“Jamestown Settlement? No, I can’t say that I’ve been there,” said our Air B&B hostess in Kilmarnock, Virginia, an hour’s drive from Jamestown Settlement. Kilmarnock, VA is a quaint river town where I’d been pitched by fate. A year ago while searching for my roots in Scotland, I found a ship’s passenger manifest that showed my ancestor, John Jamison, had emigrated from a different Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, Scotland and landed close to Kilmarnock, Virginia. I was here in the American version of Kilmarnock with Glen, my husband, following scant trace of my ancestor, John Jamison’s new life in Virginia.
I was not too surprised that our B&B hostess had never visited Jamestown Settlement. The site of Jamestown Settlement is close to Williamsburg and Yorktown but comes a far third in visitors. Most Americans hear the Jamestown history in grade school, but that history is full of failures. People prefer success stories. Jamestown -- Pocahontas notwithstanding -- was far from a success story. There is easier history and sweeter stories to be had nearby. When time is short, travelers skip Jamestown, opting for Yorktown Battlefield and the glories of the American Revolution. When time is really short, travelers head straight to Colonial Williamsburg – a Disney type reenactment of Colonial life.
And so it was that Glen and I found ourselves among sparse visitors at Jamestown Settlement. Even though our excellent National Park guide enlivened her tours with quirky factoids, I could see why families with children might be drawn to Colonial Williamsburg. What remained of Jamestown Settlement wasn’t much to look at - an obelisk monument, a statue of Capt. John Smith, an idealized statue of Pocahontas, recent foundations over the reburied real ones ( to keep the real ones from dissolving), and active archaeology digs. The only existing ruins is a 1640s church tower that contains a dozen wooden benches.
|Present Day Jamestown Settlement|
It Was A Guy’s Trip
Three shiploads of men settled Jamestown on land the Native Americans found too salty and swampy to occupy. It took another 13 years for shipments of young unmarried or widowed women to arrive.
Too Much Testosterone, Not Enough Food or Water
The men who landed at Jamestown were soldiers or tradesmen who were told they would lead a life of ease in the ‘New World’. They would be kept provisioned by London, fed by friendly natives and find vast stores of easily mined gold. Of the original 108 voyagers who landed at Jamestown in May of 1607, just 38 were alive by New Year's. In the following year more ships arrived with 500 fresh settlers, but two years later, only 100 remained. The rest died of typhoid, salt poisoning from their drinking water and starvation.
They Ate Each Other
|Painting of Real Pocahantas While In England|
The Jamestown Settlement Museum shows diary entries from settlers that were written aboard ship – before they landed in Jamestown. Those diary entries reflect a deep fear of being eaten by the natives. It is no small irony that it was the ‘civilized’ settlers who ultimately resorted to cannibalism.
|Evidence of Jamestown cannibalism|
John Jamison had been on a ship of farmers who left the potato blight and starving population in Kilmarnock, Scotland and named their new village in America after the one they left in Scotland. I could find nothing of how long or where John Jamison lived and worked in Virginia. The only written records I could find were census records which show that John Jamison could read and write, married and had children.
As I learned about the rough conditions and hard living of early settlers, a deep pride crept up on me. I come from strong stock. John Jamison was not landed gentry, but knew the value of hard work and how to make a living. He was a penniless emigrant who survived disease, hardship, and raised a family. I want to think of him and his hardships when I am inconvenienced or things get challenging. I hope to one day similarly inspire those who follow. Thank you John Jamison for those strong genes.