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Jamestown at 400: Caught Between a Rock and a Slippery Slope

Readers seldom take the pain to gather together all that hath been written on any subject but usually content themselves with one or two books and some former treatises, whereby they gain but a lame and partial knowledge, and so prejudice the Truth. -- Edward Waterhouse, Virginia Company Secretary, 1622

The Commonwealth of Virginia is hosting an ambitious 400th birthday bash on May 11-13 to commemorate Jamestown as England's first permanent colony in North America. That festive weekend is expected to attract 90,000 visitors to the tiny, uninhabited tidal peninsula, still so heavily wooded that it belies the estimated $200 million spent to herald its prominent place in American History.

Virginia has celebrated Jamestown anniversaries every fifty years since 1807, but until Queen Elizabeth II's participation in 1957, those were largely local affairs, attracting little national or transatlantic attention. Global recognition and respect for the significance of Jamestown is the goal in 2007.

But that carefully-coordinated public relations campaign will be hard pressed to compete with the more extensively-publicized random tragedy at Virginia Tech--symbolizing Jamestown's perennial problem of a reputation tarnished by violence and cruelty. That colony's X-rated history, which included internecine feuds, interethnic warfare, and the introduction into Anglo-America of African and Indian slavery, capitalistic profiteering, nicotine addiction, massive terrorism, and even cannibalism, has never been able to compete with the G-rated fairytale of the Plymouth "Pilgrims" in the beloved, mythic memories of our citizenry. Obsessing about the bogus Rock of Plymouth--the Cape Cod Conundrum--as the cause of popular ignorance and indifference toward the senior Virginia colony, historians in this overly-hyped anniversary season have descended down a slippery slope of shameful pandering and inexcusable errors that are symptomatic of a sick profession corrupted by commercialism and cavalier attitudes about accuracy.

In his 1818 biography of Patrick Henry, William Wirt condemned previous accounts of the famous patriot because they were "extremely careless and full of errors.” He discovered so many contradictions about Henry’s "Caesar-Brutus Speech" of 1765 that he “began to doubt whether the whole might not be fiction.” Only after interviewing esteemed eyewitnesses was Wirt convinced that the event qualified as "authentic history." In 2007 we do not have the luxury of conversing with participants from the Revolutionary era, much less the early years at Jamestown. Determining what is "authentic history" today is more difficult than it was for Wirt, because the hoariest myths originated after his death in 1834, and subsequent eras have added new layers of errors to the growing pile. The following chart identifies issues that make "authentic history" so problematical today, when mistakes, like computer viruses, proliferate with lightning speed, blur the line between factual and fictional "stories," and erode confidence in a profession (once) dependent upon accuracy, integrity, and reliability.

While no historian in four hundred years has yet provided a complete and compelling analysis of why Jamestown was founded when it was, authors continue to screw up even simpler details--such as how many colonists first landed at Jamestown? Despite the quest for accuracy implied by the best-selling college reader, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, its celebrated authors perpetuate the error that "only 105 of the original 144 settlers reached Chesapeake Bay." That mistake results from ignoring original documents, which traditionally provided historians with the Joy of Text. A total of 144 colonists and crewmen left England in December 1606, but 39 of them were sailors who had to take the ships back! Only one death was recorded on the voyage, leaving 104 males as the original founders. The September 2006 issue of Cobblestone and the "America at 400" issue (May 7) of Time magazine got it right, but Edmund S. Morgan did not in his New York Review of Books essay of April 26.

Establishing correct statistics based on primary source evidence does not constitute an antiquarian obsession with trivia, because immigration and depopulation are central factors in evaluating Jamestown's development.

Another example of statistical confusion involves the colonial death toll in the "Barbarous Massacre" of March 22, 1622. Although historians ignore its larger implications as the major watershed event in early Virginia, they continue to play a ridiculous numbers game with the official death toll of 347 published by the Virginia Company in August 1622. Most scholars today accept that total without questioning, since it was set in type, but an actual analysis shows that Edward Waterhouse, who compiled the report, included merely missing colonists, as well as confirmed corpses; duplicated names; and then added incorrectly. For the sake of convenience rather than

Stratigraphy of History

Era of Anniversary Marketing

  • Rock music revelry is preferred over rock solid pedagogy
  • Museums prosper while most schools are left behind
  • Visual displays are more "fun" than reading books

Era of Apology and Political Correctness

  • Official rhetoric of remorse merges PC with PR
  • "Commemoration" is preferable to "Celebration"
  • Victimology perpetuates ethnic bias in reverse
  • Conflicts between knowledge and belief

Period of Proliferating Mis-Information

  • History scandals of plagiarism, fraud, and lies
  • History Channel "video games" play with accuracy
  • World Wide Web disseminates endless errors
  • Wikipedia Syndrome privileges amateurs over academics
  • Harry Potter Syndrome equates profits with "greatness"
  • Mega-publishers more prefer marketing over fact-checking

Period of Educational Decline

  • Only journalists and amateur historians can engage the public
  • The Academy and the Society engage in cyclical dumbing down
  • Each generation demands less knowledge of the next one
  • Grade inflation favors self-esteem over criticism

Age of Mythical Romanticism: Lies Feel Good

  • Great White Fathers rule, now as then
  • Triumphalism is our Manifest Destiny
  • Delusional propaganda is patriotic

accuracy, other historians round up to 350 or even 400, convinced that the Company fudged the figures to save face. Why then did the London directors rush to publish a name-by-name, settlement-by-settlement butcher's bill at all? Legal and financial factors dictated that a "True List" of victims be as accurate as possible, "to the end that . . . lawful heirs may take speedy order for the inheriting of their lands and estates there." But the colony's sponsors went even further, listing dozens of only partially-named victims, including many landless servants--six of whom were so badly mutilated as to be identifiable only by sex. In-depth investigation reveals that 320 colonists were killed on March 22, including 255 men (80% of the total), 35 women (11%), and 30 children (9%)--or 26 percent of the colonial population.

Historians used to be taught to evaluate evidence, to question everything, but that is rarely the case today, as the most enduring old myth about Jamestown reveals. The "Good Friday Fallacy" associated with the 1622 Massacre originated 136 years ago and was still misleading the general public as recently as the May 7 issue of Time magazine and the January 2007 special Jamestown issue of U.S. News & World Report. Good Friday fell on April 19 in both the 1622 and 1644 years of massive Powhatan offensives, and that led to the creation of the myth--unforgivably by a clergyman. In 1871 the Rev. Edward D. Neill got his massacres mixed up; thought the 1644 attack occurred on Good Friday, rather than on Maundy Thursday; and then inadvertently reversed the years! A Neill admirer, Dr. Lyon G. Tyler, embraced the symbolism of heathens slaying Anglicans on that special day of Christian sacrifice. A careless slip became an enduring myth because both men were popular celebrity authors, more prolific than careful, with Neill restating his error in multiple, repetitious books from 1871-1885, while Tyler did likewise from 1904-1915.

The indifference paid to or paid by copyeditors and proofreaders is even more telling in the publication industry today, as the Good Friday Fallacy is more widely disseminated than ever before. At least three Oxford University Press books perpetuate that error--including the 25th anniversary edition of T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes's popular "Myne Owne Ground": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676--while notable scholars, such as Breen, John Murrin, and Jill Lepore, keep it alive in their college textbooks. Such errors also live on in cyberspace, where "history viruses" proliferate like all the others. They have "infected" the Jamestowne.org website, which has an entire section under a prominent heading, "Good Friday Massacre," as well as the 2005 online book by the National Park Service, A Study of Virginia Indians and Jamestown: The First Century.

In our technologically-advanced Mis-Information Age, the historical equivalent of spam or intellectual pornography abounds on the Internet. In February 2007 the "Revolutionary Times" website of Colonial Williamsburg--the official source for news about the quadricentennial--introduced errors into its "Little-Known Facts about Jamestown" feature. It read: "The British king revoked the Virginia Company charter in 1622 [should be 1624] and Virginia became the first British [instead of royal] colony." Another website portrays the 1607 ship Susan Constant flying the 1801 flag of the United Kingdom. Tobacco.org credits smoking with an important role in Manifest Destiny, adding gratuitous anti-Hispanic prejudice: "Few realize that this seminal event in American history [John Rolfe's hybridization of Virginia tobacco] may well be why the lower half of the United States speaks English instead of Spanish today"!

Another dubious trend in our age of computerization is the reliance on and reprinting of old, obsolete books that are readable but not reliable. The Ancestry.com website reproduces all of William Broaddus Cridlin's 1923 History of Colonial Virginia as its Jamestown source, while Jamestowne.org makes extensive use of Mary Newton Stanard's 1928 Story of Virginia's First Century, which has been reprinted for the 2007 anniversary. The website of the First North Carolina Company of the Jamestowne Society promotes its sale by proclaiming that "every high school in the nation should have a copy of this book in its library."

Why does the general public continue to embrace such flawed, dated information when it would be unthinkable to rely on medical advice from the 1920s? The quantitative and qualitative decline in the study of history has left most lay readers ill-equipped to comprehend cutting-edge scholarship. But academic historians should be capable of producing well-written, compelling narratives that demonstrate the value of continual, cumulative Re-Searching and constant Re-Vision without alienating the reader with theorizing jargon. J. H. Hexter wrote that "dull history is bad history to the extent to which it is dull." If being "up to date" means being "out of touch" with the huge audience outside of academe, then well-paid "interpreters" will continue to reap profits by writing engaging best-sellers that exploit the indispensable research of lower-paid experts.

The disjunction between what professional historians are interested in and what the public wants to read is very apparent in 2007. Major national anniversaries used to be occasions for citizens to reconnect and recommit to a common heritage of unique significance. But the quadricentennial has generated much negative commentary about political correctness and the ways in which Jamestown's unique contributions are being ignored, condemned, marginalized, trivialized, eviscerated, or at least overshadowed by a broad focus on comparative, contemporaneous events in a global context. Historian Karen Ordahl Kupperman, a staunch proponent of the new Atlantic History, wrote in 2005 that "in recent decades study of Jamestown became stuck in a narrow focus on the eventsof the early colony,” and she cautioned against “isolating Jamestown’s founding as the beginning of American history.” That is precisely what the newsmagazines and popular books are emphasizing to drum up interest in 1607--albeit vastly overstating the "origins of America," the "foundations of democracy," the "beginning of the American dream," or, as the May 7 Time cover stated, "How Jamestown colony made us who we are"!

The dilemma of such different approaches and audiences is symbolized in two contradictory anniversary exhibitions at the Virginia Historical Society. "Jamestown, Quebec, and Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings" follows the trendy Atlantic History model by diluting the unique heritage of Jamestown as merely one piece of the nationally- and ethnically-mixed jigsaw puzzle of colonization on this continent. The second exhibit, "Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend," caters to the traditional romantic fascination with a native celebrity revered by whites then and now because she seemingly recognized their "superior" civilization and religion. The recent True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History, by Dr. Linwood "Little Bear" Custalow and Angela L. Daniel "Silver Star," may make such a patronizing display a poisonous reminder of Anglocentric abuse in future anniversaries. Citing "sacred oral Mattapani traditions," those authors claim that Pocahontas was raped during her captivity (possibly by Sir Thomas Dale); gave birth to her son, Thomas, prior to marrying Rolfe; and was poisoned to death in England before she could return home.

No wonder the public is perplexed by contradictory perspectives that run the gamut from the New Fad of Global Inclusiveness, to the Traditional Rut of Insular Eurocentric Antiquarianism, to the Latest Privileging of Native American Victimology. As serious book readers die off and younger generations embrace visual imagery from electronic media, it is museums that have emerged as the preferred purveyors of historical information-as-entertainment for anniversary audiences. Taking a cue from Marshall McLuhan and noting the success of The History Channel and video game technology, three new museums at Jamestown use high-tech media to deliver their messages.

The National Park Service has a new $58 million Visitors Center at "Historic Jamestowne" (i.e., the "Island"), featuring a 360-degree theater for viewing an excellent orientation film, in addition to state of the art exhibits organized around the theme, "The Atlantic World in 1607." Much-enhanced coverage of Indian relations includes commentary written by members of Virginia's eight surviving historic tribes. On the nearby mainland, "Jamestown Settlement" is a major $80 million refurbishment and enlargement of the old "Jamestown Festival Park" built for the 1957 anniversary. Although its major focus is on Living History by costumed reenactors at the replica James Fort, on the three reconstructed ships that made the first voyage, and in the Powhatan Village, the "Settlement" also features $24 million of much revised (and revisionist) exhibit galleries occupying 40,000-square feet. The most scholarly of the new museums is the Archaearium (ark ee air ee um)--the $5 million, 7,500-square foot building operated by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), which displays the most fascinating of the one million artifacts unearthed since 1994 at the "lost" original fort. Dr. William Kelso and his Jamestown Rediscovery Project team of talented archaeologists are to be congratulated not only for finding that site, but for imparting a sense of shared humanity across the centuries without compromising high scholarly standards or ignoring comparative contexts.

Archaeologists remind historians that factual accuracy is essential if any book or exhibit is to be credible. Quadricentennial histories have a deplorable track record in that regard, becoming just another hyped commodity in Oprah's Entertainment Universe. The pursuit of profit and celebrity status has tainted the marketplace of ideas, making Harry Potter-type popularity, measured by revenue, a more desirable goal than reliable research. Cover designers have obviously commandeered the salaries once paid to copyeditors as anniversary titles vie with one another for the most sensationalized means of conveying misinformation. Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America, by British broadcaster Benjamin Woolley, is misleading enough with regard to the Indians who really settled Virginia. But an even more egregious deception is perpetrated by the title of A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America, by respected scholar James Horn. Such misleading marketing revives the hoariest colonial myth of all--America as a "virgin land"--and denigrates decades of ethnohistorical scholarship that thoroughly refuted such "Cant of Conquest." The "First Americans" cover of U.S. News & World Report (January 2007) is similarly so Anglocentric and dismissive of Native American and Spanish precedents as to call into question what the terms "America," "Americans," and even "First" really mean.

G. M. Trevelyan wrote that "in the realm of history, the moment we have reason to think we are being given fiction instead of fact, be the fiction ever so brilliant, our interest collapses like a pricked balloon." Once credibility is so severely compromised, it is only a short step to caricatures and cartoons--such as Disney's Pocahontas, Terrence Malick's The New World, and the September 2006 Cobblestone parody of "Jamestown Island" as another site of the "Survivor" TV series. A more serious challenge to chronological accuracy are the 19th-century illustrations invariably used to portray the people and events of 17th-century Jamestown. The same anachronistic Victorian era engraving of Indians wearing Teton Lakota headdresses and standing beside Ojibwe birchbark canoes has already appeared in anniversary issues of Time, U.S. News & World Report, and History Channel Magazine.

The persistent fascination with Pocahontas is symptomatic of how avidly historians trivialize and mythologize our heritage if there is some financial reward. Stephen Colbert's tongue-in-cheek "truthiness" has nothing on the overly-hyped obsession with a 10-12-year-old child who neither "saved" nor romanced Captain Smith, who may have been castrated years before as a slave of the Ottoman Turks. The best-selling Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation (!) by journalist David A. Price, merely recasts Smith's accounts into a soap opera, while missing the opportunity to add new information. Anthropologist Helen C. Rountree's Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown, in contrast, is too creative in peddling a purported Indian view of Virginia colonization to anniversary readers, but the passive tense of her subtitle shows the problem of that approach. Camilla Townsend's seriously-flawed Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma is misleading due to a misreading of critical original sources. Referring to a famous 1590 De Bry engraving of an Indian girl and her mother, Townsend contends that the child is "holding a powder horn," which "has often been taken [by other historians] to be a doll in Elizabethan dress." But it is clearly that, and Thomas Harriot's caption directly underneath the picture confirms that the English at Roanoke brought dolls to give to Indian children.

Paula Gunn Allen's even worse book, Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat, is a fictionalized, error-filled study masquerading as biography. The Laguna Pueblo author considers Pocahontas the "female counterpart to . . . George Washington," and she credits the "inspiration" she received by "soak[ing] up . . . Algonquin whispers . . . of the Wampanoag women" at Plimoth Plantation--as well as "direct and startling messages" communicated by the spirit of Pocahontas herself!

Allen's claim that the "battle" of March 22, 1622 "resulted in few deaths among the English" (my italics) reveals the historical dishonesty in so-called "Native American views" of the Powhatan Massacre, which Rountree and Frederic W. Gleach similarly promote (see my essay, "The First Act of Terrorism in English America," HNN, January 16, 2006). Twisted terminology and suspect "evidence" produce ethnic polemics, not "authentic history."

The Virginia legislature recently apologized for enslaving Africans and dispossessing Indians and installed a highway marker honoring Opechancanough as a great--but greatly sanitized--"resistance leader." That "Great General" of the Powhatans was a brilliant strategist whose most innovative achievement was using the tactic of massive terrorism against Anglo-Americans for the first time in world history. An equitable empathy for all victims of violence must replace PC and PR fabrications, if we are to accommodate our different heritages within a Virginia history that is greater than the sum of its parts. Let's begin by dumping inaccurate and limiting characterizations, such as the oft-used official anniversary phrase, "the meeting of three cultures." Multiple Indian, African, and European cultures from three continents shaped the Jamestown colony.

Despite almost a half century of ethnohistorical publications, Anglo-Indian relations are still the Achilles heel of many reputable historians. Bernard Bailyn is a prime example of the Bigger-They-Are-the-Less-They-Are-Edited trend in celebrity scholarship. In Atlantic History, he confused the First Anglo-Powhatan War of 1609-1614 with the Second Anglo-Powhatan War of 1622-1632--an error as huge as placing WWI doughboys on the beaches of D-Day--which invalidated some key conclusions. His Harvard colleague, Joyce Chaplin, in Subject Matter: Technology, the Body, and Science on the Anglo-American Frontier, 1500-1676, similarly mixed up the two periods, "proving" an erroneous point about English-Chickahominy relations in 1622 by citing as her sole source Ralph Hamor's 1615 account. He was a gifted chronicler but no Nostradamus.

Edmund S. Morgan and Bailyn are most responsible for stigmatizing Jamestown as a chaotic, confused "Fiasco" of unrelenting violence, and both interpret the post-Massacre period as "'a perpetual war without peace or truce'--a project of extermination in which the conquerors were largely successful." But they, like many other historians, confuse the genocidal and dispossession rhetoric in London with the opposite reality of limited, pragmatic combat in Virginia, which actually encouraged the Powhatans to stay on the land. Governor Sir Francis Wyatt never actually attempted the much-quoted "Expulsion of the Savages," and Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia and other contemporaries reported how creatively the colonists solved their perennial Indian and subsistence problems simultaneously with one ingenious military tactic, known as the "feed fight." The colonists' intermittent, harvesting raids of Powhatan fields made red peasants of their Indian enemies, allowing English servants to eat well and concentrate their labors on the record production of the international drug crop that demonstrated Virginia's viability and value to Britain. The fact that the Powhatans were neither exterminated nor driven away explains why Virginia created the first Indian reservations in the 1640s and the survival of eight original tribes in the state today.

Morgan's 1975 diatribe in American Slavery, American Freedom about "the suicidal impulse that led the hungry English to destroy [Indian] corn that might have fed them" is the source of the confusion about the intent of "feed fights." He was still advocating that view in the April 26, 2007 New York Review of Books, despite revisionist interpretations to the contrary over the last twenty-five years. Morgan's critical error was misreading the "cutting down" of maize plants as an act of destruction rather than confiscation by the very sensible, non-suicidal survivors of the Massacre. Even such a far-fetched explanation catches on, unfortunately, when written by a scholar of Morgan's magnitude. In his 2005 book, The First Way of War, John Grenier stated that of Wyatt's 180 troops in 1623, "80 took up 'carrying corn,' that is, destroying Powhatan fields"! Obviously, however, "carrying" referred to the transport of cut corn stalks from Powhatan villages to Jamestown, and many original documents describe maize as "spoil" and "booty"--worth up to L1 sterling per bushel for war profiteers like Sir George Yeardley.

Most of the anniversary publications do not reflect great credit on the historical profession, either in terms of careful research or creative perspectives. With only a few exceptions, all recent books merely focus on the Virginia Company period between 1607-1624. Such tiresome rehashings of familiar information only demonstrate innovation and imagination in the fresh errors they introduce, so that knowledgeable readers begin to feel like Charles Dickens, when he lamented that"the life of Shakespeare is a fine Mystery, and I tremble every day that something should turn up!"

Historians in the future will hopefully redirect their attention to the exciting and refreshing period from 1624-1641. That's when Virginians enjoyed unprecedented independence and experimentation--adapting creatively to a wider regional environment; making enlightened alliances with distant Indians, who became indispensable partners to the Chesapeake beaver trade; and exploiting that intercultural commerce for greater integra-tion into the transatlantic economy.

With such a huge price tag, Jamestown's 400th anniversary efforts to engage and educate Americans about their history is as big a gamble, as ambitious and expensive an experiment, as the original effort to found and sustain that colony. History, as the marketing arm of national identity, is at a critical crossroads, and if we cannot figure out why 1607 is deserving of a "celebration" without exaggerating or emending the past, we will be left only with legislative apologies and irrelevant musical entertainment. This may be Jamestown's last milestone anniversary with any historical content that the general public can grasp or even care about, and we should seize the opportunity to embrace Jamestown, warts and all, as a fitting model for a 21st century society grappling anew with terrorism, transoceanic invasion, and the exploitation of its own citizens. Jamestown's tragedies are particularly relevant for our post-Katrina, Iraq-mired nation still trying to decide if the U.S.A. should be judged by its victories or its victims. Our failure as historians to interpret those issues honestly and accurately would represent Jamestown's greatest disappointment and most tragic legacy of all.