They tried— really, they did
A lull in a conference I was attending in Williamsburg allowed me the chance to spend an afternoon at the Jamestown historical site. I confined myself to the area where the rediscovered fort of 1607 was located.
The Jamestown that I visited (not to be confused with a reconstructed theme park-type affair on another part of the island) is very much a work in progress. Right now the site of England’s first toehold in the New World still exists as an idea. Anyone expecting to see a Disney-like re-creation of a wooden fort (as depicted in a recent issue of National Geographic) will come away disappointed. Foundations remain, as well as the occasional ghostly outline of a structure. A portion of the wooden wall has been recreated, but it hardly seems daunting enough to discourage any attack, whether from local tribes, the dreaded Spanish or a crew of hungry buccaneers.
There is of course the land—still surprisingly wild-looking—a veritable nursery of coastal Virginia swamps. And on the land, aside from the expected visitors’ center, you find memorials.
There is a memorial to Jamestown’s first minister. There is a memorial to Captain John Smith. There’s even a memorial to the princess Pocahontas. A chapel dating from 1907, itself built as a memorial, is the oldest structure standing in the park proper. The Glass House, which may be much older, is closer to the causeway from which the island is entered, far from the historical area of the old walled fort.
The Taliban of the 17th Century
Now as I said, Jamestown exists as an idea. It is The Settlement. It is voyagers far from home, in a strange land, where the natives aren’t always friendly and even the water can be lethal. When I was in school, we learned that Jamestown failed because it was settled by a bunch of busted cavaliers who spent their time getting high on that great new drug, tobacco, and feuding with the very tribe that introduced it to them. The Jamestowners were the very opposite of the Plymouth Rock Pilgrims, who cleared the wilderness, successfully battled the local tribes, and created a great Puritan Commonwealth in the middle of nowhere.
How aptly Hawthorne, in Young Goodman Brown, captures the dread under which these sorry souls must have lived— so far from home, so close to Satan’s grasp. We, for our part, conveniently forget that the men and women of Plymouth Rock were the Taliban of the 17th Century, gleefully shipped off to die by their easy-going English neighbors, who could no longer tolerate the Puritans’ stiff-necked ways.
Searching for profits
While the Pilgrims are still falsely honored as champions of religious freedom— which they were, so long as you believed as they did— for the men and women of Jamestown, at least, a much-needed historical reassessment is under way. It turns out that they didn’t just lie around smoking and drinking all day long. For one thing, the Jamestown colony was underwritten by wealthy Englishmen as an investment, and they expected to reap some profit in return.
It appears that the men who weren’t soldiers or farmers were actually skilled metallurgists who were trying to identify and refine useful ores. One of the largest buildings in the walled compound was apparently a factory/workshop where these fellows toiled away. Sadly, it appears that they didn’t accomplish much, and Jamestown’s chief value to the mother country turned out to be its yield of tobacco—soon beloved by everyone from the man in the street to Good Queen Bess herself.
Whole dead bodies, 400 years old
In lieu of historical reconstructions, Jamestown offers us the people themselves, their bones neatly stretched out in their climate-controlled cases. After the initial shock of seeing them—yes, a sign proclaims that there are human remains on display beyond this point, but you expect to see a finger bone or a kneecap, not the entire earthly remains of someone who died four centuries ago—they become the saddest, most wonderful ambassadors that any outpost of the past could ever hope to have. Facial restorations reveal that they were not “beautiful people”: The men look distinctly unheroic, and the sole woman represented is a rather sad and tired-looking blonde. But they are the faces of men and women who felt that they had nothing to lose, and so they left their homes to settle on a swampy island across a vast ocean. They must have been a desperate lot.
No wonder the woman looks tired and drawn. And as for the gentleman, known only as “J.R.,” who may have been the victim of a hunting accident or a murder, he would never have cut much of a figure at court. So off he and his English colleagues went, their contracts with the West India Company tucked away in their doublets. And when they landed, in those halcyon, pre-Nativist, pre-Ellis Island days, they had become Americans.
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