By Erin Isaac
Jamestown looms large in North American collective historical imagination, in pop culture as well as in the classroom. As North America’s first permanent English settlement, the site is celebrated as the “birthplace” of modern Anglo-American society but (as is true of all historical sites) the history of Jamestown is complicated; there are aspects to its story to which modern North Americans should be better exposed, in addition to the oft repeated nationalistic narrative. In our mini-series, we re-focus the history of this site around the Powhatan Confederacy (sometimes called the Powhatan Empire) and their interactions with European settlers in Tsenacommacah—their name for their homelands in what is now commonly called Virginia.
We also challenge some popular misconceptions about the history of Jamestown. For example, did you know that the Powhatans’ first contact with Europeans took place in the mid-16th century, long before John Smith and the first group Virginia-Company colonists established Jamestown in 1607? For those of us who’ve gotten most of our early-Virginian history from Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) this fact might be surprising.
The day after our visit to Jamestown Settlement, we got up bright and early and headed just a few kilometres down the road to Jamestown Island to visit the 17th-century fort’s archaeological remains at Historic Jamestowne. In the 17th century this island was connected to the coast by way of a peninsula that has since eroded. These days, visitors can follow Colonial Parkway all the way to Island Drive, a route that is dotted with panels about the local flora and fauna, as well as some details about the island’s former occupants.
We arrived the visitor centre as they opened for the day. In the video, I describe the site’s layout and what visitors will see when they come into Historic Jamestowne. Much of the site’s interpretation is presented in the Archaearium Archaeology Museum, but there is a surprising lack of information about this area’s Indigenous inhabitants or the violent encounters between them and the English colonists. By “violent encounters,” I am particularly referring to the massacres against Paspahegh and other Powhatan communities living nearby James fort. Because the archaeological excavations have largely focused on the colonial inhabitants, the evidence of violence presented is mostly derived from Indigenous raids on Jamestown, not colonial violence against the Powhatan.
Something that really stuck out to me was the extent to which the Indigenous history of this region is represented by the Pocahontas story at Historic Jamestowne. I’m conflicted about this tendency because, on the one hand, it is a very well-known story and for many people it’s their entry point into early Virginia’s Indigenous heritage. On the other hand, it’s a very problematic account which, in many respects, romanticizes a tragic story and is not representative of what actually took place in the past. I am by no means an expert on Pocahontas or, what we may call the Pocahontas myth, so I decided to talk to two experts on the subject for my third video on Jamestown.
In this episode, I spoke with Fallon Burner (incoming MA, University of Saskatchewan) and Dr. Rachel Bryant (Dalhousie University) about Pocahontas (Matoaka), John Smith, and their story as represented in the most recent film about them, Terrance Malick’s The New World (2005). Over the course of a half hour, we talk about the origin of the Pocahontas myth, changes Malick has made in an attempt to improve upon the classic Disney animated film, and the extent to which the film can be used to teach students or anyone interested in Virginia’s pre- and early colonial history about this period. We go over a more accurate history of Pocahontas briefly, but viewers looking for more detail on this should check out Fallon’s video “History and Disney’s Pocahontas,” embedded below.
In the last video in our Jamestown mini-series “Cooking with the Three Sisters,” my good friend Richard Yeomans and I prepare a corn, beans, and squash soup (and fail in our attempt to make corn dumplings…). Historical recipes provide an interesting perspective on the past. Looking up primary documents that describe Powhatan cooking and researching the species of plants that would have been grown in Tsenacommacah as well as the long history of farming in that region taught me a lot about Indigenous technologies and food culture. In this video, I walk you through what I learned as we prepare our dinner.
Historia Nostra is on Facebook (@historianostrayoutube), Twitter (@historia_nostra) and Instagram (@historianostrayoutube). Follow us there to get updates on what we’re working on and to get notified when new videos go live. Erin Isaac (PhD student, Western University) is Historia Nostra’s creator, writer, and producer. Suggestions, collaboration pitches, or feedback should be directed to email@example.com.