Category Archives: Colonial America

George Washington’s gritty origin story

Seems like all the heroes are getting their origin stories re-told.  Batman Begins, The Wolverine, Man of Steel, Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, GothamAnd now this…

New Line has closed a deal to acquire The Virginian, a formative period action thriller about Founding Father George Washington before he found his place in defiance of the British Army. The script is by Michael Gunn, a protege of Aaron Sorkin. This one has had more than its share of buzz around town, because agents of talent have asked to read it on behalf of their star clients, though there is no star attached at this stage. Donald De Line will produce. Deal was mid-six figures.…

The script’s movie potential is best described as Last Of The Mohicans meets Braveheart. A down-and-out, young George Washington — desperate to join the British Army — accepts a dangerous mission to conquer a French fort and save the American colonies.

Wait, mid-six figures?  Geez, maybe we really should get on that Southern Campaign script.

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Emily Blunt’s reluctant American Revolution

The last time I went to Colonial Williamsburg, I was sitting in the capitol’s courtroom and listening to the guide give his spiel on eighteenth-century trials, when it suddenly hit me: Americans lived under a monarch before the Revolution.  I don’t mean that I didn’t know this before, of course; I mean that it hit me viscerally for the first time.

I’d never felt so distant from the inhabitants of eighteenth-century America as I did at that moment, sitting in that reconstructed courtroom where men—where subjects—dispensed justice under the aegis of a crown on the far side of the Atlantic.

Gordon Wood describes the colonists’ monarchical world in The Radicalism of the American Revolution (p. 11-12):

This was no simple political status, but had all sorts of social, cultural, and even psychological implications.  As clarified by Sir Edward Coke and other jurists in the seventeenth century, the allegiance the English subject owed his monarch was a personal and individual matter.  Diverse persons related to each other only through their common tie to the king, much as children became brothers and sisters only through their common parentage.  Since the king, said William Blackstone, was the “pater familias of the nation,” to be a subject was to be a kind of child, to be personally subordinated to a paternal dominion.…The whole community, said Benjamin Franklin in 1763, is regulated by the example of the king.

The colonial past, in short, is a foreign country.  Or at least it is here in America, where we don’t much stock in personal ties to a monarch anymore.

Americans pull down an image of George III on Bowling Green in New York, July 1776. By Johannes Adam Simon Oertel (original uploader was Shoreranger at en.wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This brings us to the current brouhaha over British actress Emily Blunt’s reaction to becoming an American citizen.  While folks here in the U.S. took offense at her off-hand joke about the Republican presidential debate,* what interested me about her remarks was her distress at getting drafted into her own personal American Revolution:

One part of the process that was particularly concerning for Blunt was renouncing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth.

“I had to renounce my Queen!” Blunt said.

“The thing that’s weird is I do get to keep both my British citizenship and this, but you have to renounce her. But it’s kind of typically American – not to be rude. I had to renounce her in the room but I don’t actually technically renounce her. They were like, ‘just say it, you don’t have to mean it but just say it.'”

This emotional and personal sense of investment in a monarch is something that seems strange to Americans, but would’ve been familiar to our colonial predecessors.  Blunt’s vexation over having to renounce her queen might help us understand why so many Americans hesitated to take that last, fateful step toward independence—and why some of them refused to take it at all, deciding instead to fight, go into exile, and perhaps die for their commitment to their king.  Renouncing Parliament was one thing; renouncing the monarch was something else altogether.

Oh, and as long as I’m on the subject of Emily Blunt and the British monarchy, let me recommend the 2009 film The Young Victoria.  It’s a very good movie, and Blunt is outstanding in the title role.

*Honestly, though, if your first taste of American citizenship was Trump’s hair on TV, wouldn’t you be having second thoughts too?

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German America: A colonial counterfactual

Today’s historical thought experiment comes to us courtesy of the eminent diplomat and accomplished ladies’ man Henry Kissinger.

In his massive (but engrossing) history of diplomacy, Kissinger describes how Cardinal Richelieu, that most pragmatic and unsentimental practitioner of seventeenth-century statecraft, redirected European political history.  Richelieu successfully sought to magnify French power at the expense of the Holy Roman Empire.  As Kissinger states, the cardinal “feared a unified Central Europe and prevented it from coming about.  In all likelihood, he delayed German unification by some two centuries.…As a result, Germany developed no national political culture and calcified into a provincialism from which it did not emerge until late in the nineteenth century when Bismarck unified it.”*

Germany, then, did not enjoy the same political unity and economic vigor that other European powers were beginning to enjoy in the early modern period.  One consequence of this, as Kissinger notes in passing, is that Germany “missed the early wave of European overseas colonization.”

Since he’s more concerned with the impact of Richelieu’s statecraft on later European diplomacy, Kissinger doesn’t explore the implications of this notion that delayed unification knocked Germany out of the running as a potential colonial power.  But if you’re an early American historian, it provokes some interesting counterfactual speculation.

Ephrata Cloister, a German religious community founded in eighteenth-century Pennsylvania. By Bestbudbrian (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

European political history isn’t my specialty, so I don’t know if a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century German unification was as likely as Kissinger makes it out to be.  But if German unification hadn’t been delayed, would Germany have created its own American empire alongside the New World colonies of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English?  And if so, what would that German America have looked like?

I’m not sure it’s possible to answer questions like this constructively.  In order to describe a possible German-founded American colony we have to draw on what we know of early modern Germany, but a unified Germany capable of planting American colonies wouldn’t be the early modern Germany we know.  This Catch-22 makes it hard to imagine what the relationship between the colonies and mother country would’ve been like, or what sort of political and economic order would’ve characterized the German colonies themselves.

Of course, a great many German migrants did settle in colonial America, which might offer a basis for thinking about the cultural life of these hypothetical colonies.  But they did so as minorities and latecomers to the English colonies.  Perhaps their experiences would have been quite different had they arrived earlier and lived in settlements founded under German auspices.

Many of the Central Europeans who did settle in colonial America were members of Protestant sects who maintained their distinctive religious identity in the New World, but it seems likely that a more unified Holy Roman Empire would have been able to enforce more religious conformity within its territory.  Religious divisions, after all, contributed to the empire’s lack of cohesion.  A politically unified Germany would probably have necessitated a more religiously uniform nation.

Then again, a religiously uniform Germany might have foisted its religious dissidents off on its colonies.  Perhaps German America would have served as a haven for nonconformists in the same way that English America did.

That’s the thing about these broad historical counterfactuals.  You have to make so many adjustments and account for so many possible variables that it’s easy to strain your tether to the actual history to a point where it snaps, and then you’re not engaged in a historically useful exercise anymore.

And in the end, maybe the presence of German colonies in early America wouldn’t have made that much difference.  The demographic and economic power of English America was considerable, so maybe German colonies would have gotten gobbled up anyway, becoming the cultural, religious, and linguistic enclaves that the eventual German settlements actually were.

*This post is a lot more entertaining if you read this excerpt aloud in your best Kissinger voice.  Go on, try it.


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Jamestown Settlement’s new museum is excellent

One of the things I really wanted to do while in the Historic Triangle was see the new museum exhibit at Jamestown Settlement.  Technically, the exhibit isn’t that new; it opened in time for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding.  But it was still under construction last time I was there, so I’m going by NBC’s logic.  If I haven’t seen it, it’s new to me.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, Jamestown Settlement is distinct from “Historic Jamestowne,” the NPS-run site of the original colony that we visited in the last post.  JS is a living history museum next door to the historic site, operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and the Commonwealth of Virginia along with Yorktown Victory Center. The old JS museum was extremely impressive, so I had really high hopes for the new exhibits.  I wasn’t at all disappointed.  They really knocked it out of the park.  The new galleries merit a good half-day of touring on their own, besides the reconstructed Powhatan village, colonial fort, and ships that make up the rest of the site.  I spent about four hours inside, and probably could’ve stayed longer.  You can’t take pictures in the galleries, so I don’t have any pics, but you can see some of the artifacts by clicking here.

The tour starts with an introduction to the three cultures that collided in colonial Virginia: American Indian, English, and African.  Museum figures, reconstructed dwellings, and artifacts offer a glimpse at the material cultures of these three groups, their religious beliefs, their forms of government, their languages, and the ways they earned a living. You then move on to early modern Europe’s maritime development and the motives for English colonization, including a look at the investors who made up the Virginia Company.  You’ll meet some of the most important figures in Jamestown’s early history, check out the types of things the first colonists brought with them, and get a glimpse at a couple of items supposedly given to Pocahontas on her visit to England.  Interactive maps demonstrate the spread of white settlement and the loss of Powhatan territory over the years.

The sections on Virginia’s development into a plantation society are particularly strong.  The exhibit covers the emergence of the tobacco colony, the importance of Atlantic trade, the changes in Virginia’s government, and the impact of the shift toward slave labor on African material culture.

Whereas the exhibits at the NPS site focus on excavated objects, the JS galleries’ strength is seventeenth-century Anglo-American furniture, art, and personal belongings.  I had no idea that the foundation’s artifact collections were so extensive, but there are hundreds of original items on display.  The galleries feature audiovisual elements and immersive environments, too, but each gizmo and set piece serves a purpose.  You don’t get the gratuitous overuse of technology and effects for their own sake that mar some big-budget exhibits.  The museum strikes a good balance between original objects and interpretive artistry.  You can walk along a ca. 1600 English city street, step inside a Powhatan home, and look around the bedroom of a wealthy planter, but there are plenty of exhibit cases full of original objects.

My favorite piece of audiovisual gimmickry is in the first gallery, where handsets allow you to hear spoken dialects similar to those of the Powhatans, Africans, and English who made up seventeenth-century Virginia’s population.  (By the way, if you think Jamestown’s English settlers sounded like modern-day Shakespearean thespians, you’re in for a surprise.)

The exhibit is so comprehensive that any visitor who spends a few hours inside should get a pretty solid overview of Virginia’s seventeenth-century history and its larger Atlantic setting.  Whether you want to see artifacts, experience some modern museum showmanship, or get a grounding in the subject matter before heading over to the NPS site, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Now I’m even more excited to see what’s in store when the foundation’s new museum opens at Yorktown next year.

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A walk in Jamestown

For the last post, we took a stroll around the place where England’s American empire came to an end.  Just a short distance away, at the other end of the Colonial Parkway, is the place where it started.

If you haven’t been to Jamestown since the 400th anniversary, you’ve missed out on a lot.  Last week was my first visit in a long time, and they’ve added so much stuff that it almost seemed like a different site.

The visitor center exhibit is packed with archaeological materials…


…the fruit of many years’ worth of excavations, which are still ongoing.  (Check out this nifty interactive map for info on what they’ve found so far.)


In addition to the visitor center displays, there’s a new museum in the park called the “Archaearium,” which sits atop the site of the statehouse.


You can see the statehouse foundations through glass windows in the Archaearium floor.


Excavators found these items inside one of the fort’s wells, and the exhibit designers mounted them in a way that illustrates their positions in situ.  It’s pretty neat.


The most powerful exhibit in the Archaearium is a gallery with the remains of some of Jamestown’s dead, including “Jane,” a girl of about fourteen whose bones bear the traces of cannibalism.  Photography is forbidden in that part of the museum, but you can get some more info on Jane here.

The Tercentenary Monument is still there…


…along with the site’s only remaining seventeenth-century structure, a church tower.


The current church alongside the tower is a 1907 reconstruction, but seventeenth-century foundations are visible inside.


There’s also a partial reconstruction of one of the earlier churches, a “mud and stud” building erected within the original fort walls in 1608.  John Rolfe married Pocahontas on this site in 1614.


John Smith gazes out across the James River…


…while Pocahontas stands near the reconstructed fort with arms outstretched in what looks like a gesture of welcome.  Hardly the most accurate depiction of what Powhatan’s daughter would have looked like when Jamestown’s settlers first encountered her, but still a nice piece of commemorative sculpture.


Historians long thought that the site of the original, triangular fortification built by the first settlers was lost to the river.  As it turned out, that wasn’t the case.  The original fort site was right there near the church tower the whole time, although erosion carried away any traces of one of the corner bastions.  Cannons mark the site of the other two.  Only one of the bastions pointed inland; the others faced south toward the river, since the first settlers were more worried about Spanish ships than marauding Indians.


What should have concerned them more than either were disease and starvation.  Crosses mark some of the early burials in and around the fort, bearing testimony to the fact that, in its first years, Jamestown—whatever else it eventually meant for the history of America—was above all else a deathtrap.


The colony eventually outgrew the triangular fort and expanded eastward along two streets beside the river.  Walking trails take you past the reconstructed foundations of some of these later buildings.


Near the park entrance are the remains of the glasshouse, one of many failed attempts to make the colony profitable before tobacco took off.


In a reconstructed glasshouse nearby, interpreters demonstrate seventeenth-century glass-blowing techniques.


Jamestown has the highest concentration of critters per acre of any historic site I’ve visited.  Geese enjoy hanging out by the river…


…and turtles are pretty common, too.  I met this fellow taking a stroll beside the fort site.


I also ran across herons, lizards, a muskrat, a deer, and bugs…lots and lots and lots of bugs, especially on Island Drive, where so many flying insects pelted the car windows that it sounded like driving through a hailstorm.


It’s a little ironic that Jamestown is teeming with life today, given that so many of its settlers went to an early grave.



Filed under Archaeology, Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

A walk in Yorktown

For those of us who are crazy about early American history, there aren’t many places better for spending a few days than Virginia’s Historic Triangle.  Jamestown and Yorktown—the two places where England’s colonial experience in the future U.S. began and ended—are right there within a short distance of each other, with Colonial Williamsburg in between.

I just visited the triangle for the first time in over a decade, where I kicked things off with a stroll around Yorktown.  Here are a few highlights.

British redoubt #10, captured by a party under Alexander Hamilton on the night of October 14th and incorporated into the Americans’ second parallel:


Redoubt #9, assaulted by the French on the same night:


Grand French Battery:


The Moore House, where officers from both the Allied and British armies met to negotiate the terms of surrender:


Surrender Field, where the British laid down their arms:


Site of the French artillery park:


An untouched earthwork that survived the siege:


The Victory Monument:


One side benefit of visiting the battleground is getting some spectacular views of the York River:


In the town, a few structures that were present during the siege are still standing, such as Gov. Thomas Nelson, Jr.’s house:


Nelson’s home took fire during the siege.  The cannonballs embedded in the walls are twentieth-century additions…


…but the effects of the originals are still evident:


Before the war, Yorktown was an important tobacco port.  Here’s the custom house:


Grace Episcopal Church dates from the 1600s and is still in use:


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When is “early America,” anyway?

This semester I’m taking a course on early America and the Atlantic.  A lot of our reading deals with expanding the physical boundaries of what we think of as “early America,” incorporating insights from scholars working on Latin America, the Caribbean, and the connections between the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

Last week we spent some time discussing temporal boundaries along with physical ones.  When exactly was early America?  If we’re using a chronological term to describe an area of study, shouldn’t there be a better notion of what constitutes the period under discussion?

Columbus seems like a logical starting point, but coming up with an end date is a lot trickier, and your choice of a terminus will reveal a lot about your historical priorities.  If you decide to cut things off at 1776, 1783, or 1789, you’re  privileging politics over markers of culture, religion, and other factors that remained much more constant after those dates.  You’re also more or less saying that U.S. history is the only early American history that really matters.

What if we set our end point at the date when Latin America became independent? That privileges politics, too.  And there’s a sense in which a cutoff point in the early 1800s makes even less sense than 1783 or 1789.  In many ways, the social, technological, and economic atmosphere of the 1820s looks more similar to the mid-nineteenth century than it does to the late eighteenth.

We could arbitrarily pick a nice, round year, like 1800, but the fact that it’s a nice, round number is just about the only thing it’s got going for it.

Does the question of early America’s chronological boundaries matter?  I think it does, because the way we create these containers for particular fields of study inevitably shapes the questions we ask about the past and the places we go to find answers.  On a more practical level, it also determines who goes to which conferences, who gets hired for particular positions, and so on. These chronological boundaries might be artificial, but their effects on the way we conceptualize the past are very real indeed.

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