamestown.

Woolley's new book, "Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607 and the Settlement of America," sheds new light on stories of Pocahontas, John Smith and company. Woolley was online Wednesday, May 9 at 2 p.m. to take your questions and comments.

A transcript follows.


Harrisburg, Pa.: I have heard the allegations of cannibalism yet also heard the evidence is sketchy and open to interpretation as to whether or not it happened. What exactly is the evidence that someone engaged in cannibalism and how strong or weak is that evidence?

Benjamin Woolley: During what's known as the 'Starving Time', the English were, according to one account, reduced to eating the corpse of an Indian buried in a makeshift grave, and one of the settlers apparently murdered his wife, salted her flesh, and stored it in barrels, though he was found out and 'burned'.


Albuquerque, N.M.: Hi -- thanks for taking questions, here's mine: What is the likelihood that the colony would have been successful had it not been for the cultivation of tobacco?

Benjamin Woolley: That's a good question, and opens up a controversy. I believe that tobacco was important, but not the only reason the settlement persisted; by the late 1610s, there were other factors at work, political and social.


Richmond: What is the scholarly consensus on Captain John Smith's claim that Pocahontas saved his life? Is there evidence that he and other early Jamestown settlers actually slept with Indian girls? Was Smith prone to tell fictional or exaggerated stories elsewhere in his writings? I believe the book he later wrote on his travels was a big seller for the time in the early 1600s. Was he telling sensationalized stories simply for more fame and money (even without a Disney studios to buy movie rights at the time!)?

Thank you.

Benjamin Woolley: I'm glad someone asked about this. Only Smith wrote about this incident. There is no similar incident written about by any of the other English settlers, and the Indians themselves left no written records, so it's hard to tell. He certainly sensationalised some aspects of the story, because it changed from one version to the next. In my book I specifically try to leave the story as Smith's own, rather than produce a conclusion as to its truth. Some have, in truth, criticised me for doing that, but the historical record does not sustain a definitive answer, I'm afraid.


Washington, D.C.:

Speaking of savagery, there is mention of Pocahontas and John Smith and Co., however, it is quite interesting how everyone seems to glean right over the brutal chattel slave trade that Jamestown was built on as the pre-eminent destination point for the arrival of stolen human victims of the most brutal example of mankind's inhumanity to mankind in the history of the world. Those unpleasantries just seem to magically disappear from the historic dialogue, as everyone is in denial about modern day institutionalized slavery today as well. How's that?

Benjamin Woolley: I'm not sure what you mean by the 'brutal chattel slave trade'. Jamestown was built mostly by indentured servants, which meant, as in England, they had to serve a master for a period of time (usually 7 years) and then were free. Many of the Jamestown indentured servants went on to acquire their own plots of land, something they could only dream of in England. I think that was one of the reasons so many went over.


Frederick, Md.: Is the account of children being thrown into the river and shot so that they would no longer suffer, during the starving time, true?

Benjamin Woolley: The incident you mentioned didn't happen during the starving time, but later. It seem, however, it did happen as the man who was responsible (George Percy) himself wrote about it, knowing that was was then as it would be now considered a 'war crime' (to use the modern term). Percy's account of this incident is one of the most extraordinary pieces of writing connected to Jamestown, in my view.


Warrenton, Va.: Why did it take so long to discover the original Jamestown fort--not found until 1994 by Kelso, of course? Was it hidden by heavy tree growth or underbrush?

Also, is it possible that the Indians,could have completely wiped out the early English settlers along the James River in the surprise massacre of 1622? How close did they come to doing that? It was very fascinating for me, back in 1980, to see the Wolstenholme site of this massacre.

Benjamin Woolley: Having visited the site several times as part of my researches, and talked to some of the archaeologists, it seems that everyone assumed the site had eroded away into the James River, so there was no point in looking. Bill Kelso, to his great credit, challenged that assumption, and came up with what must be one of the most fruitful archaeological sites in the US relating to the colonial era.

Regarding 1622, the Indians I believe came close to dislodging the English, but the outcome was the opposite effect: a new determination among the English to stay put. They had spilt blood settling those lands, some of them argued, and now it was theirs. Thereafter, there was far less concern about the treatment of the Indians (though the colonists continued to claim right up until Jefferson's time that they bought the land they settled).


New Brunswick, N.J.: How can we be sure of the location of the Jamestown colony? After all, the "lost colony" of Roanoke seems now, after more historical research, to have been located elsewhere. And relations with the Indians do not seem as they used to be made out to be.

Benjamin Woolley: The location of Jamestown is now certain: the discoveries by William Kelso and the archaeological team there fit the historical sources very well. They may even have found one of first settlers' ear pick!


Silver Spring, Md.: How much can we really know about Pocahontas's role in smoothing out relations between the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatans? Isn't our knowledge just based on the settlers' recountings of that time?

Benjamin Woolley: One of the great frustrations about writing about Pocahontas is that the historical record relating to her is both sparse and sometimes inconsistent. With respect to her looks, for example, one English correspondent was very rude about her when she came to London, but that may have been because of his own prejudices. You are right, that all we know about her is based on no more than a handful of records written by the settlers and a couple of people in London. But I believe we have a enough to get some idea of what she was like, and she was clearly key to the English enterprise from the start.


Alexandria, Va.: Why do you think Powhatan didn't finish off the folks at Jamestown while he had the chance?

Benjamin Woolley: Good question: I think partly because the English had something the Indians wanted or needed: copper. Copper was a crucial part of the Indian social/economic system, and consolidated the power of the chiefs, Powhatan in particular. I think he was concerned about the effects on his own position if he ejected the English. There are also hints of a power struggle among the Indians about what to do with the English, with the more openly hostile Opechancanough (Powhatan's general, if you will) pushing for a much more aggressive policy.


Salem, N.J.: I have read many versions on the appearance of Captain John Smith. Is it true he was about 5 feet 2, with a scrubby red beard, and totally unattractive? Some pictures I have seen show him as much taller, with an athletic body, and quite handsome.

Benjamin Woolley: There's only one authenticated portrait of Smith, and that was used to publicise his writings. This reveals a round-faced, bushy-bearded man who one can imagine was fizzing with energy, and probably hot tempered.

There is a wonderful cartoon of him being captured by the Indians, which shows him to have been short (compared to the Indian who, the English noted, were tall). The cartoon is reproduced in my book.


New York, N.Y.: Could you briefly describe what type of people made up the settlers? Were they mostly the poor who had no land in England, the religious fleeing persecution, noblemen, etc?

Can you please break down in brief who made the voyage over so we who have not read the book yet can get an idea who these original settlers were?

Thank you.

Benjamin Woolley: They were a motley crew. The admiral of the fleet (a grand term for a tiny fleet) was Christopher Newport, a one-armed ex 'privateer' (i.e. pirate, given government sanction to prey on Spanish ships). The leader of the settlers was Edward Maria Wingfield, minor gentry, not a very prepossessing man. The only thing people really noted about him was his middle name, an affectation adopted by his father because of an obscure link with Henry VIII's sister, Mary.

I obviously can't list them all, but perhaps one of the most interesting and appealing characters was Bartholomew Gosnold, an ex soldier and explorer, who seems to have pushed through the first venture. I try to show in my book that he was also in trouble with the government, for expressing unpolitic views of the new English king, James I (succeeded Elizabeth in 1603).


Fairfax County, Va.: Did the Jamestown inhabitants, e.g., John Smith have any interaction with the Dogue tribe that was indigenous to the area that later became Fairfax County, Va.? Did they explore this far north?

Benjamin Woolley: There is no reference that I can remember to the Dogue tribe, and I'm not sure if the English reached the region you mentioned. All their explorations were determined by river access--that was really the only practical way of getting round at the time.


Bowie, Md.: What was the relationship like between the Powhatans and the Nansemond Indians? Good, bad or nonexistent?

Benjamin Woolley: The relationship between Pohatan and all the tribes in his sphere of influence is a complex matter; the settlers themselves were bewildered by Indian politics and never fully understood how it worked, not least because some confusion over the names of the main participants (Powhatan included), which appeared to change every so often. There was certainly a relationship between Powhatan and the Nansemond people, but unlike, say, his relationship with the Chesapeake people (who were wiped out on his orders) or the Chickahominy (who remained semi-independent, and negotiated a treaty with the English), I'm not sure what it was.


Richmond, Va.: Did you see the movie "The New World"? Did you think it offered an accurate picture of life in the colony? I had a sense that it offered the most accurate picture of what it felt like to be there, starving and freezing--most other movies were pretty optimistic in their portrayal with smiling pilgrims trading with happy Indians.

Benjamin Woolley: I confess that, on purpose, I did not see the movie. By the time I had finished the book, it was no longer in the cinemas. I might get out the DVD one day.


Why do you think Powhatan didn't finish off the folks at Jamestown while he had the chance?: Do you think he thought they were just camping on the way somewhere else? Once he realized they were staying, it was too late.

Benjamin Woolley: There was no single moment when Powhatan could have sealed the fate of the English, and he moved around his dominions with apparent ease, so I don't think proximity was an issue.


La Plata, Md.:1. Do you think Powhatan knew of the earlier Roanoake settlement?

2. Did the Indians really burn the underbrush regularly to keep the forests clear for hunting beneath the tree limbs, or was that just the way it was due to there being no honeysuckle, etc., back then?

3. We say the Susquehannocks were tall, the Powhatans short -- is that verified?


Benjamin Woolley:1. Yes I do, but the English, who asked him and others about Roanoke, never found out what had happened to them. They also launched an expedition to try and find the Roanoke settlers. Very little is written about it, but it obviously failed.

2. I think they did: they had a sophisticated system of forest management, described by Smith. Because of the way the Indians managed the woodland, Smith said that it was possible to ride a horse full tilt among the trees, which would not be possible in an English forest.

3. I don't know of any evidence that the Powhatans were short. In fact, they seemed to be taller than the English, many of them stunted by their less than healthy existence in English cities. Smith write, I think, that the Susquehannock were particularly tall, but I know of no supporting archaeological evidence.


I have read many versions on the appearance of Captain John Smith. Is it true he was about 5 feet 2,: But remember, that wasn't so short back then.

Benjamin Woolley: I think even by the standards of the time, Smith was regarded as short.


Chapel Hill, NC: About that guy who was burned for salting his wife and storing her in a barrel... Why didn't they cook him until maybe medium or medium well and have him for supper? Or was it just an accident when they burned him? It seems like a waste.

Benjamin Woolley: Good point. Maybe a Martha Stewart of the era could have provided cooking tips!


Benjamin Woolley: Thanks everyone for some great questions. I'm off to Virginia tomorrow to get ready for the Anniversary Weekend. Looks like it will be a great occasion, and a fitting way of marking an important historical event.


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