SEVENTEENTH CENTURY VIRGINIA
Chapter Three concluded with a discussion of Pocahontas in myth and memory. Chapter Four continues the story of seventeenth century Virginia, beginning with the colony’s early failures, then turning to the paradox of slavery and freedom in American history, and concluding with the events of Bacon’s Rebellion, an important turning point in the history of Virginia and North America.
After reading this chapter and completing the freewriting and reflection assignments, you will be able to:
- explain what “the starving time” was and its causes
- define “paradox” and discuss the American paradox of slavery and freedom as documented by historian Edmund Morgan
- describe Bacon’s Rebellion
- explain what Edmund Morgan meant when he wrote that Virginia elites took note of Bacon’s use of “racism as a political strategy”
1. Virginia in the Seventeenth Century: Pocahontas, Cannibalism, and the American Paradox
We delved into the story of Pocahontas in chapter three. Pocahontas, you may remember, died in 1617, at about the age of 21. English colonization of Virginia continued.
Part of the reason that John Smith is so well-known today is that he began to write his own biographies and mythologies during his lifetime. The story of Pocahontas “saving” him, of course, is probably the most famous of those tales. Almost as famous is another tale of John Smith which also reveals the difficulty of early English colonization in North America: the story of the “starving time.”
The problem began with how early English colonists thought about what they were doing in Virginia. The first wave of colonists, in 1607, had read about Hernán Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs, probably with a mixture of jealousy (he got very rich and set himself up an empire, according to the accounts) and judgment (the Catholic Spanish were the great enemy of the mostly Protestant English in the seventeenth century). “Unwilling to shift for themselves in the matter of food, most of the settlers vaguely expected to live off the land, which meant living off its natives.”1 John Smith, in part through his relationship with Pocahontas, alternately flattered, threatened, and traded with Powhatan and his confederacy for food.
A. The Starving Time and Failure
The combination of the colonists’ refusal to farm or work, hostilities with Powhatan’s people, and a lost supply ship led to disaster in the winter of 1609-1610 – the so-called “starving time.” George Percy, who was president of Jamestown during this time, wrote in 1625:
“Haveinge fedd upon our horses and other beastes as longe as they Lasted, we weare gladd to make shifte with vermin as doggs Catts, Ratts and myce…as to eate Bootes shoes or any other leather,” he wrote. “And now famin beginneinge to Looke gastely and pale in every face, thatt notheinge was Spared to mainteyne Lyfe and to doe those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them. And some have Licked upp the Bloode which hathe fallen from their weake fellowes.”2
In 1624, John Smith, who was not in Virginia in 1609 but who had collected a series of accounts of events there, wrote:
“Nay, so great was our famine, that a Salvage we slew, and buried, the poorer sort took him up again and eat him, and so did divers one another boiled and stewed with roots and herbs: And one amongst the rest did kill his wife, powdered her, and had eaten part of her before it was known, for which he was executed, as he well deserved; now whether she was better roasted, boiled or carbonado’d, I know not, but of such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of.”3
Freewriting: Cannibalism at Jamestown.
1. Are the above-quoted documents primary sources or secondary sources? Explain your answer.
2. Put them in your own words.
3. What is your reaction to the idea of cannibalism in early Virginia?
For centuries, historians were unsure whether cannibalism had actually occurred among the English colonists at Jamestown in the early 1600s. After all, the colonization of Virginia was highly political. At one point John Smith was imprisoned, at another point he declared martial law, and, eventually, the Virginia Company even went bankrupt. Critics of the Company, historians thought, may have exaggerated and embellished these stories of starvation and cannibalism. In the 2010s, however, new archaeological research at the Jamestown colony site confirmed that the grisly stories were true. In one case, a 14-year-old English girl was cannibalized (it is unclear how she died). One researcher states that now, “the only question is: Where are the rest of the bodies?”4
The English, thus, were certainly not guaranteed success in Virginia; in fact, the colony nearly failed, and the Virginia Company went bankrupt. The starving time was disastrous. Whereas in the fall of 1609, there were over 500 English colonists in Jamestown, by the spring of 1610, fewer than fifty colonists remained.5 The loss of life continued for over a decade. By 1625, some five or six thousand colonists had been sent from English to Jamestown – yet a census that year showed that only 1210 people survived.6 Historians Edmund and Marie Morgan write:
“The civilizing mission that seemed within reach when Pocahontas enthralled England was not, in fact, possible. The company failed, but the colony survived after abandoning all pretense of persuading the natives to civility. When the Powhatans were unable to destroy it by slaughtering a quarter of the settlers in 1622, the survivors adopted a policy of exterminating the natives. In 1616 they had discovered a way of extracting riches from the land: tidewater soil, it turned out, would grow a species of tobacco that commanded high prices in Europe. Tobacco became at once the Virginians’ way of living off the land and the only way they cared about. It was worth devoting one’s whole time to it while continuing to trade with the remaining Indians for things to eat. Tobacco was the new gold. Virginia survived, indeed flourished, as a kind of open-pit tobacco mine.”7
Freewriting. Edmund and Marie Morgan quote.
1. Is the source quoted above, by Morgan and Morgan, a primary source? Explain.
2. What do you think the “civilizing mission” referred to in the first quoted sentence means?
3. What do you think Morgan and Morgan mean by, “tobacco was the new gold”?
B. The American Paradox of Slavery and Freedom
The “new gold” required energy to extract profit from the earth, and in the seventeenth century, most of that energy came in the form of human labor. Eventually, the wealthy landowners of seventeenth century Virginia (a small proportion of the total population of the colony) turned to enslaved Africans as a main source of that labor. Thus began one of the most contentious and difficult themes in American history. On the one hand, the United States was founded as a nation on ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality. On the other hand, slavery (the opposite of freedom and liberty), based on ideologies of racial superiority and inferiority (the opposite of equality), was deeply embedded in American society by the time of the American Revolution, and after it.
In his enormously influential 1972 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians, Edmund Morgan put it this way:
“The rise of liberty and equality in this country was accompanied by the rise of slavery. That two such contradictory developments were taking place simultaneously over a long period of our history, from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth, is the central paradox of American history.
The challenge, for a colonial historian at least, is to explain how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day.”8
Freewriting: “Paradox.” Look up the definition of the word “paradox.” In your own words, explain how liberty and slavery might be considered a paradox in American history.
Morgan’s article and later book on the same subject, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975), argues that Virginia was the birthplace of the democratic republican United States. Consider: four out of the first five presidents of the United States were Virginians (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe were Virginians whereas John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States, were from Massachusetts). The main authors of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution (Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, respectively) were Virginian.
Meanwhile, all of the above-named Virginians were wealthy landowners who, thereby, owned slaves – in some cases hundreds of slaves. Virginia was also the birthplace of African American slavery in the United States. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century Virginia was the largest slaveholding colony in the British North American mainland and, after the Revolution, the largest state in terms of both population and economy.
How could these Americans “have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day”? Over forty years after Morgan asked that question, it continues to vex historians, scholars, and many Americans. Some have looked to the beginnings of American slavery to answer it. In 2019, to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of the first time that Africans landed in Virginia, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones organized the 1619 Project, a collection of articles and multimedia presentations from the New York Times. In the years since its publication, the 1619 Project has become a flash-point for controversy over how slavery is remembered in American history, and how racial issues are discussed in schools. Your Reflection Assignment on the 1619 Project will ask you to read about and reflect on this controversy.
C. Bacon’s Rebellion: A Turning Point
Slavery’s enormous impact on U.S. society, culture, and economics can make it difficult to remember that African American chattel slavery was not inevitable (unavoidable) in American history.
Tobacco was the “new gold” in Virginia and, like the colonial exports throughout the Americas, the extraction of wealth from the land in the form of agricultural products (tobacco in the Virginia and the Chesapeake, rice in the Carolinas, sugar cane in the Caribbean, coffee in Latin America, lumber in New England and the middle colonies), mining of precious metals (silver in Mexico), or animal products (the fur trade in much of North America, cod in New England and northeastern Canada, buffalo hides, sheep and cattle ranching in New Spain), required vast amounts of energy. Before the industrial revolution, most of that energy came in the form of human labor. Then, and now, extractive industries such as agriculture, ranching, and mining of precious metals and fossil fuels, require cheap labor sources in order to be profitable. Environmental historians thus point to the ways in which exploitation of the land and exploitation of humans are connected.
Early colonial elites often turned to Native Americans to provide this labor. For example, as discussed previously, Christopher Columbus enslaved Native Americans on Hispaniola. Native Americans were enslaved in Spanish, Portuguese, and French colonies throughout the Americas.9 “Between 1492 and 1880, between 2 and 5.5 million Native Americans were enslaved in the Americas in addition to 12.5 million African slaves.”10 “In the wake of the deaths of indigenous Americans from European-conveyed microbes from which they had no immunity, the Spanish colonists turned to importing Africans.”11
Slavery was not the only exploitative labor system in the Americas; the next chapter will discuss the Spanish institution of the encomienda in Latin America. Other exploitative labor systems, then and now, included wage labor at wages below livable levels and, in colonial America, indentured servitude.
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, “the majority of Europeans who came to the Americas were not free settlers or elite landholders.” They were indentured servants. An indenture was a special type of legal contract wherein a man or woman was bound to work for a given number of years for the contract holder in exchange for the cost of passage across the Atlantic. The contract holder provided housing, food, and clothing, but the indentured servant did not receive wages. Indentured servitude and slavery were both forms of bound labor insofar as neither enslaved people nor indentured servants were legally able to leave their employer. Indentured servants’ contracts could be sold at market to different bidders, they could be physically punished and, sometimes, they were not allowed to marry or have children without the permission of the contract holder.12 Most indentured servants in colonial British North America were British, Irish, or Scottish. Indentured servitude was a form of contract labor; contract labor arrangements still exist today.
In his study of the paradox of American slavery and American freedom, Edmund Morgan noted that, in the early 1600s, the wealthy landowners of Virginia relied at least as much on indentured servants as on enslaved Africans, choosing more often to import English indentured servants rather than enslaved Africans, In the first decades of Virginia’s existence as a colony, neither enslaved Africans nor English indentured servants tended to survive very long. It was cheaper for wealthy landowners to buy an indenture than an enslaved person, and the backbreaking labor, unsanitary environment, constant threat of malaria and other diseases, and ongoing conflict with local Native Americans meant that laborers usually died before the five to seven year contract of the typical indenture was finished. European indentured servants and enslaved Africans worked together, socialized together, and married and had children together.
As living conditions improved, though, more and more former indentured servants secured their freedom. Once free, they became dissatisfied with the lack of opportunities available to them in colonial Virginia, where the arable land was already controlled by colonial elites or Native Americans. “Young, single, and poor, these freedmen were concentrated in counties near displaces Indians. The discontent of these young men, who had managed to survive years in the tobacco fields, was aggravated by the corruption of the colony’s elite men, who squeezed profits from their government offices.”13 Into this situation came Nathaniel Bacon, a young ambitious nobleman who wanted to more political power. Bacon led poor dissatisfied Virginians in an uprising against the Virginia colonial government, focused, especially at first, on their grievances against Virginia’s policies toward Native Americans, the “Indian scapegoats they were already prepared to hate.” Although Bacon’s Rebellion was unsuccessful and Nathaniel Bacon died of dysentery, after it was over, the wealthy minority of large landowners who ruled “grasped the full significance of Bacon’s use of racism as political strategy.”14
After Bacon’s rebellion, these wealthy planters recognized that, as living conditions improved and newcomers to Virginia (black or white) started living longer, it made more sense to turn to enslaved Africans than indentured Europeans as a labor source. However, poor white workers “making common cause with their black counterparts” remained a potential threat to political and social stability. As Edmund Morgan wrote, “The answer to the problem, obvious if unspoken and only gradually recognized, was racism… to separate dangerous free whites from dangerous slave blacks by a screen of racial contempt.”15
Almost one hundred years later, the wealthy planters of Virginia would play a prominent role in the American Revolution and the framing of the Constitution. Morgan argued that Virginia’s planters could “more safely preach equality” than the wealthy men of New England because slavery, and racism, allowed them to solve the social problem of poverty in a republic based on equality. Racism “became an essential, if unacknowledged ingredient of the republican ideology that enabled Virginians to lead the nation.”16 Toward the end of American Slavery, American Freedom, Edmund Morgan asks: “Was the vision of a nation of equals flawed at the source by contempt for both the poor and the black? Is America still colonial Virginia writ large?”
Freewriting: flawed at the source? Having read about Edmund Morgan’s scholarship on the paradox of American slavery and American freedom, what is your answer to the question above: “Was the vision of a nation of equals flawed at the source by contempt for both the poor and the black? Is America still colonial Virginia writ large?”
Edmund Morgan and other historians, following his work, have thus pointed to Bacon’s Rebellion (1675-76) as an important turning point in the colonial history of North America, after which African American slavery and ideologies of racial superiority and inferiority became more and more important in Virginia. The next chapter turns to similarly important turning points in the histories of the New England and New Mexico.
Reflection Assignment on the 1619 Project
1619 Project Reflection Assignment Part One
Read “Why We Published the 1619 Project” (PDF on course Canvas page).
Pick an article/exhibit from the 1619 project that looks interesting to you (PDF’s available on course Canvas page).
Answer these questions:
- Give a citation as best you can using this format: Author Full Name, “Title of Article,” 1619 Project, New York Times, August 14, 2019.
- Why did you pick this article/exhibit?
- In three to five sentences, summarize the article/exhibit for someone who hasn’t read it.
- Connect what you read/saw to the contents of this Chapter Four.
- What did you find most useful or interesting about the article/exhibit?
- What did you find least useful or interesting about the article/exhibit?
1619 Reflection Assignment Part Two
Read this article: “The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts” (PDF on course Canvas page)
- Provide a citation for this article, as best you can.
- The article discusses a letter by several historians, including Sean Wilentz, about the 1619 Project. According to this article, what did the letter say about the 1619 Project?
- Put this paragraph from the article into your own words: “The clash between the Times authors and their historian critics represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. Was America founded as a slavocracy, and are current racial inequities the natural outgrowth of that? Or was America conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles? These are not simple questions to answer, because the nation’s pro-slavery and anti-slavery tendencies are so closely intertwined.”
- Using information from this article, provide one piece of evidence to support each of the claims from the paragraph above: a. “America was founded as a slavocracy, and current racial inequities are the natural outgrowth of that.” b. “America was conceived in liberty, a nation haltingly redeeming itself through its founding principles.”
Footnotes for Chapter Four
1Edmund S. Morgan and Marie Morgan, “Our Shaky Beginnings,” The New York Review, April 26, 2007, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2007/04/26/our-shaky-beginnings/?lp_txn_id=1268135
2Quoted in Joseph Stromberg, “Starving Settlers in Jamestown Colony Resorted to Cannibalism,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 30, 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/starving-settlers-in-jamestown-colony-resorted-to-cannibalism-46000815/
3Quoted in Dennis Montgomery, “Such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of,” Colonial Williamsburg Journal (Winter 2007), https://research.colonialwilliamsburg.org/Foundation/journal/Winter07/jamestownSide.cfm
4Joseph Stromberg, “Starving Settlers in Jamestown Colony Resorted to Cannibalism,” Smithsonian Magazine, April 30, 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/starving-settlers-in-jamestown-colony-resorted-to-cannibalism-46000815/
5Jeffery L. Sheler, “Rethinking Jamestown,” Smithsonian Magazine (January 2005), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/rethinking-jamestown-105757282/
6Morgan and Morgan, “Our Shaky Beginnings,” https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2007/04/26/our-shaky-beginnings/?lp_txn_id=1268135
7Morgan and Morgan, “Our Shaky Beginnings,” https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2007/04/26/our-shaky-beginnings/?lp_txn_id=1268135
8Edmund Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” The Journal of American History 59:1 (June 1972), 5-29.
9Rebecca Onion, “America’s Other Original Sin,” Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/cover_story/2016/01/native_american_slavery_historians_uncover_a_chilling_chapter_in_u_s_history.html; Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).
11“Indian Slavery in the Americas,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History A.P. U.S. History Study Guide, https://ap.gilderlehrman.org/essay/indian-slavery-americas
12“New World Labor Systems: Euroepan Indentured Servants,” https://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/africanpassageslowcountryadapt/introductionatlanticworld/new-world-labor-systems–europ
13Kathleen Brown, “Americans on the James,” review of Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, Common-Place 1:4 (July 2001), http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-04/reviews/brown.shtml
14Kathleen Brown, “Americans on the James,” review of Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, Common-Place 1:4 (July 2001), http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-04/reviews/brown.shtml
15Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, p. 328, quoted in Brown, http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-04/reviews/brown.shtml
16Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, p. 386, quoted in Brown, http://www.common-place.org/vol-01/no-04/reviews/brown.shtml