Monday, May 29, 2017

When We First Stepped On This Land, By Susan Kinsella

Jamestown, Virginia - the first permanent English Settlement in the New World. I wanted to know what it looked like because I'm working on a story about our Baker ancestor, Stephen Hopkins, who was one of its earliest colonists.

So in April this year I extended a business trip to Washington, DC, adding on three days in southeastern Virginia to explore Jamestown. I found three sites - Historic Jamestowne (the original site as well as one of the original spellings), Jamestown Settlement (a living history museum connected to Williamsburg, VA), and Henricus, a county living history museum of an additional town built by the Jamestown settlers. 

Historic Jamestown

This is the actual site where the first settlers built a fort and created a toe-hold, often extremely tenuous, in the New World. Today it is mostly an archaeological dig and a National Park Service site. I started there because it was under threat of a federal government shut-down, effective at the end of my first day there. I breathed a sigh of relief when I arrived and learned that Congress had extended its life just that afternoon for another week (and eventually until September as part of the ongoing budget arguments). 

Original site of the Jamestown Settlement on the James River

"Mistress Marye Bucke" greeted me when I arrived. A wonderful living history actor, she welcomed all of us who gathered around her as though we were new colonists who had just arrived on a re-supply ship from London.

"Marye Bucke," wife of Jamestown's second minister, 1611

        "Oh, do any of you have a copy of the new King James Bible?" she asked us excitedly. "We've heard about it but never seen it!" Alas, none of us had a copy with us. 

"Which ship did you arrive on? And who was your navigator?" she continued, reeling off a few names of famous ship captains of the time. Everyone looked from one to another, not knowing how to answer the "navigator" question, until someone ventured hesitantly, "Um .  . . Siri?" We all cracked up. 

A group of wealthy London businessmen calling themselves The Virginia Company started funding this new colony venture in 1606, after receiving a royal land charter from King James. Today we would recognize them as start-up investors, with Jamestown being the start-up. The Marye Bucke we met was inhabiting the year 1611, when John Rolfe was just beginning to experiment with a successful strain of tobacco and some of the settlers were beginning to establish their own plots just outside the fort. 

Marye was eager to know what skills the men in our group gathered around her had brought with them "from England" because the new colony needed so much help. When she asked their professions, one said he worked at Home Depot and, when she looked puzzled, he added, "We sell building supplies, like lumber."

        "Oh!" she exclaimed. "So you must have carpenter skills! Welcome, welcome! You are so needed here! Lumber cut from the trees in the forest is one of our biggest exports because, since England has already cut down most of its own forests, they need our planks to build ships and homes there."

Another man was a school teacher. 
"Wonderful! You must be here to start the first college in order to train the savages who live around here in the ways of civilization!" (Later, when she came out of character, she explained that the English at that time saw the nearby Powhatan Native Americans as "savages" whose souls required saving, rather than recognizing the intricacy and wisdom of the Powhatans' different kind of civilization and cosmology.) 

She had not asked any of the women what their work was because 1) there were very few women in Jamestown in 1611, and 2) women were assumed to provide all the work of running a home (including making beer!). In addition, the majority of the colonists who were not from noble families, and almost all of the English women of the time, were illiterate. But suddenly she pointed to me, sitting off to the side and taking notes, exclaiming, "Look at this woman! Are you actually writing? Does that mean you can read?" I smiled and acknowledged that yes, somehow I had gotten an education in early 1600's England, an unexpectedly rare achievement for a woman, even for noble families.

Me before the statue of Captain John Smith, early leader of the Jamestown colony. 
He returned to England before Stephen Hopkins arrived.

There was one black family in the group listening to Marye. She told us that in 1619, a cash-strapped Dutch ship's captain had stopped by the colony. He had met up with a Spanish ship somewhere along his voyage across the Atlantic and traded for some cargo from it. Now he wanted to sell the cargo here in Jamestown before continuing on to his destination of New Amsterdam in the midst of a river up the coast on the tip of an island called Manhattan. 

This "cargo" he'd picked up was a group of about 20 human beings who had been kidnapped in Africa to be slaves. The Jamestown settlers bought them in an exchange for provisions, Marye said, and then they didn't know what to do with them. I had read about this in my research and had figured this was the start of black slave labor to harvest the tobacco in Jamestown. But no, Marye said. The Jamestown colony Governor at the time took them into his house to work for him and others in the colony, but not as slaves. Instead, he applied to them the designation that applied to everyone else who had arrived at Jamestown without having paid the cost of their own voyage. These African colonists (involuntary though they were) would become indentured servants, which meant that after they had worked off the 4-7 years of their indenture, they would become free and would be awarded their own plot of land, most likely at least 50 acres. And that's what happened to these African arrivals.

"So it is a very positive story about black people brought to the New World that is little known," she told us. (But later, multitudes of captured Africans were indeed brought to Virginia as slaves.) 

Our Baker ancestor, Stephen Hopkins, came to Jamestown in 1610, also as an indentured servant as well as the assistant to the Reverend Richard Bucke, the new minister to the colony and Marye Bucke's husband. 

Reconstructed remains of Stephen's church, originally built of timber and mud

Marye was one of the very few women in Jamestown before 1619. Originally, the Virginia Company expected that Jamestown would simply ship wealth back to the London investors. But as more colonists felt that they had better options in the New World than in England and they wanted to stay there, the Company realized that the mostly all-male colony would not be sustainable without women. That's when they sent a "Bride Ship" with 90 women on board, who of course were snapped up immediately by colonists who had the wherewithal to pay the bride price of 120 pounds of tobacco. Kind of like later centuries' "mail order brides." 

Stephen Hopkins, however, had returned to England by that time, having arrived several years earlier at a time of devastation. Assigned to the lead ship of the Third Resupply convoy of nine ships, he had left London for Jamestown in June of 1609. After six weeks of favorable winds and good weather that allowed all the ships to stay within sight of each other, they were expecting to reach Jamestown within the next week. But then a monster hurricane barreled down on them and tossed all the ships apart to their own fates. 

Eventually most of the other ships in the convoy limped in to Jamestown, but Stephen's ship nearly sank and eventually shipwrecked on Bermuda. He spent the winter there, helping to build two new ships to continue his and his shipmates' journey, and at last they arrived in Jamestown in May of 1610. 

But what they found was shocking ruin. The previous winter had been so severe in Virginia that almost all the colonists, including almost all the new ones who had arrived in the fall from their convoy, had died. Recently the archaeologists at today's site found evidence that the starving colonists had even cannibalized some of the bodies in their desperation.

Now, visiting today's remains of Jamestown more than 400 years later, I looked out at the James River - much broader than I had expected - and sat in the re-created ruins of the church that had been the center of Stephen's life there. I wondered if I could possibly be seeing remnants of the same sights our ancestor had seen 400 years ago, and walking the same ground he walked. Actually, the "same ground" was about 17 feet below the level we see now, according to the archaeological findings, but still . . . it was a wonder to see this historic place where the family that eventually became the Bakers that we all know and love first stepped onto the land of North America.

Today's "colonists" at Jamestown

Tree in a Buttercup Meadow Near Jamestown
taken by Susan Kinsella, April 2017


Pat Herdeg said...

Great story, Sue! Thank you. And, love the picture of 'today's colonists'!


Anonymous said...

Wonderful story! And as I read I could imagine, along with you, being a new colonist. So hard to envision how they could have made it and what they endured! Thanks, Sue, for all your work! Mom/CB

Evelyn Taylor said...

There used to be a children's series that I read,called "I was there...(at the battle of Bunker Hill: at Gettysburg, etc.) This article, Sue, took me to the Settlement of Jamestown.

Beautiful writing, great research. Thank you.


Julie Riber said...

Your story certainly does make it all seem real. Enjoyed learning about the slaves as indentured servants. Mrs. Marye Burke did a fine job of playing her part as one of the very few women who inhabited Jamestown. Did you ever get to have a conversation with her, Sue, about the story you're actually writing and our family connection to Steven Hopkins?

Anonymous said...

You make our family history come alive. Thanka