Why Jamestown Is at the Crossroads of Black & White History

Roundup: Talking About History

Mark St. John Erickson, writing in dailypress.com (Feb. 1, 2004):

In the history of the American people, many places are precious. But none reaches back so far - or did so much to shape the nation's identity - as the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown. Twelve years after the first colonists landed in 1607 - and a year before the Pilgrims stepped ashore at Plymouth Rock - this small, struggling enterprise on the banks of the James River witnessed an arrival that would underscore its historical significance still further. But no one in August 1619 understood the consequences of joining a few hundred white, European, mostly English settlers with what colony secretary John Rolfe famously described as"20. and odd negroes."

Only a few, fragmented records of these newcomers survive, mostly in the form of early census documents that list the first Africans by race, occupation and - on several tantalizingly concrete occasions - by name. And not until recently, as part of an explosion of discoveries about the earliest days of Jamestown, has anyone been able to link this charter generation to a specific piece of ground.

Historian Martha W. McCartney and her Colonial Williamsburg colleagues uncovered the secret three years ago during a study commissioned by Colonial National Historical Park.

Systematically combing through old wills, deeds and public records as well as newly uncovered papers and overlooked archaeological evidence, the researchers used an electronic mapping program to pinpoint the Jamestown properties of Sir George Yeardley and Capt. William Pierce, two early colonists whose households included nine of the first Africans.

"There's a certain awe that comes from knowing you're standing at a spot where something so important happened," says McCartney, who compared the pioneering detective work to solving a giant puzzle.

"Sometimes - while we were still working on the study - I would have to drive out to the island, stop at the entrance to the Loop Road and try to imagine what it must have been like back then. It helps to put history on the ground."

Few scholars dispute Jamestown's landmark status as the birthplace of America's multiracial identity.

Robert Watson, an assistant professor of history at Hampton University, calls the English settlement"the most important place in this country in terms of the origin of our nation.

"This is where the cultures that make us what we are today first came together," he says.

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