Have you ever had someone say to you, “Can we talk while we walk?” That’s what I want to do here.
The walk begins in Jamestowne, Virginia.
On the surface, not much survives from colonial days. A ruined church tower and graves, huddled next to the James River, on a swampy, bug-infested little island.
Nonetheless, I’ll begin by endorsing the bold claim that Jamestown is the best place, to begin a walk through American colonial days.
In 1607, with a little band of Englishmen, landing on a miserable, malarial spit of land in Virginia.
Not with the Spanish in Florida, the French in Canada, the Dutch in New York, or the Pilgrims in New England.
But this post isn’t to argue that point. It is to talk about gaining insights into history, by visiting the sites. It’s part of a larger, and mostly out-of-fashion, empathetic approach to learning about the past.
It is a strange thing. America’s saga – – one of immigration, revolution, movement, progress, and tremendous change, begins in a place where it appears nothing much has changed.
In the summer, Jamestown Island is kind of a pest hole. Full of mud, the water in the swamps full of natural toxins (plus new pollutants from upstream), riddled with ticks and chiggers and mosquitoes and any number of multi-legged freaks that bite, sting, suck your blood, and perhaps give you a nasty disease. My time there required gallons of aloe, calamine, and bug repellent. And antibiotics, when I tested positive for Lyme disease. And as more pests and diseases head our way, they will probably find this island. Many folks forget that malaria used to be endemic in places like this, and wasn’t really wiped out in the U.S., by hosing down the landscape with DDT, until after WWII.
I spent the summer of ’14 working as an intern and docent at Historic Jamestowne. While I loved my work, and working with some great people from Preservation Virginia, I surely did not care for the locale. The temperature passed 100 Fahrenheit almost every day, and the humidity seemed to be trying to exceed 100, too. If we could time-travel, I’d probably try to persuade the Virginia Company to continue northward to the Hudson River. Or maybe even Hudson Bay. Someplace cooler, anyway.
Ok, so maybe things weren’t quite as terrible as during the old days.
On the other hand, by arriving early, the original settlers didn’t have to put up with America First-ers.
Not the political group, but the haughty “My ancestors were the Hereditary Squires of Dripping Snodsbury, who stepped off the Mayflower, onto Plymouth Rock, laden with antique bed-warmers, brass thunder jugs, and rigid religious convictions …” who do not want to hear any history that isn’t the apotheosis of English colonialist heroism, and the sacred birthplace of Patriot democracy and manifest destiny.
The reality of a desperate, starving, backstabbing, murderous little Bedlam clashes a bit with their legends.
People of color, standing in the shadow of the ruined church, ask about another first: the first shipload of African captives to arrive in Virginia. (On an English ship, sailing as a Dutch privateer, which captured the Africans from a Portuguese slaver – a real EU common market of misery.)
Native Americans also visit, and desire to hear a narrative of a bucolic, endlessly harmonious, precolonial Eden, ruined by an invasion of disease-laden illegal aliens.
If you can balance and placate all these parties in the same talk, you should run for office.
At least, as far as I remember, even if somebody didn’t care for my lecture, I never heard an arrow or musket ball whistle past.
And seriously, I appreciated 99.9% of visitors — people who take the time to visit, to learn, and who care about history, care enough to form an opinion, and can share their family histories without snobbery! I enjoyed giving tours to visitors from all over the world, and was fascinated by everyone’s stories, and their incredible array of viewpoints and conceptions of history.
I was thrilled to work among fascinating artifacts (more being uncovered every day!), wandering among the active dig site and learning more as I went.
The site is unusual in that the archaeologists are doing their level best to do a clean sweep. Usually a small portion of a site is dug, and the rest reserved for future researchers, who may have more sophisticated technology. But here, salt water encroachment is dissolving artifacts at a pretty good clip, so they’re trying to dig and conserve them, before they vanish.
The Past. In Past Tense.
I believe it is important to learn history “In person. On site.” Meaning, go to where it happened.
Why? Just say “historic preservation” three times, and most people lapse into a coma, like an incantation of boredom.
Why bother going to these sites? The colonists are long dead and gone, their little fort and pathetic shelters also returned to dust. The first five hundred didn’t have much time to make a mark, really, since all but sixty would be dead within a year. Why go “some place where something happened.” Past tense. Then, but not Now.
Why not just find a comfortable armchair, and read about it. Actually, I love that! Historians, when they’re good, boil down so much research and thought, and pour it out for us, nice and smooth. They make things accessible, organized, and so very clear. We can just sit back and enjoy the narrative, as history marches along, obeying the Zeitgeist, every character in perfect step.
So many amazing people have devoted themselves to writing history – digging, sifting, reassembling, distilling. Peering through complex lenses in the mind’s eye, re-imagining, so they can draw for us, all the interwoven paths and patterns invisible to ordinary folks just existing day-to-day.
I love diving into history books. But, here’s a recent news flash — you cannot understand everything about life by reading. You also need to experience it. What does 110 degrees feel like in the Virginia summer? Stand in the sun there for a summer, trying to focus while feeling various blood-sucking bugs crawl up your legs to reach embarrassing places, and you have a better grasp, better than any book can convey, of at least one aspect of the colonists’ lives. I came to the realization, that I don’t think clearly in weather like this, don’t feel well, and would undoubtedly pass out if I was chopping down trees, trying to put up a palisade. And I wasn’t starving to death, half-poisoned by tainted well water, encased in wool, leather and steel, capped off with a Sancho Panza tin hat, and terrified of getting an arrow in my back. The steamy weather also made me feel short-tempered – probably not a good idea to let me have a sword handy. Not surprising they found the remains of what was probably the first accidental gunshot victim in America.
I do not think for an instant, that we can really “walk the walk,” meaning, replicate the experience or mindset of those folks in 1607. But I do believe, simply put, that experiencing these places can yield some insights not available from a book. In a similar way, probably some people find it easy to mock reenactors. To them, the hardcores in Tony Horwitz’s “Confederates in the Attic” might appear faintly ridiculous. I think, that they probably know a few things about the Civil War, that we do not.
We learn so much from doing. Of course, you have to draw a line somewhere. For me, at Jamestown, it was meals. And the historical question “Do we really taste like chicken?”
What made cannibalism, totally taboo and almost unheard of in American history, come to life for me? One day I found myself staring into the empty eye sockets of a skull, unearthed from a rubbish pit, and then unable to stop staring at the knife marks on it, where a starving colonial cut the flesh and ligaments off the face of the deceased girl. No matter how cerebral the author, or how sinewy the prose, a book about the Starving Time will never have the visceral impact that skull did.
The fleshless skull brought history to life for me. I’d read, studied, and listened to lectures about the colony and its woes, but until I worked at the site, and among the artifacts and relics found there, I had not really felt their desperation.
Living on a student stipend, I opened my brown bag, and each day, felt sincerely grateful for my peanut butter sandwich.
It Ain’t Much, It’s Just a Hole in the Ground
Here is another example from that summer of 2014. While I was there, archaeologists uncovered something spectacular and exciting, in it’s own way.
It was a hole in the ground.
And the decayed remains of a wooden stump.
Actually, the spot where a hole used to be.
Exciting, right? I can tell you’re impressed.
But when Bill Kelso, the famous archaeologist who’s been digging there many years, looked down at that particular posthole, he realized we were looking at the exact, literal edge of the British Empire.
The colonists’ first concern at Jamestowne was being slaughtered by the Spanish, so a three-sided fort was quickly thrown up, with cannons pointed toward the river. But when the native inhabitants became hostile, the British fell back on their experience in Ireland, combating ambush-style fighting in the Ulster Plantation, and created a five-sided fort. The posthole they uncovered while I was there, was a remnant of this 1608 palisade.
Suddenly I felt that I was living history. In history classes and travel, it seemed I was always, always running into Englishmen Abroad. Hong Kong. Singapore. Sepoy Rebellion. East India Company. Jamaica, mon. Prudential’s Rock of Gibraltar. Rhodes Scholars/Boer Wars/South Africa. Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham. A cup of tea from Kenya. Kiwi from New Zealand. Henry Hudson sailing through NY. Dr. Watson’s limp from a Jezail bullet. 54° 40′ or Fight. The Falklands War. etc. I can keep going all day, it’s no problem.
And of course, there was this local dispute between English folks, in 1775. So the idea that The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire was embedded in my mind.
But what I was looking straight down at, just an image in the clay, was the farthest extent of that empire in 1608. The whole glorious imperial affair, almost four thousand miles across the Atlantic from London, terminated in a choleric swamp in coastal Virginia, marked by a bit of stump in a soggy hole. The rest of North America, and the world, was “beyond the pale.”
Jamestown felt like my first face-to-face encounter with history. From then on, I began to experience history on a personal level, driving me to work harder, dig deeper, and ask more questions. It’s a good place to think this way, since forty years ago, the experts advised Dr. Kelso, that Jamestowne had long ago washed into the river. He questioned, dug, and found the site.
…On with the walk. Moving up a century, and farther upstream…next stop, Chestertown, on the Chester River, in Maryland.
I promise, no more famine, no cannibalism, no blood-sucking pests…well, there will be British tax collectors.