Tagged: history

John Smith, Jamestown, and the Beginnings of America


Each age tends to have only a meagre awareness of its own limitations. – Pope Francis

In October 1609, Capt. John Smith, hero of the Jamestown Colony in Virginia, left to go back to England, injured and disgraced, never to return.

It was probably for the best. Jamestown was turning out to be a mistake, contained in a disaster, wrapped up in a tragedy. The settlers wanted to abandon it more than once. It was a pathetic beginning for the colonization of the part of North America that would, 170 years later, declare its independence and become the United States.

Of the approximately 560 people who had so far been transplanted to live at Jamestown, more than 240 had died. The Sea Venture, one of the largest and most modern ships to set sail for Virginia, was shipwrecked with 150 on board. Even worse was yet to come during the winter of 1609-10 when 440 out of 500 settlers died in what has become known as the “starving time.” This is an 88 percent death rate!

I visited the Jamestown archaeological site this past summer. The work done there to date is well documented in both the main visitor center and the Archaearium, but I found myself leaving with many questions. What motivated the settlers to leave England for such a miserable ending? How did the backers and financiers in London justify sending so many to their deaths? Were these people just victims of circumstances or was there something else going on that was crippling their ability to thrive?

Photo by A. Taylor

Crosses marking the dead at Jamestown. Photo by A. Taylor

The answers to these questions have been the subject of debate for several decades at least. But it is undeniable that Jamestown was the beginning of America.

However, our American myth of origin is exactly that–a myth. This country did not begin with noble Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Rather, it began in a swampy, stinking scrap of land in Virginia.

According to author and historian James Horn, Jamestown–the first permanent English settlement on the continent–“was not intended as a model for some kind of idealized version of English society…or as a religious refuge for ‘God’s chosen people.'” Rather, “colonies would produce goods in demand in England that hitherto had to be imported from Europe and Asia, and English merchants would provide colonists with necessary credit, laborers, and supplies.”

By modern standards, though, this colony was an astonishing waste of resources, money, and human life. It is surprising to me that human life was given so little value. Not only were the Indians slaughtered mercilessly merely for being not Christians, but the English settlers were sent to their almost certain death simply because the lords wanted to beat the Spanish and claim North America for their king.

And to make money. Lots of money.

What it boils down to for me is this: The idea that we are a great nation with a manifest destiny founded on Christian principles is a fiction. Yes, we have persevered, but mostly out of dumb luck and not a divine plan.

Are these the so-called values that some Americans want to restore when they say our country needs to be restored to her former glory? If not, what is it exactly that they want to restore?

There is no immutable force guiding our direction. It is we, the People, who have a sacred obligation to set the nation’s course, to seek positive change, to honor our fellow citizens, and be committed to democracy and the Constitutional process.

I wonder what Capt. John Smith would think of America today. Would he be disappointed? Would he see a lot of material wealth without much unity? Maybe. Or perhaps he would he be happy to see that, despite the ill-conceived trainwreck of our first settlement, we somehow have risen above our beginnings and just might have a shot at another 400 years.



The Vanishing World of Mariano Vallejo

Mariano Vallejo

Mariano Vallejo, photo courtesy Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was born in 1808 in Monterey, California. By the time he died in 1890, California was a profoundly different place.

Only 38 years before Vallejo’s birth, Monterey had been founded on a barren piece of land by soldiers and Franciscan missionaries from Spain.

At the arrival of the Spaniards, the area around Monterey Bay was a wilderness of brush, pine and oak trees, and rocky landscape sparsely populated by rag-tag bands of mostly passive natives. It was territory virtually unchanged since the last Ice Age.

But change was just over the horizon.

Vallejo, a native-born Spanish-speaker known as a Californio, began life as a citizen of the Spanish Empire in what would be one of the last outposts of European imperialism in the New World. During Vallejo’s youth, Monterey–the capital of the colony–was a small town. Los Angeles was merely a dusty pueblo. San Francisco was an isolated, pest-ridden harbor.

As a young man, he became an officer in the army of Mexico after New Spain declared independence. By 1836, California had become an essentially autonomous region of less than 13,000 Mexican citizens and an unknown number of Indians spread across thousands of square miles. Life centered on the towns that had sprung up near the Franciscan missions and around the ranchos.

For his service, General Vallejo was given several land grants, including a rancho of about 50,000 acres in Sonoma County. His Rancho Petaluma was small compared to some ranchos of 300,000 acres. Land was cheap and nobody else seemed to want it.

Rancho life was patriarchal and pastoral. Labor was almost entirely manual. The only export products were cow hides and tallow. A Californio could ride for days and not see another person.

But all this changed. In 1846, a band of misfits claiming to represent American interests staged the “Bear Flag Rebellion” that claimed California as a territory of the United States. By 1848, a treaty with Mexico gave the land to the U.S. and, coincidentally, gold was discovered in the mountains. In 1850, California became the 31st state in the Union. Nineteen years later, the transcontinental railroad would open the door to a flow of migrants that continues to this day.

As a new state, and one abundant with gold that could fund American progress, settlers flooded in. The Californios quickly became a minority and their ranchos decimated by squatters and land speculators, or just sold to pay debts. When, at 55 years old, Vallejo was able to travel to Washington D.C. to meet Abraham Lincoln to advocate for land rights, he was little more than a curiosity.

Mission Solano

Mission Solano in Sonoma, California

This rapid pace of change–in the span of one man’s life–is remarkable, and rare. Up until this time, most societies had changed gradually over centuries. California, in contrast, went from an isolated feudal society to the Industrial Revolution in essentially one generation.

Living through such overwhelming change takes its toll. People lose their livelihoods almost overnight. Social conventions that had been working just fine become irrelevant or even counter-productive. That which gives citizens purpose vanishes or becomes culturally unacceptable. It can make outcasts out of those who once were kings.

We are living through a period of rapid change today. We are transitioning from an industrial economy to an information and service economy, even as we export most of our industries overseas. California, once again, is at the forefront of this change, but it’s being felt everywhere. Additionally, nations across the world are in an almost constant state of unrest. On any given day, it is difficult to know whether what you are doing now is going to feather your nest tomorrow or leave you in an empty hole. It is, to say the least, unsettling.

Vallejo was lucky. He lived a full life and is well remembered in California to this day. There’s even a town named after him. But I can’t help feeling he would have traded it all–the honorary town, the meeting of Lincoln–just to avoid going through the social upheaval and to remain living in the Californio society he grew up in.

Note: No consultation of Wikipedia was performed in the writing of this post. All information was sourced by me.