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Historians Eye Jamestown’s Legacy on 400th Anniversary

May 3, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, thinking differently about Jamestown. NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman begins.

KWAME HOLMAN: Four hundred years ago this month, in 1607, 104 settlers — all men — completed a five-month voyage from England and began establishing the first permanent English colony in America at Jamestown, Virginia.

Most schoolchildren are familiar with two of Jamestown’s historical figures: John Smith, the English soldier and adventurer credited with keeping the struggling settlement alive; and Pocahontas, the local Indian leader’s young daughter, who brokered cooperation amid the settlers’ conflicts with the native population.

Bly Straube, a Virginia archaeologist, says whatever the true nature of the relationship between the two, it’s always been surrounded by myth.

BLY STRAUBE, Senior Curator, Jamestown Discovery: Personally, I sort of think that there was a relationship. You know, it may not have been sexual in nature. It may have been just caring, but maybe she thought of him more as a father figure or something.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Jamestown long had been thought of as a failure, riven by conflict among the settlers, laziness, mismanagement, disease and starvation, and nearly wiped out by an Indian rebellion. It never achieved the iconic stature given the pilgrims, who landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, 13 years after Jamestown.

William Kelso is head archaeologist of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

WILLIAM KELSO, Director of Archeology, Jamestown Rediscovery: First, I learned about Jamestown as a footnote in the history book, in the high school history book, just a footnote. “And also Jamestown, but it failed.” And there was, you know, a huge chapter about the settlement of Plymouth, and Boston, and New England.

KWAME HOLMAN: So, in 1994, Kelso and his team set out to find archaeological evidence that would fill out the sketchy history of Jamestown, beginning with the belief that the original fort built by the settlers simply was washed away by the James River.

WILLIAM KELSO: There was no proof of that. It’s just sort of accepted, you know, story. So I put the shovel to the ground and, fortunately, right away found one fragment of, as it turned out, a tobacco pipe, symbolically. I mean, of course, tobacco is what made Virginia stay on and be permanent.

But that and a piece of pottery, and I knew it was old enough to be the time of the fort. It’s the oldest fragments I’d ever found anywhere in America. So I thought, “It’s a good sign.” You know, I was very excited. This is going to be — this is going to work.

KWAME HOLMAN: Kelso and his team now have unearthed nearly a million artifacts and say they’ve developed a far fuller picture of the Jamestown settlers. They see a resilient and resourceful group that established a profit-making settlement based on tobacco — and later, slaves — and were the first practitioners of what would become American representative government.

WILLIAM KELSO: There was a problematic group of people here, but not all of them. And, yes, over half died, but the other half lived. You know, that’s the story. And so this goes on to be a permanent settlement, because somebody was succeeding.

KWAME HOLMAN: Jamestown thrived as the Virginia capital through most of the 1600s, until a fire destroyed the capital building. The area became farm land, a use that helped preserve the archaeology that’s now rewriting Jamestown’s standing in the history of the nation, 400 years after its founding.

JIM LEHRER: Jeffrey Brown takes it from there.

Originally a 'trade post'

Karen Kupperman
New York University
[The settlers] came ... principally to set up a trade post. I think that was what they were hoping to do. I don't think the English initially thought in terms of colonization.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we explore our growing understanding of Jamestown now with Karen Kupperman, professor of history at New York University. She's written widely about early American settlements and is author of "The Jamestown Project."

Annette Gordon-Reed is professor of law at New York Law School and professor of history at Rutgers University. She's the author of "The Hemings Family of Monticello: An American Story of Slavery."

And NewsHour regular and presidential historian Michael Beschloss, he recently wrote about the historical importance of Jamestown for Newsweek magazine.

Welcome to all.

Karen Kupperman, who were these people? And what does the new archaeology tell us about their experience?

KAREN KUPPERMAN, History Professor, New York University: Well, as the piece said, there were around about 100 men and boys. There were several boys at Jamestown, and they played very important roles, actually.

And they came, I think, principally to set up a trade post. I think that was what they were hoping to do. I don't think the English initially thought in terms of colonization. Colonization was very, very expensive. And in the English case, every expedition, every ship had to be paid for by private investment.

So the investors were looking to find a product in America that they could get in trade with the Indians and keep a very small, permanent contingent here, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about their experience is new? What has changed in our thinking, in your thinking about this?

KAREN KUPPERMAN: Well, the archaeology is extremely important, because it shows us, as Bill Kelso said, that the colonists are, from the beginning, engaged in really purposeful activity. They're making products that the Indians want. They brought sheets of copper with them, and they're actually making items to Indian specifications.

And the archaeologists have not only found evidence of that within the fort, but they've also found Jamestown made items in Powhatan's capital, at Werowocomoco, for example. So there's evidence of all kinds of activity that's going on. So they really are, through trial and error, trying to build the kind of economic base that the company was asking them to.

'The intersection of civilizations'

Annette Gordon-Reed
Rutgers University
Jamestown, is the beginning of something, the beginning of a problem in American history that starts in the very beginning in that place -- a much less uplifting story than Plymouth.

JEFFREY BROWN: Annette Gordon-Reed, what jumps out at you about it, particularly picking up on that, the economic seed here that was born at Jamestown?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED, New York University Law School: Well, really, in 1619, of course, you get the first Africans who come to Jamestown. And there are different theories about what their first role was, but certainly it was the beginning of Africans being involved in the cultivation of tobacco, which, of course, begins the slave society in Virginia, and that spreads across the United States, or what was not the United States at that time, but in the American colonies.

So that's the thing that jumps out at me about Jamestown, is the beginning of something, the beginning of a problem in American history that starts in the very beginning in that place -- a much less uplifting story than Plymouth, but it's nevertheless something that has been central to the American story from the very, very beginning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael, the interaction of three cultures?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Yes. You know, nowadays people who are looking at Jamestown, particularly people in our profession, look at it not as it was for most of American history, as basically the story of some white English settlers with African-American slaves and Indian sort of bit players in this pageant, but the intersection of three equal civilizations. That's wonderful.

And another thing that I think is just so exciting is, you know, in our line of work, we often say that history is argument without end. And someone who's not a historian might say, "Well, maybe after 400 years, the argument may have been ended."

But here's a case where, because of the archaeology, the things that Bill Kelso is doing, and also new scholarship, even 400 years later it's almost the beginning. We're getting all sorts of new evidence about Jamestown, and we're also looking at the place in a different way.

John Smith's story

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
[John Smith] was trying to raise money in London for the Virginia Company, so he may have told some stories about Pocahontas that, as they say in Texas, don't have the added advantage of being true.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, one of the fascinating things about telling the story is who tells the story.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: This character -- and I'll call him a character, John Smith -- not only participated, but was telling the story, as well. And, of course, the veracity of his life and what he wrote is long in dispute, right?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It is. You know, he had motives. He was trying to raise money in London for the Virginia Company, so he may have told some stories about Pocahontas that, as they say in Texas, don't have the added advantage of being true. And so here we are, you know, centuries later, trying to evaluate which of these recollections is true, which isn't, and the archaeology does help.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us more, Professor Kupperman, about the relationship between the settlers and the Indians, the indigenous people that were there. It sounds like it's much more complicated than the story is usually told.

KAREN KUPPERMAN: Well, I think, if I'm right, and that what the English wanted was a trading post, I think that's also what the Indians wanted. The first thing you have to say is that, if Powhatan, who was the paramount chief, Pocahontas' father, if he had not wanted the English to be there, they would not have been there, because they were utterly reliant on the Indians for their food supply.

He didn't have to attack them. All he had to do -- as he explained in detail to Captain John Smith -- all he had to do was to move away, and cut off trade, and the English were either dead or gone.

So then you have to say, "OK, why did he want them there?" And I think the reason was because there were certain kinds of products that were made in Europe that he knew about. He knew a lot more about Europe and Europeans than the colonists did about America and Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: He'd had a long experience already.

KAREN KUPPERMAN: He'd had lots of experience vicariously. He had not himself been to Europe, but there were people from the region, at least one man that we know of, who had spent 10 years living with the Spanish. And there had been many ships in and out of Chesapeake Bay.

So I think, you know, Powhatan looking at this straggling group of 105 men and boys thought, "These are people that I can control, and they can be a source for me of the trade goods that" -- especially what they wanted was smelted metal, anything that could hold an edge, you know, axes, and hoes, and knives.

And that would also increase his power, because he would become the conduit for those things to other Indians. And so I think he made a calculation that was actually not so very different from the calculation that the Virginia Company made.

Slavery and Jamestown

Annette Gordon-Reed
Rutgers University
It took time to bring forth ... an actual system of slavery in Virginia, but it was sort of a gradual process. By the 1700s, certainly, the whole system was in place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Gordon-Reed, tell us a little bit more about the system of indentured servitude and, eventually, slavery. How did that become -- well, how did it become a system and part of the legal system?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: How did slavery become a part of the legal system? Of course, they started out with indentured servants from England. And, again, many of these things are disputed, things that people are talking about in the scholarship now, about why they actually went from indentured servitude to slavery. It became more expensive.

The general thinking is, to have indentured servants and then slavery, it was cheaper to import Africans. Africans had knowledge of cultivation of, if not tobacco, plants that were like tobacco. And there's this series, confluence of events that led the white settlers, the colonists, to turn to African slaves for labor.

They were not -- it was not immediately legalized. In other words, it took time to bring forth various statutes and things, to bring an actual system of slavery in Virginia, but it was sort of a gradual process. By the 1700s, certainly, the whole system was in place, and you had a slave society that depended upon tobacco and tobacco cultivation. So it was a gradual process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Michael, in our set-up, we mentioned that Plymouth became, I guess, the guiding spirit, in a way, that people would look to in the founding myth of the country, myth in the good sense. Why was Jamestown ignored for so long or so poorly understood?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, one reason is just what Annette was saying, because Jamestown, by the end of the 17th century, had mortgaged itself, had addicted itself to tobacco growing and slavery. They couldn't get away from it.

They used land for tobacco rather than for growing food, for instance, and they began this tragedy of slavery that has shadowed so much of American history. So, to some extent, people saw Jamestown as a very mixed legacy.

Another reason is that you look at Plymouth in contrast. It's a rather happy story, people seeking religious freedom. You grew up around Boston; I grew up around Chicago. You probably, like me, would hear about Squanto and, at Thanksgiving, we'd have a pageant.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, sir.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I don't think anyone dressed up as John Smith having a mutiny on the boat coming over to America. So, in a way, it was a more child-friendly event, Jamestown was.

And another thing that was sort of interesting, as you talk to some southerners and some southern historians, they will say that they think that, after the Civil War, there was almost a conspiracy by northern, particularly New England historians, to deny the South of its rightful place in early American history and that that led to downplaying Jamestown and upping the attention on Plymouth.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, it's certainly a tough legacy...

JEFFREY BROWN: I'm sorry, go ahead.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: I was going to say, it's a tough legacy. I mean, to have a founding based upon religious freedom versus a founding that has the conflict with Native Americans, an unhappy story, the institution of slavery. So if it was a conspiracy, it was a conspiracy that, in some ways, that hid some things that perhaps southerners might have been ashamed of.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, just in our last moments, let me stay with you, Professor Gordon-Reed, how should the legacy -- how should we think of the legacy now of Jamestown?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED: Well, it's like anything. It's a legacy of struggle. It's a legacy of triumph, in some ways. But it was the beginning of a process that we have yet to complete, and that is to try to make all of the cultures equal in this society.

And I think I said to someone before, if slavery was original sin, Jamestown is the Garden of Eden, in a sense. And that's where it took place. And so we can remember it, but remember the good things and the bad things, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Professor Kupperman, a legacy, briefly?

KAREN KUPPERMAN: Well, I think it's partly a question of how you build a society. I mean, I think the reason why Jamestown looked so bad for the first decade was because it was a trial-and-error process, in which error seems to have predominated.

But what they were doing was figuring it out. And the first thing they tried was martial law. They said, "OK, we're going to regiment everything. Every part of life is going to be regimented." And they tried that for a while.

And then, at the end of about the first decade, they had a breakthrough. And what they came up with is that, if you give everybody a stake in the outcome, then you can actually make this function. And so that's where they developed this headright system, where every comer, at least for the first few years, got their 50 acres, something they would never, ever have had in Europe. And so they -- it's also a lesson, I think, in how you make a society work.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Karen Kupperman, Annette Gordon-Reed, and Michael Beschloss -- and I know you're most thrilled that we get to re-look at history, right?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely, all the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Thank you all three very much.