27 November 2006

Jamestown: a "positive" contribution from the South?

While munching on pumpkin bread and apple pie and reading the Houston Chronicle over breakfast on Saturday, a Letter to the Editor caught my eye. I enjoy reading Letters to the Editor; sometimes people write the darndest things. On this bright post-Thanksgiving, a letter writer wrote one of the more puzzling screeds about the "first" Thanksgiving, the founding of Jamestown, and the place of "the South" in history I've ever read. It begins as a lament that so few Americans today know the country's history (a lament I happen to share), and then ends in a lament for the lost positive contributions of the South to that history (a lament I, ah, do not happen to share).

Here's the letter:
The Chronicle's Nov. 23 article "Think you know what happened at first Thanksgiving? Well, think again" was correct to state that most Americans think they know the "story of Thanksgiving ... and most would be wrong."

How many people today even remember or know about the Jamestown Colony, which was here in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims?

This is just another example of the rewriting of American history to downplay or to eliminate anything positive from the South.

(The original article is a fairly innocuous fluff piece about what the Pilgrims and their Indian neighbors actually ate at the "first Thanksgiving" and also points out that there is no historical continuity between that event and today's Thanksgiving holiday.)

I'm not sure, though, that there's a connection between our collective lack of knowledge about the Plymouth colony and a lack of knowledge about the founding of Jamestown in 1607. Most American schoolchildren could probably tell you that there were English people at Jamestown in 1607. Most would probably also tell you something garbled and mythological about John Smith and Pocahontas. So I think there's a general awareness there of Jamestown, but probably not the kind of awareness professional historians would welcome.

It's that third paragraph that gets me: in it the letter writer implies that there has been an intentional rewriting (by persons unknown) of the historical record to supplant Jamestown with Plymouth, and in so doing, to discredit the "South."

Nothing could be further from the truth. There's a great deal of interest right now in Jamestown; the four hundredth anniversary of English settlement at Jamestown is next year and so a number of scholars are interested in reevaluating the event. We now know far more about tidewater Virginia's native people before and after settlement, more about the English who formed that little settlement, and more about the development of a slave-driven tobacco plantation culture in the Chesapeake than we did fifty years ago, the last time Jamestown celebrated an anniversary.

Now this issue of discrediting positive contributions from the "South:" the south as we understand it today did not exist in 1607. All of North America, was, in English eyes, "Virginia." In fact, Virginia-the-continent was the "North": that is, it was north of Spain's American possessions. The "south" as a geographical and cultural construct did not yet exist and would not for at least another 150 years.

Now, to the final claim: was Jamestown indeed a "positive" contribution to American history? I generally tend to stay away from blatant value judgments in historical thinking. Permanent English settlement in North America is a fact of life as we now know it; assigning a value to that is diificult and ahistorical. But I can say that the experience of permanent English settlement was not a positive one for the vast majority of people who participated in it--Indians, English, and Africans alike.

The English arrival in 1607 heralded the beginning of fifty years of intermittent Anglo-Indian warfare peppered by mutual violence of the most horrendous sort. For example, in an act of revenge for the death of an English captain named Ratcliffe, George Percy led a raid against the Paspahegh in November 1609. After burning the village's houses and fields, the English captured the Paspahegh werowansqua and her children. The English, Percy wrote, decided not to keep the children alive, pitching them out of their canoes and "shoteing owtt their Braynes in the water." The werowansqua they kept alive for a time, eventually deciding to stab her repeatedly with a sword instead of burning her at the stake. Captain Ratcliffe, in whose name this slaughter was carried out, was killed by a group of Powhatans (possibly Nansemonds) who executed him in Algonkian ritual fashion by scraping his flesh "from his bones with mussell shelles and before his face throwne into the fyer."

Of course, the gory deaths of many Powhatans and Englishmen are vastly outnumbered by deaths from starvation and disease. Settlement was hardly positive. It was dirty, brutal, and deadly, and on this legacy our country was built.



At Monday, December 04, 2006 2:26:00 AM, Blogger The Constructivist said...

Rebecca, two claims to run by your for your views on them. One I've come across in some work on postcolonialism and (early) American culture, either that the Civil War establishes the South as a colonized nation within a nation, or that 18th C traditions of writing about the South like Crevecouer's were colonialist. Another is the trend in early American history to cast Virginia and other slave-holding English colonies on the North American continent more as part of the hemispheric-wide "plantation complex" than as tied closely to what became known as "New England." (The role of New England ships in the slave trade is more or less out of focus in some versions of this claim, as is New England's relatively late abolition of slavery and pioneering of segregation of free blacks.)

At Wednesday, January 03, 2007 8:08:00 AM, Blogger Another Damned Medievalist said...

I've met the head (I'm pretty sure) of the Jamestown anniversary thingie. He gets very cranky when I remind him that the Spanish were here first.


Post a Comment

<< Home