Noël Hume, Ivor. The Virginia Adventure, Roanoke to James Towne: An Archaeological and Historical Odyssey.

NY: Knopf, 1994.

Anyone with a serious interest in colonial Virginia knows (or ought to know) about this author. I first encountered him through his earlier work on Tidewater archaeology, Martin’s Hundred, which was a marvel of both scholarship and accessible writing. This subsequent work shows that wasn’t just a fluke. Roanoke was the project of Sir Walter Raleigh, the first attempt in 1586 to plant an English settlement in “Virginia” (which meant the entire eastern seaboard), and it was a dismal failure for an assortment of reasons. When the supply ship, which was delayed far beyond the intended schedule, finally returned, the settlement on the swampy little island behind the barrier islands of North Carolina was completely empty, thereby creating America’s first unsolved mystery.

There have been many theories since, but most likely the English settlers were dispossessed by the local Indians and either killed or carried off and absorbed. (The Indians weren’t naïve about the long-term intentions of these light-skinned strangers.) But Noël Hume is an archaeologist and he’s less interested in speculating about the fate of the colonists than in uncovering the traces they left behind — of which there aren’t many. However, being the chief archaeologist at Williamsburg, he’s also more interested in his own back yard; Roanoke takes up less than a quarter of the book, the rest of which is given over to the establishment and survival struggles of Jamestown, the first (more or less) successful English colony, which was begun in 1607, a generation after Raleigh’s effort. It’s amazing that Jamestown held on at all, given the lack of organization of those involved, their fixation on discovering gold rather than planting crops, their tendency to strut about, waving their arms and arguing among themselves, and their general lack of understanding of how to deal with the natives. And then there’s Capt. John Smith, one of the greatest self-promoting blowhards America has ever produced. When Jamestown, which was very poorly situated for any purpose, was finally abandoned in favor of Williamsburg, farther up the river, the signs of the first settlement largely faded away, though the land continued to be planted and lived on. Subsequent generations knew where Jamestown’s fort and village had been, more or less, and amateur historians and plundering treasure hunters made a mess of the site, to the grief of modern archaeologists. Noël Hume leads the reader carefully through the story of the settlement’s creation, pinning down his descriptions with the artifacts people have turned up and their interpretations, and comparing life in Jamestown with other sites in Virginia as well as with contemporary Britain. He tells the stories of Capt. Smith and Pocahontas and John Rolfe, and of all the less well-known early settlers (some of my own forebears among them), citing historical sources and sifting fact from folklore. And he does it all in an elegant, self-deprecating, and slightly cynical style that is a joy to read. The last section of the book deals with the modern rivalries among archaeologists and self-important Virginia patriots, which still continue. And the extended bibliography will keep you busy well into the future.

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Published in: on 23 March 2011 at 6:01 am  Leave a Comment  
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