Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Finding New Things in Old Virginia

We all know about Jamestown and Williamsburg and Yorktown. Or do we? Polls indicate that a lot of young people these days don’t even know who George Washington was… But even those who remember the kind of history once taught in schools have a lot to learn.
I sure did in a week-long Road Scholar tour and series of programs about colonial Virginia – in particular, Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown – that my wife Marcia treated us to. I’d been to Williamsburg and Yorktown before, but never to Jamestown – because there wasn’t any Jamestown. It wasn’t until 2004 that archaeologists found the original site of the first European settlement in Virginia – there had been a re-creation before that, but the archaeologists discovered that some of the details were wrong, and funds haven’t been found yet to correct them.
Most people wouldn’t care about those details, such as how the palisade around the fort was constructed. But there are a lot of things about colonial and revolutionary times that I’d never known.
If we know about Yorktown, we know that is where Lord Cornwallis and the British army were trapped in 1781 by Washington’s army and our French allies – on land and sea. The French fleet blocked the British from coming to Cornwallis’ rescue and, after a siege of the town, he was forced to surrender. What I’d never heard before, however, was that he’d had a plan to escape across the York with a flotilla of flatboats. It might have worked, and changed the outcome of the war – only a sudden Noreaster scattered the boats. Such are the chances of history…
We all know about the grievances that led to the Revolution – the stamp act, the tea tax and all the rest. What I hadn’t appreciated was that the British parliament authorized the trials of anyone violating such acts by military as opposed to civilian courts – just like those suspected of terrorism in our own time. And I was told by one speaker that there were other grievances unmentioned in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that was the inspiration for both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – such as prohibitions on the manufacture of steel and anything made from beavers; those were supposed to be a monopoly for British manufacturers.
Yet we saw a silversmith using a rounded piece of steel to form a silver cup, as was common practice on colonial times, and another speaker told me that the supposed ban on making steel was never enforced. That led me to wonder about another sensitive issue: slavery. The first Africans brought to Virginia were treated as indentured servants, just like poor white people; they were freed after seven years. But a series of court rulings stripped black people of their rights, and a 1705 law made slavery the law of the colony. Yet slavery was illegal in Britain itself, and any law authorizing enslavement of, say, Irish or Scottish highlanders was unthinkable – Ireland and Scotland were dominions of the Crown; but so were Virginia and the other colonies. Britain could have abolished slavery in America, but chose not to do so.
Among the delights of the program were the speakers and performers. Carson Hudson was especially good on the military history, and Debbie Downs on African American music and storytelling. Bunny Rich was always entertaining as our guide on the field trips. But the most memorable was Antoinette Brennan, who re-created Martha Goosley, a woman who lived in Yorktown and was related to all sorts of “proper people” as she called them. Brennan was totally in character with her rambling, stream-of-consciousness account, as if she were talking to just a stranger to her town as opposed to a stranger to her time.