Was the 17th century really “The New World”?

When most people think of 17th century Jamestown, Virginia they probably conjure up a Disney cartoon image of an Indian princess and a strapping hero, John Smith. In reality, life wasn’t so pretty. That sometimes harsh reality holds true for most life in the 1600’s, the time in which our now proud country was finding it’s feet. Throughout the last week, we have been traveling from past to present in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In our journey, so far we have been camping, as well as have explored the colonial cities of Jamestown and Williamsburg.

We begun our journey with another camping trip at Chino Farm, a college-affialted research farm. Our mission was to forage for our dinner, whether it be in water, forest, or on field. It was an attempt to connect with our surroundings and environment in such a way as the Native Americans did hundreds of years ago. On our foraging expedition we acquired native foods such as cattail root, sassafras root, autumn olive berries, sorrel leaf, prickly pear fruit, persimmons, and catfish. We used native cooking techniques and cultural recipes to help make our meal. Unsurprisingly, foraging is not easy, and the Native Americans had it much worse than we did. We dedicated seven hours of time from the start of foraging to our first bite of dinner. The ratio of calories expended versus consumed was quite skewed, and proved how difficult times were back then. This experience allowed me to have a better understanding and appreciation for the subsistence patterns of the Native Americans.

Upon arrival in Williamsburg, we watched Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World. This historical film romantically and aesthetically depicts the founding of Jamestown and the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith. The New World focuses on it’s title name, and shows the struggles and hardships experienced by the English who colonized Jamestown in 1607. What the film (as well as most historical texts, teachings, and interpretations) does not highlight is the challenges the Indians faced as these strangers invaded what to them was an “old world”.  John Smith was portrayed as a quiet soul who became a friend and teacher to these people. In actuality, historical reports such as Dennis Montgomery’s journal article show that “he imprisoned, psychologically tormented, kept in chains, or forced to labor”. While this film did give me a peek into Native culture, it didn’t exemplify the true issues these English-called “savages” felt.

In our visits to Jamestown and Williamsburg, there was heavily noted absence of Native American culture, history, and society. Out of the hundreds of people who work in Colonial Williamsburg, there are only two Indian actor-interpreters. One, who we met, is a Pamunkey Indian named Warren Taylor. Later on this week, we have the opportunity to visit the Pamunkey Reservation and talk to their tribe. I hope to learn more about this culture’s history and representation as well as how things are going in present day, as well as gain and develop a better appreciation for the lives of these people.

Captain John Smith by Dennis Montgomery Colonial Williamsburg Journal Vol. 16, No. 3 (Spring 1994) p. 14.

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