Issue: October 2007
Read about Jamestown


Here are four books that have been published over the past several years that put the Jamestown experience in a new and more accurate light.

A Land As God Made It--Jamestown and the Birth of Americaby James Horn (Basic Books, 2005), avoids sweeping statements in favor of well documented detail. The story loses none of its narrative drive for the effort. What emerges is a grim and sometimes maddeningly inept struggle to establish a colony while waiting for the Spanish ships to attack. Horn begins the story not with the departure of the English ships for the Chesapeake, but rather in 1561 with the Spanish efforts to dominate all of North and South America. This includes an early effort to establish a mission in Virginia, which ended in disaster for the Jesuits—and a bad taste in some natives' mouths for European visitors.

Love and Hate in Jamestown--John Smith, Pocahontas and the Heart of a New Nation, by David A. Price (Knopf, 2003), retells the Jamestown story, also with footnotes, with sometimes varying emphasis and interpretation of events. Both this and Horn's book give a better picture of the highly structured and sophisticated society of the Native American tribes that peopled all of the Chesapeake Bay.

In writing of Jamestown, historians run up against the problems associated with their primary sources. Nearly all those who wrote contemporary accounts of the tumultuous events of those years could be considered unreliable. John Smith, on whom historians must depend for descriptions of his travels up and down the Chesapeake as well as the first years at James Fort, presents a particularly thorny problem because he was flagrantly self-promoting.

Two other books, Jamestown--The Buried Truth, by William M. Kelso (University of Virginia Press, 2006) andThe Birth of Black America--The First African Americans and the Pursuit of Freedom at Jamestownby Tim Hashaw (Carroll & Graf, 2007) refreshingly avoid that issue by taking very different tacks. Kelso is the chief archaeologist at Historic Jamestowne, the actual site of the fort and subsequent town, and the man who actually uncovered the outlines of the 1607 fort, as well as hundreds of thousands of artifacts. Kelso's approach is to understand the Jamestown experience by using the evidence of what they left behind. It makes a lively story and in some ways comes closer than more traditional histories to giving flesh and blood to those who struggled—or didn't—to make it work.

Finally, Hashaw's book is in many respects the most fascinating of all, because it gives us an insight into a civilization, ancient and complex, that most of us know nothing about—Angola, the starting place for the early slave trade to the Americas.

Also just out:The Jamestown Project, by Karen Ordahl Kupperman (Harvard University, 2007).Savage Kingdom--The True Story of Jamestown, 1607, and the Settlement of America, by Benjamin Woolley (Harper Collins, 2007).