May 14, 2010 by Reader's Connection
Today is the anniversary of the 1607 founding of the Jamestown settlement and the colony of Virginia. In 2007, the 400th anniversary of the first successful English settlement on the mainland of North America triggered a floodtide of books on the subject.
As several of the books remind us, the situation there was often touch and go.
Savage Kingdom: The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America by Benjamin Woolley
The 400th anniversary of the first American colony has stimulated renewed interest in the Jamestown settlement. Woolley tackles his subject with the same type of narrative gusto displayed by Nathaniel Philbrick in his best-selling Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006). Like Philbrick, his treatment of a legendary event and era in American history is comprehensive and myth shattering. In addition to analyzing the economic, social, and cultural roots of the fledgling colony, all the major historical players–and quite a few of the minor ones–are given their due. Approaching his subject from a number of angles, Woolley presents a revisionist portrait of the Jamestown colony. Without resorting to pedestrian platitudes, he evokes a stirring epic in American history in all its greed, gore, and glory. — Booklist
Written in Bone: Buried Lives of Jamestown and Colonial Maryland by Sally M. Walker
In 2005, scientists from the Smithsonian Institution unearthed the first of several gravesites found at Jamestown, Virginia. This carefully written and attractive book chronicles the fascinating scientific procedures used to meticulously and painstakingly excavate this archeological dig, and others nearby. Using the principles of forensic anthropology, archeologists discovered not only the scientific details of the Colonists´ lives, but information that helped answer the author´s driving questions. Part science, part history book, this title presents newly discovered facts. From information gleaned from the skeletons, the reader learns about the daily life of several inhabitants. The book includes numerous well-captioned color photographs, diagrams, and maps to provide an excellent visual overview. Anyone enamored by the science involved in the currently popular crime forensic television programs will appreciate this book as it describes how these methods are used to uncover historic facts. — Library Media Connection
The Jamestown Project by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
The Jamestown story needs retelling, says NYU historian Kupperman (Providence Island) not just because 2007 marks the 400th anniversary of its settlement. It also needs retelling because Americans tend to locate our origins in Plymouth and distance ourselves from Jamestown, which we associate with “greedy, grasping colonists” backed by “arrogant” English patrons. The first decade of Jamestown’s history was messy, admits Kupperman, but through that mess, settlers figured out how to make colonization work. Plymouth, in fact, benefited from the lessons learned at Jamestown. What is remarkable is that a colonial outpost on the edge of Virginia, in a not very hospitable location, survived at all. Kupperman, of course, shows how the colonists negotiated relationships with Indians. But her more innovative chapters focus on labor. Colonists began experimenting with tobacco, and colonial elites gradually realized that people were more willing to work when they were laboring for themselves. Backers in England began to think more flexibly about how to create colonial profits. But the dark side of this success story is the institution of indentured servitude, which proved key to Jamestown’s success. Kupperman, marrying vivid narration with trenchant analysis, has done the history of Jamestown, and of early America, a great service. — Publishers Weekly
The next three titles emphasize one incident in the history of Jamestown. I had thought about staggering them artfully so you wouldn’t notice, but have decided to list them in their order of publication.
In 1609, the two-year-old English settlement in Jamestown was struggling to survive, having been decimated by hostile Native Americans, disease, political mismanagement and lack of food. Early in the summer, a fleet of nine ships and over 600 hopeful settlers left England to bring supplies and new life to the beleaguered colony. The flagship, Sea Venture , never made it to Jamestown: swept off course by a hurricane, it landed in Bermuda. Doherty, an author of biographies for young adults, vividly recreates the journey of the Sea Venture , the survival of its passengers and the eventual rebuilding of two new ships (Patience and Deliverance ) from the Sea Venture ‘s timbers. A year and a half after leaving England, the Sea Venture ‘s passengers landed at the Virginia settlement only to find it on the verge of extinction. The ship’s leaders refashioned the charter of the settlement, strove to establish new relationships with the Native Americans and restored the colony’s agricultural fortunes, assuring the English a foothold in the New World. The most famous account of this shipwreck is Shakespeare’s The Tempest , but Doherty’s fast-paced and colorful blow-by-blow account is a swashbuckling tale of adventure in the age of exploration. — Publishers Weekly
The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America by Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith
Making much ado with flush contemporary sources, Glover (Univ. of Tennessee at Nashville) and Smith (Univ. of Kentucky) weave a fascinating narrative. The centerpiece is the famous running aground of the hurricane-driven Sea Venture, the flagship of a small fleet carrying immigrants to Virginia, on a coral reef off Bermuda in July 1609. The 150 passengers found that they were stuck not on an “Isle of Devils,” as reputed, but on an isle of paradise and plenty. Governor Thomas Gates, Admiral George Somers, and navigator Christopher Newport provided leadership in creating social order and in constructing two ships on which to further the journey. The arrival of the Sea Venture in Virginia, coinciding with that of a relief supply from England, saved the colony from extinction. The Starving Time of 1609-10 is one of several episodes that the authors cover that parallel the experience of the Sea Venture passengers. The book concludes with descriptions of subsequent events that made survival in Virginia a certainty. In a book as comprehensive as this one, distractions pertaining to British life and empire building are not bothersome. This splendid achievement is the best of recently published histories of early Jamestown. — Choice
Bardolaters know that The Tempest alludes to a 1609 shipwreck on Bermuda, and colonial history buffs may recall from the Jamestown oeuvre how the survivors eventually got from Bermuda to that struggling English North American settlement. The play and its factual substrate converge in Woodward’s depiction of how one written resource affected Shakespeare’s imagination. A biography of its author, S. G. Culliford’s William Strachey, 1572-1621 (1965), confirms that he was an obscure figure in the London theater scene who dreamed of bigger literary things. He seized the opportunity to be chronicler of a supply convoy to Jamestown and got more adventure, perhaps, than he had anticipated. Woodward acquits himself well with Strachey’s survival-at-sea drama and the year Strachey lived in Jamestown, and he unleashes his own creativity in imagining Strachey attending the performance of a play that sounded uncannily close to his own reports of events in Bermuda and Virginia. Thanks to Woodward’s fruitful combination of literature and history, fans of Prospero and John Smith can (at last?) read something together. — Booklist
I´m still in a Shakespeare´s birthday trance, and am compelled to say that according to the Arden Shakespeare edition of The Tempest, the Sea Venture´s shipwreck wasn’t the only incident feeding Will’s imagination when he wrote the play.
Shakespeare’s and his audiences’ familiarity with American colonization was not restricted to England’s toehold on the North American coast. For more than a century, reports of discoveries and settlements to the west by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French and eventually English chroniclers produced a growing flood of fact and myth, some of it in print, much of it oral . . . Still other London publications of 1608-1610 heightened The Tempest‘s topicality and could have provided additional dramatic details.
But the Arden editors agree that William Strachey’s account of the Sea Venture’s wreck must have been a major source for Shakespeare.
And now a title that spreads out the discussion and includes a couple of our other first cities.
Jamestown, Quebec, Santa Fe : Three North American Beginnings by James C. Kelly and other contributors
Four hundred years ago, three settlements were established in North America: by the English at Jamestown in 1607, the French at Quebec in 1608, and the Spanish at Santa Fe in 1609. Each one, though small and extremely fragile at first, survived, expanded, and served a central role in the spread of European culture and influence. This volume serves two purposes well: as a partial catalog of a major traveling exhibit created jointly by the Virginia Historical Society and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, and as a brief history of the three communities from the planning stages to about 1700. Written in consistently accessible prose and beautifully illustrated in full color with reproductions of maps, paintings, illustrations, documents, and photographs of museum artifacts, the book will appeal to readers who have any curiosity about our nation’s past. The authors do an excellent job of identifying the similarities and differences in the establishment of the settlements. They pay special attention to how the Europeans interacted with Native peoples, and how their respective political, economic, social, and religious systems and beliefs influenced the development of the intercultural harmony and disharmony that has shaped our society ever since. — School Library Journal