Do you think the Pilgrims were the first English settlers in North America?
If you are from Virginia, especially from the southeastern part, as I am, you are frequently annoyed by the fact that the Pilgrims from Massachusetts get the credit for something that was accomplished through a lot of struggle and A LOT of dead colonists in Virginia. The first English colony was not in Massachusetts, it was in Southeastern Virginia, in Jamestown, in 1607.
Another group of English settlers came even earlier and settled in Roanoke, which is in present day North Carolina, but the English carelessly lost them. To this day, no one knows exactly what happened to them although it seems that if they didn’t get killed by the native population that they left with them and eventually integrated with them.
I assume that Massachusetts gets the love because their “creation myth” sounds a lot better. Most of the Pilgrims came because they had such extreme religious beliefs that they couldn’t get along with even the most relaxed Europeans, so they came to North America to be obnoxious on their own.
The settlers who came to Virginia, on the other hand, came for a variety of reasons, but religious fervor wasn’t one of them. The Virginia Company was a private, profit earning enterprise, and most of the colonists were here to make money, or, at least, to make themselves a better life than seemed possible in England.
Things did not go that well for the Virginians for quite while. There was a very high mortality rate and some unsavory rumors (that are probably true) of cannibalism during the worst of those times.
Let’s just hope that they ate the bodies of those who died from natural causes.
See how gory this story can get?
But when the Pilgrims arrived up north in 1620, the Jamestown colony had been around for nearly 15 years, since 1607, so if nothing else, there was a bit of a blueprint for them to learn from.
My mother’s family emigrated to Plymouth not long after the first colonists arrived; I used to joke that my ancestor was on “the second ship”. Evidence of my father’s first ancestors appeared in Virginia in 1635. Perhaps because I’ve always lived in Southern Virginia, I’ve been pretty proud of the fact that my ancestors were tough enough to survive here although honestly, they had to be tough on both sides.
The Jamestown Brides by Jennifer Potter
So it’s with a very personal knowledge of the area of first settlement of Virginia that I come to Jennifer Potter’s Jamestown Brides. I was really happy that Potter undertook writing straight nonfiction about the real women who are depicted in the PBS/BBC series.
Also reading the story from the point of view of a British person is pretty interesting, and because she is located in the UK, her information about who the women were is detailed. Potter seems to excel at document analysis.
What’s disappointing about this book, however, is that so little space is devoted to an actual narrative about the women, which seems to be in large part because there aren’t that many records available, between the situation in the colony at the time and later records that were destroyed during the American Revolution.
It might have been interesting if she had been able to recreate a bit more about the women’s lives from the artifacts that are available, both in England and the United States. Also, her understanding of the locations of the original colonies is spotty. Her description is weak and at times, inaccurate in some details.
While I recommend this book because it’s not too academic for a general reader and does tell a compelling story, I also recommend feeling free to skip entire chapters if you feel you’re getting bogged down.
If you are British or very familiar with England, you might be much more interested in the earlier chapters than I was. The main thing I found interesting is the description of the lives of women at that time.
My second favorite section was the “Interlude”, which describes the sea voyage from England to the U.S.
And the most compelling chapters are the final ones, in which Potter outlines the lives of three of the women. It is only here that we get a sense of the circumstances of the early colonists, and based on her anecdotes, it seems that a Julian Fellowe’s drama is not as unreliable as it might seem!
I skimmed over some of the other chapters rather quickly because I am familiar with the history of Jamestown, but if you are not, you will probably find them interesting, and they are necessary to help readers understand the world into which the colonists settled.
Jamestown, the series
The cover photo shows the reproduction of two of the three original ships that you can visit at the present day Jamestown historical site. Look how tiny they were! You can see a bit of the largest, the Susan Constant, along with the Godspeed and the Discovery.
This clip below gives you a bit of the background and shows you what it was like.
This one tells you a bit about the “Lost Colony” of 1587.
Cover Photo credit: Missy Schmidt, https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/2849299045
Great Reads about early Virginia and North Carolina
I found this 2018 book about the settlement of Jamestown stunning. I have lived near Jamestown all of my life, and I didn’t know this story in such detail. Forget John Smith and Pocahontas (yawn), the read John Smith set himself of as a native chieftain and the real Pocahontas only married an Englishman after being hoodwinked into capture.
One ship ended up wintering in Bermuda after surviving a shipwreck (and I bet they wished they had just stayed), and the entire colony was literally sailing up the James River with the intent of abandonment when a new shipment arrived.
The shocking thing about the real story is not that so many people died but that anyone survived.
Marooned by Joseph Kelly
If you are into series, you should actually start with this book, The Secret Token, before reading Marooned, above. The Secret Token is the story of the Lost Colony. Yes, it really happened, the English managed to lose themselves a whole colony, effectively abandoning it during a war with Spain. What I never knew before, is that this colony, established in 1587, 20 years before Jamestown, was actually headed to the site that later became Jamestown as the Tidewater/Chesapeake Bay region had already been scouted as a better spot. But for some reason, they were dropped off in Roanoke and stayed there.
Not only is the story amazing, but I was fascinated by all the leads Lawler follows to try to determine what happened to the small band of people. Because of a partially carved pole found on the site, common belief is that they were either massacred by the Croatoan nation or joined them, either by will or force. Beyond that, no one knows for sure.
The Secret Token by Andrew Lawler
I haven’t read Journey on the James yet, but I loved Earl Swift’s Chesapeake Requiem, and I think this book could provide the perfect balance to Potter’s because Earl Swift is a long time reporter for the largest newspaper in Southeastern Virginia, The Virginian Pilot. He can describe, and he also knows the area. Jamestown was founded on the James River.
Journey on the James by Earl Swift
James A. Michener’s epic novel about eastern Virginia focuses on the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay than specifically on Jamestown, but it is a classic read about the area.
Chesapeake by James A. Michener
The first chapter of Gail Collins’ America’s Women describes the life of women in early Virginia. Apparently, women had voting rights early on because if you could live, you could vote (seriously, a lot of people didn’t).
I’ve read several of Collins’ books: they are enjoyable for the general reader. This one was published in 2003, and I’m excited to read her latest book, No Stopping Us Now. These two books, along with her third about women, When Everything Changed, form a must read trilogy about the American female experience (other titles below)
America’s Women by Gail Collins
After you read about Jamestown, you’re going to want to go back and re-read The Tempest.
You know Shakespeare’s stories were sometimes “ripped from the headlines”, right? Yup, “Law and Order” didn’t invent that phrase.
He ripped The Tempest from the plight of a group of North America-bound colonists who got “stranded” in Bermuda.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
In the infamous Moll Flanders, the title character finally makes her fortune in Virginia.
More great social histories about women by Gail Collins