Blogs > Cliopatria > Cliopatria Symposium ... Jamestown 2007

May 13, 2007 2:47 pm

Cliopatria Symposium ... Jamestown 2007

Welcome to the VIIIth edition of the Cliopatria Symposium wherein we find the answer to the question:

Why has the American national narrative characteristically taken New England/Puritans rather than Jamestown/Virginia/Anglicans as its foundation touchstone?

I want to thank everyone for sending me their responses and, please, let me know if I missed anything - my inbox has been nuts lately.

Click more to read the responses of Cliopats and others. We hope to hear from you in the comments.

Rob MacDougall, The Roanoke:

Plymouth versus Jamestown! They're the Beatles and Stones, the Betty and Veronica of colonial U.S. history: where does America's"national narrative" begin? Frankly, I'm not sure we have to choose. If the Pilgrims and Puritans were a pious clutch of religious zealots, Jamestown was a kind of get-rich-slow scheme, a dot-com start-up where half the techies starved before hitting on the colony's (cough cough) killer app. Surely American history displays a family resemblance to both forebears?

But if I had to make a choice, I'd plant my flag a hundred and fifty miles south of Jamestown, on the real first English settlement in the New World: the lost colony of Roanoke. (Let's not talk about Frobisher's ill-advised attempt on Baffin Island in 1578.) In 1584, more than twenty years before Jamestown, Sir Walter Raleigh planted a hundred or so men on Roanoke Island, off the North Carolina coast. Raleigh's men toughed it out for a year before all but fifteen of them caught a ride back to England with Sir Francis Drake. A return expedition in 1587 brought more colonists, this time with women and children, led by the artist John White. (Soon after arrival, White's daughter delivered the first English child born in the Americas.) White himself returned to England for still more settlers and supplies, but a certain Spanish Armada interfered with his return trip, and when English ships finally returned to Roanoke in 1590, the colony's ninety men, seventeen women, and eleven children had vanished without a trace. Or almost without a trace: the word"CROATOAN" was famously carved into the bark of a tree near the lost colony's gate.

Like many I expect, I first learned of Roanoke as a kind of ghost story. I don't know which lurid kiddie book I read it in, but I do remember having the distinct impression that"Croatoan" was the name of some slavering forest monstrosity, and not, as it turned out, a nearby Cherokee tribe. The fate of the lost colony remains unknown, but the best guesses say they either got killed by the Powhatans, set out on foot for the Chesapeake and died en route, or went native, interbreeding with the Indians. Whatever became of them, there's a nice lesson there for American history about hubris, failure, and the great unlikeliness of the American experiment.

In Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom, Roanoke is not a creepy campfire tale but a tragic road not taken. While Raleigh's ships were settling Roanoke, his friend Drake was buckling swash up and down the Spanish Mainósimple piracy, Morgan admits,"but on the scale that transforms crime into politics." Morgan makes much of Drake's alliance with the Cimarrons, black and Indian slaves escaped from the Spanish. Drake was not above slaving himself, but he made common cause with the"Maroons" and threatened New Spain with a general uprising of its Indian and African labor. As Drake sacked Santo Domingo, Cartagena, and San Augustin, he liberated, or collected, some three hundred Indians and two hundred"Negroes, Turks, and Moors," whom he planned to deposit at Roanoke to enjoy English-style liberty and serve as a rallying point for New Spain's oppressed natives and slaves."Perhaps it could never have come to pass," Morgan writes,"and perhaps no one really intended that it should." Nevertheless, for him, Roanoke represented"a dream in which slavery and freedom were not yet married, a dream in which Protestant Britons liberated the oppressed people of the New World."

Less reputable historians have pushed the Roanoke story further. For my man Kenneth Hite (writing in jest) and Peter Lamborn Wilson (writing in earnest), Roanoke was a magickal working by the occult imperialists of the School of Nght, an alleged circle of Elizabethan atheists and adepts said to include Raleigh, poet Christopher Marlowe, magus John Dee, andóhow great is thisóone Lord Fernando Strange. Shakespeare's The Tempest, Wilson says, was propaganda for their imperial aims. The lost colony, Hite proposes, represented an"alchemical marriage" between the"Red King" Powhatan and the"White Queen" Elizabeth to establish a Golden Empire."The Old World can keep its maternally-inclined wolves and its giant-killing Trojan refugees," Hite writes."Occult conspirators built the United States on a foundation of High Weirdness indeed."

Of course, sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn't. What matters most for Wilson (aka the neopagan Sufi anarchist Hakim Bey) is that Raleigh's plans didn't succeed."The very first colony in the New World chose to renounce its contract with Prospero (Dee/Raleigh/Empire) and go over to the Wild Men with Caliban," he writes. This makes Roanoke the first of Wilson / Bey's anarchist ideal of"temporary autonomous zones":

They dropped out. They became"Indians,""went native," opted for chaos over the appalling miseries of serfing for the plutocrats and intellectuals of London. As America came into being Ö Croatan remained embedded in its collective psyche. Out beyond the frontier, the state of Nature (i.e. no State) still prevailedóand within the consciousness of the settlers the option of wildness always lurked, the temptation to give up on Church, farmwork, literacy, taxesóall the burdens of civilizationóand"go to Croatan" in some way or another.

Ron Sakolsky's Gone to Croatan: Origins of American Dropout Culture similarly celebrates Roanoke as the taproot of an American dropout counterculture including pirate utopias, glister societies, Great Dismal Maroons, rogue Quakers, Antinomians, Levellers, Diggers,"tri-racial isolates," black Islamic movements, and hippie communes.

It's all more than a bit dodgy, historically speaking, and certainly nothing I'd stake my tenure decision on. But then I wouldn't stake my hopes of tenure on the legend of the first Thanksgiving either, or the tender tale of John Smith and Pocahantas. We're talking about founding myths here, usable pasts. And the lost colony is a myth to conjure with, pun intended. It's a scare story to help cure historical hubris. It's Morgan's dream of American freedom without American slavery. It's the original old, weird America: a founding myth of sufficient strangeness to suggest that America once was and ought to be more than just a corporation or a pious city on a hill.

Ralph Luker, Why Massachusetts Bay?:

There are a couple of things to be said first. This is a question of popular historiography and national memory. Neither of them attend carefully to historical accuracy. Second, as a matter of national narrative, this is a legacy from the 19th century and, to a very large degree, from the period after the Civil War. It's a construct by lady and gentlemen historians who wanted to weave a national story for a newly reunited nation. One of the ironies of their choices is that the same Vixtorians who gave us a story beginning in Massachusetts Bay also largely misinterpreted the Puritans.

If you set aside the matter of chronological precedent, it seems to me, those who looked for beginnings of the nation had - not two - but three choices that they might have made. And their choice depended on no close evaluation of sources (in more than one sense), but one a calculus of the end toward which they believed the story moved. They might have begun the story with Jamestown and Virginia. In addition to its chronological priority, there was much to be said for doing so. After all, four of the nation's first five presidents in the generation of the Founding Fathers came from Virginia. To have given Virginia priority would have launched a story of bi-polarities: of North v South, of black v white, of gentile establishment v commoner dissenters. But it's a story that has a sort of culmination in Confederacy and Civil War that seems to concede a legitimacy to the former.

The popular historians who gave credit to Puritan New England for the nation's origins sought - not an explanation for the causes of legitimate division within it - but a unitary idea that mobilized a singular national story. It was easy enough to ignore distracting detail: New England's own complicity in slavery and the slave trade, the strange excesses of Rhode Island, dissent within an established Puritan regime. The Puritans could be understood as having a singular vision of the model commonwealth.

There was a third option that these popular historians might have settled on, but did not. They might have focused on the middle colonies, from New York to Maryland. If the end toward which things moved is the primary concern, here was the possibility of telling a multi-cultural narrative. Here were the Dutch and Swedish Reformed, their Anglican challengers, Pennsylvania Quakers and German immigrants, Methodist dissenters, and Roman Catholics, both established and in dissent. In these, our last days, the proponents of multi-culturalism might look for origins in the middle colonies, but it wasn't a choice that 19th century popular historians would have made. It's too hard to get from the many's babble of voices to a national chorus.

In our own time, of course, the question arises of other points from which the narrative might have begun: among native Americans, if priority counts for anything, or among the Spanish colonists at St. Augustine or Sante Fe, if European ancestry is required. As American demographics change, the story of Spanish-Americans may have increased urgency. But the links from Sante Fe to the American Revolution are few and it wouldn't have occurred to those who created America's national memory in the 19th century to have done it in Spanish. By limiting the national narrative to the British colonies of North America who rebelled against the motherland in 1776, they excluded both Florida and British and French Canada. By largely ignoring Jamestown, these popular historians also told the story of an essentially white nation, in which people of color at most played a servile role. By anchoring it to Massachusetts Bay, they told a story of a singular English-speaking people to whom others might be joined by becoming English-speakers. By directing our attention to the Puritans, they told the story of a largely Christian and, by and large, Protestant nation, but one that would learn to tolerate dissent, most commonly because they had once themselves been dissenters.

Jonathan Reynolds, It's all about Happy History:

Hmmmmm. I respond to this call for a symposium on Jamestown with just a wee bit of trepidation. I do have an opinion on the subject, but as it is far from my area of specialization, I am also fearful that I am all too likely to tread on Americanist toes or simply say something really wrong. Oh well, that's Bloggin' for ya!

The question of 'Why the Pilgrims?' as the symbolic founders of the US does, on occasion, come up in my classes. I tend to raise the question as a means of getting students to think critically about the role of"Myth and Memory" in popular conceptions of history. I choose this particular topic because EVERY SINGLE student raised in the US knows the"standard narrative" of the founding of the Plymouth Colony: Pilgrims-Religious Freedom-Mayflower Compact-Squanto-Fish & Corn- First Thanksgiving. That is, in and of itself, a remarkable thing. There are very few other historical tropes that are so universally held in the US.

For me, the answer to the question lies in the fact that the example of the story of the Pilgrims was a bit easier to massage in order to reflect what most Americans want to believe about the founding of the US (my own operant definition of Myth is that it reflects what people want to believe). Thus, the example of Jamestown is less appealing in that the Virginia colony (like the other historically underrepresented early colony in the Carolina's), was first and foremost a commercial venture. There's a reason it was also known as the Virginia Company of London before it became the Jamestown Colony. Indeed, it is terribly interesting to me that a popular culture which so lauds commercial ambition nonetheless chooses to embrace a myth of national origin that so downplays economic motivations. My own students are generally shocked to discover that most colonies in the US were founded first and foremost with the goal of making money. And, of course, there is the unfortunate reality that the wealth of the Virginia colony (again, like it's cousin the Carolina Company), came to rely heavily on slavery as a form of economic production. Such realities don't easily lend themselves to happy history.

Rebecca Goetz:

I’m reminded by the Symposium topic of one of my favorite cheesy movies of all time: Plymouth Adventure (1952). In the movie, Spencer Tracy plays a crusty sea captain hired by pious pilgrims to sail the Mayflower to the New World. Tracy deceives the hapless holy folks, who essentially pray their way across the Atlantic (although at one point they do hold the ship together with their printing press—can you please say heavy-handed symbolism?). After arriving in the area of Wampanoag country now known as Plymouth, the morally rudderless captain finds himself moved by the Pilgrims’ determination and helps them survive their first winter (and the suicide of the lovely Mrs. Bradford, played oh-so-pathetically by the lovely Gene Tierney). The movie closes with a Plymouth Rock utopia scene: by the spring of 1621 the Pilgrims have erected several neat cottages and a picturesque little church, which is guarded by a group of stoic Wampanoags on the verge of Christian revelation.

It’s enough to make a historianess vomit.

Of course, Plymouth Adventure does represent everything about early American history that Americans love to love. It’s all about religious freedom, moral superiority, civilization in the wilderness (don’t forget that excellent printing press), and really, the Indians admired the English and wanted to live among them. This founding myth makes us feel good about ourselves—and conveniently obscures Plymouth’s own rough beginning (it had its own starving time, and there was some serious bloodshed between the English and the Indians on the horizon). Plymouth also feels familiar: after all, whole families set off across the Atlantic, and they were essentially able to quickly reproduce England in America. They also had that great Mayflower Compact thing (read it closely sometime: it doesn’t say what you think it says).

By contrast, Jamestown looks like a disaster. Starvation, disease, Indian warfare right from the start, and most of all, conventional wisdom claims that Jamestown settlers had no interest in religion or in religious freedom. They wanted to make money.

In other words, Jamestown is about everything Americans love to hate about their history.

There’s no doubt about it—Jamestown was a bloody mess. Of the 104 men and boys who went ashore in April 1607, fewer than thirty were alive by April 1608 (perhaps even fewer—the demographic are a bit difficult). They built their fort on an island in the James River, at a point where the water was quite brackish by late summer, thus causing themselves to suffer from salt poisoning in addition to water-borne diseases. They tried to trade with the Indians for essentials like corn and beans, but found that the Indians were reluctant to do so (the English arrived during the worst drought in perhaps 500 years, and the Indians couldn’t spare the corn necessary to feed lazy Englishmen).

So the English tried to steal it instead. In May 1609 the Nansemonds refused to trade with a group of Englishmen and in retaliation the men destroyed their village, fields, and holy places, carrying away “their pearles Copper and braceletts.” The English who did the raid were killed later in repeated engagements with the angry Nansemonds. A short while after the incident with the Nansemonds a group of Powhatans ambushed another trading/raiding party headed by Captain James Ratcliffe, killing Ratcliffe by scraping his flesh “from his bones wth mussell shelles and before his face throwne into the fyer” (a standard Algonkian ritual execution).

In revenge for Captain Ratcliffe’s gory death, George Percy led a raid against a Paspahegh village near Jamestown (even though it is unlikely the Paspahegh had actually killed Ratcliffe). After burning the villages’ houses and cornfields, the English captured the “quene” of the Paspahegh (a werowansqua). Debate ensued about what to do with her children; eventually the English decided to dispose of them by throwing them over the side of the boat and “shoteing owtt their Braynes in the water.” Percy claimed to have had a difficult time convincing his soldiers not to kill the Paspahegh werowansqua at that moment, but she did not survive long anyway. That evening another Virginia Company official claimed to have orders to execute the werowansqua by burning her at the stake. Percy demurred and suggested “a quicker dispatche” instead, so another captain “did take the quene wth towe sowldiers A shoare and in the woods putt her to the Sworde.”

Pleasant place, Jamestown.

You don’t generally hear those kinds of stories about Plymouth. The Plymouth myth masks the violence inherent in the conquest and colonization of North America, and it masks the dreadful situations in which the English and the Indians alike found themselves. Plymouth seems pleasant and innocuous by comparison; the mythology is safe and clean.

Perhaps by 2020 historians will have done the gruesome work of deconstructing the Plymouth myth, as we have now done with Jamestown. The next step, though, is publicizing it.

Posts Submitted for the Symposium:

Email Submitted for the Symposium: David Carlton, Why Not Jamestown?:

A threefold answer: (1) New Englanders wrote much of the history in the nineteenth century; moreover, because they, and the northeast more largely, dominated publishing and the development of public school curricula, their New England-centric version of American history got imbedded in the schools, and thus in the minds of schoolchildren from then on. The New England diaspora spread westward into areas that would subsequently become the heart of the American Manufacturing Belt and the receiving zone for the great bulk of pre-restriction immigrants, who were"Americanized" to the New England version.

(2) Dating the founding of the American settlements from Jamestown gets into the problem of the South. Jack Greene has argued to considerable effect that the origins of American society and culture are in the Chesapeake, not in New England, which was [as colonials certainly believed] the odd colonies out. But one of the great projects of the nineteenth century was to disentangle American values from slavery. If the South was to be redefined as the American regional"other," Jamestown was an embarrassment.

(3) Finally, Jamestown was awkward for the evangelicals. After the Second Great Awakening, when evangelical Protestantism was seeking to identify American values with its own tradition, Jamestown hardly fit into a satisfying narrative of America's"Christian origins." At best it was [shudder] Anglican, but a settlement whose representative figure was a profane soldier of fortune [Captain John Smith] didn't work nearly as well for a myth of origins as did an explicitly religious utopian community. It's noteworthy in this regard that southern evangelical adherents of"Christian America" harp on"our Pilgrim Fathers"; Calhoun must be spinning in his grave.

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More Comments:

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 5/13/2007

The reason the original site of Jamestown could be rediscovered recently was that even the location had been forgotten. Nothing was there in the late 18th century and early 19th, when people began filiopietistic anniversary commemorations in New England at the places where events were commemorated. The town of Plymouth soon had hotels to take care of historical tourists. The local celebrations by descendants could be given metaphoric value for the nation by orators trying to identify and antiquify useful virtues for the present generation.
Interestingly, about half the responses to this symposium do not deal with the question - why New England and not Jamestown became (in the past) the myth of national origin - but instead propose what the authors think might be preferable alternatives to either, now. Preferable with regard to what modern search for utility?

Ralph E. Luker - 5/13/2007

Interesting to know that Zuckerman makes that argument. I've been wondering for some time who would and when would s/he write the major book making that argument.

Dale B. Light - 5/13/2007

Mike Zuckerman has long argued that the mainstream of American national development flows through the Middle Colonies, not New England or Virginia. That's a rather remarkable conclusion coming as it does from the author of "Peaceable Kingdoms."

Ralph E. Luker - 5/12/2007

I think Rebecca is right about this. The key in the question is the word "national". And we are talking about "national memory" here. That essentially means "where were they in 1776"? Therefore, for example, Jamestown is, potentially, a contender, but St. Augustine is not.

Melissa Spore - 5/11/2007

Thanks so much for this symposium. "Why not Jamestown?" is a question I have been asking since about 5th grade.

Manan Ahmed - 5/11/2007

Jamestown, Québec, Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings.

Rebecca Anne Goetz - 5/11/2007

There's an exhibit making the rounds called "1607/1608/1609: Jamestown, Quebec, Santa Fe" about three European powers and their north American colonies. Of course, that leaves out mid-sixteenth century Spanish settlements in La Florida...

Most Americanists are now teaching North American history more broadly, but that's more difficult to do after the American Revolution, when a recognizable and extremely important polity emerges on the east coast and within a century has spread across and incorporated most of the continent...

Nathanael D. Robinson - 5/11/2007


Somehow I think you heard my objections before I would make them. There were many places where Europeans cultures took root in the Americas, and they were folded together as the nation expanded.

The question that should be raised is not just why Plymouth over Jamestown, but why national myths and histories are constructed to emphasize the development in one part of the country rather than seeing the larger quilt that is being sewn. It should also be asked why "spiritual" elements are preferred over others (especially economic). American history has advantages over other nations' because of the modernity of the American project and because it is easy to identify the numerous ethnic imprints. Still, we could ask similar questions--why Rome and not Florence, why Paris and not Lyon, why Beijing and not Shanghai--that would enlighten the bigger question.

Aside: a quick search on Google Books will reveal that, pre-Civil War, writers were already wondering why Virginia did not exploit its legacy as well as Massachusetts.

Jeremy Dupertuis Bangs - 5/10/2007

The answer to the question "why" the New England origin narrative predominated in the 19th century and into the 20th probably needs to take into account use and effectiveness of the annual outpouring (since the 1780s) of published rhetoric about the Pilgrims, including stirring words by John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster, and a fair weight of rhyming verse. And what was experienced as the romantic excitement of Longfellow's "Courtship of Myles Standish" is not matched by anything about Virginia, as far as I know, despite versions of the Pocahantas story. (I'm not very well informed about Virginia, but reading the comments on this topic I guess that's not much of a hindrance.) A related question to the "why" is the question of how the predominance was communicated. I wrote a chapter on the iconology of Pilgrim commemorations, "The Triumph of the Pilgrims ..." which is found in a book edited by Peter Benes and Brenton Simons, called The Art of Family. In the article I attempt to point out underlying visual implications, such as the analogies of strength, protection, and endurance implied by the stereotypical image of piddling Plymouth Rock when it was always given the familiar shape of Gibralter, in wood engravings illustrating countless books for children. Or the implication that an event must be great if its depiction unconsciously recalls something vaguely understood to be part of the canon of Great Art, which one sees in noticing that Henry Sargent's big painting of The Landing of the Pilgrims (in Pilgrim Hall Museum) is conceived as a derivative, reversed version of the composition of Rembrandt's Night Watch. Or the historical background of the costumed pageant, commemorating the beginning of a new era of government - so that dressing up and re-enacting a founding event constitutes a symbolic link to the past in a dramatic form that goes back to the Joyous Entries of the 16th and 17th centuries. (Some historian whose name slips my mind thought that America's costumed pageants were innovative - amusing.)