Stalking One: Romanticizing the Chesapeake

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.

References

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.

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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.

Chesapeake Ethic

My personal ethic concerning the Chesapeake Bay seems to always be in flux. Pretty much the entirety of my childhood had nothing to do with the Bay, being disconnected from it in northern New Jersey. When I began college a couple of years ago in Maryland, I made a connection with the nearby Chester River, which is a tributary of the Bay. This fall, I am participating in a program through my college, the Chesapeake Semester. Only two weeks into this immersive program, and my ideas, thoughts, and ethical values concerning the Chesapeake are already changing.

My current contexts surrounding the Bay are what I have experienced and learned about so far. One context that stands out in my mind is the Chesapeake Blue Crab, Callinectes sapidus. In some ways, the blue crab shaped a big portion of our orientation week journeys. Our first encounter with the blue crab, was having them for lunch aboard the historic skipjack “Elsworth”. The next day we pulled a seine net on the shores of a marsh, and found blue crabs there as well. Our closest connection with the crab came when we woke before the sun to board the “Riley Cat” with Captain Russell Dies. Captain Russell is a true Chesapeake waterman, and we were lucky enough to go trotlining for crabs with him. It was a beautiful morning on the water, and it was even more beautiful to catch almost 8 bushels of crabs!

An ethical issue that arose during our trot lining trip was whether or not we wanted to keep the female crabs. As a collective group, we deciding to throw back the females, and we did so for the ethical reason that they can continue to breed and reproduce, sustaining the crab population which has been in trouble. In our lecture this week on environmental ethics from Dr. McCabe we discussed the differences between instrumental and intrinsic values. It is important to think of the Bay and it’s resources in these ways, and to make the decision over whether something like female blue crabs deserve our moral consideration.

Wendell Berry’s essay “Solving for Pattern discusses solutions to these ethical issues. Berry writes, “A good solution solves more than one problem, and it does not make new problems” (Berry, p. 5). The Chesapeake Bay’s issues need to be solved with solutions like those, albeit that being a difficult task. Because all the problems of the Bay are interconnected, we must realize that when looking towards future reparation and growth of the watershed.

Throughout my journey exploring the Chesapeake, I hope that my ethic of this watershed will be changed and molded because of my experiences and interactions. I hope to become more connected to the Bay, and I am confident that I will. In feeling more connected, I am looking forward to being more inspired to help restore the waters. I am eager to learn more about contexts such as the Chesapeake Bay’s policies and regulations. I am excited for what is to come during my semester, and look forward to sharing my thoughts through this blog.

Berry, Wendell. “Chapter 9: Solving for Pattern.” The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural. N.p.: North Point, 1981. 1-7. Web. <http://static1.1.sqspcdn.com/static/f/760571/10252148/1295202866987/Berry_Solving_for_Pattern.pdf?token=ekkZLHyb8iTtqs14%2BwLmCEYkn2U%3D&gt;.