Friday, June 03, 2011

The Jamestown Conundrum


Daniel Richter's new book, Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts (Harvard UP, 2011), is in some ways a sequel to his last monograph, Facing East from Indian Country. In that 2001 volume, Richter shifted the spatial alignment of American historiography, replacing westward-facing accounts of European territorial expansion with an eastward-facing narrative of Native American contact and survival. In his new work, the author tries to change the temporal orientation of American history, arguing that since most of that history occurred before 1776, we can quite usefully view the American Revolution as a culminating, rather than inaugural, episode. American history, as Richter presents it, grew like a series of geological or archaeological strata, each laid down by a particular group of Indians or colonists, each providing at least a partial foundation for its successors.

I've not had the chance to read and digest Professor Richter's book in its entirety, but I can attest to the success of its methodology regarding at least one perplexing colonial episode: the unlikely survival of the English colony of Jamestown. The behavior of Jamestown's early settlers was a puzzle to historians when I was in college: instead of planting corn and tending to their own livelihoods, the English colonists spent their time refusing to work and playing bowls on the village green. Following the lead of Edmund Morgan and Francis Jennings, Richter explains this lassitude was a consequence of the settlers' historically-determined expectations: they had come to Virginia not to work but to enrich themselves by exploiting indigenous labor, and justified this exploitation by spreading (in a nominal way) their brand of Christianity, like medieval Crusaders or Spanish conquistadors.

Richter goes on to attribute the colonists' actual survival to the "medieval," or more precisely Mississippian, mindset of the region's paramount Indian chief, Powhatan. Like other great chiefs, Powhatan derived much of his power from his control of trade routes and access to exotic goods, which the English clearly possessed in quantity. Thus, in return for gifts of copper kettles, swords, and other prestige-conveying merchandise, Powhatan proclaimed the English not "strangers...but Powhatans" (p. 125) - simultaneously extending his authority over them - and allowed them to reside on his confederacy's land and trade for food. The seemingly-useless metal smiths who accompanied the early Jamestown voyages became the colony's most important workers, making copper and iron tools to trade to the Powhatans for food. Periodically, during the Anglo-Powhatan wars of 1609-1614 and 1622-32, the English would conduct "harvesting raids" (as Frederick Fausz has termed them) against Powhatan villages for supplies, but otherwise the colony, like its contemporaries at Plymouth and Quebec, survived chiefly through Indian trade until the 1620s. This was not, Richter concludes, the consequence of design so much as an unconscious compromise between English desires to exploit Indian labor and Powhatan desires to acquire rare English goods at the lowest cost.

Whether the English ever invited the Powhatan Indians to play bowls with them, I know not. Perhaps.

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