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In the last four decades, historians of early America have moved towards giving Virginia the attention that is appropriate for Britain’s oldest, largest, and most important mainland colony. Scholarship shifted from New England to Virginia during the efflorescence of Chesapeake social and economic history during the 1970s and 1980s, but, unfortunately, work on Virginia waned by the 1990s. Now Douglas Bradburn and John Coombs have put together an impressive new collection of essays demonstrating that talented scholars are being drawn to the early history of the Old Dominion once again. Instead of collecting work focused on shared questions and methodological assumptions in the tradition of the Chesapeake School, Early Modern Virginia, which focuses on the seventeenth century, offers a much-broader sense of the range of topics and approaches available to scholars of colonial Virginia. However, the essays in Early Modern Virginia share high scholarly standards, a fresh and often critical perspective on the historiography, and careful attention to evidence that other scholars have sometimes neglected or simply taken for granted. Focusing on Virginia also enables a corrective to Chesapeake historiography that has at times concentrated disproportionately on Maryland.
A brief review cannot do justice to all of the thought-provoking arguments in these essays. John Coombs’s contribution may get the most attention from many readers because it delves into debates about the origins of slavery in Virginia. Coombs provides convincing evidence that elite planters preferred slaves to indentured servants from an early date and certainly before Bacon’s Rebellion and the decline in the supply of servants. His coeditor, Douglas Bradburn, reconsiders the founding of Virginia in its often-neglected but pervasive religious context. Camilla Townsend examines the early years of Jamestown from the very different English, Spanish, and Powhatan perspectives. Victor Enthoven and Wim Klooster show [End Page 196] that Dutch commercial influence proved to be more important and more persistent in early Virginia than has been appreciated. Terri Snyder explores the experience of servant women through a careful and perceptive reading of court cases. In another especially valuable essay, Alec Haskell negotiates a middle position between interpretations that emphasize political deference and defiance by focusing on early-modern discourse about office. Philip Levy uses transitions in the landscape of Middle Plantation to argue for a more stable view of Virginia development. Edward Ragan offers a different view of Native Americans in early Virginia by focusing on the Rappahannocks, a people on the margins of Powhatan power. William Pettigrew places the early Virginia labor force within the context of imperial debates over the regulation of the slave trade. Lorena Walsh introduces the volume and carefully sets it within the tradition of the Chesapeake School, while Philip Morgan provides a magisterial conclusion, considering “The Future of Chesapeake Studies.”
In sum, historians of seventeenth-century America should read and learn from Early Modern Virginia. Of course, no collection of essays could fully cover the history of colonial Virginia. Some readers will probably second-guess the editors’ decisions about what to include or exclude, and in many ways this volume may turn out to be only a starting point. If so, historians are likely to learn much more about the oldest British colony in America, even more than four hundred years after the arrival of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery in the James River.
Bradford J. Wood is professor of history at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, Kentucky. His work focuses on the social and cultural history of colonial North Carolina.