Why do people care about history? What do they think knowledge about the old days will tell them? Men and women look at history a little differently. They imagine what the world might have been for each of them.
After several years as a docent at Jamestown Settlement and fielding questions from people from all age groups and parts of the country, I think I understand what we, both men and women, want to learn about history. Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum commemorating the arrival of three English ships in 1607.
Children learn the history: warfare, Pocahontas, starvation, lots of murky action. Jamestown Settlement is a park, a fort, an Indian village, and a dock on the James River holding replicas of the three ships. Children enjoy playing outside where chickens and wild turkeys roam and crafts are demonstrated in the Indian village.
But adults don’t come to Jamestown simply to entertain the children. When they enter the museum they ask questions. They want to know where they fit into the mosaic that makes up American history. Did their ancestors arrive in Virginia four hundred years ago? Unlikely, in physical terms, for most people asking. But they still feel an affinity with the first settlers; somehow they feel a connection.
Susan Constant docked on James River
History and the Need for Women
The first settlers were young men and boys who spent a lot of time fighting with everyone, including themselves. After all, they came to fight, and thought they would fight the Spanish. Sometimes they succeeded in killing each other. These people didn’t have descendants.
So when does American history begin? In my opinion, it happened when the first young settlers realized that to survive, they couldn’t rely on rescue ships from the mother country. To thrive in the new world, they needed to build more than a lonely fort. They needed a place to live and begin families. For that, they needed women.
In the beginning, the only women around Jamestown came from the native tribes who lived in the area. Archaeology tells us that native women did a lot of the cooking in Jamestown fort. Historians estimate that about a third of the original settlers who arrived on the first ships married Indian women.
Indian Cooking Site outside Jamestown Fort
After a hundred years or so, with substantial intermarriage with the Indians and the arrival of some women from Europe, Virginia developed a family structure. The wealthy landowners created plantations on which they raised and sold tobacco. There were very few towns; religion was observed in small parish churches paid for and controlled by local parishioners who lived on plantations. Though the colony received a charter to establish a university in 1622, Virginia didn’t get around to accepting that idea until 1693.
Virginia tobacco was highly prized in the mother country and all over Europe, and Virginia planters became wealthy. From 1619 they were also self-governing by an elected House of Burgesses. The mother country sent over governors who were advised by an appointed Governors Council; the more raucous elected House of Burgesses passed all legislation, including tax bills.
Women in Colonial Virginia
This is all basic stuff, but think. What and who were represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses? After about a hundred years the colony numbered about fifty thousand people. Two representatives were elected from each borough and they, all men, represented the plantations.
The plantation was Virginia’s basic unit of society. It contained everything that was necessary for life and the beginning of a family structure: the plantation raised the food, prepared it, made the furniture and the tools necessary for the crops, and sold the product. It also provided security from bandits and incursions by foreign tribes. A representative of a plantation spoke for everyone living there: rich, poor, male, female, free, indentured or slave.
Tobacco brought wealth and nice houses located on the rivers from which tobacco was shipped. Tobacco traded internationally; Virginia credit purchased many products for the use and enjoyment of the plantation residents. It also paid for tutors for the children.
Because the men went out to the fields and served in the local militia, Virginia plantations often were run day-to-day by women. Women frequently outlived their husbands and powerful, wealthy women operated in international trade. Women were important participants in deciding who their children should marry, and Virginia plantation society featured close family ties. Many members of the Governor’s Council and the House of Burgesses were closely related. It was a government of cousins who knew each other well.
History Continues: Women still Watch out for the Children
Is that so different from what we have today? Women still write a lot of the checks and run most households. They have the children and raise them. They also run a lot of small businesses, as they did in colonial Virginia. When a tourist visits Colonial Williamsburg he and his family can eat in a number of restaurants in the colonial area. Historically, almost all of them were owned and operated by women.
Women exercised their property rights early, and generally they did so to protect their children. Jamestown Settlement’s museum displays a legal document from the 1650s which describes what today would be described as a prenuptial agreement. In it, Mrs. Hannah Bennett Turner Tompkins Arnold states that she will marry her third husband, but that certain parts of her acreage will be set aside for her children. She buried three husbands and kept her farm and property together for her heirs by legal deed.
This is all detailed to a certain extent in my book, The Wealth of Jamestown. The star of that book is, of course, Sarah Harrison, daughter of a great planter, who in her marriage ceremony to the Rev. James Blair, clearly stated “No obey” when asked if she would love, honor and obey him. From that, the plot thickened.
Women didn’t often get their names and dates recorded, but they were there. We’d have no history without them.
Pirates and privateers influenced early American colonial history from its beginning. The original colonies depended on trade for survival. For example, in Virginia, the first large colony, trade involved the sale of tobacco in exchange for virtually all manufactured goods.
Mercantilism ruled the day. European countries attempted to monopolize their trade for the benefit of home countries. Royal authorities licensed ships and shipowners had to pay a fee for the right to operate. English trade with Virginia was financed through a system of credit against the following year’s tobacco crop. Goods in both directions came on ships.
Trade required peace and is depicted in the cover image for my first historical novel, The Wealth of Jamestown. The image is of a painting by Keith Rocco and is the property of the National Park Service.
Jamestown, 17th Century
Privateers, Pirates and Trade
Virginia prospered and grew, but for a good part of the seventeenth century England fought wars with European neighbors. Sometimes the wars resulted in the shifting of ownership of various territories. Thus, New Amsterdam became New York in 1667 as a result of an Anglo Dutch War. The Dutch won that war: they gave up a small settlement on the tip of Manhattan and received in its place the Spice Islands of Indonesia. They also won the right to sail ships up the James River to pick up tobacco, breaking the English monopoly on that trade.
European navies were small. During times of war, ships financed by the various crowns of Europe were supplemented by private vessels. Private merchant vessels received commissions and payments from the various governments. These privateers could conduct their business while acting in support of their kings and queens. The ships shown in the harbor in the painting were likely commercial ships owned by privateers. Depending on the year, they could have been owned by local Virginians.
Privateers armed their ships as law and order on the sea did not exist. Crews learned to operate cannons and could defend the ships if attacked. They did so partly because of their status. The governments and peoples of the day valued and admired the privateers, as mother countries and colonies needed trade for their survival and prosperity.
French and Indian Wars, Privateers and Pirates
In Queen Anne’s war (1702-1712), the English defeated the French and annexed large parts of eastern Canada including Hudson Bay. This was the second of three French and Indian wars.
A peace treaty ended the conflict in 1713, but Queen Anne died in 1714. She was succeeded by George I, the first Hanover King of England. Because the war ended, privateers lost their commissions and the revenue that went with them. England once again paid for a very small royal navy.
The English government required privateers to pay license fees (taxes) in order to sail and conduct business. Some paid the fees; the ones who refused to pay the fees were called pirates. With peace, trade expanded for all shippers, whether licensed or not. After 1714 pirates, who incurred lower costs than privateers, began to take over much of international trade. Privateers became pirates. They became a menace to their own mother countries.
The painting below, by Van de Welde the younger, shows the mother country’s ships (in this case Holland), fighting pirates:
War against Pirates
Blackbeard and the Return of Law and Order
In 1717 Blackbeard sailed a captured French warship known as the Concorde and renamed her the Queen Anne’s Revenge. With this flagship and a fleet of about forty other ships, he blockaded Charleston harbor. He became famous and his business thrived.
Authorities in London noticed . George I decided to beef up his navy. He also issued a pardon called a “Proclamation for Suppressing Pirates”. Under the King’s pardon the British Crown granted clemency to any pirate who surrendered to a governor of the colonies by September 5, 1718.
Blackbeard surrendered to the Governor of North Carolina and received an official royal pardon. As related in my book, Blackbeard’s Legacy, despite the proclamation from London, the Virginia House of Burgesses in November 1718 passed a law on “the apprehending and destroying of pirates.” With respect to Blackbeard, the House voted a reward of one hundred pounds, with ten pounds for each of his crew. The House, however, doubted their law’s legitimacy due to the king’s pardon, and refused to appropriate the reward money.
Spotswood, Blackbeard, the Courts and the Law
Spotswood disregarded the royal proclamation. At his personal expense he commissioned two sloops to find Blackbeard. He also appointed as commander of the force Lieutenant Robert Maynard. Maynard served on HMS Pearl, a royal navy ship anchored at Jamestown.
In October 1718, Spotswood learned that William Howard, Blackbeard’s former quarter master, had come to Williamsburg. The governor ordered a local justice of the peace to issue a warrant to detain Howard for trial. Soldiers arrested Howard, took fifty pounds from him, and arrested two black men who traveled with him. Fifty pounds in 1720 would be worth about $11,000 in today’s U. S. dollars. That was a lot of money in those days. Armed guards took the three men onto the Pearl.
Spotswood wanted Howard tried in an admiralty court without a jury, but the Governor’s Council disagreed. The Governor’s Council, an appointed upper house of the Virginia General Assembly, called for normal legal order. The Council declared that Howard and his two companions should be provided the normal course of law in civil court. Spotswood was determined and disregarded the advice of the Council. He insisted that Howard be indicted for crimes of piracy on the high seas. Spotswood insisted that Howard be tried by a special three-man jury Spotswood would personally appoint.
How Not to Try a Pirate
Well known around Williamsburg, Howard had powerful friends. On their advice, he responded by hiring a lawyer, James Holloway. Holloway quickly caused the arrest of the justice of the peace who signed the warrant for Howard’s arrest. Subsequently, the civil court, following demands made by Holloway, issued warrants for the arrest of Captain George Gordon and Lieutenant Robert Maynard who’d detained Howard on the Pearl. Holloway, on behalf of Howard, sued Gordon and Maynard for five hundred pounds in damages.
Spotswood wanted to demonstrate he still exercised the powers of government. In a trial conducted by jurors appointed by Spotswood, Howard was found guilty and ordered hanged. However, on the day before the hanging, Spotswood received a number of notices from London. One was a commission ordering him to pardon all surrendering pirates for all acts of piracy committed before July 23, 1718.
Spotswood released Howard and his two companions, and returned Howard’s fifty pounds. In response, Howard promptly asked his lawyer to pursue his case for damages against the naval officers in civil court.
To sum up, the English Crown, Virginia’s legislative representatives, and the courts replaced the pirates and privateers and the governor as arbiters of justice.
Does all this sound familiar? Here, a legislature passed laws without funding them, while an executive disregarded current laws to enforce abrogated laws. Irate citizens (the pirates and privateers) sought justice and compensation in the courts. Three branches of government checking each other, almost a hundred years before the writing of the U.S. Constitution.
My book, Blackbeard’s Legacy, recounts a fictionalized story of Blackbeard, otherwise known as Edward Thatch or Teach. Set in the early 18th century, it presents a story of Blackbeard’s use of power, the people who knew him, and his business. His eventual conflict with Governor Spotswood of Virginia forms the backdrop of the tale.
Blackbeard, a real person, commanded a fleet of over forty ships at the height of his power. He rivaled the navies of many countries of his day. For example, he blockaded Charleston harbor and lifted that blockade in exchange for a chest of medicines.
Blackbeard knew what he was doing. He visited most major ports on the east coast and corresponded with governors and attorneys-general. He had regular customers who paid for the goods he sold. There has never been evidence that he killed anyone.
Blackbeard was and still is genuinely popular. For example, he became captain by election by his crew. He was a popular commander, and seamen wanted to sail with him. Sailing with Blackbeard was safer and more profitable than sailing with weaker, lesser armed vessels..
Pirates are Popular
Blackbeard is known to everyone as a pirate. Museums up and down the east coast are dedicated to his story, especially about where he lived and how and where he died. The towns of Bath, Beaufort, and Ocracoke in North Carolina are very proud of their connections to Blackbeard. There you can see coves where he anchored and houses in which he supposedly lived.
At a book signing about a year ago, people from North Carolina with family members named Teach came to see me. They claimed to be relatives and descendants of Blackbeard and they were proud of the connection.
Why do people enjoy stories about pirates? A very old and rich literature depicts pirates as fiercely independent. They’re described as violent people, maimed in many battles but surviving them. They have lost eyes and limbs, show deep scars, suffer bad teeth, and wear peg legs. In the literature they prey on women, hide treasure chests, and leave complex coded maps. Little boys visiting the pirate museums love dressing up to the part: they wear eye patches, three-cornered hats, and shout “Aargh!!!” while waving little swords.
Blackbeard’s Use of Power: Reality Check
A pirate, by definition, is a seaman operating outside of the law. During Blackbeard’s day, local governments insisted that ships entering their ports be certified. They required ship operators to obtain licenses or pardons for which they paid. With the pardon, they were privateers; without the pardons, they were considered pirates. Accordingly, local governors collected fees from legal ship operators and shared in their profits.
In the eighteenth century, ships at sea had to fear larger better-armed ships wherever they went. On the sea, no law enforcement existed. The famous pirates who were caught and executed for crimes, for example Captain Kidd, were seized on land surreptitiously, not at sea.
Blackbeard’ use of power benefited his business. Whether or not he broke laws, he was very successful at what he did: he delivered goods to virtually every port at prices that people were happy to pay.
When he was assassinated in 1718 by hitmen hired by Governor Spotswood of Virginia, Blackbeard lived in North Carolina and held a legitimate royal pardon. Spotswood never consulted with the governor of North Carolina, disregarded Blackbeard’s pardon, and simply wanted a share of Blackbeard’s wealth. Who was the criminal then?
Have you heard of Spotswood? There’s a Spotsylvania County in Virginia and a golf course in Williamsburg that carries Spotswood’s name. In comparison, when Blackbeard died, he was a king of his day known virtually everywhere, and remains so. Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography mentions that he wrote poems about Teach when he began his newspaper writing career.
Blackbeard’s Popularity: His Flag
Blackbeard’s fleet of ships sailed under Blackbeard’s individual flag, easily recognized by many people in many locations. Today, we would call that marketing, and Blackbeard was clever at self-promotion.
From southeastern Virginia to Charleston there are numerous small museums devoted to Blackbeard. The stories they tell are multiple, and they sell a flag that is supposed to be the one he sailed under:
Does this flag frighten you? The skeleton wears a crown, is shaking something like a large drink in one hand, while his arrow points at a heart that he’s not looking at. He’s also smiling; in fact, the whole skeleton seems to be shaking with laughter. Was Blackbeard a comedian?
Some stories say that Blackbeard had fourteen wives. Others say his only wife was fourteen when they married. Apparently if a tavern maid could claim to be Blackbeard’s wife, that claim was good for business. That may explain why he’s said to have so many wives!!!
My granddaughter, a high school junior, plans to take a course in which she’ll be learning about American history this summer. Likely it will be a virtual course delivered by zoom over the computer.
I wonder what constitutes history to today’s teenagers. Personally I can remember the end of World War II and its aftermath. Parades marched down the main streets and veterans returned home with missing limbs. I hid under my school desk in drills to protect me from a Russian nuclear attack. The Cuban missile crisis felt like the beginning of World War III and I remember the assassination of President Kennedy.
My own children have no living memory of any major war: World War II, Korea or Vietnam. They and their children know nothing about the gas shortages of the 1980s and Jimmy Carter’s inflation that destroyed our small community banks. They do know about wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the destruction of the twin towers in 2001. My grandchildren don’t even remember that.
What do they teach in American history courses in today’s high schools? I hope they do a better job than they did when I went to school. But I know they won’t be teaching early history. I was told this by quite a number of history teachers when I served as a docent at Jamestown Settlement, a historical museum that commemorates the first landing of three English ships in North America in 1607.
Peter Minuit Buying Manhattan: Learning Early New York City History
What I Learned about Early American History
Growing up in New York City, I began learning about American history in kindergarten and the first grade. For instance, I remember learning about three ships arriving at Jamestown and the pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock. There, at Plymouth Rock, they apparently celebrated the first Thanksgiving. I know we were shown a painting of Peter Minuit buying Manhattan Island from the Indians with twenty-four dollars in trinkets and a bottle of rum.
Look at the painting closely. We can see that all of the Indians are covered head to toe in deerskins. Several wear elaborate feathered headdresses. An Indian woman wears a cotton print dress under her deerskin. We know that Western Indians in the nineteenth century dressed like that, but Manhattan Indians in the seventeenth century likely looked quite different.
No matter to the kindergartener. We made deerskins to wear and feathered headdresses—all out of brown paper, colored and pasted together any way we liked. I remember we also made pilgrim hats, but they were black and out of card board. In comparison, it was much more fun to be an Indian; they got to prance around and make loud noises.
Whatever people learned in school, to most people the founding fathers fell out of the sky in powdered wigs and silk stockings. Therefore, the hundred and fifty years between Pocahontas and George Washington remain a blank.
American History and Genealogy
At Jamestown Settlement I met many genealogists, anxious to see if they had an ancestor on one of the first ships. Though they were interested in learning about American history, I had to tell them that those people were probably not people they’d want to meet. My teachers never taught this in school, but the settlers came to fight and make fortunes. They fought with each other and the native tribes nearby, and most of them died early gruesome deaths from starvation, disease, warfare, and simply fighting with each other. These early sailors weren’t ancestors of anybody.
Descendants of Pocahontas (there are many) are generally not the genealogists; they know their family lines very clearly and don’t have to prove anything. While their “history” goes back to 10,000 B.C., they come to the museum to see history as relevant to today. They come to see the building of the country, from sailing up the rivers, establishing plantations, trading crops for credit, and developing a way for different people to live together.
About a third of the sailors on the three original ships “married” Indian women. The Indians helped to build James Fort, and Indian wives did most of the cooking. Indian-made cooking utensils have been found on the site of the original fort, and in the earliest days only the Indians would have known what was edible. The earliest surviving settlers learned a great deal from the Indians. If you date your family to seventeenth century Virginia, Pocahontas is probably your relative.
Some Perspective on Learning about Early History
Early history isn’t taught because little is known about it, and what’s written is partisan, controversial and probably incorrect. We don’t learn about early American history in school, but where else can we learn about it?. Were the English barbarians, out to kill and rampage? Were the Indians savages, out to starve out the new arrivals? Didn’t they trade and learn from each other? How did they really build towns and colonies?
Let me end with a cartoon by James Stevenson (1966) from The New Yorker:
Learning about American History: Indians and Settlers: Friends or Foes?
Cartoons don’t settle anything. They just keep the arguments going.
On Saturday. May 30, my grandson received his bachelor’s degree from Cleveland State University (CSU) in a virtual graduation ceremony. For him it was a great achievement and represented long hours of preparation and work. His degree is in computer science with a minor in mathematics.
May 30, many of us will remember, was the date on which Memorial Day used to be celebrated. I remember some of my parents’ generation called it Decoration Day. That day families went to the cemetery to decorate the graves of the war dead.
For my parent’s generation, the war dead were near and numerous, not theoretical. World Wars I and II in some way touched every family and Memorial Day was somber, not the beginning of summer as it is now.
Graduations used to come in June, and took place before large happy crowds of people. This virtual graduation event was certainly the first of its kind for the university.
A Virtual Graduation
My husband and I sat in front of the zoom screen on my computer and listened to remarks by the president of the university, the mayor, the lieutenant governor of Ohio, and several previous CSU graduates. I was able to locate my grandson’s major department on the computer screen.
The names of all computer science graduates marched across the screen individually, with appropriate graduation day background music. When my grandson’s name arrived, we saw a video of him, in cap and gown, looking very happy. He smiled and thanked his parents and grandparents for help and support.
We have attended many graduations, and this was the first one where we heard every speaker and actually saw the face of the graduate. It reminded me of my daughter’s graduation from a small college outside Richmond, VA. Then we sat in folding chairs on a field on a very hot day, quite far from an outdoor stage. Nearby, a level railroad crossing bisected the town.
Amtrak kept its schedule that day. Fairly frequently, a train came through the town at a slow speed, blowing its whistle all the way. We barely heard any of the speeches, but we did see our daughter at a distance.
My grandson is now a graduate and I’m grateful for the computer and zoom. We were able to join the family electronically that evening to congratulate him.
Another Graduation Day: Me and Lymphoma
My grandson is not the only member of our family to face some final test results this early summer. On Thursday, I am scheduled for a mammogram. Two years ago a mammogram led to a diagnosis of an aggressive type of lymphoma for which I was treated over six months and for which I have undergone numerous lab tests and PET scans.
While I’m of the age that I may have avoided a mammogram two years ago, for some reason I didn’t. My radiologist found something funky on the picture and that led to biopsies, CAT scans and further lab tests and scans. After three months the doctors came up with the lymphoma diagnosis.
I can’t say I’m looking forward to the mammogram, nor am I looking forward to a PET scan now scheduled for July. The PET scan is sort of a graduation day for me. If they find nothing, I will be considered cured with no further tests or medical procedures.
For me, none of this will be virtual. The tests will be done according to normal procedures and the results will either be good or bad.
Graduation, Old People and Old Jokes
As the grandmother of a college graduate, I am an old person. Here is a story about old people:
“Six retired Floridians were playing poker in the condo clubhouse when Meyerwitz loses $500 on a single hand and drops dead at the table. Showing respect for their fallen partner, the other five continue playing standing up. Finkelstein looks around and asks, “So, who’s gonna tell his wife?”
They draw straws. Goldberg picks the short one. They tell him to be discreet, be gentle, don’t make a bad situation worse.
“Discreet? I’m the most discreet person you’ll ever meet. Discretion is my middle name. Leave it to me.”
Goldberg proceeds to the Meyerwitz apartment and knocks on the door. The wife answers and asks what he wants.
Goldberg declares, “Your husband just lost $500 and is afraid to come home.”
“Tell him to drop dead,” says the wife!
“I’ll go tell him,” says Goldberg.