Two Worlds Collide

Kelby Williamson

Jamestown through the Revolution: Week One

In May of 1607, immigrants from England looking to make a profit arrived in the New World, settling at Jamestown, Virginia. Expecting to find riches and endless resources to exploit, the English were in for a surprise. Instead they found little profit, hard labor, and a people that would not conform to their ways. These people, the Native Americans, had been living in the New World for centuries and they were not going to let the colonists take their land with ease. Decades filled with uncertainty and violence resulted from these two different peoples meeting. The people from these two worlds were drastically different and could not coexist due to differences in culture, knowledge, and mindset.

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This picture shows the extreme differences in appearance between the Native Americans and the settlers

Most significantly, the English and the Natives had very different cultures and backgrounds. The two did not speak the same language and therefore were unable to communicate effectively. This may be the basis of some of the exaggerated, well known stories such as that of Pocahontas and John Smith. It is highly unlikely that Pocahontas saved John Smith because the two had a romantic relationship, but instead it was more likely some sort of ritual that John Smith did not understand because he could barely communicate with the Natives (Richter, 2). Another aspect that created a tough time for both of these drastically different cultures was the difference in religion. The men that had come to Jamestown were Christian and had an established religion while the Native Americans held rituals and ceremonies that were based on their way of life and the environment. This is part of what led the people of Jamestown to believe that the Native Americans were heathens and did not deserve equal respect. As part of their culture, the Native Americans also wore bodypaint and had tattoos, which is nothing like what the Jamestown settlers had, therefore creating even more difference in appearance. Additionally, the colonist wore items we saw in the museums at Jamestown Settlement and Jamestown Island – the heavy armor, long heavy pants, and clothes they would have considered appropriate for the time, but were inappropriate for the Tidewater Virginia environment. Meanwhile, the Native Americans wore minimal clothing that most likely seemed very primitive to the colonists. When we went to the Jamestown Settlement and toured the museum, I was struck by the cultural differences between the Natives and the English. In one exhibit it told how each family member played a role in survival in the Indian villages. The women typically cooked the food, helped build the houses, and grew crops, taking a very large part in the work life of the Native Americans. This family structure contrasted with that of the Europeans in which men were doing most of the manual work and women did not play such an equally important role in the survival of the society, other than reproduction. Traditions of the two societies were different as well. For example, the custom of giving or receiving gifts in regards when meeting the leaders or important people of a society. In a Native American society the Powhatan (or leader) would give gifts to the people that came to them in order to show their status and wealth. But in England, the king would receive gifts from those that came to visit, not give them out. Each society knew very little about each other’s cultures and customs, therefore creating a very difficult environment to live in.

Another element that added to the tense time resulting from the interaction between both of these societies was the lack of knowledge each had. The Native Americans knew the land very well and how to make it work to their advantage due to the fact that they had been living there for centuries. However, the Jamestown settlers did not know how to use the land and only went through the process of trial and error in an attempt to produce something successful. For example, the English had settled Jamestown near a river that was “at low tide full of slime and filth” and caused many diseases such as dysentery, typhoid fever, and salt poisoning (Horwitz, 22). The settlers lack of knowledge led to cycles where they were starving and had to rely on the Natives for food (Horwitz, 23). Even when the settlers were desperate for food, they would use their knowledge of trade to give up very little as payment. The English settlers gave the Natives items such as cheaply made steel axes, copper, and beads, similar to those that we saw in the museum at Jamestown Island. In return, the Natives gave the colonists corn or maize, fish, and pots to store food. John Smith tricked the Native Americans in these transactions. Smith impressed the Indians and tried to gain their help through deceit. He “fired his boat’s cannon into a tree full of icicles, to magnify the shot’s impact; used rivers and encircling woods to create terrifying echoes” and other such actions which kept the Indians in awe ( Horwitz, 25). To the Natives, the trade seemed fair, the colonists did not seem like a huge threat, and they took the colonists at their word. In actuality, the trade was completely unfair, there was an endless supply of people from England that would eventually push the Natives out, and the colonists mostly wanted personal gain and did not see the Natives as equals.  This lack of knowledge on both parts created a divider between the two societies.

Lastly, the difference in perspective and mindset between the Native Americans and the Jamestown settlers caused a clash. The Native Americans had a very dependent community in which everyone played a role to help out. The Natives used the land as a source of life and a way to survive and live well. However, when the settlers came to Jamestown they had very individualistic views and wanted mostly personal benefits instead of benefits for the community (Horwitz, 23). Unlike the Natives, they wanted to exploit the land and use it in order to make a profit. This individualistic mindset really made it difficult for the people of Jamestown to agree upon issues and work together to prosper. This then led to making it necessary to steal from the Indians or trade unfairly with them because the colonists had no other way to survive. When they arrived, the colonists were not prepared to deal with the hardships of their environment. They had goldsmiths and other similar people that had no real skill to use in the New World (Breen 73). The people of Jamestown were not well trained in what they needed to do and had great difficulty surviving. A fair number of the men that came to Jamestown were thieves or criminals and were all very suspicious of each other. Therefore, the men not only faced conflicts with the Natives, but among themselves as well (Horwitz, 23).  Each of these societies were so different in what they believed about community and the use of the land.

The three ships from England coming to Jamestown, the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery

In combination, the differences in culture, knowledge, and mindset made it very difficult for the Native Americans and the settlers to live in close proximity to each other. Some may say that the colonists were the “bad guys” and the Natives were the “good guys”, but that really is not the case. The colonists simply had a more expansionist and competitive view than the Natives that mostly worked for sustainability. When the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery arrived in Jamestown in May 1607, it would have been a very large shock to the people of both cultures. Although these societies did have some things in common, such as a want to trade, some type of leader or government, and dependence on the land, it was not enough to allow them to coexist. As we now know today, the English won out over the Natives, destructing one culture but advancing another. The difference in perspectives even continues into today in regards to the Natives and the Europeans. “Euro-Americans have usually faced west” and view the purpose of Pocahontas as one to help America develop. However, ” an eastward-facing perspective” does not offer much documented evidence and shows Pocahontas as a “young exile” that died young and far from home (Richter, 5). This topic is important even today because we still tend to view things from a westward facing perspective instead of an eastward one, restricting us from seeing the whole story.

References:

http://www.history.org/almanack/life/family/first.cfm 

http://apva.org/rediscovery/page.php?page_id=70

http://anthro.palomar.edu/culture/culture_1.htm

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