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.
The coronavirus epidemic, coming in March, has coincided with the beginning of spring and my birthday. Certainly a memorable birthday, celebrated with a carryout dinner.
My husband and I have behaved according to the rules. We stay at home, away as much as possible from people and interesting places. Every where I look, I’m told that’s what people like me and my husband are supposed to do. After all, we are the “vulnerable.” I’ve spent a year being treated for lymphoma and my platelet count will never be normal again. My husband has a bad back and is nearly diabetic.
But I don’t feel vulnerable. Every few days I venture out, at the correct time–7:00 am to the grocery store, late afternoon for a walk. I’ve been to the post office where tapes show people where to stand so they can be six feet apart. I’ve thought about golf which for some reason isn’t closed. I could take my putter to the golf practice range near us, but that would require a walk. My knee and shoulder object to too much exercise, so I haven’t yet tried that.
I’ve had my fill of video games, bad television, and silly puzzles. I’ve watched the Coronavirus Task Force about every other day, and I’m impressed with the doctors. I worry about my son, who is a doctor, and call him every other day. He says his hospital in Ohio expects to be swamped in a few weeks, but so far they are able to handle new cases.
What to do? Spring has arrived! My daffodils, including some mysterious yellow crocus that have spread from my front yard to the woods across the street, are in full blossom. I cut a few every morning, while listening to the little birds chirping their hearts out. We’ve already seen chickadees, woodpeckers, gold finches, cardinals, mocking birds, and blue birds. I’ve also spotted a few eagles and ospreys. The little birds, tweeting very loudly, finish the feeder off every other day. Here is a picture of our feeder:
The birds have inspired me, because they make me think of poetry. How about a little poetry, to go with the new coronavirus? :
“There was an old lady from Williamsburg
Who fell into her TV
She stood next to Dr. Birx,
Wondering where the President might be.
Sure enough, he entered and said,
“Welcome to the Task Force!”
She replied, “I’m glad I’m not dead!”
He said, “Isn’t this Worse?”
What could be worse than falling into the television set and becoming a flashing image? Maybe I’ll need to add some more to this.
Since this is spring, I’m happy to announce a discount on all of my ebooks. From now till the end of June all of my historical novels will be available in the ebook version at a 35 per cent discount. Order them from ipgbook.com and use the code BMSpring2020.
I hope all who get this are safe and healthy. Stay well and follow the guidelines.
Washington’s Shadow is my fourth historical novel and probably the last. All of my books focus on American nation building in our early history. Generally early American history is not being taught in elementary schools and later grades.
I’ll be addressing the process by which I produce these books at a discussion panel at the Williamsburg Book Festival on Saturday, October 5. Nation building is a subject that has always interested me. Virtually everything I write discusses some aspect of it. The people who build the nation have to be strong enough to understand they can’t do everything alone, by themselves. They have to risk danger in moving ahead, but they have to communicate with each other. They have to build coalitions and marriages. Nations, in my way of thinking, always begin with families and extended families and how they learn to deal with individual members and each other. Washington’s Shadow is about how Washington visualized the country and how the people who followed him interpreted the idea of nation building in his image.
I’ve spent a good part of my working life in and out of government jobs. I’ve worked as staff in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. I held positions in the US Treasury Department, and the US Commerce Department. I worked for several Washington law firms and lobbies. I know how our government is supposed to work.
When I retired and moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, I met many people from outside Washington DC. I was surprised by how little most people knew about the practical working origins of the US government. More shocking was how little actual research had been done to explain and understand our history. There are very few serious books that explain the political institutions of the early colonies. There are publications, fictional and non-fictional, about Pocahontas, colonists starving, and the exploits of famous pirates. For the most part these are designed to entertain children and give little historical context.
What Americans Know About Nation Building and their History
On retirement I took a position as a volunteer docent in the museum at Jamestown Settlement. Jamestown as a city no longer exists. Jamestown Settlement, a modern park, is situated near the James River. It includes a gallery, a model fort, an Indian village, and a port holding three ships. The facility is designed to explain the founding and development of the first English settlement in the new world. I learned there that most people have heard of Pocahontas. However, many believe the three ships that arrived in Jamestown in 1607 were the Nina, the Pinta, and Santa Maria. The next Virginian most people can identify is George Washington, who lived a hundred and fifty years later.
Visitors coming to Williamsburg from Washington DC are often surprised by the familiarity of the old government buildings and institutions of colonial Virginia. Most people don’t know that Jefferson, who designed the US Capitol, previously served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, as did George Washington. When they learn some facts, they begin to understand that our government didn’t somehow fall out of the sky. The American government was the product of long experience and practice. The US Constitution was written by people who knew what they were trying to do.
Nation Building and the Founding Fathers? Who Built the Nation?
The Wealth of Jamestown, The Wealth of Virginia, and Blackbeard’s Legacy are three short novels to the early 1700s. The books describe men and women, young and old, native Americans and settlers, the educated and the uneducated living almost a hundred years before the US Declaration of Independence. The characters are not European; they are American. They are engaged in politics and commerce on a grand scale. Blackbeard, the king of international trade in his day, was as much a Founding Father as Thomas Jefferson. Each of these books required at least two year’s research into original documents and obscure writings and sources.
Washington’s Shadow tells of people living at the edge of a wilderness in a time soon after the Revolutionary War. These people knew Washington. They are a later generation of Americans. They moved west to build towns and communities. They faced away from Europe with its wars and dynasties, a movement of people that began in 1607. Though taking place in 1810, Washington’s Shadow is the latest chapter in my fictional explanation of nation-building, American style.
Many people say they love history, though often they also say they hated studying it in school. What do they love about history? In fact, what do they mean by “history”?
As a former docent at Jamestown Settlement (a historical museum that commemorates the first landing of three English ships in North America in 1607), I know what people say they don’t like: names, dates, and arguments from a previous time that they don’t understand. What they like is something familiar, something they can recognize as relevant to the present. When they say relevant, they mean related, as in blood relatives.
I’ve met many genealogists, anxious to see if they had an ancestor on one of the first ships. I’ve had to tell them that those people were probably not people they’d want to meet. 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 of living together among many different peoples.
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.
In connection with the publication of my forthcoming book, The Wealth of Virginia, I was advised to start communicating to people I don’t know with tweets on Twitter. As the non-owner of a smart phone, I am not a good candidate for tweeting, but I’ve given it a try.
I found it very difficult to find Twitter on my computer. Every time I typed “twitter-login” I received a message that the website wasn’t safe, and someone was trying to hack into my communications. I left Google Chrome for Firefox, but still couldn’t log on.
My IPAD displayed twitter immediately and I quickly downloaded a twitter “AP”. Since I’ve never been on twitter to my knowledge, I tried to open an account, and typed in my email address as my user name.
What a surprise! My email address already belonged to somebody else! I sent an email to twitter to that effect, and received a response saying I could change the password. After several tries I managed to accomplish this. My user name may belong to someone in outer space, but the password is mine, and I’m on the case. I can now tweet, but who am I on twitter? Am I myself or this other entity?
I let twitter know about all this, but twitter is very security conscious. They won’t release an email address, but they let you change passwords any time you like. I don’t seem to be able to alter the user name, so I now have the mystery person’s tweets readily available. It’s sort of embarrassing—like listening in on a private conversation.
I looked over the emails included on what is now my twitter account—all sports, basketball, and comments on who’s who in the NBA. Do you think these tweeters would be interested in a historical novel about colonial Virginia? Should I send the gang a tweet? What can I say that they would enjoy?
Now that I am on twitter, I’ve added my biography and a link to the website of my current book, The Wealth of Jamestown. I’m waiting to see if anyone on twitter notices.