2009-04-01 / Opinions

Book Review

A Land as God Made It By JAMES HORN

A Land as God Made It

The subtitle of this book is "Jamestown and the Birth of America." It was published in 2007, the tercentennial anniversary of the founding of the first permanent English settlement in the "New World." As a Virginian, this reviewer is pleased to see recognition that the Pilgrims were not first, though they are often given credit for that status.

The Spanish and French had been here before, and the first English attempt at Roanoke Island was a failure. Reading this detailed account of the difficulties that the Jamestown adventurers met makes us wonder why they did succeed.

Three small ships left the Thames in December carrying 144 men who hoped to establish a colony somewhere on the Chesapeake Bay. Many were described as "gentlemen," but there were also crastmen and artisans -- a blacksmith, a mason, two bricklayers, four carpenters, a tailor, two barbers, and a surgeon, as well as common seamen, laborers, and boys. All were probably hoping to make their fortunes.

Dissent arose even before they reached Virginia, and John Smith, famous later, was arrested for insubordination. He was released, and proved invaluable in dealing with the Indians as sickness struck, and the colonists needed food from the local Indians to avert starvation. The story of Pocahontas saving his life is most probably apocryphal. She was eleven at the time, and though she did come to know Smith well, romance was not involved.

However, the colony was in trouble. When Captain Newport returned from England after six months with more men and supplies, he found that two-thirds of the first group were dead, the deposed president of the council was under close arrest, one council member had been shot, and another was about to be hanged. Nothing of value had been discovered or produced.

The damaged fort was repaired and houses were built, under Newport's direction. Then disaster struck again. Almost the entire settlement burned to the ground after a stray spark set fire to one of the houses. Afterwards, Smith and Newport set off with a guard to the Indian Chief Wahunsonacock. (Powhatan was the name of the tribe, not the chief.) Friendship was declared, and the English were able to explore much of the territory.

No gold or precious gems or ore were found. It would be sustainable agriculture that would later guide the colonists' efforts. When things began to go well, in the colony and in England, many began to think that "God is English," or that England occupied a special place in the affections of the Lord.

Such optimism was short-lived. Smith, wounded and dispirited, returned to England, and an important ship with supplies and leaders seemed to be lost. Perhaps the struggling colony would not survive after all. Difficulties were not over, but more heroes arose. We know that it did survive, of course, and learning about renewed commitments to Virginia, the ultimate fate of the Indians, and Pocahontas' short life makes this a gripping tale.

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