Before the Pilgrims, a 'Savage' Jamestown
The 400th anniversary of Jamestown's founding has inspired a fresh look at America's founding rascals.
Is America the product of the earnest, reverent, family-values-oriented Pilgrims of 1620 or the adventurers, castoffs, and profiteers of Jamestown, Va., who set foot in the New World 13 years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The Pilgrims have amassed the bulk of history's notice and favorable publicity, escaping religious persecution to build a peaceful new home in a wilderness and providing a fitting creation story for a new nation.
But this month marks the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown experiment, and a slew of new books and articles is causing that venture to be seen with fresh eyes.
In Savage Kingdom, British author Benjamin Woolley argues that the story of Jamestown is a more accurate reflection of America-to-be than that of the pious Pilgrims. "It is about flawed, dispossessed, desperate people trying to reinvent themselves," he writes. "It is about being caught in a dirty struggle to survive, haunted by failure, hungering for escape, dreaming of riches, and hoping for redemption."
To gain fresh insights, Woolley created his own searchable database drawn from original texts and 3,500 books, some 2 million words in all. Access to that level of detail becomes both the book's strength and weakness. Those willing to read in depth will uncover a rich picture of America's first enduring settlement. For example, we see Jamestown through the eyes of the Spanish ambassador to England, Pedro de Zuniga, who sent frequent dispatches to Madrid assessing whether the colony would fail on its own or need persuasion from a Spanish galleon.
Jamestown, Woolley points out, was a commercial venture, privately funded, and at least initially designed to score a quick profit. Farther south, the Spanish had discovered gold, lots of it. That put precious metals at the top of the English adventurers' scavenging list, too. Failing that, commodities such as furs or wood might be shipped home. Or perhaps profit would be found up one of the tidal rivers, which might lead to a short sea passage to the Orient and its riches.
The Virginia Charter of 1606, Woolley notes, was no high-minded Magna Carta or Declaration of Independence, but a business deal in which King James I would receive a 20 percent cut of any haul of precious metals. No women or children made the trip, and only gradually as the nature of the settlement changed over the years did they begin to arrive.
Religious motives weren't central to the endeavor, either, though religion did receive more than lip service, Woolley says. Ministers were sent with the aim of guiding the settlers and converting the natives, who were to be dealt with gently, if possible, and slowly Europeanized. Encounters with the substantial populations of native Americans already living in the region were constant – sometimes friendly, sometimes violent, and always unpredictable.
Woolley takes issue with the popular view of the Jamestown settlers as "fops and dandies" who brought much of their ghastly suffering upon themselves by refusing to get their hands dirty.
Other new books about Jamestown
The Jamestown Project by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
The Jamestown settlement may have had a rocky start but historian Kupperman interprets this as the mess in a creative process. The settlers gradually figured out how to make colonization work, and agricultural experiments brought the realization that hard work enabled one to enjoy the fruits of one's labor.
The River Where America Began by Bob Deans
This is the history, as a river ran through it, of life along its banks from Paleolithic hunter-gatherers up to Abraham Lincoln. Author Deans sees the river James as the headwaters of a nation. The founding of Jamestown is retold in vivid detail.
Jamestown: The Buried Truth by William M. Kelso
Kelso, the head archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, describes the careful project of unearthing America's oldest settlement and the joy of finding such things as garbage dumps, which tell the tale of a colony struggling to survive.
Love and Hate in Jamestown by David A. Price
Love stories never grow old. Price uses the tale of John Smith and Pocahontas as the pivot for the retelling of a historical culture clash as European settlers, native Americans, and African slaves met, mingled, and destroyed one another.
Captain John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America by John Smith
He was there, he should know what happened. This volume presents seven works by Capt. John Smith, along with 16 narratives by others.