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The Other Founding

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Nothing succeeds like success in America, especially in the writing of popular history. Readers long to know how the United States became the world’s grandest nation and who should get the glory as our founding heroes. In recent years, publishers have thrived off peddling the so-called Founding Fathers, the leaders of the American Revolution who created the United States with a republican government. But this year’s celebration of a quadricentennial invites attention to an earlier spate of founders: the English colonists of Jamestown in Virginia, first settled in 1607. The queen of England and the usually reclusive American vice president have attended the festivities at Jamestown’s ruins. A recent Hollywood epic gave us Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith. And now a spate of timely books insist that Jamestown was the singular seed, birthplace, font, or cradle of all good things American. One writer even claims that “the American Dream was born on the banks of the James River.”

In fact, early Jamestown looks more like a nightmare of folly, hunger, disease, and violence. The colonists’ London-based corporate sponsor, the Virginia Company, naively instructed the colonial leaders never to allow the Indians to see any English people die, lest the natives learn that the colonists were mere mortals. This instruction quickly proved impossible to follow as the colonists died in droves from disease and malnutrition. Of the initial 104 settlers who arrived in April 1607, just thirty-eight were still living nine months later. The continued shipments of newcomers kept the colony barely alive. In the spring of 1609, there were 220 colonists, but only sixty of them survived the winter. One starving colonist killed and ate his wife, for which he was burned at the stake.

In June 1610, the desperate survivors abandoned Jamestown and set off down the river, homeward bound. To their dismay, they were intercepted near the river’s mouth by three ships from England bearing three hundred new colonists and a new governor who compelled a grudging re-occupation of Jamestown, where disease and hunger continued to kill the English by the hundreds. Of the ten thousand people shipped to the deadly colony, only one-fifth remained alive in 1622, when a critic charged that Virginia would “shortly get the name of a slaughter house.”

Jamestown lay beside a broad swamp, which was good for defense against Spanish or Indian attack but lousy for the health of the colonists. In the hot and humid summer, the swamp bred millions of mosquitoes, carriers of malaria. In addition, brackish water contaminated the shallow wells, exposing the inhabitants to salt poisoning, especially during the summer, when the river ran low. The river’s stagnant intertidal zone also retained the garbage and the excrement generated by the colonists, promoting epidemics of dysentery and typhoid fever. The survivors were often too weak and apathetic to work. Unable to cultivate enough corn in summer, they starved during the winter and spring. In 1620, their minister reported that “more do die here of the disease of their mind [than] of their body.”

The initial colonists were a fractious and motley crew of gentlemenadventurers and vagrants. One early leader characterized the colony as “full of misery and misgovernment.” Unfamiliar with the new territory, the colonists lacked the Indians’ skills at fishing, hunting, and raising maize. When a new governor arrived in 1611, he was shocked to find the colonists bowling in the streets instead of planting their crops. Captain John Smith concluded that “most of them would rather starve than worke.”

Preferring to bowl or to explore for gold, the early colonists barely survived by extorting corn from the Indians. Possessing scant surplus to spare for their uninvited guests, the Indians frequently lashed out. One set of villagers killed seventeen intruding colonists, stuffed their dead mouths with corn as a sign of contempt, and left the corpses for their countrymen to discover. In revenge, the English resorted to their own theatrical forms of violence. Surprising that village, Captain George Percy and his men killed at least sixty-five Indians and burned their homes and cornfields. Heading back to Jamestown by boat, the victors threw captive children overboard to shoot for sport. Warfare and new diseases introduced from Europe combined to reduce the Indians of the tidewater region from twenty-four thousand in 1607 to just two thousand by 1669.

Since the colonists made such a bloody mess for themselves and the Indians, historians depict early Jamestown, in the words of Karen Ordahl Kupperman, as a “shambles of death and despair” and as the American “creation story from hell.” Lamenting this grim picture as exaggerated, Kupperman, who is the pre-eminent contemporary scholar of English exploration and colonization, sets out in The Jamestown Project to vindicate the colony.

In part, Kupperman blames Jamestown’s poor reputation on a popular historical memory that prefers the subsequent Pilgrim colonists of 1620 in New England. Pious Protestants and family farmers, the early New Englanders seem less mindlessly rapacious, fractious, and indolent than their colonial predecessors in Virginia. The Pilgrims also get extra credit for the legendary First Thanksgiving: by sharing a bountiful harvest with their Indian neighbors, they crafted a perfect contrast to the murderous hunger of early Virginia. Of course, that First Thanksgiving is a highly selective image. Two years later, the Pilgrims feigned friendship to lure seven Indians into a fatal trap. The victors lopped off one head for display atop their fort to intimidate the remaining natives. But American schoolchildren annually re-enact the First Thanksgiving instead of the subsequent head-on-a-pole.

THE JAMESTOWN PROJECT by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
Harvard University Press, 380 pp., $29.95

Rather than debunk the Pilgrims, Kupperman comes to pitch Jamestown as an underestimated, if belated, success story. She concedes that the “little colony struggled through a horrible first decade in which it barely held on,” but she emphasizes the settlers’ eventual success in figuring out “what it would take to make an English colony work.” Thereafter, “all other successful English colonies followed the Jamestown model.” Emerging after 1615, that model consisted of large-scale immigration drawn by widespread private property in land, a representative assembly of landowners, and the commercial production of a staple crop for export. In Virginia’s case, that crop was tobacco, first cultivated commercially by John Rolfe in 1616.

Since the Virginia model ultimately defied the initial plans of the colony’s leaders, who favored martial law and corporate ownership, Kupperman credits “the trial-and-error efforts of the many ordinary people” among the colonists. By persisting through the bungling of their early leaders, the common Virginians set precedents that guided the Pilgrims to their later but more immediate success in their northern slice of the new land. In addition to highlighting eventual success, Kupperman softens the grim version of Jamestown by casting doubt on the early records as a litany of “complaints, special pleading, and excuses” by bitter rivals for control of the little colony. She insists that “beyond the surface noise of complaint and charge and countercharge,” we find improvisations “that finally achieved a measure of stability and growth in the colony.”

Discounting her sources proves easier said than done, for Kupperman relies on the vivid words of that champion complainer and cunning infighter Captain John Smith. Concluding that he “drew the true lessons of the Jamestown experience,” she celebrates Smith as a champion of the common man and as the first American action hero. In his avid self-promotion, his aggressive social mobility, his decisive violence, and his preference for common sense and practical experience over book learning and inherited status, Smith seems more proto-American than latently English: an early John Wayne in pantaloons, doublet, and whiskers.

Born into England’s rural middle class, Smith was a restless soul, ever moving and ever striving for fame, money, and authority. Fleeing rural boredom and mediocrity, he became a soldier of fortune, fighting in France, Italy, the Low Countries, Ireland, and Transylvania. Short but powerfully built, he rose by his quick and resourceful wits. After returning to England, he was recruited by the Virginia Company in 1606 to join its first expedition to the new land. When Smith arrived in Virginia in April 1607, the colony’s more prestigious men opened the company’s sealed instructions and discovered to their dismay that he had been named to their governing council. This was especially inconvenient because he was in irons, confined as a suspected mutineer for his rancorous words during the voyage.

Upon his release, Smith renewed his relentless criticism of his fellow councilors until disease and infighting removed most of them, elevating Smith to the council presidency in September 1608. But he retained power only until October 1609, when he was crippled by an accidental gunpowder explosion. In that weakened state, he barely escaped assassination by his rivals before fleeing to England in defeat by year’s end. Subsequently slighted and ignored by the company’s London leaders, Smith never returned to Virginia. Instead, he explored New England for another company, but it, too, grew weary of his egotism and consigned the captain to a poverty that was terminated only by his death, in 1631, in London.

Library of America, 1,329 pp., $45

Although he lived in Virginia for little more than two years, Smith claimed a central role in that colony’s history through his prolific and vivid writings. Adeptly edited by James Horn, a distinguished historian at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, those writings are now readily available (along with other narratives by Smith’s contemporaries) in a handsome volume published by the Library of America. The hero of his own tale, Smith denigrated all others, including the corporate leaders in London and his colonial rivals for power. Early and often, he insisted that Virginia would have prospered quickly had it been fully entrusted to his prolonged command, free from any meddlers.

Feisty and ambitious, he despised his social inferiors almost as much as he resented his political superiors. Despite his current reputation as an early American populist, Smith dismissed the common colonists as “all the trash they could get in London” and as “little better, if not worse” than savages. They needed government by his iron fist, for Smith could abide neither control from above nor resistance from below. And when he proved unable to have his way at Jamestown, he anticipated Huck Finn by lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest. Leaving his political rivals behind, he led expeditions to explore the local waterways and to extort food at gunpoint from Indian villages. Rather than escape permanently into the wilderness, he hoped to return a conquering hero to claim command at Jamestown. By acquiring food and a unique expertise in the landscape and in native relations, Smith sought to make his leadership indispensable to his fellow colonists.

While abating the friction at Jamestown, Smith’s journeys provoked conflicts with the natives, who wanted to keep their corn and to contain the colonists within their fort at Jamestown. A paramount chief called Powhatan led about thirty native villages strung along the rivers of the Virginia tidewater. Rather than risk heavy casualties to crush the newcomers, Powhatan hoped to exploit them as trading partners by confining them to one small fort. If they were limited in number and in range, the English would have to trade for corn and furs on Indian terms. By procuring English metal goods, including guns, Powhatan sought an edge against his native enemies, the Monacans, to the west.

In effect, Powhatan worked to subordinate Jamestown within his chiefdom as yet another village that paid homage and tribute. His opportunity came when Smith stumbled into an ambush and became Powhatan’s prisoner. The paramount chief ritually adopted Smith as a subordinate chief in a ceremony that took the form of a mock execution, interrupted--on cue--by Pocahontas, the chief’s eleven-year-old daughter. Of course, the captain famously misunderstood the ceremony as the spontaneous intervention of a girl who could not resist his charm. Upon his release and return to Jamestown, Smith resumed bullying the Indians to obtain their corn, instead of paying the tribute in guns expected by Powhatan.

Smith bristled at the alternative policy proposed by his rival, Captain Christopher Newport, who favored diplomacy in dealing with Powhatan. Endorsing a more generous trade, Newport offered metal weapons to entice Powhatan. In effect, Newport was willing, at least in the short term, to restrict English Virginia to a small enclave dedicated to trade, like the French posts to the north in Acadia and Canada. Newport spoke for the Virginia Company, which longed to reduce the heavy costs of defending colonists who provoked the Indians.

Newport charged Smith with cruelty to Indians, while Smith dismissed Newport as a naive fool easily gulled by the more cunning Powhatan, who respected only force. Smith characterized their different policies thus: “Newport seeking to please the unsatiable desire of the Salvage, Smith to cause the Salvage to please him.” Determined to obtain Indian corn cheaply, Smith meant to dominate the natives by preserving and exploiting the English monopoly on firearms. Fortunately for Smith (but alas for Powhatan), Newport spent only brief interludes in Virginia, for his primary duties lay at sea as a mariner. Dealing with the Indians fell primarily to the leaders on the ground: to Smith and his bloody-minded successors as governors of the colony. After Newport departed in 1608, bloodshed increased as the Indians ambushed settlers to take the guns that they would not trade, while the colonists counter-attacked for revenge and for the recovery of those cherished weapons.

In the end, our national legacy comes primarily from Smith rather than from Newport. Smith pioneered the confrontational policy that eventually dispossessed the Indians in favor of English colonists by the thousands. By creating an expansionist colony of agricultural settlement rather than a mere trading enclave, Smith’s domineering approach contributed to the subsequent empire, initially British and later American, that would conquer the continent. Newport can claim only a slighted policy of diplomacy that might have spared the lives of thousands, both native and colonial.

Allured by Smith’s version, Kupperman cannot resist devoting most of her book to a narrative of Jamestown’s early years of chronic hunger, disease, and warfare. For long stretches, she reiterates the dark picture that she had promised to lighten. “Jamestown was notoriously unhealthy,” she concedes, “and the colonists made it more unwholesome by the way they operated their little society.” She also reports that the colonists degenerated into a “kind of shapeless, aimless mass” by “the end of the starving winter” of 1609-1610. Once again, that great ham actor Captain John Smith has stolen the scenes and hijacked an author’s best intentions.

Distracted by retelling the early horror story, Kupperman never fulfills her opening promise to focus on the common colonists who crafted Virginia’s eventual success as a tobacco colony. Except for a cameo appearance by John Rolfe in her last chapter, those common colonists remain nebulous. And because she concludes the book with the year 1622, when those colonists were fighting for their lives against an Indian uprising, she never gets to their success in subsequent decades. The book’s premature end also deprives readers of any attention to a key element in the Virginia model: the enslavement of Africans to cultivate the tobacco. By ending so abruptly, Kupperman can hint at Virginia’s eventual success without acknowledging the essential role of slavery.

To make her case, Kupperman also needs to demonstrate that later colonial ventures followed Virginia’s model. In fact, subsequent colonizers regarded Virginia as more of a horror show than an inspiration. In 1622, after three years in Virginia, John Pory visited the Pilgrims at Plymouth and, in Kupperman’s words, “wrote a glowing account of the healthfulness, rich food supplies, and good situation of the northern colony.” Pory wished that “our people in the Southern Colony ... were as free from wickedness and vice as these are in this place!” And, if Smith did draw “the true lessons of the Jamestown experience,” they included his admonition that colonists avoid Virginia in favor of New England, which he praised as far healthier and more promising for family farmers. In fact, early Virginia primarily taught subsequent colonists what not to do. Nor did they need Virginia to teach them the value of private property or a representative assembly, as these were English values rather than Jamestown inventions. Moreover, Virginia’s staple crop--tobacco--was either irrelevant to other colonial regions or dreaded as hard on the land and the laborers and as a detriment to economic diversity.

The Jamestown Project works best when Kupperman sets aside her special pleading for Jamestown as an inspirational success and as our singular national cradle. The book sparkles when she instead recovers the complex and cosmopolitan backdrop to English colonization. During the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, an ambitious mix of English visionaries and rogues probed the wider world for new opportunities. Mixing utopian dreams with pragmatic greed, they sought great fortune and new power for their small, poor, and beleaguered island kingdom. Protestants and nationalists, they sought to break out of encirclement by the overbearing power of Catholic Spain, which financed European domination with gold and silver extracted from Mexican and Peruvian mines. Seeking a share of this wealth, these Englishmen preyed upon Spanish ships and seaports, or they conquered and plundered the Catholic Irish. In stretching westward into North America, the English sought pirate bases to afflict the Spanish, and new plantations to exploit the Indians just as they had done to the Irish.

Kupperman also sheds light upon England’s growing engagement with the Muslim world as a mix of attraction and repulsion. Some of the Virginia Company’s leaders had cultivated trading partners and potential allies among the Muslim rulers of Morocco and the Ottoman Empire, while some English mercenaries (including Smith) fought against the Turks on behalf of Christian warlords in the Balkans. She suggests that familiarity with Islam facilitated colonial improvisation in the New World--but how she does not say. In sum, her English promoters and adventurers lived in a complex world of mixed and multiple dangers and opportunities which invited great gambles that could spin into madness, as they did at Jamestown.

By taking readers on a sprightly jaunt around the Mediterranean, into Ireland, and across the Atlantic to both the tropics and the Arctic, Kupperman reveals Jamestown as only one small, risky, and tenuous foray in a global array of English ventures, rather than the essential seed of a future superpower. But she also makes a good case that Jamestown’s founders deserve some credit for their unusual persistence through the initial decade of folly and suffering. Given the miserable failures of other English colonial ventures, most sensationally at Roanoke during the 1580s, she argues that Jamestown stands out for its founders’ surprising endurance.

If so, let us now praise infamous men: the long-maligned leaders of the Virginia Company in London. Distant, wealthy, and English, they make convenient foils in an enduring American populist story originally crafted by Smith. In this version, the corporate leaders were out-of-touch elitists, afflicting the poor colonists with unrealistic expectations and foolish instructions. Success allegedly came only when ordinary colonists defied their superiors by becoming pragmatic and resourceful Americans guided by experiment and experience.

But if sheer endurance was Jamestown’s glory, then the English corporate magnates deserve most of the credit. Against all odds and reason, they kept pouring good money after bad to ship more supplies and new colonists, year after profitless year. Meanwhile, most of the common colonists endured only in early graves, replaced by the newcomers funded by the persistent leaders of the underappreciated company. The survival of the colony depended on that expensive stream of newcomers who kept the living numbers slightly ahead of the gravediggers. Rank ingratitude and royal greed killed the company in 1624, transforming Virginia into a crown colony just as tobacco rendered it profitable. Ever since, historians have treated the company with an undue contempt influenced by Smith and other axe-grinders.

Benjamin Woolley covers the same ground in an amiable but aimless history. Like Kupperman, he promises to reveal the seventeenth-century seed of contemporary American power, but he too dwells on the misery and folly of Jamestown’s early years as “a midden of disease and destruction” and a “descent into chaos.” For long stretches, Woolley also loses his focus on Jamestown, stuffing his book with rambling digressions. These include prolonged excursions into political and corporate squabbles in London, Smith’s travels along every Virginia river, Sir Walter Ralegh’s expedition to Guyana in 1595 in search of El Dorado, the shipwreck at Bermuda of one set of colonists, a detailed plot summary of The Tempest, and an account of African mercenaries employed by the Portuguese in Angola.

HarperCollins, 469 pp., $27.50

Small wonder, then, that Woolley so frequently loses track of the main sequence of events, distorting the relationship of causes and effects. His date of August 6, 1609 for the first death by disease in the new land is two years late, and he also misdates the worst “starving time” to 1608-1609 rather than 1609-1610. He assures readers that “the date of Pocahontas’s capture [by the English] was 13 April 1614,” but a few pages later he insists that after a year’s captivity and a courtship by John Rolfe, she married him “on 5 April 1614.” Of course, the marriage date is correct, because the English had captured her a year earlier, in 1613.

In his closest approach to a unifying theme, Woolley drops ominous hints of Spanish spies in cahoots with English traitors to undermine the embattled little colony. He embraces the heroic Protestant nationalism that celebrated Queen Elizabeth I and her favorite, Sir Walter Ralegh, for challenging the Spanish (and Catholic) empire in the Americas. Woolley shares Ralegh’s disdain for the queen’s more cautious successor, King James I, who made peace with Spain in 1604 to save England from the draining expense of an endless war. Where that war had ruined the previous English colony at Roanoke, the peace of 1604 made possible the occupation of Jamestown in 1607. But instead of crediting King James and his pragmatic ministers, Woolley insinuates that they covertly set up Jamestown to fail.

Woolley casts the king’s chief minister, Sir Robert Cecil, as a sinister mastermind bent on undermining the Jamestown colony lest it provoke the Spanish into an expensive new war. Both backstabber and bean counter, Cecil prepares to sacrifice England’s imperial potential in America by sowing the colony with troublemaking double agents. “However these men link up, the outline of a Cecil subterfuge is just about visible,” Woolley darkly hints. “The imprint of his actions was disastrously disfiguring the government of Jamestown.” A master of ominous suggestion, he adds that “deep in the political background, a gargantuan power struggle was under way. Cecil was by now openly hostile towards the venture.” Apparently, Cecil’s malignant conspiracy constitutes the “true story of Jamestown” promised by the title of Woolley’s book. Behind every measure and new appointment in Virginia, he detects the covert hand and malign intentions of Sir Robert Cecil.

In effect, Woolley creates a bridge between the conspiratorial expectations of two ages: his seventeenthcentury sources and his readers in our own day, from their monarchy to our national security state. We share with them a sense of powerlessness that readily suspects dark manipulations by the powerful, operating behind curtains of secrecy. Woolley need only drop his hints and we can easily imagine the rest, thanks to Watergate, Karl Rove, Black Ops, the Twin Towers, and The X-Files. Resonating with our contemporary anxieties, popular history in books and television traffics in arcane secrets and conspiratorial truths at last revealed: of supposed plots to kill various presidents, to fake a moon landing, to cover up Amelia Earhart’s fate, to suppress evidence of Jesus as a family man or of the Chinese as America’s true discoverers.

Alas, reason and evidence are often cruel to the baroque intricacies of conspiracy theories. Had King James and Sir Robert Cecil truly wanted to block the Jamestown colony, they could have done so directly; they would not have needed to sow it with sleeper cells of traitors. Moreover, Cecil’s cronies had invested in the Virginia Company and stood to profit from its success. Woolley refers to one suspect as “Cecil’s agent in Plymouth and an investor in the expedition.” Why would Cecil’s men invest in a venture that he meant to sabotage?

In fact, Cecil’s policy of soothing Spanish alarm helped to preserve the tenuous little colony. By downplaying the colony’s significance in conversations with the Spanish ambassador, Cecil helped to dissuade the Spanish from attacking Jamestown. Rather than Virginia’s insidious enemy, he was an essential, albeit subtle, friend. Still, I was sorry to see the evil Cecil go, dead on May 24, 1612 and at the three-quarters mark for Woolley’s narrative, which thereafter suffers for want of that lone thread of continuity.

Ultimately, Woolley hints at a darker theme for his book by concluding with the massive Indian uprising of 1622, which killed one-quarter of the Virginia colonists. In response, the colonists sought to exterminate the local Indians as irredeemable savages. “Whereas we are advised by you to observe rules of justice with these barbarous, perfidious enemies, we hold nothing unjust that may tend to their ruin,” Virginia’s governor assured the Virginia Company. Indeed, the Virginians poisoned and massacred Indians who came to negotiate a peace treaty. The Reverend Samuel Purchas celebrated, “Thou shalt wash, [and] hast washed thy feet in the blood of those native unnatural Traitors, and now becomest a pure English Virginia; a new other Britain, in that new other World: and let all English say and pray, GOD BLESS VIRGINIA.” Woolley regards this ruthless retribution as the “defining moment of the colonists’ act of possession,” when “they crafted and honed their American identity.”

Woolley apparently views Jamestown’s legacy for America as a heart of darkness rather than a birth of freedom. This possibility casts a more ominous light on his opening and closing images of the global power now manifested near Jamestown. The rivers flowing into the Chesapeake Bay host both “the largest naval base in the world” at Norfolk and the capital of “a new Rome Washington, D.C.” Although he will not say so directly, Woolley hints that American success is tainted by its bloody origins at Jamestown. If so, the rest of the world should duck for cover.

Woolley occasionally grasps at Kupperman’s straw: that Americans today think too little of Jamestown because they think too much of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. In a hyperbolic vein, he laments “Virginia’s erasure from popular history as the birthplace of English America.” It seems quaintly old-fashioned when Woolley and Kupperman insist that the Pilgrims steal the show. Maybe this was so in the nineteenth century, but our own popular culture clearly prefers Jamestown, as the current spate of books attests. Thanks especially to a Disney animated film, the First Thanksgiving has been eclipsed by the Great Rescue of Captain John Smith by Pocahontas. In public allure, a last-minute reprieve from death (with a hint of cross-cultural sex) will always beat a staid meal accompanied by prayer. Many more Americans can name John Smith and Pocahontas than can identify any one of the Pilgrims, who in comparison to the dashing captain and his Indian princess seem dour, dull, and irrelevant: the boring has- beens and killjoys of the colonial party.

But it is not clear why we have to choose between Plymouth and Jamestown in a zero-sum game of American origins. That old and distorting contest derives from the eve of the Civil War, when the champions of the American South and New England squabbled over which region had most shaped American institutions and the American character. In fact, we need both colonial Plymouth and colonial Jamestown to make sense of our national origins, for Virginia and New England became essential partners in making our republic and then in unmaking it during the Civil War. Now employed mainly to sell books, the wearisome debate over a singular American cradle casts more heat than light.

And why must we limit our choice to any one English settlement when the United States also emerged from other colonial clusters, including the Swedes and Finns along the Delaware River and the Dutch in the Hudson Valley? Kupperman knows that the Spanish preceded the English within the future bounds of the United States, founding Florida in 1565 and New Mexico in 1598, but she recycles the old conceit that only the English can qualify as our founders: “the outlines of a genuinely American Society, with all its virtues and defects, first emerged along the James [River].” Were not Florida and New Mexico, with their own virtues and defects, not already American societies? What magic does the James River bestow that exceeds the magic of the Rio Grande as the fountain of America? Anyway, the celebration of any one European settlement as the sole cradle of our America continues to discount the role of native peoples, who have sustained “genuinely American” societies for at least fifteen thousand years. If we must search for founders, we should begin with them.