Saturday, December 28, 2013

“Not past sixtie men, women, and children . . . .”

John Smith wrote that after the “Starving Time” in the winter of 1609-1610 “there remained not past sixtie men, women and children” in the fort. But for decades, historians believed the Virginia colonist Robert Beverley’s 1705 estimate of “five hundred men” who were “reduced to three score.”
            Beverley wrote of “men.”  No women. But John Smith said there were women in Virginia, and he was there. Unfortunately, he did not say how many, and since he had to leave Virginia October 1609 he had no way of knowing how many of those women lived through the Starving Time that winter. We now know from other sources that at least six females--four women, a little girl, and an infant--survived, because we know their names.
            One who did not survive was the still nameless fourteen-year-old girl whose recently discovered remains were cannibalized--but she was not the only English victim of cannibalism. She was not the only woman victim, either.             
The story of that one (another female) was in plain view for four centuries, but generations of (male) historians overlooked it when they wrote about "men" at Jamestown.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

“The first marriage we had in Virginia”

People at Jamestown lived in close quarters: Two hundred people lived inside the walls of the log fort, a triangular enclosure with an area of about the size of two football fields. Housing was two large barracks-like structures and a few lean-tos.

            Everybody knew everybody.

            Within three months, Mistress Forrest’s young serving girl, Anne Burras, had found a husband. By December 1608 she and John Laydon (he was listed among the “Labourers” who had come in 1607), were married. She was fourteen; he was twenty-eight.
            John Smith recorded their nuptials as “the first marriage we had in Virginia.” Presumably the wedding took place in the little thatch-roofed church inside the fort. Perhaps there was some wine to toast the newlyweds afterward. No one knows. Mistress Forrest may not have attended. Her name does not appear in any records after 1608, and she may have died. No one knows.
             In the absence of Mistress Forrest, Anne Laydon would have been the only female inside the fort at Jamestown. She turned fifteen sometime in 1609, and sometime in that year she became pregnant.

            But Anne would not be the only woman for long. More women were on the way.
            And no one was hungry--yet.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Two hundred men, two women . . . .

How do we know what happened in a little log fort on the James River 400 years ago? 

Until the Jamestown Rediscovery Project unearthed the site of the original fort in 1994, all we had was a paper trail. John Smith’s writings fill three volumes, but historians still argue about how truthful he was. As for the other written records, there are only a handful. They do not tell the whole story, and some of the writers wanted to trash John Smith. And not one of these early accounts was written by a woman, although we know that there were English women at Jamestown.

            The back story: In April 1607, 104 “men and boys” arrived to found a colony in Virginia. By January 1608, when a supply ship arrived, only 38 of the 104 men and boys were still alive. Diseases (the “bloody flux,” malaria, and unknown others) and Indians (they landed in the midst of 15,000 natives who were not happy to see them) took a severe toll.
            The January ship brought “neare a hundred men” to join the 38 already there. In September that year 70 more newcomers arrived, raising the population at Jamestown to about 200--and two of them were “Mistresse Forrest, and Anne Burras her maide.” Mistress Forrest was probably the wife of colonist Thomas Forrest, listed among the “Gentlemen” who arrived on that voyage.  Anne Burras was probably related to one John Burras, in the list of arriving “Tradesmen.” These two women landed among 200 men, 130 of whom had not seen an English woman in a year and a half.



Saturday, December 7, 2013

Pocahontas again: “If we would live she wished us to be gone....”

Whatever happened between John Smith and Pocahontas, and what happened to her when her father found out, are unanswered questions, but Indian/English relations since the “love dance” had deteriorated. In the winter of 1608, Pocahontas heard that her father secretly planned to kill Smith when the English captain and his men ventured into Indian lands to trade for food. While the English waited for Powhatan’s arrival, Pocahontas slipped out on a cold winter night to warn Smith. As he wrote later:

For Pocahontas his [Powhatan’s] dearest jewel and daughter, in that darke night came through the irksome woods and told our Captaine [Smith] great cheer [food and drink] should be sent us by and by; but Powhatan and all the power he could make, would after come kill us all, if they that brought it could not kill us with our own weapons when we were at supper. Therefore if we would live she wished us to be gone. Such things as she delighted in he [Smith] would have given her; but with the tears running down her cheeks she said she durst not be seen to have any: for if Powhatan should know it, she were but dead, and so she ran away by her self as she came.
Thanks to Pocahontas, Smith and his men escaped.
Eight years would pass before John Smith and Pocahontas saw each other again.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

“Thirtie young women came naked out of the woods....”

         One overlooked clue to the John Smith/Pocahontas relationship may lie in an event that took place in the fall of 1608. Smith and four other Englishmen went to Werowocomoco, the site of the famous rescue scene a year earlier, to invite Powhatan to Jamestown for his coronation. (The English were doing their best to make friends with the Indians, and King James I had sent a crown for the Indian ruler.) Powhatan was not in residence, but was “30 miles off.”  He “was presently sent for.”
         Smith and his men would have to spend the night at Werowocomoco. That evening, while Smith and the others awaited Powhatan’s return the next day, “Pocahontas and her women” entertained the English visitors with one of the most intriguing Indian ceremonies on record. When the guests and other “men, women, and children” were seated around a bonfire, they heard “noise and shrieking” in the adjacent woods. This alarmed the Englishmen, who seized their weapons in preparation for a surprise attack. But in a moment Pocahontas came running to reassure them that no harm was intended: this was a ceremony known as the “Love Dance.”        

          “Thirtie young women came naked out of the woods, only covered behind and before with a few green leaves, their bodies all painted, some of one colour, some of another, but all differing, their leader had a fair pair of Buck’s hornes on her head, and an Otter’s skin at her girdle, and another at her arm, a quiver of arrows at her back, a bow and arrows in her hand; the next had in her hand a sword, another a club . . . .” These young women  “cast themselves in a ring about the fire, singing and dancing . . . .”
         After the dance, which lasted “near an hour,” the young women invited Smith to their lodging. There, as he tells it, “all these Nymphes more tormented him then ever, crowding, pressing, and hanging about him, most tediously crying, Love you not me? love you not me?” Then there was a feast with more singing and dancing, and afterward, “with fire brands in stead of Torches they conducted him to his lodging.” Was Pocahontas among them? And then what happened?
         Another Jamestown mystery.
If Pocahontas had an adolescent crush on John Smith, she may have contrived to entertain him thus, and perhaps to flaunt her sexuality before him. Her father was absent, and she was, after all, the King’s daughter.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

“A young woman fresh painted . . . to be his bedfellow."

When John Smith and the first English colonists—134 men and boys--came to Virginia in 1607, the Indians in the area numbered 13,000 to 15,000. Of those, at least 4,000 or 5,000 were Indian women. Imagine, if you will, how the Englishmen, who had been at sea for four months, would have reacted when they saw tawny-skinned, bare-breasted Indian women who wore nothing but a small deerskin apron around their waists. 
There is still a lot to learn about early Jamestown.
We know that Elizabethan Englishmen, who wore layers upon layers of clothing, were taken aback by Indian “nakedness.” Virginia colonist William Strachey found the Indians--both men and women--“most voluptuous,” but he did not write about their sexual habits.
Imagine, if you will: In this native culture, a man could have more than one wife, and, if the husband gave permission, a wife could sleep with other men. And a hospitable host provided women for his overnight male guests’ pleasure.
Strachey described the Indians' arrangement for a male guest: "At night they bring him to the lodging appointed for him, whither upon their departure they send a young woman fresh painted red with Pochone (a dye made from plant roots) and oil (walnut oil or bear grease) to be his bedfellow."  Whether Strachey learned this from experience or hearsay is not known.
John Smith had his own experience with painted Indian women in 1608.

Next time, the Pocahontas story, continued.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Were John Smith and Pocahontas an item? “If he would he might have married her....”

When Pocahontas was not playing games with the boys at Jamestown, she played a more serious role: carrying messages and gifts, she became the liaison between her father, Powhatan, the ruler of the Chesapeake tribes, and the English colonists. She developed a close friendship with Captain John Smith.  How close?
       The exact nature of their relationship has been a matter of speculation from that day to this. Before Smith left Virginia in 1609, Pocahontas had reached puberty, changing from a coltish child to a nubile young woman. According to the reports of Smith’s contemporaries, Smith “would have made himself a king, by marrying Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter. It is true she was the very nonparell of his kingdome, and at most not past 13 or 14 yeares of age. Very oft she came to our fort, with what she could get for Captaine Smith . . .  But her marriage could no way have entitled him by any right to the kingdome, nor was it ever suspected he had ever such a thought.” But nonetheless, “If he would he might have married her . . . .”          
       John Smith was 29 years old; Pocahontas was not even half his age. The relationship between the young English captain and the adolescent Indian princess has fascinated scholars, poets, playwrights, and novelists for four hundred years. In 1994 the story inspired Walt Disney’s animated Pocahontas, and in 2005, Terrence Malick’s The New World. In that film Pocahontas (as she did in real life) married  the English colonist John Rolfe. But the mysteries remain.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Pocahontas: “A well-featured but wanton young girle”

         Did Pocahontas really save John Smith’s life? Maybe not. Ethnohistorians and anthropologists now say that what Smith perceived as an attempted execution was probably an initiation into the tribe of the Powhatan. Helen Rountree, a scholar in Virginia, argues that such initiation ceremonies were not unheard of among the Chesapeake Indians, and that Smith misunderstood what was happening to him. Then why did Pocahontas fling herself on him? Did she misunderstand, too? That is possible, since she was a child of about ten and ordinarily would not have been present at such a ceremony. Why was she there?
         After the “rescue,” Pocahontas, no doubt encouraged by her father, made regular visits to the English fort at Jamestown. And no doubt he questioned her when she came home.
         Pocahontas must have been a charmer. We meet her as John Smith described her: “a child of tenne yeares old, which not only for feature, countenance, and proportion, much exceedeth any of the rest of his [Powhatan, her father’s] people, but for wit, and spirit, the only Nonpariel of his Country . . . .” Colonist William Strachey wrote of Pocahontas as “a well-featured but wanton young girle . . . sometymes resorting to our Fort, of the age then of 11, or 12 yeares.” The word “wanton” in its Elizabethan context meant “undisciplined,”  “naughty,” or “unruly,” but it could also mean “lascivious or unchaste.” Here we are left to wonder.  Strachey noted that Pocahontas would “gett the boyes forth with her into the markett place and make them wheele, falling on their hands, turning their heeles upwardes, whom she would follow, and wheel so herself naked as she was all the Fort over . . . .”  This tells us that Pocahontas was pre-pubescent in 1608. Older girls and women wore deerskin or silk grass aprons around their waists. Pocahontas, whose name meant “Little Mischief,” (her real name was Matoaka) turned cartwheels with the boys, but what else did she do?

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Pocahontas story: How truthful was John Smith?

Every school child knows the story of Pocahontas and John Smith. Long before the 1995 Disney movie and the 2005 Terrence Malick film, the Pamunkey Indian princess and the English captain were an iconic pair.

In American history, New England has its Pilgrims feasting with kindly Indians at the first Thanksgiving, and Virginia has its Pocahontas risking death to save John Smith’s life.

The many-layered baggage in these two stories would take too long to unpack here.

Yes, Pocahontas did save Smith. How do we know? Because John Smith said so.

In December 1607 Smith (whom the Indians viewed as a trespassing foreigner) was captured and taken before Powhatan, the Emperor of all the Chesapeake tribes.  Smith described what happened: First they “feasted him after their best barbarous manner,’’ and then “a long consultation was held, but the conclusion was, two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could laid hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevaile, got his head into her armes, and laid her own upon his to save him from death; whereat the Emperor was contented he should live.”
--John Smith, Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624).

In this same book Smith quoted a letter he wrote to Queen Anne in 1616, when the grown-up Pocahontas visited London, saying that Pocahontas once “hazarded the beating out of her own braines to save mine.”

The original of that letter has never been found.

The rescue was in 1607. The first (and only) mention of it did not appear in print until 1624. Why?

The answer to that question is not definitive after 400 years and hundreds of scholarly pages.

That is one of many Jamestown mysteries.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Story Fit for Halloween

The butchered skull and bones of a young girl now prove what 17th century sources recorded: there was cannibalism at Jamestown.

Read for yourself:

The Indians hold the English surrounded...having killed the larger part of them...the survivors eat the dead....
--Alonso de Velasco to Philip III, June 14, 1610
            (The Spanish ambassador loved to gloat over English failures.}

So great was our famine, that a savage we slew, and buried, the poorer sort took him up again and ate him, and so did diverse one another boiled and stewed with roots and herbs. -
-John Smith, Generall Historie, 1624
            (Smith was not an eyewitness: he had left before the Starving Time.)

And now famine beginning to look ghastly and pale in every face, that nothing was spared to maintain life and to do those things which seems incredible, as to dig up dead corpses out of grave and eat them.
--George Percy, “A Trewe Relacyon,” 1624
            (Percy was there. He blamed Smith for the Starving Time.)

[We were] driven through unsufferable hunger unnaturally to eat those things which nature most abhorred: the flesh and excrements of of our own nation as [well as] of an Indian digged by some out of his grave after he had lain buried three days, and wholly devoured him. Others, envying the better state of body of any whom hunger had not yet so much wasted as their own, lay [in] wait and threatened to kill and eat them.
--“A Briefe Declaration...By the Ancient Planters now remaining alive in Virginia,” 1624.
            (These colonists blamed the Virginia Company’s mismanagement.)

Until now, many historians, believing that these people had their own axes to grind, had serious doubts that they were telling the truth.

Were some more truthful than others? 

Monday, October 21, 2013

Jamestown, 1610: Stranger than a horror movie...

Why a blog about events that happened 400 years ago? Because history is full of unanswered questions, and one of those unanswered questions just got answered in 2013:            
            Q: Was there cannibalism at Jamestown, Virginia during the “Starving Time” of 1609-10?
            A: Yes.
That raises a whole lot of other questions.
History will have to be rewritten.

            In my book, A TALE OF TWO COLONIES: WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN VIRGINIA AND BERMUDA? (U. of Missouri Press , 2011), on whether or not to believe what colonists said about cannibalism, I wrote: “Evidence of cannibalism in the excavations at Jamestown might lay this argument to rest.”
            Now we have the evidence.  What next?
            We have always known that Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, was an ugly place, full of disease and death in the early years. That is why elementary school children learn about the Pilgrims who came to Massachusetts and had the first Thanksgiving. First-graders color pictures of colonists in black and white clothes, and Indians with feathers (inaccurate, but pleasant), and turkeys and pumpkins and ears of corn.
            We do not tell them that two hundred (or more--no one knows exactly how many) of the English settlers at Jamestown starved to death, and that some of the starving ones dug up dead bodies and ate them. That would not be a pretty picture for first-graders.

            But that is what happened: now we know that the partial skeleton of a young girl, about fourteen years old, has been excavated, and there are knife marks where her skull was split open, and other knife marks on her leg bones. These prove that someone wanted to eat her brains, her cheeks, and the flesh from her femur (thigh) bones.

            They were literally starving at Jamestown. And they really did “digge up deade corpses outt of graves and . . . eate them.”

            This truth is stranger than any horror movie.

            What will we tell the school children about cannibalism at Jamestown?
            What do you think?

            Post your comments.                       
            Keep reading this blog for more on the puzzling history of Jamestown.