Evolving History

In 1607, the first permanent English colony in America was established in Jamestown, Virginia.

There are actually two Jamestown colonies, a couple miles apart, and my wife and I visited both of them. The Jamestown Settlement is a living history museum opened in 1957 to celebrate the 350th anniverary of the colony. It includes a re-creation of the Jamestown fort and settlement, along with replicas of the ships that brought the Europeans to America and a small Powhatan village. We walked around the three areas and talked to interpreters who explained various aspects of the culture and history of 17th century Virginia. Most of the people interpreting the Powhatans have some native ancestory, and they demonstrated how their people built canoes and houses, crafted mats and jewelery, made weapons, and lived in a hierarchical system of villages. Inside the fort, we learned about the role of tobacco in the economy, along with fort defenses and weaponry. We visited the cook and the blacksmith and walked through the replica buildings in the fort. Inside the museum, we learned about the history of Jamestown, from its founding in 1607 until the capital of Virginia was moved to Williamsburg in 1699.

Jamestown Settlement, July 2021

The next day, we went to Historic Jamestown. Located on the actual site of the original colony, it is operated as a partnership between Preservation Virginia and the National Park Service. In 1907, the 300th anniverary of Jamestown was celebrated by erecting a monument to the colony and a statue of John Smith on the site. It was presumed that the original settlement, including the fort, had been lost to erosion decades ago. The only remaining structure was a brick tower from the fourth church, erected after 1639. Because the site was difficult to get to (it IS on an island, after all), and because it offered little remaining historic value due to erosion, the re-created settlement was built in a more convenient location a few miles away.

Then, in 1994, archeologist William Kelso began an expedition to find the original fort. He quickly learned that most of the fort had not been swallowed by the James river. The pallasaides were rebuilt in their original locations, and the colony has been the site of continuous archeological exploration for more than 25 years now. They’ve found the locations of many graves, including those from the starving time in 1609, when more than 2/3 of the population died. They found the location of the first church, where Pocohontas is believed to have married John Rolfe. The have excavated buildings and wells and trash dumps, and how have a much better understanding of how the early colonists lived within and around the fort.

Archeologist Nicole shows off the items she found today, July 6, 2021. Photo credit: Debbie Schinker.

The ongoing archeology is actively changing our understanding of the Jamestown colony. Beyond the location and purposes of buildings, we’re learning more about how the early settlers lived. The discovery of toys and a teething stick from 1610, for example, indicate the presence of children much earlier than previously thought. The discovery of Powhatan cooking tools from 1609 indicate a cultural and trade relationship existed in the summer of 1609 before hostilities erupted in the fall. Additional discoveries have proven the existance of jewelers much earlier than expected. They have also recently confirmed the practice of cannibalism during the starving time.

The story told by Historic Jamestown — the actual, original colony — keeps changing. As new discoveries are made, the narrative of the place has to adapt to accommodate the new information. Our understanding of the first chapter of English settlement in America has to keep evolving. At the same time, the re-created Jamestown Settlement has become a snapshot in time. It largely reflects a mid-20th century view of Jamestown. While there have been changes in how the natives and Africans are represented and a more balanced view is now portrayed, the museum is largely stuck in the era in which it was created. The buildings are in the wrong places, they serve the wrong purposes, and they were constructed with anachronistic methods.

History is usually seen as fixed. The events of the past do not change. The textbook on world history that I used in high school should work sufficiently well for today’s students. After all, ancient Greece is still ancient Greece. Gettysburg is still more than a hundred years ago. But at best, we see the events of the past through the lens of current understanding. We project our values and culture and prejudices onto those events, even when we try not to. When we fill in the (substantial) knowledge gaps that are left by incomplete records, we do so from our own frames of reference. Then, as we learn more about the past, those understandings have to change.

History is not so much about learning the events of the past. Sure, there’s value in having some context, in knowing where we are in history and how we came to be here. But more important is the process of history. How do we develop an understanding of our past? What are the tools we use to tell that story, and how does that story change over time? Our students must understand archeological evidence and primary sources and frames of reference, and how they have to be combined to get a picture of the past. And they have to realize that the picture is always changing based on new evidence, new information, and new theories on what the records are telling us.

This is how we equip our students to interpret the events of the present as well. Information about current events is often incomplete and misleading. We have to understand the values and motives of those telling the story, and temper that with multiple viewpoints and reliable evidence. And, just like history, our understanding of the present changes as we get more information, validate existing claims, and challenge assumptions.

History isn’t about learning dates, names, and battles. It’s about putting together many fragmented records to try to paint a complete picture of events of the past, revise that picture as new evidence comes to light, and consider the implications for the present. Those are complicated skills, and they’re useful for much more than remembering the past.