Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Which settlement was more significant, Jamestown or Plymouth?

Who's asking: Paul Tomme, Arlington, TX

Mrs. Holmes's fourth-grade class at Baylake Pines Elementary School (1974-75) spent the year studying Virginia history, from the First Landing in 1603 to the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 and up through the Revolutionary War. We all felt indignant that the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock got all the attention, when we Virginians had obviously been here first. (The Algonquians, who were here before us, didn't seem to matter as much.)

It was clear to me even as a nine-year-old that the New Englanders had simply been better at self-promotion. They wrote more books, being religious types; the Virginians were farmers and merchants and indentured servants. Harvard was founded in 1636, while Virginians didn't get around to starting the College of William and Mary until 1693. Sixty years of self-contemplation (not to say self-congratulation) makes a big difference in a country that's only been around a couple of hundred years.

But this year marks the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement, and it's finally getting the attention it deserves.

The story of the Jamestown settlement is mindboggling in its daring, its perseverance, its arrogance and its utter cluelessness. One hundred and five men and boys established a settlement on the James River in 1607. A year later, only 38 members of the original group survived, the rest having died of malaria, starvation, Indian attacks and a host of other ailments.

The settlers had sailed to Virginia looking to make their fortunes, and wasted too much time searching for gold in a region that has none. Captain John Smith saved the survivors by insisting that they "work or starve;" even the gentlemen of the company had to spend four hours a day farming, or else they didn't eat.

A gunpowder burn forced him to go back to England, though, and the colony fell apart in his absence. During "The Starving Time" of 1609-10, settlers resorted to eating rats and even, in one case, each other. Only 60 of the 214 settlers who had started that winter in Jamestown survived. The arrival of another 400 settlers in the spring of 1610 -- without adequate supplies, after a shipwreck off Bermuda -- forced the new governor, Sir Thomas Gates, to declare the colony a failure and order everyone back to England.

By chance, Gates' ships met up with a ship led by Thomas West, Lord de la Warr. De la Warr was bringing more settlers and ample supplies, and was prepared to take over as Governor. He persuaded Gates and his followers to return to Jamestown and wage full-scale war against Powhatan's tribe. De la Warr had led British raids against the Irish, and used the same tactics against the Algonquians: midnight raids, burning down houses, kidnapping children, spoiling whatever food stores couldn't be carried away. Thus he saved the British presence in North America, and grateful colonists later named the northern colony of Delaware in his honor.

Wiping out most of the local population won peace for the Jamestown settlers, and they started farming in earnest. John Rolfe, looking for something that would generate income for the settlement (and for the Virginia Company, which funded it), planted a crop of tobacco, with the idea of selling it in Europe. He sold his first shipment of Virginia tobacco in London in 1614. In 1619 colonists brought the first African slaves to help with cultivation, so that shame, too, belongs to Virginia.

In today's anti-smoking environment, it's hard to imagine the importance of tobacco in 17th-century Europe. Doctors recommended "drinking" the smoke from a bowl of tobacco as a remedy for all kinds of respiratory ailments. Smoking clubs became an essential part of political, literary and social life. Tobacco changed everything, whether we want to remember that or not.

Because of tobacco and slavery, then, the Jamestown settlement was more significant than the Plymouth one. Four hundred years later, we're still dealing with the legacies of those enterprises, and as much as anything else, they've made our country what it is today. I don't mean that to be liberal scolding; it's just a fact.

If our ancestors had not killed, stolen and raped in order to survive and propagate the species, none of us would be here today.


Anonymous said...

I had just been looking this up for something else.

The plimouth company, lead by George Popham, originally attempted a settlement in Phippsburg, ME at the same time Jamestown was settled. it failed and the first seaworthy vessel built by europeans in the "New World" was built there in 1607, marking 400 years of shipbuilding in Maine. The climate was the reason cited for the failure. I'm sure Ellen can comment on the differenced between Maine and Virginia weather.

Popham beach is on the site


AnswerGirl said...

Wow, Richard, I had no idea -- thanks!

One more reason to go to Popham Beach...

Claire said...

I remember the year we studied Virginia history in elementary school. I too took offense to Virginia's under-recognized history. It's time we stepped up the campaign.