Despite its 14-year lead, many don’t know that Jamestown was settled before Plymouth. James Axtell’s article, “Historical Rivalry,” explores the reasons why.
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. This time, I’m asking Jim Axtell, who is The College of William and Mary’s William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Humanities, and an authority on the ethnohistory of colonial North America. His latest article, “Historical Rivalry,” appears in Colonial Williamsburg, the journal of Colonial Williamsburg. That’s about Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. I have always been fascinated – most people, I think, in the United States, and all the people in England believe that Plymouth was first. Why?
Jim Axtell: There are a lot of reasons. I think one of them is 1620 is a nice, round decadal date, and 1607 or 1585 or four is more difficult to remember. Then you’ve got the Puritans coming in 1630, another nice, round decadal date.
But, I think it has more to do with the problems that Jamestown has, and has had, as a historical site. It starts off with a pretty bad history. There’s a starving time, there are bad Indian relations from the get-go, they introduce slavery real early in 1619. It’s a company town that is made up of young men – ambitious, hungry young men – under a pretty ruthless martial law regime, because it does fail periodically, and the Indians attack periodically. It suffers two major Indian uprisings in 1622 and 1644. After the first one, the company is taken over by the royal government, it’s so inept. So, you don’t have families, you don’t have the surge for, say, religious freedom, which we like to think is a great American value, and we like to think that we have at least made an attempt at benign racial relations.
The other problem with Jamestown is that there’s nothing like Plymouth Rock there to go visit. All there is, is the remains of, first, there are some cellar foundations on the island, and those aren’t very exciting. Then, a small section of the third church, which is the first brick church – there were two churches before that – and that’s not very exciting to visit as a national symbol.
Lloyd: On the other hand, I don’t think Plymouth Rock has ever been clearly established as, in fact, a reality. There is a rock there, to be sure.
Jim: There is a rock, and it has its own history. Nobody could land on a 200-ton rock. When you come up to the harbor, and it’s a sand beach, you don’t try to step out on a huge rock that’s there. It would crush your boat, for starters. So, that is largely mythological.
Lloyd: I was reading a book called “Mayflower,” the man’s name escapes me.
Jim: Nathaniel Philbrick.
Lloyd: Yes, Philbrick. Early on, he says that the Jamestown settlement almost failed, but he never explains “almost,” and why it didn’t. It leaves the impression that these poor, pathetic people starved to death, and then went home.
Jim: Well, they tried to go home when the Indians attacked. They pulled out around 1611 or 1612; they literally got in the boats and started to go home. In the river, they were met by Lord De La Warr, who was coming with resupply and sort of forced those poor people back to a dilapidated Jamestown fort to suffer the final 1622 uprising that killed about a third of the people in the colony.
Lloyd: You mentioned something that I have theorized might be part of the reluctance to accept Jamestown and to prefer to accept Massachusetts. The people who came here, came grubbing for riches. The people who went there, ostensibly, went for religious freedom – a much more magnificent reason than grubbing for gold. Do you think that plays a part in people saying, “I just don’t want to believe that, because I don’t want to be a money grubber, thank you, sir”?
Jim: I think it very much does play a part, and the fact that the Pilgrims first left England to go to Holland to try to find religious freedom, and to make a living, but they weren’t very good at that, there. So they’re double searchers for religious toleration and freedom.
Lloyd: I’ve always had some trouble with that. They were searchers for religious toleration – for them, but not for anybody else.
Jim: That’s right. It’s actually the Puritans in Massachusetts Bay who are even more intolerant. The Pilgrims are not evangelical in any way, they’re not even interested in converting Indians, whereas Massachusetts pretends that it is. The seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony has an Indian in his little palm-leaf breechclout, saying, “Come over and help us,” which is about as unlikely a thing for an Indian to say if he got wind of a Puritan. That impulse to convert other people is really a Puritan thing, and not a Pilgrim thing. So, they really do want to be left alone in Plymouth, for the most part.
Lloyd: I remember one of the women, who later went to Rhode Island, was persecuted because she was a female who led some sort of prayer meeting, or discussion group or a something, and they just couldn’t stand that. I always thought that if you were searching for religious toleration, this is the wrong group to get in with.
Jim: That’s right. Ann Hutchinson got driven out for leading her own kind of prayer meetings, and assuming that she could actually interpret the Bible herself, and didn’t need the intermediaries of Puritan ministers. That was a dangerous principle in a very patriarchal Puritan commonwealth.
Lloyd: She felt she could interpret the Bible as well as the men in the colony because it was between her and God, and God had told her what to believe, or what to preach.
Jim: She’s a very literate person who could read the Bible as well as anybody else, but it did get her in trouble.
Lloyd: Do you think the time will come, seeing as how this is the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, that people will accept Jamestown a little more as the founding place?
Jim: Yeah, I think there’s a good chance that they will creep up on Plymouth, but I don’t think they’ll overtake it, necessarily. The one thing that the new Jamestown has is the fort, now that’s a place that we thought was washed away in the river and didn’t exist. If you can recreate – or at least rediscover archaeologically, which Bill Kelso has done – it’s a place to visit. It’s a shrine, in other words. Maybe not equal to Plymouth Rock, which has been broken and carted around the shore at Plymouth, and sliced in half like a bagel, and broken, and patched back together, and then encaged on the shore there.
Lloyd: (Chuckling.)I was just thinking, how about if we got a 400-ton rock and dumped it in the James River, just by the church tower, and called it Jamestown Rock? You think that would help?
Jim: It would make a big splash, so to speak. I’m not sure it would help the iconography much.
Lloyd: I have not seen it, but there’s a new building at Jamestown where a great many archeological finds are displayed.
Jim: Yeah, the Archaearium.
Lloyd: I can’t say that very well.
Jim: Nobody can spell it, either.
Lloyd: You think that will attract people, and people will come and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s interesting”?
Jim: It does, and I think it will. That’s interesting stuff, because it has not only the English artifacts, but a lot of Indian artifacts, and artifacts that were being made by the English for the Indian trade. It has wonderful skeletal evidence of the bad relations between the English and the Indians, in other words, gunshot victims and all kinds of other interesting things. So, that is a big draw.
Lloyd: I’ve read about the Jamestown Settlement new display area. That struck me as being kind of interesting, if you want to go and take a look at it.
Jim: Well, one of the other problems with Jamestown is that it didn’t really have any kind of place to visit until 1957. Plymouth Plantation started in 1947, so it even got a leg up on that. The ’57 museum that they built was a terrible hodgepodge of a place. It wasn’t just about the 17th century – it had campaign buttons from presidential campaigns, it had cannon balls from the civil war, it was just a Fibber McGee’s closet full of stuff. So it had no real message for anybody, except that Virginia was a great place and had a lot to do with America.
Lloyd: I read something about a museum closing in Washington that had been the Dime Museum, and they had all these weird things in there, it sounds very much like the original museum at Jamestown, I’m sorry to say.
Jim: Yeah, and the other problem with that is that it was over, not at the original site of Jamestown where the fort was, and we thought lost, but it’s over on the mainland basically. It’s not on the island. So, it’s within spitting distance of the other one, but it grew up as a state park, and largely as a tourist attraction. Now, the Jamestown Settlement is by far the better place to go. It doesn’t have the original fort, but it does have a recreated fort, and all the houses in it. It has the three reconstructed ships at the harbor, and then, a very fabulous new museum.
Lloyd: When I talk to people, particularly people from England, I say if you think about it seriously, then you will know that Pocahontas was from here, and used to turn nude cartwheels to entertain the troops, and she married, went to England, and died before Plymouth was ever settled. Then, you can keep in mind which place came first. And people would say, “Nude cartwheels?” That’s the only thing they hear.
Jim: That’s right. The other thing I like about Pocahontas, and I’ve taught her a long time in my classes, is that if you read carefully and look at what she did vis-à-vis her own tribe, she’s really a first-class traitor to that outfit. She is allegedly the great princess of Chief Powhatan, but the guy had at least 100 wives, and he had an awful lot of children, and whether she was princess or a favorite, or anything, it’s pretty hard to discern. But she’s also very young when she starts, and she probably didn’t save John Smith’s life, either, because she was so young she didn’t have any clout in that particular society to do that. I think Powhatan saved him for his own purposes.
But, she is forever warning them of surprise attacks – warning the English – bringing bread when they’re starving, harboring, protecting young English boys who are being held captive, but are in danger of being killed, she’s doing all kinds of things against what her father’s foreign policy must have been. And then the ultimate thing is, of course, to capitulate. She was kidnapped and kind of forced to convert by a minister. And then marrying this, what's his name …
Lloyd: Rolfe, John Rolfe.
Jim: John Rolfe, sorry, who’s a lot older. He’s 30-something years old, he’s a widower, tobacco planter, and there’s some doubt that he even loved her a whole lot. His written reasons for marrying her were everything but love. It was for the good of the colony, it was to turn this pagan, savage kid into a nice Christian.
Lloyd: I’ve always thought that was the least romantic proposal I had ever heard.
Jim: You are absolutely right, it sounds like a business deal.
Lloyd: Between Plymouth Rock and Jamestown, Pocahontas alone should make you care about Jamestown. I don’t think people know it, they just don’t recognize that this is where it happened.
Jim: I think that’s quite right.Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. You’ll find Jim Axtell’s article, “Historical Rivalry,” in the winter 2007 online version of the Colonial Williamsburg journal at history.org.