Tag Archives: Colonial America

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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, 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…

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…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.)

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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.

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

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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.

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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…

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

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

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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.

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John Smith gazes out across the James River…

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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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How big is your mental map of colonial America?

A good friend of mine is moving to Los Angeles this weekend.  Last night we had a going-away party for him at a local pizza joint.  I’ve never been to California myself.  The West Coast is about the only major region of the country I have yet to visit.

I’ve never really felt much compulsion to go there, especially when it comes to seeing historic sites.  As a paleophile, I’d love to see the La Brea Tar Pits and do the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal. (One of my more unrealistic bucket list items is to experience all four Jurassic Park water rides before I die; so far I’ve only hit the one in Florida, which leaves Hollywood, Japan, and Singapore, and I doubt I’ll be going to Singapore in the foreseeable future.)  But as a guy who’s into early American history, I think I’ve always had this assumption that there isn’t really anything in California that’s right up my alley, so I haven’t felt the urgency to make it to the West Coast in the same way that I badly wanted to go to New England for many years.

Of course, this attitude of mine is based on misconceptions about colonial America.  Both California in particular and the West in general have an early American history.  It just doesn’t fall within the boundaries of early Anglo-American history.

Mission San Juan Capistrano. By Lordkinbote at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

A lot of us get our sense of the basic contours of history from the introductory classes we take in high school and college.  And in American history surveys, there tends to be a sort of “progression” toward the English colonial experience.  You get your early Iberian explorers, then Columbus, then the conquistadors, then maybe a brief detour up to New Mexico for the Pueblo revolt, then the French, and finally Roanoke and Jamestown, and English-speaking Protestants take center stage from there on out.

This “progression” scheme partly has its roots in chronology.  The English were relative latecomers in establishing New World colonies, so it makes sense to examine their efforts last.  The problem is that we tend to drop the Spanish and French experience altogether once the Englishmen show up.  Yet after the English colonies were well established, there were still French fur traders in the Mississippi River Valley, mestizo ranchers in the southwestern deserts, and friars in California.

Indeed, in the period between Jamestown and the annexation of California, entire populations rose up in the American West under the rule of Catholic monarchs or the government of Mexico.  In 1776, while Washington reeled from Howe’s campaign in New York, Spanish Franciscans were celebrating Mass at San Juan Capistrano.  And by that time there had been Spanish missions in the Sonoran desert of Arizona for nearly a century.

But how many people think of southern Arizona and California as places associated with eighteenth-century American history?  I’ll confess that I generally don’t.  Instead, we think of the “history” of the Far West as something that started in the 1800s, when settlers of mostly British extraction started pushing back the frontier and displacing the Indians.  But the Indians weren’t the only people in the way.  The descendants of the original colonists were still there, too, so the contest wasn’t simply two-sided.

The Euro-American frontier didn’t just move westward from the English-controlled seaboard, but also southward from French Canada and northward from New Spain.  All this was very much a part of early American history, and I’m still trying to get my head around it.

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A pirate looks at 300

The latest issue of Smithsonian has a pretty interesting article on Blackbeard’s last hurrah in colonial North Carolina, with a look at some of the new evidence that’s come to light in the past few years.

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Happy belated 250th, Proclamation of 1763

Monday was the 250th anniversary of the Proclamation of 1763, and I neglected to post anything here to mark the occasion.  But when you think about it, utter disregard is a highly appropriate way to commemorate the Proclamation of 1763; that’s exactly how colonial settlers treated it.

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