Horn busts myths

In part as preparation for a pending visit to Jamestown and in (perhaps larger) part because I was intrigued by his comments at a session during the 2007 Virginia Festival of the Book, I read James Horn’s A Land as God Made it: Jamestown and the Birth of America. Mr. Horn’s book retells, in context, the first 15 years of what can, apparently with reason, be called the begining of the English invasion in North America.

Having only a schoolchild’s background on the history of the English in Virginia, this was a very worthwhile read for me. Mr. Horn is a legitimate historian—his field is early colonial American history and he is employed as Vice President for Research and the Abby and George O’Neill Director of the Library for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation—and his book represents a bridge between scholarship drawing on both original and secondary sources and entertainment for literate lay readers. There are plenty of footnotes, but there is plenty of storytelling, too.

The story, of course, turns out not to be particulary pretty. Not only are there accounts of the murderous relations between the Native Americans and the colonists, but also of slaughter, starvation and cannibalism, disorder, malfeasance, and more. There are recurring raids (in both directions) between the colonists and chief Opechancanough’s Powhatan people. Still, though the deaths from warfare were many, many more died from disease and other causes; colonists failed to develop reliable food sources, drank contaminated water, and so forth.

Mr. Horn also tells the story of John Smith, though without the romantic flourishes that I remember from the 1950-60s history I learned. Most of us know that Pocahontas rescue of Smith was at least exaggerated if not invented by Smith; Horn presents it as something that Smith retold with hyperbole in Smith’s book of 1622. Indeed, Horn provides details (some disputed by other historians) about Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe and her life in England, where she died.

Mr. Horn also relates other parts of the story that are much more important. Jamestown turns out to be the site of the first representative government in North America and the first thanksgiving. Even more, Jamestown turns out to be the place where several of the basic ingredients of the American “melting pot” came together: Native Americans, English and other Europeans, and Africans began living together right there several years before the Puritans landed in New England. To be sure, the people from the different geographical areas lived on different terms and in different proportions than they are now. Powhatans were the major landholders—at least as much as they held land—and controlled many of the important resources. Africans, the first of whom were brought to Jamestown by Dutch traders as indentured servants and later became freedmen, were relatively few in the first decades; their numbers increased and their enslavement became routine as English colonists came to need labor to farm tobacco. Other Europeans were in the mix; there were German glassmakers and there was Spanish intrigue in the court of English King James (I think Horn even reports about historical records he found in Spain).

I’m not alone in having found this book a worthwhile read. Check Jonathan Yardley’s review, Steve Goddard’s History Wire entry, and Camilla Townsend’s review for William and Mary Quarterly, among other sources. See the Website for the celebration at Jamestown; I’m going the 13th & 14th of May. Check out the site of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia History. Learn more about the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Mr. Horn’s book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or (better yet) your local bookseller. Here’s the link to the Virginia Festival of the Book session where I saw Mr. Horn speak (along with my once-upon-a-time running buddy, Bill Kelso; he’s the archeologist who’s been digging up Jamestown).

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3 Comments

Filed under Notes and comments, Politics, What I'm reading

3 responses to “Horn busts myths

  1. This is the kind of real history we need to expose. So much of what we are taught about history is complete nonsense. This month’s issue of National Geographic has some excellent articles about the Jamestown settlement. The most interesting to me dealt with how the English changed the continent by introducing pigs, chickens, tobacco, and earthworms. The impact of their arrival on the ecosystem was monumental.

    There is some nice interactive content on National Geographic’s website: http://magma.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/jamestown/

  2. Greg, thanks for comment. I agree that Mr. Horn’s analysis is enlightening. I’ve been recommending his book to many folks. I was glad to see that it’s made it into paperback, as I take that as an indication that it is selling and (I hope) being read.

    I, too, found the National Geo issue and the Web site intriguing. I was really surprised by the bit about earthworms coming in the ballast.

    I hope to post something really soon about attending the 400th anniversary celebration this weekend just past. It was worthwhile.

  3. Pingback: Misinfo, Pilgrim « John Wills Lloyd

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