I was listening to a documentary about the colony of Jamestown today, and it had an interesting suggestion about how American history is taught. Jamestown was, of course, was established in 1607, 13 years before Plymouth. Yet Plymouth is still cited as the birthplace of America.
The documentary contended the reason for this is the veneration of the Pilgrim Fathers began in Victorian times just after the Civil War. Supposedly, staunch Northern Unionists claimed Plymouth to be the true founding of American principles, not the money-grubbing nastiness of Jamestown, located in the degenerate defeated South.
I’m not sure what to think. I think most post Civil War revisionism was and is definitely in line with the romantic view of the Lost Cause of the South, struggling to whitewash (as it were) history towards the myth of a benevolent slaveholding society of gentlemen warriors defending their homes.
So is the shrugging off of Jamestown’s history an exception to this? Or do folks just not want cannibalism to be part of America’s founding?
Basically, yes. Although it was less a North vs South thing and more part of the “American exceptionalism” narrative taught in public schools that started ca. WWI and then really took off post-WWII (although it certainly had been around long before). Turner’s Frontier Thesis, combined with the mandatory uber-patriotism of WWI had a lot to do with starting this ball rolling.
Plymouth and the (whitewashed) story of the pilgrims fit nicely into the supposedly unique ideas of American religious freedom, gumption, hard work = success, and similar rubbish. Tying it into the story of the first Thanksgiving makes it easy to present to schoolchildren, and so that’s basically the story that the last several generations were raised on.
Presenting a much more accurate history of America’s founding – rooted in capitalism, greed, slavery, and violent colonialism – doesn’t give people the warm and fuzzies and so those elements are either ignored or, more recently, actively denied. Jamestown doesn’t really fit the idea of American exceptionalism and so is usually downplayed.
This is a very good point. A debate over Jamestown v. Plymouth completely ignores settlements that had already been established on the east coast of N. America – just not by the English.
Ignoring the contributions of non-English settlers and explorers is something we do very well. Witness Alexander MacKenzie vs. Lewis and Clark. MacKenzie beat L&C overland to the Pacific by something like 13 years, but who gets taught in gradeschool?
Right, the “Bostonian” version of the source of American sociopolitical values was pretty much a retcon in the service of the exceptionalism myth, not really related to what the Pilgrim/Puritan founders of Plymouth and Massachussetts were up to. Neither what Jamestown was about nor what Plymouth was about in the early 1600s really were the true core of what the US “Founders” of both North and South were up to in the late 1700s. But everybody was trying to avoid acknowledging that the values they were holding up did not grow out of the soil of the new continent but rather came out of books by Englishmen and Frenchmen.
People like Daniel Webster already pre-Civil War were big on promoting that New England was the place where what was really “different” about America began, really as a way of asserting the superiority of the industrializing, commercial and already increasingly more cosmopolitan Northeast with the Southeast’s inclination to traditionalism and exclusivism.
In my high school U.S. history class we went through Roanoke, then Jamestown, then Plymouth. I think we spent two weeks on the early English colonies, before c. 1700. In retrospect I’m surprised we spent so much time on Roanoke. By the end of the semester we had barely covered the Civil Rights movement.
Of course, Plymouth is more important and well-known because of Thanksgiving. You don’t hear about the real first Thanksgiving which took place in Virginia, thirty miles upstream from Jamestown and two years before the Pilgrims.
Mackenzie’s route was entirely within what is now Canada; the Lewis & Clark expedition was within what’s now the US. Perhaps that has something to do with what’s taught in schools of the two countries?
I wonder what would happen if I could prove my linage from the founding of Jamestown and presented it to one of those societies that only admit those whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. Would they tell me to pound dirt?
This scenario is an actual episode of The Beverly Hillbillies. Mrs Drysdale, a descendant of the Mayflower pilgrims, was horrified to find out from an antiquities expert that Jed was possibly descended from Jamestown colonists and could out ancestor her, as it were. At the end, Jed lies to the antiquities expert about his great-(?)-grandfather’s name to the expert’s disappointment and Margaret Drysdale’s glee. When Granny confronts Jed about his lie, Jed says he didn’t want all the fuss and bother with the fame that the antiquities expert promised him if he was proven to be a descendant of Jamestown settlers.
I grew up, and was educated in, a town that was part of the original Plymouth Colony. We learned Vikings, Roanoke, and Jamestown right alongside Plymouth. There was some extra focus on Plymouth, mostly in the tales as to our town’s relationship and contributions. Still most certainly spent time on Virginia, though.
Oh, undoubtedly true. However schoolchildren are taught that L&C were the first white men to cross N. America, reach the Pacific, and successfully return, period. I didn’t learn about MacKenzie (or George Vancouver or Bruno de Heceta or John Meares) until I began reading history in college.
At least it is taught that way here. My experience is in Oregon, where L&C spent the winter before returning back east, and I freely concede that the story of western exploration may be taught differently in other parts of the country.
I find this claim hard to believe. Boston always proclaimed itself to be the center from which all important history stemmed. This was true in the revolutionary period and in the first half of the 19th century. Harvard was founded in 1636 by a Puritan named John Harvard and Puritan Henry Adams founded the Adams clan that spent most of their time boasting of their ancestry. They despised the plantation culture of the South and let no opportunity pass to disparage it.
I also doubt that Jamestown is ignored. I’m sure every history book treats the colonial history differently, but I always remember Jamestown being given credit for being first. Which, as mentioned, slights the Spanish, but that’s not the issue. More importantly, Virginian history in the 17th century is pretty meager and fairly distanced from later developments compared to that of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia - if one doesn’t put the history of slavery foremost, which American history books seldom did until quite recently.
I’m sure that the North disparaged and slighted the South even more after the Civil War than before, but I’d argue that’s just a matter of degree. It was like that for the previous hundred years as well.
If that’s your recollection of what/how it was taught where you live I’ll take your word for it, but from my perspective the emphasis was on exploration of newly acquired territory on behalf of the nascent United States of America. I don’t recall being taught, and to this day never wondered, if anyone anyone ever reached the Pacific overland before them, perhaps in part because that hardly seems noteworthy as a feat of exploration. Roughly akin to being the first transatlantic flight (does anyone recall off the top of their head who completed the first transatlantic flight? Hint: it wasn’t Charles Lindbergh). I mean, it’s quite a feat, but it’s not to some wholly undiscovered land (even were one to discount the people who already live there, be they native Americans or native Europeans).
Anyway, we’re I presented with a trivia question prior to reading this thread, asking, “Who completed the first east-west overland crossing of North America north of Mexico?” I’d have responded with a shrug, not “Lewis & Clark.” It’s not because I don’t know who they are or where their expedition ended up. It’s just because I have no conception of their expedition being the first east-west overland journey with those caveats. And it turns out that might be with good reason: because it wasn’t.
That’s what I sorta assumed. Sure, we learned about Jamestown, John Smith, Pocahontas et al. But - at best - Jamestown was the beginning of the southern agrarian culture. Whereas for the remainder of the 1600s-early 1700s, a heckuva lot more significant developments took place up north.
Of course, any teaching of American history should teach both the N AND S, as the different approaches plated the seeds of so much to follow.
WRT St. Augustine. Sure, the Spanish were there early. But it doesn’t offend me that the history of Spanish Florida is given less prominence in terms of US history. Fla was later acquired territory.