Archive for the ‘ The Historical Muse ’ Category

Jamestown: The Natives

This my third post this week on the Jamestown settlement. I’m not quite done with it. Next week, I’ll finish this portion of American history with some commentary on why Jamestown is significant. Today, I want to shed some light on the natives who crossed paths with those early settlers. What type of society did these Englishmen find when they arrived?

First, let’s dispense with unrealistic romanticism. All humans are sinful. They have a propensity to treat others badly. This certainly was evident in the New World. The rosy picture of natives living in perfect harmony with nature and then having all that disturbed by Europeans is not very accurate. When the Spanish saw how the Aztecs carried out human sacrifices, they were horrified. That’s not meant to absolve the Spanish from their share of the blame for how things turned out, but we need to have a balanced picture of the past.

PowhatansThe natives in the Jamestown area were part of a broader grouping called the Algonquin. The Powhatan Confederacy that the English came upon was one portion of that larger grouping. They had no written language, so we have no primary documents from them personally. What we have is the English explanation of what they saw and experienced. A one-sided view can be skewed, to be sure, but further research and archaeology have substantiated much of what they told us.

The Algonquin worldview was dark. Only the chiefs and priests had any hope of a kind of life after death; they supposedly were reincarnated. The common people had this life only—no hope of an eternity in the presence of a loving God. The culture was polytheistic, featuring many gods for many different purposes. The one they dreaded the most was Okeus, who had to be appeased continually. Throughout the Algonquin tribes, child sacrifice for that purpose was practiced.

Warfare was a staple of life. Tribes had shifting alliances over time, all for the sake of self-preservation. The natives did not view themselves as one big happy family suddenly interrupted by the English. Their perception of these new settlers was that of just another tribe in the region to be dealt with.

If you were caught in a war by the enemy, you could expect to be tortured in the most cruel ways. They had developed a rather sophisticated method of skinning people alive and cutting off body parts while the victim was still conscious, and even eating those parts while he watched.

If you were a young boy entering manhood, the practice was to give you a powerful drug to erase the memory of boyhood. This was how you transitioned into becoming a man.

Powhatan Receiving TributeChief Powhatan (a title, not his actual name) was already advanced in age when the Jamestown people first encountered him, but he was still vital and strong. He had to be. His confederacy was held together by force and intimidation. Powhatan ruled over thirty conquered tribes: note the word “conquered” here; they didn’t apply for membership. Once in the confederacy, they owed him a tribute of 80% of their crops—in other words, he had an 80% tax rate. So how did they survive? It appears that Powhatan mastered the age-old system of redistribution of wealth. As long as you were trustworthy and obedient, he would, from his bounty, send some of it back to you.

Sound familiar? Sound rather contemporary?

Powhatan also had approximately one hundred wives, taken from the various tribes under his authority. He would then have one child with each, solidifying the connection with each tribe. One can say without too much exaggeration that he was the “father of his country.” Summary: Powhatan was an absolute despot who ruled with an iron hand.

Neither was Powhatan going to share power. When one of his priests came forth with a prophecy that a tribe coming out of the Chesapeake region was going to topple his empire, he immediately decided to kill off the Chesapeake tribe. He was efficient; they were slaughtered that day. Only when the English showed up, coming from that same region, did he wonder if they were the “tribe” destined to remove him. We have no evidence, though, of any remorse for his “mistake.”

When the Starving Time hit Jamestown in 1609-1610, Powhatan did all he could to withhold any aid, hoping they would all die out. Later, when his daughter Pocahontas married a settler, relations between the cultures relaxed for a time, only to destroyed by the massacre of 1622 that I described in an earlier post.

From the Christian point of view, what I see is a culture devoid of the light of the Gospel. It was a culture desperately in need of hope, that lacked the understanding that the Son of God—the only God—had reached out to His creation through His own sacrifice, which would take the place of human sacrifice. Pocahontas and Chanco, among others, gained that understanding and realized that hope. Most rejected it. In a previous post, I highlighted some of the true Christians who sought to minister to the natives. If there had been more of those type of men, this part of our history would have been more praiseworthy.

Jamestown: The Balance

Yesterday, I wrote about the founding of Jamestown and pointed out that it wasn’t exactly an evangelical enterprise. Most of those involved were nominally Christian—born Anglican—and never had committed their lives to the Lord. I left you with some hope, though. I said there was another part of the story. That’s where I’m going today.

First, the Virginia Company that sent out the Jamestown settlers did have in its ranks some genuine Christians who wanted the new colony to help convert the natives to the faith. The Company also gave some instructions to the settlers that stemmed from a concern for Christian conduct. If you go to historic Jamestown today, the large monument that was dedicated back in 1907, with President Theodore Roosevelt in attendance, sports a comment from the Company. I’ve posted a picture of it here; since it is a little hard to read, I’ll transcribe it below:

Jamestown--Advice of London Council

It says, “Lastly and chiefly the way to prosper and achieve good success is to make yourselves all of one mind for the good of your country and your own, and to serve and fear God, the giver of all goodness. For every plantation which our heavenly father hath not planted shall be rooted out.” This was not only an instruction, but a warning.

The minister who came on those first ships was Robert Hunt, by all accounts a truly godly man respected by everyone. He is credited with helping to save John Smith’s life on the voyage over when others wanted to hang him. Upon landing at what is now Virginia Beach, Hunt erected a cross and held a service of thanksgiving. Smith writes fondly of him and mourns his early death in 1608. At the historic site today is a memorial to Hunt, depicting him officiating the Lord’s Supper.

Robert Hunt Memorial

Other dedicated ministers followed Hunt—Alexander Whitaker and Richard Buck. Whitaker became the primary teacher for Pocahontas as he led her to the Christian faith. A famous painting of the baptism of Pocahontas can be found in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC.

Baptism of Pocahontas

Sadly, Whitaker drowned trying to save the life of another. All indications are he was a genuine Christian. As for Pocahontas, her conversion wasn’t just a show. She took her new faith seriously, changed her name to Rebecca, and married John Rolfe, one of the settlers. She then went to England. Unfortunately, she died there, probably from pneumonia, but the testimony of her death shows she was calm and peaceful, accepting it from God’s hand.

When she arrived in England, Pocahontas had an entourage of natives with her, one of whom, a young teenage boy, was adopted into the family or George Thorpe. The boy died soon after, victim of some disease for which he had no immunity apparently, but his new “father,” Thorpe, took that as his cue to do God’s will by going to America and helping establish a college for native youths, teaching them not only the English language but seeking to lead them to the Christian faith.

Thorpe (for whom no portrait exists) dedicated himself to befriending the natives for the gospel’s sake. He was kind to them, reached out to the chief, Opechancanough, and shared the faith. All seemed to be going well, but Opechancanough deceived the settlers by staging a surprise uprising in 1622, hoping to wipe out all English settlers:

Massacre of 1622

George Thorpe, tragically, was one of the victims that day. Opechanacanough, though, did not achieve his objective for one reason. A plaque on the wall in the Jamestown church tells the story:


One of the natives, his life changed by the Christian faith, was the hero of the day. This shows also that the real divide in this world is not between races or ethnicities, but between those who have submitted themselves to the Lord and those who have not.

So, even though Jamestown was not primarily a Christian settlement in the way I would view a Christian endeavor, nevertheless some of the individuals involved were decidedly Christian and helped pave the way for the gospel message in a new land.

Jamestown: A Christian Settlement?

Today I begin that journey through American history I wrote about yesterday. Skipping over Columbus and other non-U.S.-related events, I go straight to the settlement at Jamestown. We often call this the first permanent English settlement in the New World, a correct name if you take into consideration it eventually developed into the colony of Virginia, yet no one lives in Jamestown today. It’s a historic site, but not a permanent residence for anyone.

What lay behind the founding of this settlement? Was there a Christian character to it or was it purely secular in nature? Since this is the first place Englishmen set foot to stay, it is tempting to want to romanticize the event and say it was primarily a Christian endeavor. It would be satisfying to tell the advocates of secularism that a vibrant Christian faith inspired the initial voyage and the society that came about afterward. Satisfying, yes, but not altogether accurate.

Jamestown FortThe Virginia Company’s foremost goal was to establish a trading post in the New World. The first three ships that arrived in 1607 were conspicuous for their complete absence of women and young children. This wasn’t a family affair. While most of the men struggled to erect a fort and find a way to survive in this unknown wilderness, the main task of the captain of the ships, Christopher Newport, was to find a passage to the west so Asia would be more accessible. Others, whose station in life as gentlemen didn’t require manual labor, were more content to search for riches than put their hands to a plow. Research has indicated they weren’t all necessarily lazy, but their status in society did contribute to a certain hierarchy of labor that wasn’t helpful when starting a colony from scratch.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to find a passage to Asia for trade; neither is there anything inherently sinful about wanting to enrich oneself. That all depends on the motive of the heart. But another criticism of these settlers is one we will come across constantly in our travels through our history: they sought to annihilate the natives.

If genocide really was a goal of this expedition, why did they not uncrate their weapons upon arrival? Why did they not immediately set to work on a fortress for self-protection? Actually, the Company had given explicit instructions to be friendly with the natives for the purpose of trade and for the propagation of the Gospel. I believe that latter purpose was in the hearts of some on the Company’s board, but not so much on the minds of the first settlers.  Yet if they were dead set on genocide, what would be the rationale for a trading post? If you killed all potential trading partners, with whom would you trade?

In fact, as the leaders attempted to carry out the instructions they were given, they were set upon by some of those natives they sought to befriend. The attack was swift, brutal, and would have conceivably wiped out the colony before it even had a foothold. The only thing that saved them was the shooting off of the cannons on the ships, thereby scaring the natives and leading to their retreat. It was only after this incident that the colonists decided they needed to haul out the rest of their guns and quickly build a fort for protection.

John SmithInternally, the leadership was a mess, fighting continually amongst themselves. No true leader emerged until Capt. John Smith was allowed to be the president of the council. He did a lot of things right—forcing the gentlemen to work, maintaining military drill, storing food for the winter, forcefully trading with the natives, developing a worthwhile friendship with Pocahontas—yet making a lot of those under his authority angry with his no-nonsense approach. His commitment to solid principles to save the colony from disaster could be called Christian, but he was no more than a typical Englishman who considered himself a Christian due to the good fortune of being born in a “Christian” country.

Jamestown CrossWhen the real test came, in the Starving Time during the winter of 1609-1610, Christian virtue and behavior seemed to be in short supply. Eating the corpses of recently deceased neighbors is hardly the spiritual thing to do. One man was executed for killing his pregnant wife and eating her. This descent into cannibalism was only one indication among many that the veneer of Christianity that most of the men possessed was exactly that—a veneer.

So does this mean that Jamestown was an utter failure and that Christians should view it as such? Or is there another side to the story? Can anything be said to offer some balance to the account? I’ll come back with additional information on this important American beginning tomorrow.

Interpreting American History

My time off from blogging during June was most welcome. It’s not that I don’t enjoy doing this; I certainly do. A break, though, can be helpful at times. As I contemplated how to proceed with this blog, I realized that even though, as a historian, I have delved time and again into American history on this site, I haven’t done so systematically.

Here’s what I propose to do.

I want to go through American history from the beginning and offer my take/interpretation of people and events. This will be a long process because there’s so much to comment on. I propose to intersperse these interpretations of our past with commentary on current events, as I’ve always done, and as developments require. So for those of you who are more inclined to read about the present than the past, be assured that won’t change. However, I will have more posts dealing with the past than I’ve had previously. Perhaps I’ll do a couple per week, as events allow.

What I hope to do with these historical posts is provide a basic Christian framework for understanding our history. As regular readers know, I consider myself a conservative who believes the roots of our nation do lie within the Christian faith, to a great extent. I will differ, though, with some conservative Christians on certain points. For instance, I cannot, with integrity, try to make non-Christians into Christians, nor can I wink at those aspects of our history that violated Biblical principles. I must be honest with my sources. As a practicing historian who has read extensively on American history, I believe I have greater depth of knowledge than those who dabble in it, yet I seek to remain humble about my knowledge, always staying open to new information.

I can be wrong.

American History SymbolsYet I want to share the conclusions I’ve reached on a wide variety of subjects. Did Jamestown begin with a Christian worldview? Were the Pilgrims and Puritans people to be admired unconditionally? How great was the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century? Was there a proper Biblical basis for the American Revolution and how Christian was it? Were key individuals in our Founding grounded Biblically? Is the Constitution a document with Biblical origins? What about western expansion? Was it carried out in a Christian manner? How do we deal with the treatment of the natives? Naturally, I’ll have to tackle slavery and the Civil War. How should a dedicated Christian understand those?

After the Civil War, did the rise of big business push us in a positive direction as a nation or negative? Was immigration beneficial or harmful? How did progressivism affect our view of government? Along the way, I’ll need to offer my evaluation of key presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Wilson, Coolidge, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, and others. Which ones remained tied to our Founding principles and which did not? What about their policies? Cultural changes are just as important as political programs. In fact, the culture may have more of an impact on the policies than vice versa.

I was planning to do this anyway, yet I received another confirmation of the importance of this series when I watched the new Dinesh D’Souza film America on July 4. It was an appropriate day to view it.

America Poster

I loved virtually everything about this documentary—the visuals, the quick pace, the thoughtfulness, the music. What’s more, D’Souza’s approach was excellent. He allowed detractors of America to have their say and proclaim their critiques first; then he answered those critiques most effectively in the last half of the film.

I will do the same, in one sense. I will tell you what others think about these various people and events in American history, then give my response. I hope to be fair; I hope to make you think. I will start tomorrow.

Reaffirming a Right and Proper Independence

Declaration of Independence Read in BostonJuly 2, 1776—The Continental Congress declares the independence of the United States of America.

July 4, 1776—The final wording of the Declaration of Independence is agreed upon by the Congress.

July 8, 1776—The newly printed Declaration of Independence is read publicly in cities and towns across the new nation.

It took another seven years of toil and agony to realize that Declaration’s premise: the United States, with inalienable rights given by God, took its place among the other nations of the world without British disagreement.

Some of our first steps were stumbling—the Articles of Confederation, making the new government work under the Constitution, setting precedents for the future—yet we managed to establish that government and even make the first transition to the predominance of a different political party in 1800 without bloodshed. We were on our way.

I’ve always been an apologist for America in what I hope is the right and proper way, not ignoring the blemishes and sins, yet seeing the overall picture as positive. I attribute most of that success to a basic Biblical worldview that continued to hold sway even until the onset of the twentieth century. After that, we began to suffer from some serious theological/philosophical drift, and we’ve paid the penalty for doing so. Yet, despite that drift, there remains a Biblical thread running through our culture. Some would like to erase it; others have taken up the gauntlet to protect and advance it. Our future hangs in the balance.

Unfortunately, our once sturdy sense of independence (from government, not God) has reversed itself to an alarming degree:

In Dependence

Let’s take this day to contemplate what the Founders sought to achieve and dedicate ourselves to the re-establishment of the right and proper kind of independence that depends on God alone.

Declaration of Independence-Color

Historic Virginia

I just finished eight days of showing students around some of the most important historical sites in Virginia, specifically those related to the founding of the nation. Where did we go and what did we see? Here’s an overview.

We began in Jamestown, where all things British America began. An excellent guide explained not only the history of the founding of the colony, but also took us to where the archaeological digs continue, while discussing the significance of the ongoing finds. Most know about John Smith and Pocahontas—whether the true story or the fantasized one—but not many know the name of the early leader of the expedition, the one who really made it happen: Bartholomew Gosnold. Why has he disappeared from our memories? He died in the first few months of settlement. They have since found his remains and his skeleton is on display.

Gosnold Skeleton

CapitolGovernor's PalaceNaturally, we spent a couple of days in Colonial Williamsburg, where we visited as many of the key buildings as time permitted. Two that we couldn’t omit, of course, were the Capitol and the Governor’s Palace. For me, though, just the ambiance of this restored colonial town was the real attraction. A couple of times over the past week, I just took the time to stroll from one end to the other, enjoying the peace and the time for reflection and meditation.

Along with Yorktown, the site of the final battle of the American Revolution, we also took some day trips to Monticello and Mt. Vernon, the homes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, respectively. The guide at Monticello was superb, as we got the behind-the-scenes tour that took us into the upper levels of the house where most tourists don’t go.

As always, we’re told about how much of a genius Jefferson was, and while I acknowledge his talents, I am saddened by his ultimate rejection of the divinity of Christ. Human reason alone never leads to truth.

Although I’ve been to Mt. Vernon numerous times, this was my first time back in about a decade. I was amazed at the transformation: new buildings, new and fascinating exhibits, a more welcoming atmosphere for visitors. Someday, I need to see the new Washington presidential library they now have on the grounds. Most impressive, to me, is that private funding has accomplished all this. I found one cartoon along the way to be too good to pass up. I had to take a photo of it to use in class:

Washington Cartoon

What a wonderfully sarcastic jab at the lack of respect often shown today.

St. John's ChurchYesterday was Richmond day. We had a great tour of the state’s historic Capitol building, a very informative visit to John Marshall’s home (wish I’d taken a picture), and then on to St. John’s Church where Patrick Henry delivered his famous “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech. In all my study of the era, I hadn’t picked up on how small Richmond was at the time of that speech—no more than 600 population. Yet within five years, it was the new capital of the commonwealth.

We capped off our day and our week and a half of intense sightseeing with a ramble through the Hollywood Cemetery, which includes the graves of presidents James Monroe and John Tyler. It’s a beautiful place, nestled just above the James River. 

StudentsI want to commend the students for the interest they showed in seeing all these places, despite the fact that they are not history majors. Perhaps, though, they have come away with a deeper appreciation for what has come before. The current generation has so little understanding of the sacrifices and the principles that formed this nation.

One final photo: this is us at the cemetery with the James River in the background: a fitting conclusion to a fine trip back to my almost-home-state of Virginia.

This was my second annual excursion for this purpose. I hope it can continue for many more years.

The Pause

Life sometimes needs a pause button.

I’ve been in Williamsburg, Virginia, since Wednesday. My main reason for being here is to show students some of the most significant sites related to the history of the nation, a task that’s hardly a task for me—it’s a joy to do so.

Bassett HallYet I’ve had some free time just to stroll and not feel rushed about anything. On Thursday afternoon, I walked from the Visitors’ Center to the home of John D. Rockefeller Jr., the man who put upwards of $68 million of his own dollars into the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. It probably was about two miles to the home, Bassett Hall, and I’ve not been accustomed lately to extended walking. Later in the evening, I had “charley horses” in both shins, something I don’t ever recall experiencing before. But it was worth it.

It was worth it not so much for the home itself, although it was interesting, but simply for the time to saunter over there and not be subject to a schedule for a change. The rest of the afternoon I spent in the museum, listening for a while to a humorous and informative Q&A with “Martha Washington,” then on to some truly fascinating eighteenth-century portraits. Again, no rush, just relaxation.

House of BurgessesLast night, I had a sandwich at the well-known Cheese Shop in Merchants Square, then a nearly one-mile trek to the Capitol, where I spent a pleasant hour taking in a harpsichord concert of music from the era. The concert took place in the House of Burgesses room in the reconstructed Capitol. This is the same spot where Washington, Wythe, Henry, Jefferson, and so many others helped make history. Although I’ve been in that room many times previously, I had the same sense of historical presence as always. For me, it never gets old.

Afterwards, in weather that was cool, but not too cool, I leisurely retraced my steps back nearly one mile to Merchants Square, got a coffee, and sat on a bench outside, watching tourists going to and fro from one specialty shop and restaurant to another, all under a sky that slowly shifted from dusk to dark. Peace prevailed externally, but more important was the peace within me. On the walk and on the bench, I had a conversation with the Lord about being content with life, no matter what the circumstances. We also spoke of being able to enjoy the small things and treasuring those moments.

No, I didn’t hear an audible voice on the other side of the conversation—but He was there. And where He is, that’s where life is as well. Without Him, and without the peace He brings, we are the most miserable of all creatures.

Life sometimes needs a pause button. Thank you, Lord, for all those pauses that renew our strength and restore purpose.