Photopost: Colonial Virginia


Some of my favorite photos from our recent trip to Virginia are below.  See the complete photo album on my website.

View of Duke of Gloucester Street from the Capitol Building.

For Spring Break, my son Peter and I traveled to Virginia to visit my mother and play tourist at Colonial Williamsburg, Historic Jamestowne, and Go-Karts Plus.  It was  three-day trip but it felt like we saw and learned a lot.  Now, I once lived in Williamsburg.  I attended the College of William & Mary, worked on an archaeological site as part of a field school, studied 18th-century furniture at the art museums, and then was an employee of Colonial Williamsburg for four years during my senior year of college and the years immediately afterwards.  So, these places are familiar to me.  But this was the first time I’d visited as just a plain old tourist in close to 25 years, and the first time I visited as a parent, sharing my enthusiasm for history with my son.

We actually visited few of the sites I actually worked at in my time as a historical interpreter as Peter was drawn more to the historic trades (which, ironically, I rarely had time to visit when I actually worked there).  For a place rooted in history, a lot has changed at Colonial Williamsburg.  The Charlton Coffehouse was reconstructed in recent years and we enjoyed the unexpected treat of a free serving of hot chocolate of an 18th-century recipe.  There’s also a daily event called Revolution in the Streets where the last block of Duke of Gloucester street is open only to paying guests and character interpreters perform a drama right in the middle of the crowd.  The story we witnessed was about a slave couple deciding to “jump the broom” to marry before the man was taken away to Richmond (for some reason I never learned).  We were among the witnesses to the jumping the broom ceremony which involved everyone participating in song and dance.  It is kind of cheesy and probably not 100% authentic, but I think it gets across the point of what daily life and choices were faced by ordinary people of the past.  I liked it better than the military reviews and speeches by great men that are more typical of living history performance.

A frisbee-catching dog on Palace Green.

 

Tulips blossom in the garden behind the Governor’s Palace.

 

“Fire!”

 

A team of oxen prepare to plow another row in the field.

 

Jumping the Broom (broom not in the picture).

 

Related Post: Jamestown 2007 – America’s 400th Anniversary

Book Review: Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe


When I made a category in my WordPress account for “Jamestown” back in the Spring, I didn’t expect I’d get much use for it after the America’s 400th festivities. Thanks to Matthew Sharpe, I get to use the tag for a work of speculative fiction. Jamestown (2007) is a very weird novel.

The novel is a retelling of the Jamestown settlement story set in a future dystopia, or as Sharpe puts it “an ahistorical fantasia on a real event.” Luckily for him, and the reader, that phrase is far more pretentious than anything in the book.  It starts with a  group of 30 men set out from Manhattan on board a bus driven by Chris Newport toward the south lands where they hope to trade for oil with the Indians. Much violence, pratfalls, and general unpleasantness ensues.

Funny thing is that as ridiculously imaginative as this book is, it also follows the real Jamestown story fairly accurately. It even gets it right that Pochantas has a romance with Johnny Rolfe not Jack Smith. I love that the president of the Manhattan Company is Jimmy Stuart.  Granted some things are very different such as the cowardly John Martin becoming bolder as he loses body parts until he decides to take over.

Jamestown is at best absurd, and at worst stupid, but always entertaining. The best comparison is John Barth’s Sot-Weed Factor, although Jamestown is thankfully not tedious nor obsessively prurient.  It was fun, mildly painful, mildly educational read.

Movie Review: The New World


As a follow-up to Jamestown’s 400th anniversary, Susan and I watched the latest cinematic interpretation of the Jamestown story The New World (2005). In the movie we meet our lead characters John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pochahantas/Matoaka/Rebecca (Q’Orianka Kilcher). Smith wanders sullenly through the tall grasses of the Virginia swamps and laconically avoids conversation with his fellow settlers. You can tell he’s a a true devotee of emo and at times you can almost see the earbuds of his iPod where he listens to an endless shuffle of Thom Yorke. Pochahantas by contrast is a crunchy, hippy girl who dances around the groovy Powhatan village. This extremely well-developed 10-year old and the English pedophile are of course destined for star-crossed love.

Not that they put it that way, but despite claiming to base the film on the latest historical research and even giving a nod to Bill Kelso in the credits, the filmmakers chose to put the mythical romance of Captain Smith and Pochahantas at the center of the story. Like the story of Jesus and Mary Magdelene as lovers the Smith/Pochantas tale at one time may have been an interesting “what if?” but by now is trite and I wonder why authors, artists, and filmmakers keep dipping back into that dry well. Especially since the true story is much more interesting.

Apart from historical innacuracy, weird editing is the bane of this film. Like a music video the movie cuts quickly from image to image, rarely allowing time for a coherent scene. Look Pochantas is patting John Smith’s cheek! Now she’s fifty feet away gesturing to the gods in the sky! Now there’s Chief Powhatan looking grumpy!

Meanwhile back in the fort, a number of extras from Monty Python and David Lynch films are standing around not doing much. A real settlement would require constant tree felling, building, hunting, cooking, preparing goods for the winter, but at this Jamestown there is only room for malaise. They do shoot each other every once in a while for no particular reason, and act creepy to keep things interesting.
Not that it’s all bad. It’s better than the Disney film or the dramatic production “Journey of Destiny.” The cinematography is beautiful, capturing the lush wilderness of Virginia and the courtly world of England equally well. In fact, like the train wreck of Gangs of New York the filmmakers paid great attention to detail in getting the costumes, props and sets to match exacting historical detail. They just didn’t bother to do that with the plot.

So if you like tragic romances, watch this film with the caveat that it is not a true story. If you like history, watch it for the sets and costumes. If you’re annoyed by failure to adhere to a simple historical narrative, don’t watch it all.

Jamestown 2007 – America’s 400th Anniversary


As detailed in this post about Jamestown, the buried truth, I’ve been greatly anticipating the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in the Western hemisphere. May 13, 1607 is the date of the founding of Jamestown by the Virginia Company (although some sources state May 14, since that is the day the colonists went ashore and started building. I’ll go with the 13th since that is also my sister’s birthday). I first visited Jamestown as a geeky 11-year old in 1985 and even at that time I calculated that I could be alive for the 400th anniversary, albeit impossibly old. Turns out I’m not as old as I imagined, but I’m still geeky and love commemorations of historic events. Since I lived in James City County, VA (the modern continuance of Jamestown) for 7 years, and worked in a living history museum in Virginia, this was an event I could not miss.

My photos from Jamestown 2007 – America’s 400th Anniversary

The key event is patriotically called America’s 400th Anniversary cleverly overlooking the priority of St. Augustine while advancing Jamestown’s claim over those upstarts in Plymouth, MA. Jamestown does have the advantage that it plays a role in beginning one of the colonies that would eventually form the original United States whereas Florida is in territory acquired later, so Jamestown is central to the story of the American experience from its very beginning. This point was emphasized by stressing the “birth of democracy” (basically the election of the Virginia Company’s chairmen of the board in 1619) and the “birth of slavery” since captured Africans first arrived in America for forced labor at Jamestown, also in 1619. Another interesting point is that Jamestown is the first place in the world where people of Europe, Africa, and indigenous Americans lived and worked together, albeit far from an ideal community.

The anniversary weekend took place 11-13 May and my mother and I attended on Sunday, the final day. Due to a visit by President Bush, access to the site was restricted from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and people who were already there were pretty much in a lockdown situation. So we decided to arrive in the afternoon, after the President departed, and security was less stringent. The logistics for the event were excellent, especially the use of satellite parking in numerous lots in the area with school buses shuttling visitors to Jamestown. The scenic Colonial Parkway basically became a convoy of yellow buses as well as a staging area for emergency vehicles. The bus was full of happy, chatting people and was a good way to start the day. Oddly, many people who still live in the area went out of town (including my mother’s co-workers) but they were counterbalanced by the soldier we met on the bus who used his leave from Iraq to come Jamestown.

We arrived first at Jamestown Settlement, which looks very different from when my mom worked there and when I volunteered with the museum registrar to help count rocks. Not only is the museum expanded and redesigned but they’ve even realigned a road around the parking lot! We visited the living history exhibits at Jamestown Settlement which for maybe the first time ever were densely populated with costumed historic interpreters. One of the first employees I met was my friend and former housemate Lara although we did not get to speak for long. We wandered through the recreated James Forte, down to the ships, and back to the Powhatan village.

Next we took the bus to the actual site of the original settlement at Historic Jamestowne, property which is administered jointly by the National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). Things have changed there quite a bit since my last visit as well, especially since the APVA hired Dr. William Kelso to conduct an archaeological excavation which uncovered the remains of the original James Fort used from 1607-24, and many other fascinating discoveries. We arrived just in time to hear Bill Kelso speak which may have been the highlight of the day for me. I don’t think Kelso ever finished his presentation because he got a bit choked up the the magnitude of the day, but he received a well-deserved standing ovation. After strolling through the fort site and taking a lunch break by the river, we waited in line for the brand new Archearium a museum containing the relics, um, I mean artifacts from Kelso’s Jamestown Rediscovery excavations. The wait was long to get into the small museum, made longer because we chose to visit the gallery with the skeletons. While in line we saw that the elderly woman behind us had a pewter broche from the Jamestown tercentenary in 1907 which was pretty cool. What was not cool is that the younger woman pushing the elderly woman’s wheelchair kept pushing it into my heels, and didn’t seem all to sorry about the pushiness either.

While wonderful to visit all the museum sites on THE DAY, they definitely will be worth a more comprehensive return visit in the future. Footsore and facing closing time at the museums, we headed over to the Anniversary Park to relax with entertainment. Anniversary Park was once the Jamestown Beach Campsites and I’m said to see it’s gone (unless they campground owners just rented the land out for the weekend). We stayed at that campground on our first visit to Virginia in 1985 and it has sentimental memories. Anniversary Park consisted of a giant stage and a grassy area for the audience as well as some exhibition tents that we never had time to see.

There were a lot of people in Anniversary Park when we arrived including the 1,607-voice choir and 400-piece orchestra performing. For some reason I expected all those musicians to be really loud but in the “back rows” the music sounded faint even when amplified.

Following the concert, emcee Dr. Rex Ellis told us we had a “special treat,” a performance entitled “Journey of Destiny.” Subtitled: “Hokey-hontas.” Told through a bizarre mix of interpretive dance, historical pageants, and dramatic readings of primary documents, “Journey of Destiny” recreated Jamestown history in an incredibly cheezy manner.

Once that was over, the Governor of Virginia and family dropped some things in the time capsule. Rex Ellis told us that the time capsule had a CD-player, DVD-player, and batteries for future generations to use to watch and listen to the items within. I suspect those things will be rusted and inoperative. But I’m a librarian, and librarians and archivists hate time capsules.

For a finale, fireworks lit up the chilly night sky accompanied by the 400-piece orchestra. That may be the first time I’ve ever seen fireworks with live music which is pretty cool even if the musical selection was odd for the event (The 1812 Overture? The Star Wars main title theme?) It was all good fun though, and a nice finale. Despite being in a crowd of up to 30,000 people we were able to get to our shuttle bus and back to home fairly swiftly.

Lots more about Jamestown’s Birthday at the Library of Congress blog.

News reports:

 

Other blogs:

I searched Technorati to find posts by other people who attended the Jamestown 2007 events but didn’t have much luck. Most posts were simply reporting on the event or criticizing them (or reporting on Bush’s visit and criticizing him). If you attended America’s 400th Anniversary please post your thoughts in the comments and/or link to your blog. Thanks!

Also in my searches I found this map of the College of William & Mary as Middle-Earth, which has nothing to do with Jamestown but it’s damned funny.

Book Review: Jamestown, the Buried Truth


As my mom likes to tell the story, back in 1994 archaeologist Bill Kelso addressed a small audience to introduce his plans for the Jamestown Rediscovery project. The lack of interest arose from the notion that all that could be learned about the early days of the settlement had already been discovered. It was popularly believed that the remains of James Fort had been eroded by the James River.

Bill Kelso proved them wrong.

Jamestown, the Buried Truth by William M. Kelso tells the story of 12 years of excavation and discovery at Jamestown. The remains of the triangular fort from Jamestown’s early period 1607-1624 were there to be found, and the was just the beginning. The archaeologists uncovered remnants of the monumental effort to build a new colony in an unforgiving country fighting diseases, weather, starvation and conflicts with the native population of Tsenacomacans. The material record tells stories undocumented in the colonists records and early histories. The archaeological team may even have uncovered the remains of Bartholomew Gosnold, an early leader of the colony.

Kelso emphasizes that despite their flaws and mistakes, the Jamestown settlers were far from failures and Jamestown was not a fiasco but in fact successfully the first permanent English settlement in North America. Much to my pleasure, Kelso writes a chapter on the long, often overlooked period of Jamestown after initial settlement. From 1619-1699 Jamestown was home to the first popularly elected governmental body and served as the capital of the Virginia Colony. Kelso traces the development of that government through the traces of the five structures that served as the State House.

I’ll be traveling to Virginia in a couple of weeks for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s settlement. It should be an exciting event and a big party. More information at Jamestown 2007 and Jamestown 400. Jamestown Settlement, Historic Jamestowne (National Park Service), and Historic Jamestowne (Association for the Preservation of Antiquities) are always worth a visit, in person or online.

Other Jamestownia worth reading:

The cover story in the May 2007 edition of National Geographic is all about America in 1607.

A January 9, 2007 article in the Boston Globe about archaeological discovery of seeds, Jamestown seeds reflect survival efforts.

If you like a little fiction in your history, there’s Secret Histories: The Jamestown Colony in Postmodern Fiction at The Millions (A Blog About Books).