Early American History

Many people say they love history, though often they also say they hated studying it in school.  What do they love about history? In fact, what do they mean by “history”?

As a former docent at Jamestown Settlement (a historical museum that commemorates the first landing of three English ships in North America in 1607), I know what people say they don’t like: names, dates, and arguments from a previous time that they don’t understand.  What they like is something familiar, something they can recognize as relevant to the present. When they say relevant, they mean related, as in blood relatives.

I’ve met many genealogists, anxious to see if they had an ancestor on one of the first ships. I’ve had to tell them that those people were probably not people they’d want to meet.  The settlers came to fight and make fortunes. They fought with each other and the native tribes nearby, and most of them died early gruesome deaths from starvation, disease, warfare, and simply fighting with each other. These early sailors weren’t ancestors of anybody.

Descendants of Pocahontas (there are many) are generally not the genealogists; they know their family lines very clearly and don’t have to prove anything. While their “history” goes back to 10,000 B.C., they come to the museum to see history as relevant to today. They come to see the building of the country, from sailing up the rivers, establishing plantations, trading crops for credit, and developing a way of living together among many different peoples.

About a third of the sailors on the three original ships “married” Indian women. The Indians helped to build James Fort, and Indian wives did most of the cooking. Indian-made cooking utensils have been found on the site of the original fort, and in the earliest days only the Indians would have known what was edible. The earliest surviving settlers learned a great deal from the Indians. If you date your family to seventeenth century Virginia, Pocahontas is probably your relative.