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  • "The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550-1624":Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture Conference
  • David S. Shields (bio)

In 1907, when the United States marked the tercentennial of the founding of Virginia, civic celebration predominated. The rare reflective moment usually pondered the antiquity of representative government or the spread of Christianity to the Western Hemisphere. More usual was 1907's version of reenactment: Captain John Smith and Pocahontas reincarnated on Broadway to preside over the first of Florenz Ziegfeld's Follies. Five months later, they reprised their most famous scene in the musical "Princess Pocahontas," a show whose plot revealed that the Princess really loved John Rolfe, not Smith, and that her grandfather (Powhatan's sire) was Irish. In 2007, I do not doubt that reenactors will perform their rites. But the current fetish for authenticity in that community will reign in any fanciful elaborations of the ancient actions. Meanwhile, in March of 2004, the community of scholars performed their own presentation of the past in the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture's conference, "The Atlantic World and Virginia," held in Williamsburg.

The task of the meeting was to retell the story of Jamestown's settlement within the frame of Atlantic history, Native American history, and World Systems scholarship. It performed that task brilliantly before a large and diverse audience, including a substantial presence by that scarcest of creatures, the general public. The gathering marshaled scholars from a host of disciplines and cultural backgrounds to locate Jamestown in the world of 1550 to 1630. Of the distinguished series of symposia, colloquia, and conferences that the institute has hosted in the past half-century, this ranks as one of the most consequential. Conceived by Fredrika Teute, OIEAHC's editor of publications, and enacted and hosted by OIEHAC director Ronald Hoffman, the meeting filled three and one-half days with sessions revealing from various perspectives the tenuousness and marginality of Virginia in the world of 1607. The conversation was not Anglo-centric, not tinged by any local filiopiety, not framed as a prehistory of American nationalism, [End Page 220] and not overly fascinated by the small settlement on the James River. The order of matters stated in the conference title-Atlantic World first, Virginia second-was reflected in the proportion of talks.

The first day (March 4) treated the Native culture that preexisted English and Spanish settlement, interacted with it, and survived after contact. Daniel Richter set the tone by locating Jamestown on the margins of Tsenacommacah, the territory of the Powhatan confederacy, and reinterpreting the familiar scenes of exchange found in Captain John Smith's histories in light of Native practices of gifting and obligation making. Speakers explored the Native world throughout the southeast, drawing upon Spanish and English writings, the archaeological record, and the traditional knowledge of the Natives. Representatives and leaders of Virginia's various Native peoples appeared on the program speaking putatively about oral history (there is little orature about the Jamestown settlement that has come down), but actually taking the opportunity to resist their reduction to historical data. They witnessed to the fact that they were not relegated to a vanished past, but remain a vital presence on the land in Virginia's communal life. Later, I had the good fortune to sit next to Chief Ann Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe at dinner, and in the course of the conversation learned a great deal about her community's practices of dream interpretation. The nimbus of social events surrounding the meeting permitted many fruitful conversations over the course of the weekend. Of the day's revelations, the one that most disrupted received opinion was William Kelso's claim, drawn from his archaeological findings at Jamestown Fort, that as many as 40 Native women were living within the fort during the earliest settlement period. In the evening, Sir John Elliott gave the keynote address, a masterful exposition of the primacy of Spanish imperial practice in legal, economic, religious, and administrative thinking about early modern empire throughout Europe. Indeed, English, French, and Dutch imperial enterprise were made to seem largely reactionary to Spanish actions. The case of Portugal was more complicated. But since the...


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