Tag Archives: Colonial America

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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Defending the Forks

We managed to take in one last historic site on the final day of the trip: Point State Park in Pittsburgh, PA.  Although it’s not as well known as Bunker Hill or Independence Hall, it’s one of the most important pieces of real estate in the history of North America.  The struggle for this triangle of land at the “Forks of the Ohio,” the juncture of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, shaped the destiny of an entire continent.

Control of the Forks meant command of the Ohio River, which also meant command of the continent’s vast interior.  Both France and England acted on this realization about the same time, which is why in 1753 Virginia’s royal governor sent an inexperienced young officer named George Washington to tell the French that the Pennsylvania frontier was British territory.  Unimpressed, the French proceeded to drive away an English crew building a fort at the Forks and then constructed their own outpost at the site, naming it Fort Duquesne.

In 1754, Virginia sent Washington back to the Pennsylvania frontier to kick the French out.  This expedition, of course, culminated in the messy and controversial confrontation at Jumonville Glen and an embarrassing defeat for the inexperienced officer at Ft. Necessity.  These proved to be the opening moves in the French and Indian War, so it was the struggle for the Forks of the Ohio that launched the war which resulted in the transfer of France’s North American mainland empire to Britain.

For the first few years of the French and Indian War, the French managed to hold on to Ft. Duquesne and the Forks.  Gen. Edward Braddock’s 1755 expedition to Duquesne was wiped out before getting a chance to threaten the fort, and another effort faltered in Sept. 1758.  The English finally succeeded in driving the French away from the Forks that November.  They built their own fortification very near the site of Duquesne, naming it “Fort Pitt” after the popular English politician.  This fort—quite a bit larger than its French predecessor—was one of the most substantial defensive works in colonial North America.

When the war ended in 1763, Indians along the Great Lakes and Ohio frontiers revolted against the new English masters of the interior, disgusted at British attempts to restrict trade and gift-giving.  The outbreak of Pontiac’s Rebellion saw Ft. Pitt and other outposts along the frontier under siege by these irate warriors; the fort’s commandant attempted to break the encirclement using smallpox-infected blankets, but the Indians ultimately broke off the siege themselves to intercept a force coming to Pitt’s relief.  The site continued to play an important role as a staging ground for colonial forces in Lord Dunmore’s War, and then for American forces operating in the West during the Revolutionary War and the Whiskey Rebellion.

Of course, there might not have been a Revolutionary War if Britain hadn’t tightened its grip on its American colonies after winning the French and Indian War.  Since it was the cost of that war which prompted Britain to tighten its grip in the first place, it wouldn’t be too vast an oversimplification to say that if England and France hadn’t disputed mastery of the Forks of the Ohio, American independence wouldn’t have happened when and how it did.  It would therefore be pretty hard to overstate the historical significance of this piece of ground at the meeting place of three rivers.

Unfortunately, the forts which once symbolized these nations’ commitments to control the Ohio River Valley are pretty much long gone, but there are still some features worth seeing at the Point.  A brick outline marks the site of Ft. Duquesne, and an outbuilding of Ft. Pitt called the “Blockhouse” is extant and open for tours.  Built in 1764, it’s probably the oldest surviving building west of the Appalachians.

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In addition, one of the bastions of Ft. Pitt has been reconstructed and houses the Fort Pitt Museum, which is run by the John Heinz History Center.

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I highly recommend a visit to the museum.  The exhibits deal with the struggle to control the Forks of the Ohio before and during the French and Indian War, as well as the important role Ft. Pitt played in the Revolution and into the early national period.  There are some fantastic military artifacts to see in the galleries, and the gift shop has a great stock of books on the French and Indian War and the early history of western Pennsylvania.

You can get a beautiful view of the Point—and of Pittsburgh as a whole—by taking one of the historic incline railways up to the heights overlooking the city.  Built in the late 1800’s for immigrant laborers who lived on the mountains above town, there are two of them in operation today.

IMG_1343The fountain in the left center of this photo marks the spot where the rivers flow together into the Ohio, right in front of Heinz Field.

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Now I want to get back up to western Pennsylvania and see Fort Necessity, the Braddock battlefield, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

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