Saturday, June 09, 2007


"This is an unlucky beginning. I pray God the end may prove happier."

Jamestown Landing
400 years ago, the first colony established in North America was started in 1607 by English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia. 108 settlers landed on May 14th and began felling trees to establish a camp to live in as they explored, hunted, and farmed the land. Local Algonquin natives disliked the presence of these invaders, and began sporatic attacks on the colony.

The colony was established with a triangular fort about sixty miles up the CHessapeake river to prevent Spanish ships from bombarding them. The Spanish, backed by the Pope at the time, had declared everything past a certain point in the sea their territory (the "Spanish Line"). Although they couldn't really claim all that land nor defend it, they would raid any colonies or settlements they discovered, if they could find the resources and time.

The English settlers were not very well-trained for survival in the new world, and by 1609 there was such a harsh winter and poor preparations that only 60 of the over 200 settlers by that time survived. Only Captain John Smith's leadership kept the colony together, but by June they had decided to bury their cannon and abandon the place when a new governor arrived and the people stayed on. The Algonquin raids did not end until finally the marriage of Pocahontas and tobacco grower John Rolfe on April 4, 1614 brought the hostilities to an end for almost a decade.

In 1619, the new world's first general assembly met, "to establish one equal and uniform government over all Virginia." The desire was for "just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting." These laws included Africans, who came to Jamestown first as slaves in trade for food that same year. However, unlike later slave trade, these Africans were indentured servants: they worked for their owner until they paid off the debt of their training and expense, then became free men and part of the colony. It was not until the 1680s when racial slave trade became the system.

Jamestown MassacreIn 1622, the Algonquins tired of the peace and attacked again, killing 300 in the outlying plantations. This event, and the mismanagement of the private company that established the colony convinced King James to take over the colony, and it became a crown colony by revoking the company's charter. Troops were sent, and the situation stabilized, but in 1698 the old capitol building burned down and the newer settlement to the east became the capitol. Old Jamestown was eventually abandoned and a farming family owned and tilled the land.

Today the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities owns the land and archaeologists work it regularly to learn more about the original colony and how people lived and worked it at the time.

In effect, Jamestown was the first settlement of America, because while there were peoples living in the area and across the continent at the time, they were scattered, separate nations and tribes without a single country, goal, or ideals. In essence, America is 400 years old this year, as of May 14.

Like any celebration or commemoration of a historical event, particularly in America, there is controversy surrounding this one. Some say the colony was the beginning of an invasion of the country, the brutality and genocide of the peaceful, naturally coexisting native Americans. Some say it represents slavery and bondage, a symbol of the cruelty that Africans suffered at the hands of whites. Some say it is a sad reminder of imperialism and exploitation, that the land has suffered ever since. The very word celebration is considered an offense by some.

For example, officials in Virginia originally decided not to call the event a celebration, for fear it might offend Native Americans and African Americans. The planning in 2000 dropped the word Celebration from the committee name. Director Norman Beatty explains:
"There's going to be plenty of reason to be celebrating in 2007, but there will also be times for some very sober reflections on some very serious history and it needs to be told honestly. But I think it was clear that the word had a completely different meaning at least in inference to the Virginia Indians and I think to a degree the African Americans felt the same way."
Mary Wade, member of the Virginia Council on Indians and the Monacan Indian Nation, put it this way:
"You can't celebrate an invasion."
Later that decision was reversed, and celebration was used in the events surrounding this May's anniversary.

I would argue that you can celebrate an invasion, depending on the purpose and outcome of that invasion. We celebrate D-Day every year - a massive invasion of the nation of France. Why? Because it was a monumental event fighting tyranny and evil to free oppressed and brutalized peoples from a monstrous dictatorship. Was the colonization of America an invasion?

Well, in a sense, yes. It is an invasion like when you notice ten new neighbors are all blondes and say "we're being invaded by blondes" or say that Starbucks has invaded your town because 8 new ones are built. It's an invasion only in the sense of people showing up that were uninvited. It is not an invasion in the true, proper sense of a military effort to conquer an area and take over, however.

The Europeans didn't see America as a foreign nation to conquer, they saw it as a gigantic opportunity to colonize that happened to have a few people living on it. Currently 300,000,000 people or so live in the United States alone, in 1607 fewer than 600,000,000 people were alive on the entire planet earth. The colonies, they felt, were not violating any nation's sovereignty, the land was unknown but huge, and the peoples were scattered. Europeans did not consider themselves to be invading the new world, but colonizing it so that they could build and prosper there as well as back home.

American PeoplesSome Native American tribes saw this as opportunity, a chance to ally themselves with the clearly powerful Europeans (even if they were a bit dumb when it came to survival) so that their enemies would fear them and perhaps the Europeans would share their weapons and power. Some considered the Europeans targets for raids, slavery, and theft. To these tribes, the whiteness of their skin or presence was odd, but not particularly important - what mattered is what you could take from them and show boldness by defeating them.

In any case, looking at the past and picking the worst moments to define it is a poor approach to history or analysis. The proper way to look at the past is to see it for what it was, both good and bad. A movement like the colonization and expansion of America was marked by good and horrible events. The overall picture is one of growth, liberty, civilization, and benefit overall, marred by some evils in the past.

Rather than focusing on and bewailing these events, we should learn from them and move on, while remembering the good of the past and commemorating, even celebrating those events. Jamestown was the beginning of superior education, medicine, technology, and rule of law for the country.

The native tribes living in America had their laws, their languages, their culture, stories, literature, and art - just like all cultures everywhere. Whites brought what they had, and together both grew from the experience. Overall, Mozart is artistically superior to the war chant of the Pima tribe. Modern medicine is far advanced beyond the herbal remedies and spiritualism of the Cheyennes. In the objective, final analysis, Europeans, even in the 17th century, brought advanced and superior culture, arts, and technology to the natives, while learning from what those people had that was superior - such as their fieldcraft, hunting, and survival skills.

Smoky MountainsIt is rank revisionism to pretend, as some do, that Native Americans lived in peace and oneness with the land. There are areas in the Smokey Mountains that still have no trees because of the deliberate annihilation of all plants on them by tribes that once lived there. The Native Americans were too numerous, technologically limited, and scattered to have as much impact on their environment as we do today, but they had their impact. They did not live a life of ecological purity, they lived a low impact lifestyle simply because they had no other choice. All humanity has an impact on its surroundings - all living things do.

Native tribes lived in almost constant warfare with each other in almost all areas. Tribes fought other tribes, nations fought other nations. Nations rose and fall, some were annihilated by more powerful ones, utterly destroyed. Others barely survived, with scattered remnants. The Sioux, once armed with stray Spanish horses, were able to conquer almost all of the great plains and destroy or dispossess the tribes that were there before. Even the allegedly peaceful Western coastal tribes practiced cannibalism and slavery.

One cannot pick a good and bad side in this cultural collision - both sides engaged in reprehensible behavior and activity. All you can do is find the side that, if it won, would benefit both sides and posterity the greatest. And that in this exchange ends up being the winning side - the Europeans.

I did not personally genocide, run out, break treaties on, lie to, murder, rape, pillage, or forcibly remove any Native Americans. Nor did my parents or grandparents, or their parents. I am not responsible for any slave ownership, nor did any of my ancestors back several generations at the very least. As I noted earlier, the first blacks on American soil showed up here in the same condition as many European whites - as indentured servants, working their passage and training off until they were free and part of the society at large.

Carrying GuiltIt is a fact that every people and nation on earth have been cruel, harsh, mean, or brutal to another people at some time in history. I have Danish ancestors that were brutal to Britons and Saxons in the past. The Chinese were brutal to the Koreans, the Tutsi were cruel to the Hutus. It's an endless fact that humanity does evil to humanity - what matters is what we are doing now and today, not what others have done in the past, especially centuries ago.

I refuse to accept any attempts at reparations to anyone's distant ancestor of atrocities committed by people centuries ago. I will not apologize to long-dead peoples for acts I did not commit. I will not show shame or discomfort at celebrating the country I live in or its greatness. And neither should any of you.
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Jim said...

Your commentary begs the question of whether Jamestown failed to leave a permanent imprint on our nation.

Then, of what long-term importance is Jamestown as a transformational event in our nation’s history? What legacies has it left us? Why is Jamestown relevant for us in 2007?

Jamestown’s Quatercentenary has stirred a few Americans to once again appreciate its singular place in our history. However, despite the proliferation of books, articles and chronicles that have appeared for this 400th anniversary, we still have a national lack of awareness for its most important heritage.

Most commentators and the planners of the Quatercentenial events seem to have been overly wrapped up in who was the “first!” to do what, and stitching together recognitions of supposedly cultural contributions that ride the coattails of what really are our most significant legacies from Jamestowne.

It is true that the antecedents of some of its most shameful chapters, such as institutionalized slavery and the devastation of Indian tribes, had their genesis there. But, whatever other issues that some may want to put a glare on, the major fact remains that Jamestown is where the taproot was planted for several of our most cherished rights and privileges; the things for which we fought our Revolution and since have defended for 231 years. This should have been cause for a major national celebration, not just a mere commemoration.

By 1620, or within thirteen years of their landing, the Jamestowne settlers had cultivated some of our most important and enduring legacies that never seem to part of what we teach students of its history.

While they generally are taught that Jamestowne was the site of the first elected representative legislature and self-rule, the free enterprise system became the form of our American economy; and, English was to be the established common language of the new American nation, we usually fail to include that it is where the settlers also created the common citizen’s right to ownership of private property (and its importance to us since and today); the principle of common law as the foundation of our legal system; civilian control of the military; and new freedoms from European traditions that had bound many generations to their ancestors’ trades, classes and economic conditions.

Another legacy was that of the experiences, losses and mistakes learned in establishing Jamestown that then served to give all succeeding English and British colonization efforts, at Plymouth and then around the world, more realistic direction, instructions and expectations that had better results. John Smith was the most vocal and articulate advocate for them.

However, the most important of their legacies was their determination to succeed – or the American “can do” spirit. With that determination, the descendants of those Jamestown pioneers also forged the unique element of our American culture: a persistent striving for the freedom to better ourselves with property, innovation and enterprise.

This is the legacy that has become our American Dream. Its first seeds were planted at Jamestown 400 years ago and today all Americans enjoy its fruits.

This is why Jamestown is meaningful for each and every one of us and why we should forever remember it as the seminal incident that introduced the opportunities for the economic and political innovations and enterprise that have made our nation what it is.

Christopher Taylor said...

Excellent comment and thank you for your thoughts - a better essay than I wrote :)