Jamestown Anniversary, a Dose of Truth

By The News May 03, 2007

The 400th anniversary weekend celebration of Jamestown, America’s first English colony, is nearing. As numerous events recount the stories of this settlement, some are working hard to uncover the lives of people that came before and that fought to survive afterwards. Historian Gabrielle Tayac, a Piscataway Indian, writes for the McClatchy News:

Four hundred years ago in the land that we now know as Virginia, a foreign force catastrophically and irrevocably changed the lives of thousands of people who had been living on American soil since time immemorial. The foreigners spoke English, and they established the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown in 1607. The fact that Jamestown’s appearance was not a particularly positive event for native peoples has led event planners for "America’s 400th Anniversary" to consider it more as a commemoration than as a celebration. The consequences for my Piscataway Indian ancestors, who were among those who lost all of their land, their traditional culture and even most of their lives within a few decades of Jamestown’s establishment, were disastrous. Such willingness to reckon honestly with history, with complexity and difficulty, is the sign of a mature society. That is my hope, in any case. So who were these first American peoples living in the Chesapeake region? Capt. John Smith – who, despite the Hollywood movies, did not marry the girl nicknamed Pocahontas – set out on an exploratory expedition in 1608 to get a more detailed picture of the land. The map that he produced shows hundreds of human settlements, ranging from little hamlets to large towns governed by important chiefs. Every river and tributary swelled with these agricultural Algonquian-speaking peoples, who lived in longhouses, in extended family groups called clans. This place was anything but a no man’s land.

The foreigners built their Jamestown right in the heart of a 6,350-square-mile country called Tsencomoco, where a powerful elder chief governed at least 14,000 individuals distributed among about 25 subordinate tribes. This phenomenal leader, known as Powhatan, was not unaware of Europeans, since Spaniards had been making forays into the area and kidnapping his tribesmen since the early 1500s. What was not entirely transparent to Powhatan, however, was that this little band of struggling English colonists, seemingly so unprepared to survive for even a season, would eventually take over his world. How could this happen? For starters, Old World epidemics weakened the indigenous people so that in some sectors up to 90 percent of the native population was lost. But as Cherokee demographer Russell Thornton points out, diseases alone are not sufficient to obliterate a population. Europe, after all, bounced back from the Black Death. The technological ability and the cultural will of the early English to use their military might to conquer the land for their sole benefit was unprecedented from an Indian point of view, however. Until their encounters with the English, the Chesapeake native societies had never known that indiscriminately killing all of another town’s women and children was an acceptable method of conquest. Of course, the Powhatans committed atrocities in their violent conflicts with the settlers, as well, but they gave up their arms by the signing of the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1677. By sheer determination, and against incredible odds, the Powhatan peoples and their Piscataway relatives have survived over the centuries to tell their stories and to speak their minds, to be patriots in the service not only of their own tribes but of all Americans, in such roles as military veterans, teachers, doctors and artists. It has not been easy. The four-centuries-long legacy of dispossession persists in the lack of federal recognition for Chesapeake regional tribes. But, as we enter yet another century, these hard lessons from the past can serve to inform us how better to forge new partnerships with native peoples and to fashion a new and honorable history upon Tsencomoco for all of us. Dr. Gabrielle Tayac, a Piscataway Indian, is a historian in the Office of Research for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. Tayac earned her Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard, and her area of expertise is the native peoples of the Chesapeake region.