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Digging up the Past

July 25, 2019 4 min read

Usually this phrase asserts a negative connotation but not in the situation I have to share with you today. Well... at least not entirely.

I was seeking a quick summer trip to relax, unwind and cycle (not re-cycle) and chose the historic Williamsburg area as a destination. I have been a few times before and have always enjoyed learning more about our country’s history. I find that when visiting historically significant locations, taking advantage of tours greatly enhances the experience and a great guide can really bring history to life.

I had the good fortune of having one of the best tours ever at the Jamestown Colony National Park. Jamestown was the first successful English settlement on the mainland of North America and both the state and national parks at the Jamestown colony site are well-worth visiting. The state park is a replica village with costumed characters depicting the colony that was first established in 1607. The National Park is located at the actual site of the original Jamestown colony and was once thought to have been consumed by the adjoining James River. While this park was established in 1940, it wasn’t until 1996 that archeologists discovered that the original site hadn’t been washed away but sat on the very ground remaining there today.

It was an archeologist that provided our tour and a glimpse of what life was like for these original settlers by igniting our imagination with stories discovered through their excavations. My first ah-ha moment was the realization that the purpose of these first colonists wasn’t to escape tyranny or to seek religious freedom but was rather strictly for financial gain. Organized by a for-profit company (and endorsed by King James I) the priorities were to establish a colony where precious metals and other valuable raw materials could be collected and shipped back to England. What they found were swamps, tainted water and hostile natives who had been experiencing a severe drought. Our guide explained the exceptionally harsh conditions and the poor leadership that together, led to starvation, cannibalism and a near complete collapse of the colony. Luckily, Chief Powhatan, the leader of the local Indian tribe provided gifts of food and supplies to the colony during the first year otherwise Jamestown would have never survived. Later, under the leadership of John Smith, the colony further developed fortifications, trade and settlements until 1624 when King James revoked his charter due to financial problems and politics.

The more I learn of history the more I realize that we are seemingly running on a never-ending wheel of experiences driven by human nature and instinctual behaviors. What is happening has happened before and will eventually happen again. Our tour guide pointed out one example after another of how the lives of the people of Jamestown 400 years ago are very much like ours are today. Take, as an example, tobacco which quickly became the main export for the Virginia colonies. King James didn’t particularly like the idea of tobacco being imported to England as it was known as an unhealthy drug however the ability to control and tax the substance was appealing enough to overcome his reluctance. Robert Cotton arrived in Jamestown in 1608. A typesetter by trade, Cotton needed to find his way like other members of the colony and soon discovered an unfulfilled need for tobacco pipes. Made from Virginia clay, Cotton used his tools and resourcefulness to provide personalized pipes that helped him distinguish his product from others. He provided samples to notable persons in the colony who became “celebrity endorsers” of his product. The willingness to work extra hard and think out of the box always has and always will provide excellent results.

Pipe fragments and other such artifacts were discovered by archeologists during their excavations of the Jamestown site. As explained, when you discard or lose things (that are later discovered) you don’t necessarily find things in chronological order. If you were to empty your pockets you may find some things from today and others that may be very old and together, they are found as pieces of a puzzle to be re-constructed into a view into the past. God only knows what someone may think of us 400 years from now after they have picked through our garbage.

As we go through our lives, are we learning from previous experiences to help avoid pitfalls from the past? As we proverbially empty our pockets through life what will our story look like to others in the future? History may be destined to repeat itself, but I say we don’t have to go down easily. I suggest that with the ingenuity of a Robert Cotton, the command of a John Smith and the charity of a Chief Powhatan we can positively affect the history we are destined to leave long after we have gone.

Now go outside ad have fun in the dirt!

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