Jamestown—America`s First Experiment in “Assimilation”
The 400th anniversary of
the founding of Jamestown occurs this Monday, May 14.
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
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
"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
Country Club Republicans tell us not to worry
"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
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
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
"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
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
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
In the months that followed, Smith
continued his hardheaded, practical approach. His good
sense was evident in other areas as well. In the spirit
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
When the news reached England, the
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
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
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
in the Washington D.C. area.