This was a "tourist" book purchase. Meaning, I sometimes like to buy a book about the place I am visiting. This summer, my wife's parents were in town, and we were heading down to the Williamsburg area. We had all been to Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens and the usual attractions in the are. However, it had been many years since I had been to Jamestown. Confusingly, a visit to Jamestown could involve different entities. The Jamestown Settlement, our initial destination, is a recreation built by the State of Virgina for the bicentenial of the US. It was supposed to be torn down, but it has kept going. There are reenactors, a mock Powhatten village, a reconstructed fort, and recreated ships that operated in Jamestown, and also brought the colonists across the ocean.
I went once when I came to DC as an intern. I found it overly touristy, crowded and a bit run-down. Fortunately, 2007 was the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown's settlement. Queen Elizabeth graced the England's former colony with her presence. As part of that commemoration, they have really invested in the place. There is an excellent museum, and everything was in tip, top shape. So we had a good time. The odd thing about the Jamestown settlement is that it is not actually located on the site of historic Jamestown. That is a park run by the US Park Service, and is largely an archaeological site. Since my children are small, I wasn't sure that it should be the centerpiece of our visit, so while we did got to the "historic" Jamestown, we spent much more time in Virginia's recreation.
In any event, that is a long prelude to purchasing this book. There were two books competing for my attention, this one was named a NYT "notable book" and that sealed the deal. Let me say, it was a wonderful read. Earlier this year, I listened to Wordy Shipmates, a book about the founding of New England and our Puritanical roots. In many ways, Jamestown represents the other elements of American culture. If Plymouth represents American exceptionalism, faith and communitarian instincts, Jamestown represents our penchant for putting commerce and wealth above all else. It is no wonder that in Wordy Shipmates, nearly every reference to Virginia included the phrase "godless."
My primary take away from the book is that Captain John Smith was an extraordinary individual. His primary trait was practicality. It was something quite wanting in the Jamestown Colony. The central problem was that the Virginia Company kept sending the worthless second sons of nobles over to "help" the colony grow. These second sons were eager to recreate the circumstances of their lives in England -- which is to say, lives of leisure. There can be no doubt that the English would have starved several times over if their own labor would have been their means of sustenance. During the "Starving Time" of 1609-1610, colonists actually resorted to cannibalism. Only 60 of 400 colonists remained alive. The colony was very nearly abandoned, save for a chance sequence of events and the timely arrival of provisions and reinforcements.
This all relates back to John Smith, because the starving time was a direct result of the colony's leadership abandoning John Smith's very pragmatic approach to running the place. Smith had been made a Councilor by the Virginia Company in its original instructions. However, being a pragmatist, and a person of practical experience (he'd fought in several wars), he did not suffer fools easily, and never new his "station" as a commoner. This immediately irked the other high born counselors of James town. In fact, Smith was initially held under arrest, and was not allowed to take his seat at the Council.
Ultimately, incompetence, chance and disease placed Smith not only on the Council, but made him its head. Yet the petty rivalries that resulted from Smith's brisk style undid him, and he was replaced. Nevertheless, he remained a life-long booster for Virginia and colonization.
Equally interesting was the fate of Pocahontas. Despite the popularized fiction of the relationship between Pocahontas and Captain Smith, Price finds little evidence that the relationship went much beyond a crush. Pocahontas was only a girl of 11 when the English arrived. Yet it is absolutely true that she saved John Smith's life twice, and resultingly, probably the future of the English presence in North America. As Chief Powhattan's favorite daughter, her role as intercessor can not be overstated.
With Smith returned to England, their relationship did not have an opportunity to evolve. She did marry and Englishman, however, John Rolfe -- one of Virginia's early, successful tobacco growers. In that capacity she returned to England and was baptized. She also had the chance to meet Smith one last time in England. Tragically, she died on her return voyage to Virginia. Ironically, she was so taken with her celebrity status in England, there is a lot of evidence she didn't really want to return. Nevertheless, they had a child and through that child many Virginians are able to trace their heritage back to Pocahontas.
I knew next to nothing about the Jamestown colony when I started this book (other than what I had just garnered by our little field trip). Its rare that you can read history and get surprise endings. But this book had a lot of twists and turns that I did not know, and was not expecting. It really is narrative history in the finest tradition, but is also replete with quotations from original sources, grounding the book in the voices of its participants.
This is an easy recommendation for anyone interested in early American history, or the development of colonies in a broader context. Reply