Jamestown at 400: Natives and Newcomers in Early VirginiaAn exhibition at the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA
July 24, 2007 -- January 14, 2008
Early Jamestown, Va.
, was the place where John Smith met Pocahontas, where settlers discovered the value of growing tobacco, and where the English permitted their colonists to practice self-government. But the fact that the colony survived long enough to achieve any of those distinctions, much less to have an anniversary worth celebrating 400 years later, is something of an accomplishment in itself.
“Jamestown was, in fact, a notorious hellhole perched on the edge of a swamp,” says Peter Mancall, professor of history at the University of Southern California and director of the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute. Typhoid fever and famine wiped out a large percentage of the population each year, he notes. And by 1622, just a generation into settlement there, the Europeans and Indians were at war in a conflict that would ultimately leave hundreds of settlers and natives dead.
Mancall is the guest curator of the new exhibition “Jamestown at 400: Natives and Newcomers in Early Virginia,” on view from July 7 through Jan. 14, 2008, in the West Hall of the Library. The exhibit is co-curated by Robert C. Ritchie, The Huntington’s W.M. Keck Foundation Director of Research. (The show is a companion exhibition to “Legacy and Legend” in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery, which also marks the 400th anniversary of Jamestown by examining European depictions of Native Americans across four centuries.)
Drawing on The Huntington's unsurpassed collection of rare materials relating to the early history of Virginia, “Jamestown at 400” explores the role the colony played—against substantial odds—in the development of the nation. It begins by looking at early published accounts that reveal what the English and other Europeans knew (or thought they knew) about the Americas before 1607. Vivid illustrations from 16th-century books testify to the European belief that many Native Americans were cannibals. But those ideas faded away when colonists arrived and met actual Indians. Material on Pocahontas and John Smith is central to the exhibition—historical sources indicate that the nature of their relationship has been highly romanticized in the popular imagination. Illustrations and documents that describe other interactions between colonists and Native Americans will also be displayed.
“In large part, the settlement of Jamestown and Virginia had to do with the quest for economic gain,” says Ritchie. “Settlers first were sent from England in search of gold; they came up empty-handed on that front but landed later on the very lucrative commodity of tobacco.” Among the materials on display from The Huntington’s collection is a rare stock certificate dated 1610 issued by the Virginia Company of London, the enterprise that organized the colonization of the Chesapeake region and sought investors to finance voyages to Jamestown. Shareholders received a portion of the voyages’ profits from cargoes of tobacco sent back on return trips.
Many English settlers traveled across the Atlantic to populate the colony and work the fields, and the exhibit includes documents listing some of the hundreds of men and women who left for the New World for that purpose. Some departing travelers were better prepared than others: an informative document published by the Virginia Company in 1622 lists a number of necessary provisions by which colonists setting off for America could avoid “The inconveniencies that have happened to some persons which have transported themselves from England to Virginia.” For many of the earlier arrivals, those “inconveniences” had often included death. Among the items on the lengthy list of essentials were a complete suit of light armour (17 shillings), eight bushels of meal (£2), three pairs of stockings (4 shillings), one gallon of aquavit (2 shillings sixpence), 60 pounds of lead shot (5 shillings), and a very large quantity of assorted nails (£2).
At the time, the English shared the belief that tobacco was perhaps the most important plant that humans had ever discovered: a panacea capable of curing virtually any human illness. “The colonists’ decision to pursue the plant had far-ranging consequences, especially when a boat carrying approximately 20 Africans arrived on the shores of the Chesapeake,” says Mancall. That moment signaled the birth of slavery in English America.
The exhibition concludes with documents from the period after the dissolution of the Virginia Company in 1624. Among these later materials are very rare 19th- and 20th-century commemorations of earlier Jamestown anniversaries, including an 1857 celebratory poem, an invitation issued by President Theodore Roosevelt to the other nations of the world to join the celebration in 1907, and a mid-20th-century imaginative rendering of Capt. John Smith shaking hands with a modern businessman.
“Jamestown has been part of American lore for centuries,” says Mancall. “One of the goals of this show is to demystify it a bit. The books, letters, maps, and pictures we present reveal what it was really like when the English established what became their first permanent colony in the Western Hemisphere.”
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