Jamestown—America's First Experiment in "Assimilation"

[See also Memo From Mexico, By Allan Wall:Celebrate (Don't Just "Commemorate") Jamestown and Queen's Fancy PC Footwork In Jamestown by Pat Buchanan]

The 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown occurs this Monday, May 14.

The "commemoration" festivities ("celebration" has been banned as politically incorrect) focus a great deal of attention, as VDARE.COM's Allan Wall recently noted, on the wickedness of the colonists and the victimization of the natives. Perhaps, it is implied, if the English had been less ruthless and intolerant, the races could have avoided bloodshed and learned to live together in harmony.

Sounds familiar? It should—because it's not much different from what the Open Borders Lobby claims about our immigration disaster. The Left is convinced that "racism" is the source of all problems and that we'd all be holding hands if only those wicked white "racists" would simply dematerialize. Meanwhile, on the Respectable Right, neoconservatives, libertarians and Country Club Republicans tell us not to worry because we'll "assimilate" all the newcomers and make them just like us.

The true story of Jamestown, however, ought to cool this optimism. Most of it can be found in David Price's  Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation, which presents a story very different from the one described above.

The truth is that when 105 English colonists arrived in Virginia on April 26, 1607, they had no intention of murdering and exploiting the natives. On the contrary, they knew of the brutal treatment native peoples had received at the hands of the Spanish and were convinced that they could do better.

Nor did the colonists did not come with any preconceived notions of racial superiority. "The English," according to Price, "did not believe that white people like themselves were innately superior and the natives innately inferior." Some even believed that Indians—unlike Africans or Moors—were originally born white and attributed their darker skin to excessive use of body paint.

On the whole, the English saw the Indians as very much like their ancestors had been before they received the civilizing influences of the Roman conquest and of Christianity. They were determined to bring these things—civilization and salvation—to the Indians as well, and to make the poor, benighted natives as much like themselves as possible. Their vision for Virginia was that of an integrated society where the natives would adopt "English ways" and live together with their benefactors in peace.

Of course, this was not the colony's top priority. Making money was. The colonists had orders from their employer, the Virginia Company, to look for gold and a passage to the Pacific. Yet whatever their financial motives, the idea that the colonists were hell bent on wiping out the natives from the very beginning is simply false. You can call their intentions "cultural imperialism" if you like. But they certainly weren't genocidal.

After some initial incursions, the English established friendly relations with the local Indians and set to work building their base at Jamestown. They were careful to choose a site located on unoccupied ground. The leader of the colony, Edward-Maria Wingfield, ordered his men not to train in the use of weapons or to build any fortifications. Such precautions were unnecessary, he believed, for he and his men had come in peace.

Wingfield was soon forced to change his mind. Hundreds of Indians attacked the settlement a few days later and killed several colonists. Only cannon fire, which terrified the Indians, saved the day.

One man who did not have any romantic illusions about the Indians was John Smith, a hard nosed adventurer who had spent most of his life fighting and exploring. In the winter of 1607, he set out with a handful of men to explore. On the way, his party was ambushed by Indians. These supposedly innocent creatures subjected one of his men, George Cassen, to a grim fate. According to Price:

"The natives prepared a large fire behind the bound and naked body. Then a man grasped his hands and used mussel shells to cut off joint after joint, making his way through Cassen's fingers, tossing the pieces into the flames. That accomplished, the man used shells and reeds to detach the skin from Cassen's face and the rest of his head. Cassen's belly was next, as the man sliced it open, pulled out his bowels, and cast those onto the fire. Finally the natives burned Cassen at the stake through to the bones."

To avoid meeting the same end, Smith told the Indians that he was a chief. They took him to their leader, Powhatan, who ruled over most of the region's tribes (collectively known as the Powhatans). On the way, Smith learned that Powhatan's brother, Opechancanough, wanted to wipe Jamestown off the map. So he bluffed about the colony's defenses and said that if any harm came to him his men would come to avenge him. But when he was finally brought before Powhatan, he made the same bluffs, but to no avail. The great chief ordered his head to be smashed between two rocks. It was then that Powhatan's favorite daughter, Pocahontas, intervened on Smith's behalf and saved his life.

When Smith finally returned to the colony, he found everything in disarray. Less than half of the original colonists were left, most having either died or returned to England. Smith assumed command. He appears to have understood that the Indians were not gentle creatures yearning for civilization and Christianity, but a dangerous threat to the survival of the colony. Force, he believed, was the best way to deal with them.

Thus, when Indians stole some of the colony's tools and weapons, Smith captured a few thieves and told Powhatan he would hang them if the stolen property was not returned. The Indians captured some of the colonists and proposed a prisoner exchange. Smith, however, decided to launch an attack instead. He didn't kill any Indians, but he did burn down some of their villages. Powhatan reluctantly freed the captive colonists. In the end, Smith never got back the stolen goods, but his actions did frighten the Indians into an uneasy peace. 

In the months that followed, Smith continued his hardheaded, practical approach. His good sense was evident in other areas as well. In the spirit of St. Paul, he told shirkers that if they didn't work, they wouldn't eat. He also encouraged the colonists to abandon their search for gold, and urged the Virginia Company to send farmers and fishermen instead of lackeys looking to get rich quick.

Yet the low-born Smith never won the affections of his employers. In 1609, the company called him home. His replacements were mostly upper-class incompetents. Once Powhatan met them, he resumed harassing the colony. By the spring of 1610, starvation and Indian attacks had killed all but 100 of the 500 colonists Smith had left behind.

Just in time, a fleet of ships arrived with new settlers and fresh supplies. Slowly but surely, the colony began to grow and prosper.

Price tells the familiar story of how Pocahontas was captured and converted to Christianity, how she married John Rolfe and went to England, how her husband began planting tobacco and how that disreputable plant made the colony profitable.

He also recounts how a Dutch ship arrived in 1619 with a cargo of African captives, marking the beginnings of slavery in America. The English, however, do not appear to have ever entertained any illusions about Africans being white. In contrast to the natives, there were no recorded attempts to convert them to Christianity. "Notions of black racial inferiority", Price writes, "seem to have been firmly in place in the colony from the start".

Yet efforts to civilize the Indians continued. Price writes that, even after all of the troubles it had encountered, "[t]he company in London still believed in winning the natives over to English ways, with the ultimate result of an integrated society in Virginia, one rooted in Protestant Christianity and English culture."

The colonists even set aside 10,000 acres for the purpose of building a Christian college for Indians. The man put in charge was George Thorpe, perhaps the first diversicrat in American history. Although his official title was "deputy of the college lands" and he reported to the governor of the colony, he conceived of a much larger role for himself. As Thorpe saw it, the failure to convert the Indians was due to the bigotry of the colonists. What was needed, he believed, was Christian kindness and understanding.

"Thorpe came to believe", Price explains, "that the veterans of the colony wrongly viewed the natives as antagonistic and untrustworthy . . . It was time, he said, to put these preconceptions aside, and to make the natives feel loved". As Thorpe wrote:

"In my poore understandinge if there bee wronge on any side it is ours who are not soe charitable to them as Christians ought to bee, they beinge (espetiallye the better sort of them) of a peaceable and vertuous disposition."

He went on to recommend that the company should provide the natives with gifts, especially English clothing, and should make a public declaration of their love and affection for the Indians and their intent to convert them to Christianity.

Thorpe did have some basis for his theories. One of the Indians who had come to England with Pocahontas had lived for a few years in his house in London as a servant, and even elected to stay after Pocahontas's death. Thorpe taught him to read and write, and eventually converted him to Christianity. His success led him to believe that the problem must be with the colonists.

In other words, Thorpe was exactly like modern-day immigration enthusiasts, liberal and conservative, who base their opinions about immigrants on the limited contact they have with their Mexican housekeepers and gardeners. Like Thorpe, they believe that a little affection (usually imagined, I find) between them and their subservients makes them qualified to dispense advice to the rest of us, who have to deal with all of the problems that their housekeepers and gardeners, and their offspring and relatives, bring.

Thorpe set to work putting his theories into practice. With the governor's backing, he had powers that today's diversicrats would envy. To make the natives feel as welcome as possible, he reversed earlier practices and allowed them to roam throughout the colony freely. He also made sure that anyone who harassed the Indians or made them feel uncomfortable was promptly disciplined. When a few Indians complained to him of being frightened by some dogs that had barked at them, Thorpe had the dogs publicly hanged. "He thought of nothing too deare [costly] for them", Price quotes one chronicler as writing, "and as being desirous to binde them unto him by many courtesies, hee never denied them any thing that they asked him."

Not everyone approved of these new policies, but most eventually accepted them. Tellingly, as Price explains, this probably had more to do with money than anything else. "Smooth relations with the natives", he writes, "meant unhindered profits and an extra source of labor." Thus most colonists embraced the changes and even began inviting the Indians into their homes and feasting them at their tables.

The Indians' new leader was a particular object of Thorpe's interest. Powhatan had been succeeded after his death in 1618 by his brother Opitchapam. But real power lay in the hands of another brother, Opechancanough, the man who years earlier had wanted to destroy Jamestown. Thorpe lavished attention and generosity on Opechancanough. He built him an English-style house, and discussed with him the possibility of sending Indian boys to come and live in the colony and receive an English education. No doubt he hoped that separating the boys from their families would make them easier to convert and civilize. During their conversations, Opechancanough hinted that he was considering converting to Christianity. Everything, it seemed, was working as planned. 

Then, late in 1621, a few colonists received word from some disaffected Indians that Opechancanough was planning an attack. This caused a brief panic, but the chief of the Powhatans denied everything. The English took him at his word. "It was more appealing", Price writes, "from the colonists' point of view, to assume the best than to assume the worst, since the lookout duty was an unwelcome diversion of energy from more lucrative pursuits."

And so everything continued as usual—until the morning of Friday, March 22, 1622. It began like any other. The Indians traded and bartered with the settlers, worked along side them, ate at their tables, smiled and laughed and interacted with them in all of the ways that the English had come to expect. There was not the slightest indication that anything out of the ordinary was going to happen. 

Then, all of the sudden, the natives began their attack. As Price writes, the Indians "slaughtered men, women, and children with the colonists' own swords and work tools—axes, knives, saws, and hammers. In an instant, hundreds of English were lying lifeless." According to one contemporary report, the Indians:

"Not being content with taking away life alone . . . fell after againe upon the dead, making as well as they could, a fresh murder, defacing, dragging, and mangling the dead carcasses into so many pieces, and carrying some parts away in derision, with base and brutish triumph."

As for George Thorpe, the objects of his affection subjected him to a special fate. Isolated on his plantation, he received no news of the attack. One of his servants found the natives' behavior suspect and warned his master, but Thorpe brushed his fears aside. The servant wisely fled.

Shortly thereafter, the natives fell upon the plantation and stabbed Thorpe to death. Then, it was reported, they "cruelly and felly [fiercely], out of devilish malice, did so many barbarous despights and foule scornes after to his dead corpse, as are unbefitting to be heard by any civill eare."

So much for Christian charity.

Fortunately, Jamestown itself escaped harm. One colonist had found out about the attack beforehand and rushed to inform the governor, who quickly prepared for defense. The outlying farms and plantations, however, were not so lucky. By the end, as many as 400 people were dead—roughly one third of the entire colony.

When the news reached England, the poet John Donne urged that the colony stay true to Thorpe's ideals. But few paid any attention. The attack had sparked a seismic shift in opinion. Now, Price reports, the English began "to reconsider the entire ideology of coexistence and cultural assimilation".  For the first time, official literature began referring to the Indians as "beasts" or worse. While the English had once condemned Spanish cruelty, now they found much to admire in the exploits of Cortez and Pizarro.

When John Smith heard the news, he was hardly surprised. All of his suspicions seemed vindicated. The London Company even invited him to return to Virginia if he would raise a force to crush the Indians. He declined the offer.

But the English managed to subdue the natives without him. Thoroughly humiliated, they set out with a new Indian policy: elimination and expulsion. After several years of fighting, a peace treaty was signed in 1632. Years after the March 22 attack, the colonists were still observing and commemorating it.

More than twenty years later, in 1644, Opechancanough launched another surprise attack. He killed even more people, but the colony had grown so much larger that the impact was far less. The English struck back. Eventually disease and warfare whittled away the Indian population to the point that by the end of the 17th century, a historian could write that "the Indians of Virginia are almost wasted".

For most of the next three centuries, Americans remained true to Smith's practical approach to race relations. Only recently have they reverted to the naiveté of Thorpe.

The colonists at Jamestown spent years trying to turn Indians into Englishmen, only to find that, lo and behold, the Indians preferred their own culture and their own ways. I am entirely confident that in the years to come, assimilationists will be similarly disappointed (except for those who never really believed in it anyway) to find that Mexicans, Arabs, Asians and others stubbornly remain what they are.

What happens then is anyone's guess. If there is anything else to be learned from the Jamestown experience, it is that Anglo-Saxon naiveté is not a permanent condition.

Let us hope, however, that it will take something other than bloodshed to awaken Americans to what is happening to their country. 

Kevin Carter [email him] lives in the Washington D.C. area.