Portraying lesser-known historical figures gives Willie Balderson an opportunity to relate the experiences of the everyday man.
Lloyd Dobyns: Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. Today, I’m talking with Willie Balderson, who portrays Jamestown settler Anas Todkill in the upcoming Electronic Field Trip “Jamestown Unearthed,” which premieres April 26th. During the rest of the year at Colonial Williamsburg, he’s manager of public history development, which means what?
Willie Balderson: Basically, I’m responsible for programming in the Historic Area. That is the programming when our guests come, and they take their “This Week” and on one side, we’ve got the really nice color map of the Historic Area, but on the flip side, we have all the listing daily of the programs. It’s my responsibility to make sure that those programs, when somebody’s going to do them, that we advertise them. On the day that they’re supposed to run, I’m one of the first people to hear about it, if for whatever reason, there was no one there to do their program. At times, I’m one of those people that’s often overlooked, except when …
Lloyd: Things go wrong.
Willie: That’s right. And then I’m the first one they call.
Lloyd: You’re the one with the trained monkey, right?
Willie: That’s right, that’s right. Several of them.
Lloyd: You’ve been here for a while.
Willie: I have.
Lloyd: How many historic characters have you, yourself, portrayed while trying to get all this stuff going?
Willie: Oh, jeez. Well, if you put aside the village idiot, which, sadly, many people know me as, Mr. Tuttle from evening programs, if you put aside the 18th-century surveyor, as Meriwether Lewis, I’ve had a cameo appearance, a general in Washington’s entourage before the siege of Yorktown, there was a fur trapper, there was a gentlemen that was sent with Washington – six, seven, probably about eight characters.
Lloyd: What are you now?
Willie: Right now? I’m Willie Balderson, trying to sort through all of the other characters.
Lloyd: (Chuckles.) OK, sort through the characters – who are you portraying now?
Willie: Well, the fellow’s name is Anas Todkill, and he is going to represent, really, the common man. I’m very excited about the opportunity with this Electronic Field Trip, to portray someone that is with John Smith. The curiosity of Anas Todkill is that he is listed as a soldier, as a carpenter, but yet, in Smith’s writings, in his 1612 Oxford edition map of Virginia, Smith gives him credit as a co-writer, alongside Dr. Russell, a doctor of physick. It’s just very unusual for a commoner, a soldier, a carpenter, an ordinary person, to be given such a status as the co-author of several of the documents that are involved in this volume, Smith’s “Relation of Virginia.”
Lloyd: At this point, we’re in Jamestown, 1612, right?
Lloyd: So, you’re actually in Jamestown, rather than Williamsburg – that’s easy enough to figure out. But, would a common man in that day, a carpenter, have the skill to write? It wasn’t very common.
Willie: That’s the thing that I find most interesting about Anas Todkill, and it’s one of the reasons that I’ve explored him for the last several years, and I really wanted to bring him to life. Smith picks him to go on many of the explorations. In the two separate explorations during the summer of 1608, Todkill was one of a handful of people that Smith took on both of those voyages. As you read through Smith’s accounts of traveling around Virginia, it’s late1607, all of 1608, and for the first two thirds of 1609, Todkill is almost always present, so there is, at some level, an interest in Todkill, a trust there.
To answer your question, I think Todkill is one of these people that, for some reason, was literate, and was a lot more than that. I don’t think he was just a follower of Smith. I believe that Smith saw something else in him, in his character. As I say, that’s the first thing that caught my eye many years ago when I became interested in that early exploration period, the settlement period at Jamestown. I thought it would be great someday to have a reason to do someone like Todkill, who could address both Smith’s attitude and posture, but maybe not always agree with Smith. I think in a larger sense, that’s an important part of being a public historian. You want to try to present, in some way, as many sides of an issue as you can. By not portraying Smith, but this character that’s thinking, that Smith is giving credit to thinking. I just thought that would be a great character to bring to life, and he could offer so much more than just a one-dimensional yes-man to John Smith.
Lloyd: I know you do some presentations with Todkill, but I don’t know how many you’ve done.
Willie: Over the past several years, he’s only come out of my costuming closet, if you will, about six times. As we work through this summer of 2007, 1607, he will, as I’ve been told, will be making some cameo appearances at the Hennage for summer coolers. On the stage, you’ll be able to get to meet this fellow. After about a 15 to 20 minute monologue, you can ask him questions about that very early settlement period.
Lloyd: How do you study characters from 1607 to whenever you cut him off? Well, one thing, you didn’t die — that was fun—and a lot of people did. Are there materials where you can say, OK now, let me look up this guy and see what we know about him, or, do you have to read the writings that he did of something else and try to interpret it?
Willie: It’s a wonderful question, and it’s a question that arises very often when folks are talking to character interpreters. Some characters are very fortunate, there’s a great deal of information that they’ve written, and their contemporaries, primary sources, wrote about them. In the case of Todkill, it’s, I fear, not that rich. The writings that I know of that have come to light that other people have suggested are only those that are involved in Smith’s writings, where Smith gives credit to Todkill and other people.
The writings of the period of George Percy, the records of the Virginia Company in four volumes that were published very early in the 20th century by Susan Myra Kingsbury through the Library of Congress, they’re available. They offer a fair amount of information on the Virginia Company, the people that were sent over by the Virginia Company. Todkill’s name appears there, but not a whole lot else.
What I’ve tried to do with characters like this, that are obtuse, is use them as vehicles to talk about principal characters, principal events. It’s really not about, in this case, Anas Todkill so much as it’s about the attitudes of the Europeans, of the English, and his observations, gleaned from primary source observations of others, common feelings towards the fauna, the flora, and the inhabitants of Virginia – the Native Americans – upon their arrival here. That’s how I approached this. It’s not really Todkill’s story as much as it is the experiences he can offer about others that he was an eyewitness to.
Lloyd: If he went with Smith on the two explorations of Chesapeake Bay, he would have seen more than just the settlement at Jamestown.
Willie: Absolutely. It’s amazing, the account, and the result of that account. Not many people realize that when the Virginia Company was granted its first charter in 1606, it was allowed, the charter states, that the bounds that the Virginia Company will be able to inhabit, invest in, will be 100 miles off the coast. The idea there was to secure any islands that a warring nation might secure and in turn, inhibit the English getting to their colonies. So, the grant of land, 100 miles off the coast, but it was only 100 miles inland. Now, this is a charter in April 1606.
Now, the English arrive off the coast in April of 1607, and by May of 1607, they’re situating themselves on Jamestown Island, and they want to explore, they want to meet the natives, they want to entreat with the natives, make peace with them. They want to see if there’s any gold or silver – the New World is the New World is the New World – the Spanish have found it to the south, surely there must be something here like that. It’s got to be something here. But one of the other things that they’re really driven to do is explore the Chesapeake, given that it is such a large bay with these commodious rivers. There’s got to be one of these rivers that will carry them into the interior far enough that they will make the discovery of this inland sea that the Spanish have heard about. Beginning in the 1540s, the Spanish maps begin to display this inland sea somewhere in the north of America, that is, north of Mezzo-America, north of Mexico.
So, the expectation by the English in 1607 is that they’re going to explore these rivers and one of them is going to take them far enough up. Now, what happens in 1608 when Smith goes out on these two explorations on the Chesapeake – he talks to the natives, he goes up these rivers. The Potomac, in particular, up to present-day Washington, D.C., it’s believed, from the description, the area of Georgetown. In talking to the Susquehannock Indians, the Potomac Indians, the Rappahannock Indians, they begin to understand, first of all, they’ve gone up these rivers beyond 100 miles – that creates some problems. And the greater problem is that the Indians tell them that there is no inland sea. There’s a great body of water that’s a lake, a series of lakes.
This news goes back to England in a letter from Smith in late 1608, and in 1609, the crown, James I, grants the Virginia Company a second charter, which allows the Virginia company will have Virginia, will be 100 miles off the Atlantic Ocean. But the second charter, in 1609, allows that Virginia will extend to the western shore, and 100 miles off that shore. It is by that charter that, eventually, America will be from sea to shining sea.
Lloyd: I should have seen that one coming.
Willie: Most people don’t know that, but I reckon it’s because of that voyage in 1608, that exploration, they make that discovery, and in turn, the charter is changed.
Lloyd: I know that Virginia originally was a great deal larger than the current commonwealth, and included Kentucky and Tennessee and parts of Ohio, and all of West Virginia.
Willie: And there are many native Virginians that still believe it does.
Lloyd: But I never got to the “sea to shining sea,” that’s fascinating.
Willie: From one shore to the other.
Lloyd: That’s really great, I wouldn’t believe that was possible. And your guy was there on all of it.
Willie: He was an eyewitness, he was an eyewitness to this.
Lloyd: That is remarkable.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. The Electronic Field Trip “Jamestown Unearthed” premieres April 26th on local Public Broadcasting stations, and on history.org/trips. For future podcasts, check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.