Jamestown Settlement is an extensive hands-on educational experience complete with gallery exhibits, the reconstructed James Fort, replica ships, including the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, and a Powhatan Indian Village. While it was fun to step back in time and experience a seventeenth century day in Jamestown (interestingly pronounced Jame-ehz-town in the Settlement's informational video), I could not help but sense that I was learning about Virginia's history from a very Western perspective. Our nation celebrates the English as those who discovered Virginia. We rarely teach our children that the English invaded Virginia. Seventeenth century Americans consist of more than just English settlers. Rather, the term 'Americans' also includes Native American Indians (I will refer to them as Indians) and African-Americans. A closer look at their story reveals false stereotypes of a strong and intelligent people largely ignored in early American history.
I was disappointed to find the Indian exhibit so far "inland" at the Settlement's gallery. The gallery began with English history and later introduced the Indians in a confined gallery inlet. I believe it would be more appropriate to begin the gallery with an Indian exhibit. After all, American history begins with the Indians. Despite its placement in the gallery, I was impressed with the Settlement's attempt to portray Powhatan history. I was surprised to discover that 14,000 Powhatan Indians inhabited Virginia in 1607, the year the first English settlers arrived at Jamestown. Powhatan was the leader of about thirty-two tribes. Powhatan is actually a title that means chief or leader. Powhatan's real name was Wahunsonacock, and his people referred to their land as Tsenacommacah, which means "densely inhabited land." As you can imagine, they were anything BUT excited when the English began building a fort and expanding onto their territory – just imagine how we would react today if another nation started to set up camp in Chesapeake Bay and moved in without asking a soul … not a good situation!
James Axtell's article "The Rise and Fall of the Powhatan Empire" helped me develop my understanding of English-Indian relationships. The English were increasingly dependent on the Indians for survival. The English befriended Powhatan to establish allies against the Spanish and other neighboring Indian tribes. In turn, Powhatan also wanted to befriend the English for political reasons: he wanted to prevent them from becoming allies with his tribal enemies. So, while the English and Indians secretly hated each other (and sometimes quite openly!), they depended on each other for survival. Their "friendship" varied as their political, economic, and social needs continuously fluctuated. Speculations indicate that, at times, Powhatan traded just enough corn to keep the settlers alive and deplete their strength to keep them from becoming a serious threat. Again, he desired their survival for political and economic purposes. This technique did not last under strong leaders, such as John Smith and Sir Thomas Dale, who did not take "no" for an answer. They treated the Indians with brute force to get the supplies they needed.
By 1624, it was no longer necessary for the English to maintain their "friendship" with the Indians. Tobacco was the colony's cash crop. The population increased as more men and women were sent to Virginia to create "tobacco factories." The Indians felt threatened as the English expanded their settlement outside of James Fort and to surrounding areas, such as Martin's Hundred and Henrico. As a result, the Powhatan were running out of territory to relocate as they were enclosed by tribal enemies to the north, south, and west. This left them no alternative but to riot against the English in 1624. Of course, the English saw the Indians as the "bad guys," so they refer to the riot as the Massacre of 1624. In my opinion, the English asked for their massacre. They treated these indigenous inhabitants with little respect and sought to destroy "barbaric" Powhatan culture through Protestant conversion. Sadly, in the case of all history, the strongest survive. In this case, the English were able to call themselves victors. They were not a better people; they were simply more technologically powerful and proved that arrows were no match for guns. How would history have been different if the English did not have guns?
Guns aside, the English were generally ill-suited for life in the new colonies. More than half their population met death on more than one occasion because of disease and malnutrition. Why were the English continuously failing? Edmund S. Morgan's article "The Labor Problem at Jamestown, 1607-1618" prompts me to believe that English work ethic caused settlers to find and force other laborers to do much of THEIR work.
England's social structure was extremely compartmentalized. The pyramidal exhibit at the Settlement illustrated the social categories very clearly. Beginning from the top of the pyramid and working our way down, we have the: Monarchs --> Nobility --> Gentry --> Citizens & Burgesses --> Yeomen --> Workers --> Poor. Moreover, people's role remained strictly within their social class and profession. I was surprised to discover, from Morgan's article, that it was against the law to work more hours than permitted and to practice more than one trade. While this law was enforced to stretch the job market and employ as many people as possible in England, where the population was booming, it limited people's skills and stunted their drive to work harder. As a result, the settlers failed because they were trying to imitate England's social and economic model in the New World. Life in the New World demanded people to overstep these boundaries and work long hours and be proficient at numerous jobs if they wanted to successfully survive.
Instead of restructuring their traditional work ethic, settlers opted to find other people to do their work for them. While using indentured servants and slaves proved to be a successful way of getting work done for the English, it was a most unfortunate situation for the workers. At first, the English attempted to force Indian men to work; however, they found them to be "no good." The English failed to realize that Powhatan society was matrilineal. The women were the farmers while the men were the hunters and warriors. But, of course, it would have been inconceivable to the English, where men were the primary farmers, to force Indian women to do such hard labor. The Indians were not the solution to the settlers' labor problem.
So, what was 'Plan B'? Slaves. Now, before you picture the primary character from the television series "Roots," let's establish a couple of important facts. First, seventeenth century slavery is very different from antebellum slavery. Secondly, these slaves were knowledgeable of English culture and religion. In other words, the slaves were really not as different from the English settlers as we tend to think.
Slavery ALREADY existed in Africa. Opposing tribes took prisoners of war and sold them for profit to other tribes or the Portuguese, who were attempting to colonize parts of western Africa. According to John Thorton's article "The African Experience of the '20. and Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia in 1619," the Portuguese, under Luis Mendes de Vasconçelos relied heavily on the Imbangalas, who were master African warriors, to help them conquer African territory and captives. The '20' slaves that were sent to Jamestown in 1619 came from a concentrated area of Angola. Thorton describes them as knowledgeable people who lived in urban communities. They were also exposed to trade and Christianity, capable of farming, and wore garments made of cloth. It is interesting that descriptions of these captives include that they wore garments made of cloth. This image, as well as the previous descriptions, significantly contrasts the stereotypical Western image of slaves and "stupid" and "barbaric." Rather, these slaves were well-developed peoples that were not much different from the colonists!
The crisis in Africa between the Portuguese and Africans was advantageous to colonists. The Portuguese were looking for a place to deport their newly acquired captives, and the English settlers wanted people for agricultural labor purposes. Life as a slave in 1619 was not ideal – slavery is not ideal – but, they were not treated like antebellum slaves. Because the English and Angolan slaves had, to a large extent, a shared culture, their humanity, and most certainly their labor, was valued; yet, this element of value worked against slaves. The settlers could not survive without slave labor. Thus, the concept of a free slave frightened the English, and this situation caused racial conflict.
A copy of Morgan Goodwyn's "The Negro's & Indians Advocate" from 1680 is on display in the Settlement's gallery. He "feared that colonial society would be destroyed by race and class conflicts." Goodwyn's believed these problems would become increasingly worse with time and that Americans were, thus, doomed. Is Goodwyn right? Or, does time allow a society to correct and redefine its social and racial problems?