The story of the Jamestown colony the first permanent English settlement in the New World is familiar to most of us, but it has often been hard to separate the facts about the colony from myth. Combining a gift for storytelling with meticulous scholarship, historian David A. Price sorts reality from legend in his splendid new book, Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Heart of a New Nation.
At the center of Price's narrative is the clash of cultures between the newcomers, led by Captain John Smith, and the natives, represented by Chief Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas. Most of the original colonists had come expecting to find riches, but instead found themselves victims of disease or Indian attack. Smith believed it was important to understand the language and culture of the natives and to use a combination of diplomacy and intimidation to keep Powhatan's tribes from crushing the colonists. He was no less strict with the settlers themselves: during his brief presidency of the Jamestown council, Smith made it clear that those who didn't work wouldn't eat.
In 1619, a General Assembly was established in Jamestown, and broad-based property ownership was introduced, both "critical milestones on the path to American liberty and self-government," Price points out. Just after the close of the Assembly's first session, in a strange historical coincidence, the first ship of Africans landed in Jamestown. Although historians differ on their original status, Price suggests these Africans may have had the legal position of indentured servants. "It is too unbelievable to credit, but nonetheless true, that American democracy and American slavery put down their roots within weeks of each other," notes the author.
Although he would never achieve an official position in the colony to match his talents, John Smith's contribution to the founding of America extended far beyond Jamestown. His 1608 account of the new colony was the first to reach the public. This engrossing narrative of the settlement and Smith's role in it is superbly done. Roger Bishop, a Nashville bookseller, is a regular contributor to BookPage.