The Chesapeake Bay watershed has a long and rich history, compiled over time through the written accounts of various people and cultures. My generation has learned of the story of the area’s first peoples through history textbooks describing the colonial era. Another popular version of this history is the fabled Disney movie “Pocahontas”, the animated story of a Native American princess falling in love with Jamestown’s finest, Captain John Smith. There are many historical depictions of British settlers’ journey to the new world and their subsequent interactions with the native Indians in early 17th century Jamestown, Virginia located on the James River (a tributary of the Chesapeake Bay. Jamestown, founded in 1607, was the first permanent British Settlement in America, seemingly a win after the fabled loss of the Roanoke colony years earlier. This brief introduction to this history alone shows how storied and romanticized the past people and environment of the Chesapeake truly are. Romanticizing, the notion of making something seem more appealing and pleasing than it actually is, has unfortunately played a large role in the watershed’s history and representation. For the colonial Chesapeake Bay, life was not truly as wondrous and romantic as it has been made out to seem.
In 1607, English settlers were sent by the Virginia Company of London to make a home in the new world. The Virginia Company was a joint stock company whose main goal was to make a good profit, by having the settlers return with goods and riches (Seidel). While some accounts tell of happy times and great relations with Indians upon arrival, that was not necessarily the case. These English were nowhere near prepared for what they would encounter when they arrived and the hardships that they would endure. They had great trouble finding resources and retrieving food, so they looked to the Indians for help and guidance. The Native Americans were generous, but only so much because they had their own subsistence and survival to worry about. For the English, these were very tough times. On average, more than half of the colonists died from causes such as typhoid, dysentery, salt poisoning, contaminated drinking water, food shortages, and a general lack of planning (Seidel). Not to mention the long-lasting drought and harsh winters they endured. After the winter months of 1609 to 1610 only 60 of the 600 original colonists had survived the horrible conditions (Seidel). Later in 1623, an English indentured servant wrote home pleading for help because two-thirds of his fellow shipmates had died, and there was a total loss of leaders and lack of supplies (Frethorne). It is clear from historic accounts of the time that things were not going well, and life was not as pleasing as it seems. This is a total contrast to what many children see viewing the film “Pocahontas”, which totally romanticizes the story.
Terrence Malick’s 2005 film “The New World” also portrayed the tale of the Jamestown settlement and the relationship between Pocahontas and British John Smith. This film while being more historically accurate, still totally and literally romanticizes the Indian princess and the Captain’s relationship. This movie is a beautiful piece, but the aesthetic scenes of Pocahontas and John frolicking through grass meadows do not support the reality of history. In the real “New World” Pocahontas was said to be younger than 13 years old at the time of their meeting, and they did not fall in love. There are claims that she saved him from imprisonment by her people. The hero and writer Captain John Smith was portrayed himself as a great guy. While we do have him to thank for much of this colonial history, he was not well liked. One account wrote, “The Jamestown fleet’s leaders clapped Captain John Smith into custody and accused him of concealing an intended mutiny…At the next stop, they offered to hang him and got as far as hammering together the gallows. Before his fellow settlers threw him out of Virginia 32 months later, they would again propose to stretch Smith’s neck, to banish him, and even to murder him” (Montgomery).
While romantic and dreamy stories are perhaps more interesting and memorable, it is important to focus on historical realities and not the embellishments that we often hear of. These historical exaggerations became apparent during Journey One while visiting Historic Jamestown and Colonial Williamsburg. We saw an extreme absence of Native American tradition, culture, and history, which was a large part in the colonial settlement and survival. Misrepresentations like those show our faults in telling true history. Romanticism of the Chesapeake Bay and it’s history may be beautiful and unique, but accuracy is important especially when learning from our past.
Captain John Smith by Dennis Montgomery. Colonial Williamsburg Journal Vol. 16, No. 3 (Spring 1994) p. 14.
“Our Plantation Is Very Weak”: The Experiences of an Indentured Servant in Virginia
Richard Frethorne, letter to his father and mother, March 20, April 2 & 3, 1623, in Susan Kingsbury, ed., The Records of the Virginia Company of London (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1935), 4: 58–62.
Seidel, John. Lectures and personal communication. September 2015.