Monday, October 3, 2011

John Rolfe and Governor Berkeley at Historic Jamestowne

A few week's ago we visited Historic Jamestowne and got to meet a few fascinating people from the past! Imagine that! Meeting historic people of Jamestowne is part of a growing series of vignettes that I have recently discovered, featuring many of our interpreting friends from Colonial Williamsburg! Their costumes are even made at the Colonial Williamsburg Costume Design Center! We sort of stumbled upon this particular event and I am glad we did. Our original tour of Jamestowne a few years ago was fun and enlightening but this year we've watched history come to life! John Rolfe was great but we had never met this interpreter before. My son thinks he is a park ranger in disguise! If he is great! The park rangers are a wonderful source of information, but the experience is significantly heightened when the interpreter dons a costume. Beware the power of a historic costume, transporting the guests to another time...

Being a typical drizzly September day (at least this year it's typical), we were directed to the church to stay dry. Guess who was walking to the church as well? None other than the infamous John Rolfe! Boy is he a chatty guy! He had a lot to say and kept saying that he would avoid this bunny trail and that bunny trail, leaving it for the 20th hour of his talk! Hey, he's my kind of guy! But we had places to go and things to do, so we didn't get to stay until the 20th hour. However for the first hour we cozily sat on benches within the brick walls that hold memories of the struggles of survival in the first years of settlement. The floor underneath our feet are marked with special inlaid tiles marking the graves of those who died in those first years. In this quiet hallowed place we intently listened as he took us back in time...
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As the rain pitter pattered outside the open door, a mist hung over the James River nearby. Out of the mist time changed from 2011 to 1621 as John Rolfe began to speak. He fondly remembered his wife, Pocahontas, the young Native America princess who helped to save an English settlement and later stood before the English court. She died shortly after.

Rolfe's story turned to the establishment of Jamestowne in 1607, three years before his arrival. Jamestowne was settled as a business venture. The Virginia Company was a group of share holders in England who had heard of Spanish discoveries of gold in the New World. Their goal was to finance a group of men to settle and seek for gold in the Chesepeake region. As the gold would be sent back to England, The Virginia Company would have a return on their investment and the adventurers would profit a bit too. Only men and boys arrived. Most of these adventurers were gentlemen who were used to having other people serve them. So why did they come? They were not the first born, meaning they would not inherit the family property. Ah, does that now sound familiar? Certainly there were a few laborers who came and some gentlemen did work. Rolfe explained other factors that influenced the Starving Time.

Jamestowne is reknown for the Starving Time. There was obviously wild animals in the woods and fish in the deep waters of the James River. Though these were years of drought, local Indians were harvesting some food. There was a bit of trade ongoing between the adventurers and the Indians but dangers were lurking too, since the relationships between them were tenuous.

The food plan unwittingly relied on provisions to arrive by boat. It could take weeks or months for the ship to arrive with more men and food. The wind is not the most reliable source of power. Hunger led to weakened conditions which exacerbated disease. The leader declared that those who caught any food had to share it with all. One fish or one turkey never spread far and discouraged men were not encouraged to work for one measly bite of food. (Sounds like the ill-fated ideas of socialism to me.)

John Smith eventually governed the men, employing the famous saying, "Those who will not work will not eat." This helped. Later Smith was injured to the point of need to be transported back to England.

A later leader hit upon the ingenious idea of profit which led to the ultimate success of the colony. I think, I'm trying to read my rain wrinkled notes..that men currently there were given 3 acres of land to work and profit from. Men who financed themselves to go to Virginia were given 50 acres of land. If they brought a wife, they were given another 50 acres. If they brought indentured servants, they got another 50 acres. Free enterprise, for which America is reknown, led to success. John Rolfe himself hit upon the profitable crop of tobacco, the "gold" of the region. (Little did they know Virginia did have gold. We drive by the gold mine camps all the time when we drive down to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestowne. I'll have to explore that later. Stay tuned!)

When these men first landed with them, they brought the English Common Law with them.
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In 1619, the first representative assembly met in Jamestowne, called the General Assembly. Jamestowne became the first capital of Virginia. The Pilgrims were able to come to the New World because of the success of Jamestowne. In fact, the Pilgrims' original destination was Jamestowne, but they were blown off course, landing in today's Massachusetts in 1620.

As the rain continued to drizzle and the mist hovered over the massive James River, we walked outside with John Rolfe, who of course had many more fascinating tales to tell. If you ever see him at Historic Jamestowne, stop by to talk. He loves to talk about his story of the settlement of Jamestowne. I promise you, you'll be glad you did!
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The mists of time blew our way again, as we re-entered the church, this time in 1676 to meet Governor Berkeley. There has been a rebellion under his leadership. Since Governor Berkeley is extremely troubled, this man from the 17th century, who had not chosen sides in the rebellion, set the stage for us.
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Extremely troubled and emotional, Governor Berkely was persuaded to share a few words with us.
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English troops were arriving. How would they respond? Whose side would they take? Berkeley is the royal governor of Virginia. He has faithfully served the crown, tried to keep the peace, but things got out of control. Would the English troops take him back to England? He wanted to stay in Virginia.
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Known as Bacon's Rebellion, some historians say that the event was the rumblings of a revolution that erupted 100 years later. Discontent among the people included "declining tobacco prices...rising prices in English manufactured goods." Exacerbating the situation were local Indian raids that caused tempers to flare. Other historians say that this was merely a power struggle embedded in pride.
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My son specifically asked Governor Berkeley a question about relations with the Indians. Though tenuous before, they are now completely destroyed and must be rebuilt.
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The powder keg of emotions led to the burning of Jamestowne. We tried to attend the recreation of the burning of Jamestowne that evening, but it was rained out. Although Governor Berkeley restored control and hung the leaders, he lost his command and was taken back to England, where he died a few years later.

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