Thursday, June 21, 2007

Book Review - 1607: A New Look at Jamestown

When I was growing up in western New York, studying colonial America was about the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock. It was not about Jamestown, even though the landing at Jamestown occurred 13 years earlier. I learned a lot about Jamestown upon moving to Virginia, and with the 400th anniversary this year, I've learned even more.

In recent years, finding text resources about Jamestown that present a true picture of colonization, warts and all, has been hard to find. This situation has changed with the publication of Karen Lange's book, 1607: A New Look at Jamestown. Lange, a journalist and writer with National Geographic Magazine, presents a brief history of the settling of Jamestown using new archaeological evidence to tell the story.

The Foreword begins in this fashion:
Many people feel that to discover the past, all you have to do is find a book, open the pages, and read a single story. That couldn't be farther from the truth. History is not static: It is not a single story. Simple discovery may only yield you one layer. To really begin to understand the multi-faceted stories that make up our past, you must dig beyond what we think we know. You must discover and then re-discover.
This volume takes these words to heart as it reveals the recent discoveries at the Jamestown archaeological site. Supported by an extensive bibliography of primary sources, Lange presents the grim reality that was the founding of this American colony. The narrative describes the settlers' struggles through the artifacts left behind. Color photographs of the dig site, found treasures, and historical reenactment scenes give readers a glimpse of what life was like for those who lived inside the Jamestown fort.

Lange does an especially good job of describing how native peoples were living when the settlers arrived, and how their arrival forever changed their way of life. Lange even highlights the response of the Paspahegh (Powhatan) descendants to the planned celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, noting:
"For the Indians, Jamestown is nothing to celebrate. To them, it meant the end of their ancestors' way of life."
I was completely enthralled by this book and found myself engaged by the remarkable, yet difficult history presented. Believe me, this is not the standard fare served up in history textbooks. Don't miss this amazing book on a bit of American history you only think you know. I highly recommend it.

Book: 1607: A New Look at Jamestown
Author: Karen Lange
Publisher: National Geographic Children's Books
Publication Date: February 13, 2007
Pages: 48
Grades: 4-8
ISBN-10: 1426300123
ISBN-13: 978-1426300127
Source of Book: Copy received from Raab Associates, Inc.

1 comment:

  1. Karen Lange's fine book, however, begs the question of Jamestown’s lasting effects on our American nation and culture. Like most commentators, she failed to show its relevancy for subsequent generations of Americans and us today.

    Of what long-term importance is Jamestown as a transformational event in our nation’s history? What legacies has it left us? Why is Jamestown relevant for us in 2007?

    The proliferation of new books and articles on Jamestown’s 400th anniversary have been reacquainting us with the mid-May 1607 landing and tribulations of the first permanent and enduring English colony in America. They relate new evidence of the settlers’ lives, attitudes, habits and possessions from the treasure trove of 17th century artifacts that have been unearthed from the archeological digs of the first James Fort and nearby Algonquian settlements.

    They have begun to dispel the myths of Jamestown’s lazy and self-indulgent “gentlemen” playing in the colony’s streets and far-fetched, romantic legends about Indian princesses. They also put a new light on the native Algonquians’ culture and mores and offer sound reasons for their unexpected hostility when the English landed.

    We also must appreciate the desperate societal conditions in England that drove the colonists to risk affliction, famine and strife in the New World. Their ambition for relief from rigid class systems, economic deprivation and dislocation and tedious years of war was the engine that drove them to establish what were then new and alien concepts of opportunity and self-determination, and would become called the seedbed of the American nation and its first experiment in democracy.

    It is true that the antecedents of some our nation’s most shameful chapters, such as institutionalized slavery and the devastation of Indian tribes, had their genesis at Jamestown. But, whatever other issues that some may want to put a glare on, the major fact remains that it is where the taproot was planted for several of our most cherished rights and privileges; the things for which we fought our Revolution and since have defended for 231 years.

    By 1620, or within thirteen years of their landing, the Jamestowne’s early had cultivated some of our most important and enduring legacies that never seem to part of what we teach students of its history.

    While they generally are taught that Jamestowne was the site of the first elected representative legislature and self-rule, the free enterprise system became the form of our American economy; and, English was to be the established common language of the new American nation, we usually fail to instruct that it is where the settlers also created the common citizen’s right to ownership of private property (and its importance to us since and today); the principle of common law as the foundation of our legal system; civilian control of the military; and new freedoms from European traditions that had bound many generations to their ancestors’ trades, classes and economic conditions.

    Another legacy was that of the experiences, losses and mistakes learned in establishing Jamestown that then served to give all succeeding English and British colonization efforts, at Plymouth and then around the world, more realistic direction, instructions and expectations that had better results.

    However, the most important of their legacies was their determination to succeed – or the American “can do” spirit. With that determination, the descendants of those Jamestown pioneers also forged the unique element of our American culture: a persistent striving for the freedom to better ourselves with property, innovation and enterprise.

    This is the legacy that has become our American Dream. Its first seeds were planted at Jamestown 400 years ago and today all Americans enjoy its fruits.

    This is why Jamestown is meaningful for each and every one of us and why we should forever remember it as the seminal incident that introduced the opportunities for the economic and political innovations and enterprise that have made our nation what it is.