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?
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.
"In fact," he writes, "most of the gentlemen of Jamestown had military backgrounds, and, while some hated the idea of heavy manual labour, they by no means saw themselves as due a life of ease." Many had seen battle in Europe as soldiers; some were poor, barely able to pay their passage and fleeing hardship at home.
Several factors worked against the colony's success: A "Little Ice Age" was producing unusually harsh winters in North America that not only surprised the colonists but depleted the stores of Indian corn, making the local tribes less able or willing to trade food to the settlers. The region was also suffering its worst drought in centuries. Diseases took their toll. During the "Starving Time," survivors resorted to eating anything they could lay hands on – plant or animal – and eventually even cannibalism. At one point the entire remnant of settlers boarded ships to return to England – only to have a supply ship intercept them and escort them back to Jamestown.
Woolley describes the political machinations that swirled around the colony – sometimes in mind-numbing detail – as backers in England squabble and send a string of new officials to try to revive the enterprise.
The Jamestown saga is far more complex, Woolley reveals, than the simple love story between courageous explorer John Smith and native "princess" Pocahontas, who according to Smith's own account saved him from death at the hand of her father, Powhatan. What's needed here is a glossary, a Who's Who to keep straight the scores of settlers and native leaders who briefly take center stage in this elaborate narrative. (Let's see, was it Opechancanough or his brother Opitchapam who took over after Powhatan's death?)
Despite hardships, the English colony survived. Why? For one thing, settlers kept coming. For a time the Virginia experiment became a pop culture darling back in England. Early 17th-century publishers were keen to print any book with "Virginia" (named after Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen) in the title. The venture won the approving attention of the king's son, Prince Henry. In "Ode to the Virginian Voyage," poet Michael Drayton called Virginia "Earth's only paradise!" and urged his countrymen to "go and subdue" the new land.
Within a few years John Rolfe (who married Pocahontas) discovered an upscale cash crop to send home: addictive Virginia-grown tobacco. By 1621, more than 3,500 settlers had arrived in 42 ships, though certainly some of them had returned home and many more had died. They included indentured Africans (though slavery as we think of it was decades away), Frenchmen, Germans, Poles, and Italians.
Too late did the aging Powhatan and his successors realize that despite the natives' huge numerical superiority the English had dug in to stay. A bloody Indian uprising in 1622 failed to wipe out the newcomers.
Caught off guard by the surprise attack, the colonists retreated, then rallied and fought back – shocked into a sudden awareness that this "brave new world" had become more than a commercial venture: It was now their homeland, too.
• Gregory M. Lamb is on the Monitor staff.