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Jamestown: 1619 Remembered

Growing up in Williamsburg, Virginia, I pretty much took nearby Jamestown Island, the 1607 site of the first successful English settlement in North America, for granted. Yet sadly, I still meet people who know very little about Jamestown, and its historical importance. So, it is very exciting to remember Jamestown on this day, when many of the world’s eyes are upon this island.

On July 30, 1619, a very hot day indeed, the very first democratic English assembly was held, in the “New World,” known as the House of Burgesses, the forerunner to today’s Virginia General Assembly.

Aerial look over Jamestown, Virginia, in the 1950s, showing the beginning of modern archaeological work being performed on the island. 20-years later, as a middle school kid, I worked on one of those archaeological projects (taken from the book, New Discoveries at Jamestown, by archaeologist J. Paul Hudson and co-author John L. Cotter).

1619 was a big year in Jamestown for other reasons. The small colony established at Jamestown was starting to stabilize, but with very few women around, a lot of the men wanted to leave (for understandable reasons). In response, the Virginia Company of London ordered that “…a fit hundredth might be sent of women, maids young and uncorrupt, to make wives to the inhabitants and by that means to make the men there more settled and less movable….” By 1620-1621, women started to show up at Jamestown.

It was a tough sell to get women to come live in an area, centered in a mosquito-infested, swampy island. Some women were secretly kidnapped to bring them to Virginia, but a more voluntary arrangement was needed for the colony to survive. What effectively was a “mail-order” bride system, to provide incentives for impoverished English women to make the journey across the Atlantic, saved the day for the young Virginia colony.

Barely a month after the first House of Burgesses meeting, in July, 1619, the first Africans arrived at Jamestown. What is particularly notable was that among this first boatload of Africans, were actually prisoners taken from a Portuguese slave ship. These Africans were originally treated as indentured servants. In principle, these Africans could purchase their freedom.

But over the following decades, the rules gradually changed. What started out as customs, here and there, eventually became Virgina colony law, as the indentured servanthood status of dark-skinned persons was transformed to make them slaves for life.

There was some resistance to these legal changes. For example, it was not considered proper for a Christian to enslave a fellow Christian. So, if an African person was baptized, they could claim a right to their freedom. Yet as regretted now, in our day, even that exemption was eventually eradicated. Even racial intermarriage was outlawed in 1691.

I wonder what would have happened if those slavery laws were never passed in the Virginia colony. I wonder what it might have been like, if Christians in Virginia would have studied their Bibles a bit more closely, to learn that racism has no actual basis in the Scriptures. Perhaps they might have rethought the whole slavery business, and the inherent racism that undergirded it.

It is worth thinking about… and remembering.

Other posts about Jamestown: (a) Musings about the parallels between Jamestown’s Captain John Smith and the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, (b) Jamestown and the first Thanksgiving, and (c) Veracity co-blogger, John Paine, takes us on a YouTube video trip to Jamestown, to help us learn some lessons about the historicity of Jesus.


A FIRST THANKSGIVING HOAX

I recently had dinner with some folks from another part of the country, where we talked about the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, soon to be followed by the famed “first ” Thanksgiving dinner in 1621, or thereabouts. Having grown up near Jamestown, Virginia, I am continually astounded when I hear that many Americans are completely ignorant about Jamestown as the first English settlement in the New World (1607), predating Plymouth Rock by thirteen years (1620). Furthermore, the thought that Virginia has had a “leg up” on the New Englanders with a Thanksgiving festival at Berkeley’s Hundred (1619) at least two years before the famous Pilgrim feast, comes as quite a surprise to many.

But while New Englanders and Virginians can have a friendly quarrel over dates, it is probably more disturbing how well-intended Christians have at times variously modified the first Thanksgiving event to fit within a particular historical narrative. But as Wheaton College historian Robert Tracy McKenzie and author of the The First Thanksgiving argues, the tendency to change the story is generally not malicious in motive. Furthermore, many contemporary readings that try to secularize Thanksgiving history can be just as guilty! Rather there is this universal human proclivity to see things in a way we want to see them, which provides an incentive to fudge a bit on the sparse details. However, as believers in a faith where history is vitally important, it is worth it as Christians to try to set the record straight.

In many ways, the story of how we have come to celebrate Thanksgiving is just as amazing as the original event itself.

Over the past few weeks, Professor McKenzie has been blogging a number of posts regarding the theme of Thanksgiving and understandings of its history over time, such as the following one. I hope you enjoy it as you feast on your traditional “turnips and boiled eel” instead of turkey this year…

Faith and History

History is not the past itself, but only that tiny portion of the past that human beings remember.  I’ve shared in a previous post the memorable word picture that C. S. Lewis has given us to illustrate that distinction.  In his essay “Historicism,” Lewis concluded that even a single moment involves more than we could ever document, much less comprehend.  He then went on to define the past in this way:

The past . . . in its reality, was a roaring cataract of billions upon billions of such moments: any one of them too complex to grasp in its entirety, and the aggregate beyond all imagination.  By far the greater part of this teeming reality escaped human consciousness almost as soon as it occurred. . . . At every tick of the clock, in every inhabited part of the world, an unimaginable richness and variety of “history” falls off…

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