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Whittenburg Q&A: Who settled Jamestown?

Whittenburg (l) teaches students at Jamestown. By Stephen Salpukas.James Whittenburg, associate professor of history and chair of the Lyon Gardiner Tyler Department of History, is a constant visitor to Jamestown. We asked him to help us understand who the first settlers were, what their motivations were and to tell us about the significance of new discoveries at James Fort led by alumnus William Kelso. He told us …

W&M News: Can you describe the first settlers?

I was once interviewed at some length by a reporter who ended up asking, “OK, just give me your bottom line as to what the earliest colonists were really like.” To which I said, “Think worst sort of ‘Animal House’ fraternity,” and that’s all that the reporter quoted. The first colonists—104 men and boys—were young. Initially, they were entirely male. … And there was continual turnover. Of the 104 men and boys who arrived in May 1607, only 38 or 40 were alive when the next supply arrived the following January. During the “starving time” in the winter of 1609-1610, the population went down from about 250 people to only about 60. …

W&M News: What were their motivations?

Trade was at the core of it. What was happening in England was the development of corporations in which entrepreneurs would invest in companies that traded goods all over the world. There actually were two Virginia Companies, one that funded Jamestown and one that established an outpost in Maine in 1607 that failed within a year. Both companies were joint stock companies. Religion was also a major part of it. The Protestant vs. Catholic element was a key factor. The Spanish Catholics were seen by Protestant Englishmen as the overlords of the New World, and the English had the idea that they were going to free the New World from the yoke of Catholic oppression. Nationalism also was a part of it, along with the military element. One thing that is not a part of it is tobacco. Tobacco was known in England. The Spanish already were exporting it back to Europe, and there was a market for it there. However, in 1607 the English at Jamestown had no plans for it as a cash crop. By the 1620s, however, tobacco was driving the Virginia economy.

What do you think of the publicity leading up to Jamestown 2007?

There are all these agencies that have a part in that celebration. As they market it, there is this … effort to spin the story by suggesting that there is a straight line of democracy from 1607 to the present. It really was not like that. This is not to ignore the creation of the first legislative assembly, but probably even more important was the development of many local institutions of government. Democracy as a form of government was not popular with any echelon of English society in the early 17th century.

What we do see is a lot of experimentation with political, social and economic solutions to the problem of how best to exploit the Chesapeake. … That one thing clearly is a tie back to the settlement is the capitalist entrepreneur. The Virginia Company did not have a really clear idea of what it would do with Virginia when the first ships arrived, but the colonists were definitely here to make money. Tobacco became the ultimate solution for colonists if not for the Company. A great deal of what happened as a consequence of that was terribly unfortunate for a great many people. At first, tobacco growers mainly exploited English indentured servants. As practiced in Virginia, indentured servitude was almost a form of temporary slavery. We know that enslaved Africans first appeared in 1619—that’s our first record of it, but some people suspect it began a few years earlier. The point is that slavery, by the end of the 17th century, became the dominant labor force, so that story of brutal exploitation of white indentured servants and enslaved Africans is all related to that capital- and profit-driven entrepreneurship.

There has always been a degree of difficulty in interpreting this to the American public, because we prefer to say that the first representative assembly in the New World was at Jamestown and therefore democracy begins here.

W&M News: How has the work of William Kelso influenced your understanding of Jamestown?

Textbooks never know how to handle Jamestown. John Smith pops up briefly, and then all of a sudden the focus shifts to Plymouth Colony or Massachusetts Bay. Jamestown is left in the dust.
When Bill Kelso started digging up Jamestown, the thing that really struck me is that this was a real town that became an important urban place. It made me readjust my own image—Jamestown, instead of a place that always was just hanging on by a string, was an economic and political center. Some scholars believe that, at its peak, Jamestown would have looked like a typical English industrial port city. Anyone who arrived from an English port city would have stepped off the wharf at Jamestown and seen sights and activities that would have seemed entirely familiar.

Before the excavations began, I had a personal mental image of James Fort—and by extension, of Jamestown—as temporary. It seemed mostly a curiosity. Then I was out there watching the archaeologists work, and I viewed one of the APVA signs, which read, “Some of the ship captains” contributed to raising the tower of the church. The word “some” became important for me. I looked out over the James River and mentally formed an image of Jamestown at mid-century, and instead of an isolated, almost irrelevant outpost, in my mind’s eye I could see that there were so many ships out there that they couldn’t all come into the wharf at the same time. To me it was a revelation.

W&M News: Are we talking about Jamestown or New Town?

The APVA sponsors the archaeology that is being done at James Fort. This is the Jamestown Rediscovery Research Project. The APVA owns 22.5 acres. The rest of the island is owned by the National Park Service. “New Town” is located on the Park Service portion of the island. That’s a part of Jamestown that began in the mid- to late-1620s. Ultimately Jamestown’s main streets stretched for about a mile. That was about the time that Nathaniel Bacon burned it in 1676 (Bacon’s Rebellion). A big dig there during the 1950s uncovered a lot of foundations in New Town. They were mostly brick structures. They were very large with glass windows, tile floors and slate roofs. It was a real capital. It might have been elegant.

We don’t know when the fort went down. We guess it was in the mid-1620s. New Town really takes off about 1630.

W&M News: How would you desribe the significance of Kelso's work at Jamestown and at William and Mary?

Whittenburg: When you meet Bill, one of the first things he will tell you is that he got his master’s degree in History at William and Mary. So the ties go back many years. Three programs at the College—History, Anthropology and American studies—all have sent graduate students to work and for and learn from Bill Kelso. Our graduate students and our undergraduates have taken the field school he operates during the summer and for the second time in the coming fall, Bill and his team of archaeologists will offer a course focused on the APVA/Rediscovery project. The APVA did a 48-minute movie about the excavation in 1997. I watched it, and I kept saying, there’s my graduate student and there’s my graduate student. They were all over the place.

When Dr. Kelso first began at Jamestown, many people assumed that the fort had disappeared into the James River. But Bill reasoned that the palisade had run close by the existing church tower and at least part of the fort remained between the church and the river. Previous archaeology efforts had missed the traces because they had looked for brick foundations only. Until the 1970s, historical archaeology really did not understand about so-called impermanent architecture, for which the evidence was, at best, a stain left in the clay by wooden posts that had been set down into the ground as the main supports for house walls and roofs—and then had rotted away leaving. The earliest Jamestown buildings left little more than those ephemeral remains. Bill began to open squares between the church tower and the river. What he discovered, in essence, were the stains left by the rotted timbers of the palisade. But the stains might have been the remains of something else—say a fence line. Bill followed those stains looking for a curve because he knew from the documents pertaining to the fort that there was a rounded bastion at each of the three points. He knew if he hit the point where it started to curve, there could be little question that this was James Fort. He found the curve.

The APVA/Rediscovery team has mainly been excavating the interior of the fort. Eighty percent of the fort is there. Only one bastion has eroded into the James. They have found all manner of buildings dating from 1607 until the fort wall went down some time after 1624. By then, that wall had become an impediment. The town had grown up around it. Those walls were made of wood, so instead of leaving them up or punching through them as they might have done in the case of a stone wall, the colonists simply tore them down.

W&M News: Jamestown’s importance faded when the capital moved to Williamsburg in 1698. Was the College involved?

The Rev. James Blair, founder of the College and perhaps the most powerful man in the colony, was a prime mover in that effort to transfer the capital.
The College was here already, of course, and Blair reasoned that it would further the interests of his school if the capital were here as well. James Blair had his students write essays to present to the legislature extolling the virtues of Middle Plantation. Some of them argued that it was more healthful because it was higher. It is higher by a few of feet, but Williamsburg is certainly no mountaintop.

Blair was just determined to have his way. He succeeded.