Every American should visit Virginia’s Jamestown Island at least once. Ever green, and pleasant, with a hint of salt in the breeze, it’s a haunting place. Looking out over the James River, three miles wide at this point, you would never guess what happened here, or that this was the birthplace of the most powerful state since Hadrian’s Rome. Although Jamestown was the site of the first successful English settlement in what became the United States, within 100 years after its foundation in 1607, history had passed on. The fort and town became farmland. By the 19th century, even its significance in American mythology had been overshadowed by the later-arriving Mayflower Pilgrims. Happily, in his recent Love and Hate in Jamestown, David A. Price puts the first settlement back where it belongs: at the center of the American story.
Price recounts the trials and tribulations of early Virginia, from Jamestown’s founding to the 1622 massacre that very nearly ended the American experiment at its beginning, to the unlikely friendship between English adventurer John Smith and Indian princess Pocahontas. Smith was a commoner and a soldier whose curriculum vitae included a spell of slavery under the Turks–the result of his capture fighting in Europe’s perennial Balkan wars. The London-based Virginia Company, private backers of the proposed colony, probably recruited him for the expedition on account of his military experience, such as it was. No respecter of hereditary rank, Smith irritated his better-born colleagues almost at once, and they initially denied him a place on the colony’s governing council, ignoring the Company’s express instructions.
These “gentlemen adventurers” selected Jamestown, despite the local swamps, as a base in May, 1607. By midsummer, the larger ships had returned to England, and the colony was eating gruel. The gentlemen were particularly ill-suited, and unwilling, to work, and disease began to take its toll. By September, half the colony was dead, and Smith was put in charge of obtaining supplies from the Indians. He took an expedition upriver, also looking for a route to the Pacific per the Virginia Company’s instructions, and was captured by the forces of Chief Powhatan.
As Price makes refreshingly clear, the English did not find Virginia’s woods inhabited by a peaceful race of “noble savages,” or by a disorganized mass of bloodthirsty ones. What they discovered was “a tightly run, martially adept empire.” That empire had been forged over the previous decades by an American Caesar, the by-now-aging Powhatan, or “Wahunsenacah,” whose annual “cut” of his subject peoples’ produce was 80 percent. When brought before this old man, Smith was in a very great deal of trouble. After due consideration of the relevant national-security issues, the chief decided on immediate execution. Smith’s life was saved–in one of the most extraordinary scenes in American history–by Powhatan’s 11-year-old daughter, Pocahontas, who shielded his head with her own.
This girl, whose name actually means “little wanton,” is by far the book’s most intriguing figure. There is no suggestion of any romantic interest in Smith, although Pocahontas did later marry the Englishman John Rolfe, and she may simply have been attracted by his exotic appearance, or his potential to produce “bells, beads, and copper.” Smith himself–and the author is reasonably inclined to credit the captain on this point–thought it was simply her “compassion for a man in distress.” Whatever the reasoning, Pocahontas saved Smith’s life (not for the last time), and went on to take an amicable interest in the fledgling colony.
That was fortunate, since there was far worse to come. When Smith returned to Jamestown, it was just in time to nix an attempt by several “gentlemen” to abandon the colony, stealing its last little ship. These men then trumped up charges against Smith that nearly got him hanged, just before a relief ship arrived with fresh provisions and additional colonists. And so it went, for the next few years. Smith led the colony from 1608-09, after which, in 1609, he left for England, following a serious injury incurred when a bag of gunpowder he was carrying exploded. That winter was the “Starving Time.” Barely six months after Smith’s departure, only 60 colonists survived out of 500. The colony was saved only by the arrival of yet another fleet from England.
There is little doubt that Powhatan had a hand in the Starving Time, hoping to dislodge the settlers by withholding supplies, but the real effort to destroy the colony came after his death. On March 22, 1622, his successor, Opechancanough, launched an all-out attack on the English settlements. Jamestown was warned, but others were not so lucky. Seven miles downriver, Martin’s Hundred was wiped out. Overall, between a quarter and a third of Virginia’s 1,240 English colonists were killed. The true disaster, however, fell on the Indians, for the English response was a war of extermination. As Price explains, Opechancanough had “failed to grasp [the colonists’] tendency toward a cycle in which naïveté or indifference would be followed by an event of disillusionment and then extreme anger,” a pattern that continues to characterize America’s relationship with the world today. The chief was the first, but not the last, opponent to suffer by failing to appreciate that tendency.
For her part, Pocahontas, after marrying John Rolfe–who initiated tobacco cultivation in Virginia–sailed to England. An instant celebrity, she nevertheless died there in 1617, although not before a reunion with John Smith. Her descendants live in Virginia still, among them some of those fabled “First Families” who helped to create, and then sought to destroy, the American Union.
Overall, Price’s book is beautifully written and an authentic page turner. In addition to the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, readers will witness Spanish intrigues, the wreck of the relief ship Sea Venture in Bermuda (which founded another English colony and inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest), and the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia. The scholarship is unassailable, but not oppressive. Readers who ignore the notes, however, will miss more than a few nuggets. For example, a special statute had to be passed in post-Civil War, segregationist Virginia to exempt those very First Families from being classified as “mixed race,” on account of their descent from that little Indian princess. In short, almost all that we are, both for good and for ill, can be traced one way or another to Jamestown Island. Anyone who wants to understand the United States must consider that first colony–and David Price’s book is a very good place to start.
Lee A. Casey is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker & Hostetler LLP. He served in the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.