Jamestown: The Truth Revealed by William M. Kelso
In Jamestown: The Truth Revealed—the long-awaited sequel to his 2006 Jamestown: The Buried Truth—William M. Kelso, director of archaeology for Jamestown Rediscovery, discusses recent excavations at the site of the seventeenth-century Jamestown colony, which sat in the middle of what the region's Indians called Tsenacomoco.1 In the first half of the book, entitled "Buried Truth," Kelso expands on the story he told in his first book. This material covers how he and his team first located the remains of James Fort from 1994 to 2005. It then moves on to discuss the artifacts unearthed at Historic Jamestowne, placing them into the context of the region's history and assessing their significance for scholars. The second part of the book, called "More Buried Truth," explores recently uncovered church structures, tackles the controversy concerning whether or not cannibalism occurred during the Starving Time of 1609–10, and describes a new cache of objects from the 1610s that reveals more about the day-to-day lives of Jamestown's Native and non-Native inhabitants. Kelso's main contributions are twofold. First, his study of objects, soil and trash deposits, and human remains offers readers an introduction to "the tools of the archaeologist" (9). Secondly, he argues that when considered alongside a reexamination of the documentary evidence, these objects offer "an opportunity to glimpse, from an archaeological perspective, the genesis of the American dream" (9). This interpretation refutes the notion that only inept and lazy colonists lived in this early North American outpost.
There is much to admire here. Kelso's discussions offer a useful window into the practice of archaeology: the "quilting process" (52) used to excavate the site, the team's efforts to identify Captain Bartholomew Gosnold's bones, the challenges his staff faced in exhuming the graves of potential Gosnold relatives in pursuit of additional DNA evidence to confirm his identity, and the level of care and respect necessary when working with human remains. Historians will appreciate the attention Kelso pays to the regional origins of the first Jamestown colonists. His study of an unearthed slate offers new hypotheses about the ways that colonists learned Algonquian languages. His discussion of fishhooks, net weights, and line sinkers reveals that although colonists often expected the Indians of Tsenacomoco to fish for them, they were also better prepared to perform this labor themselves than historians sometimes acknowledge. Kelso's ability to consider a wide range of documents—for [End Page 174] example, his comparison of William Strachey's description of James Fort to the Dutch "Vingboons chart" (27) of Jamestown Island—will further refine historians' understanding of the physical layout of the colony. Kelso also offers some useful and important revisions. His reassessment of Starving Time deaths, most notably, moderates Captain John Smith's estimate of 60 out of 500 people surviving to 155 out of 245 people surviving.
There are several ways, however, that Kelso might have strengthened this monograph's contribution. First would have been greater engagement with existing scholarship. At the level of broad interpretation, Kelso asserts that he is revising previous portrayals of lazy colonists and reinterpreting the history of Jamestown so that it is no longer viewed as a failure or disaster but instead as a site of "important firsts" with "periods of thriving" (2). Interpreting Jamestown's history as characterised by fits and starts has been the scholarly consensus since Karen Ordahl Kupperman made this point a decade ago.2 Similarly, Kelso concludes that seemingly idle colonists were not lazy; they were debilitated by drinking saltwater, for dry seasons had made previously potable well water too salty. This aspect of his findings is again convincing but not new; historians since the 1970s have investigated Jamestown's environment, disease, and malnutrition as feasible explanations for indolence.3
The book's central question of how Jamestown became the birthplace of the American dream, furthermore, reflects little attention to recent work scholars have done to acknowledge the pluralism of early America.4 True, Kelso has revised an earlier answer that was narrower and more triumphalist; he recalls about Jamestown: The Buried Truth that "the first edition of this book began with the suggestion that the American Dream was born at Jamestown in 1607" (250). In this newer volume, by contrast, he writes, "it seems more accurate to say that English America was all but stillborn, the growing pains excruciating, and the Company town atmosphere stifling" (250). Jamestown could only succeed once people worked hard, grew tobacco, and pursued "permanent English settlement in North America. Then the American dream could begin" (250). The revision is [End Page 175] convincing in the way it outlines the contingency of Jamestown's triumph. But it passes over the outpouring of scholarship on Jamestown's place in a wider Atlantic world and ignores other actors in the region. Depicting Jamestown as the sole birthplace of America or the American dream in a way that measures success by English permanence, as Kelso does, ignores the Tsenacomocan and the Spanish and French colonial Americans who envisioned lasting settlement in the region.5 In thus privileging a narrative in which the focus remains on English failures, recoveries, survivals, and then periods of thriving, colonists become "adventurers" (17) rather than invaders, Tsenacomocans have to participate in an "uprising" (29) against these righteous men, and no one has to ask what dreams Indians might have envisioned for their territory.
The book's most critical weakness, however, centers on the language Kelso uses to describe truth and its relationship to history. At the heart of Jamestown: The Truth Revealed lies a tension between Kelso's interpretative speculations and his claim to have uncovered the truth. There are instances throughout the book in which he examines multiple objects or documents, offers a range of plausible interpretations, suggests that readers may never know what happened, and then claims to have discovered the definitive truth of what did.
The case of cannibalism offers a fine example. Scholars will by now be familiar with Jamestown Rediscovery's 2012 uncovering of human remains—a partial skull and shin bone. They will know that a group of forensic anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History analyzed them and that in 2013 various media outlets reported that Jamestown's early colonists had cannibalized each other during the Starving Time.6 In 2013, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and Preservation Virginia published their findings in a short book based around an exhibition on the same topic.7 In Jamestown: The Truth Revealed, Kelso calls these findings "incontrovertible evidence that a girl, whom we came to call Jane, had been cannibalized during the . . . 'starving time'" (185). [End Page 176]
The trouble with asserting the "incontrovertibility" of this claim is that Kelso himself offers several interpretations of this evidence. More people survived the Starving Time than previously supposed, as he points out. Kelso admits that although documentary sources mention a murdered, cannibalized wife, there is no way to establish whether Jane was this woman. In the early seventeenth century, furthermore, Thomas Gates went out of his way to refute the cannibalized wife story, arguing that a husband falsely claimed to have eaten her, hoping to avoid a hanging after murdering his wife.8 It seems just as plausible to suggest that if Jane was the wife, she was killed, decapitated, and dismembered so that her husband could eat her share of stored food, as Gates suggested, and that he also mutilated the corpse to make it harder to identify her but not to cannibalize her.
Unfortunately, the forensic report produced by the Smithsonian is not publicly available, so scholars do not have the opportunity to review these claims, and when making assertions about it, Kelso cites the above-mentioned book, Jane, produced by Colonial Williamsburg and Preservation Virginia.9 Truth is not like archaeological evidence; scholars do not simply disinter it. Archaeologists unearth objects that invite multiple readings, and historians reckon with documents that yield various interpretations before our fields reach consensus about the facts. And though it is not my intention to rehearse long-standing and unresolvable historiographical debates about truth, objectivity, and their relationship to history, it is my contention that our ability to come close to an approximation of historical truth requires accessible evidence that more than one person or team can analyze. It is clear from Jamestown: The Truth Revealed that a great deal of work has gone into the interpretations—plural—that Kelso offers in [End Page 177] this book. They would be more convincing without repeated claims to have uncovered a singular truth and if historians and archaeologists alike could examine the relevant evidence.
These issues aside, this is a useful volume. The prose is engaging, and the photographs are informative. The book makes clear the physical work necessary to study such objects, and it places these new artifacts into historical context. Scholars will benefit from these findings as the Jamestown Rediscovery team continues to interpret them in the decades to come. [End Page 178]
1. William M. Kelso, Jamestown: The Buried Truth (Charlottesville, Va., 2006).
2. Karen Ordahl Kupperman, The Jamestown Project (Cambridge, Mass., 2007), 2–3, 327.
3. Carville V. Earle, "Environment, Disease, and Mortality in Early Virginia," in The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society, ed. Thad W. Tate and David L. Ammerman (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979), 96–125, esp. 99, 103; Karen Ordahl Kupperman, "Apathy and Death in Early Jamestown," Journal of American History 66, no. 1 (June 1979): 24–40.
4. I make this observation as someone who has occasionally been guilty of similar tendencies. See Rachel B. Herrmann, "The 'tragicall historie': Cannibalism and Abundance in Colonial Jamestown," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 68, no. 1 (January 2011): 47–74, esp. 50, 72. On the vastness of early America, see Karin Wulf, "For 2016, Appreciating #VastEarlyAmerica," Uncommon Sense (blog), Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Jan. 4, 2016, http://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/for-2016-appreciating-vastearlyamerica/.
5. For representative examples, see Eric Griffin, "The Specter of Spain in John Smith's Colonial Writing," in Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World, ed. Robert Appelbaum and John Wood Sweet (Philadelphia, 2005), 111–34; Eliga H. Gould, "Entangled Histories, Entangled Worlds: The English-Speaking Atlantic as a Spanish Periphery," American Historical Review 112, no. 3 (June 2007): 764–86; William S. Goldman, "Spain and the Founding of Jamestown," WMQ 68, no. 3 (July 2011): 427–50.
6. Joseph Stromberg, "Starving Settlers in Jamestown Colony Resorted to Cannibalism," Smithsonian.com, Apr. 30, 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/starving-settlers-in-jamestown-colony-resorted-to-cannibalism-46000815/?no-ist; Jane O'Brien, "'Proof' Jamestown Settlers Turned to Cannibalism," BBC News, May 1, 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-22362831.
7. James Horn et al., Jane: Starvation, Cannibalism, and Endurance at Jamestown (Williamsburg, Va., 2013).
8. Councell of Virginia, A Trve Declaration of the estate of the Colonie in Virginia. . . . (London, 1610), 38–39. On Gates's discussion of the wife, see Herrmann, WMQ 68: 47–74, esp. 56–57.
9. Horn et al., Jane. Kelso cites this work on pages 263 n. 1 and 264 n. 27. For representative examples of what has been published about the forensic anthropology of Virginia and about detailed bone studies, see Douglas W. Owsley and Karin Bruwelheide, "Artifacts and Commingled Skeletal Remains from a Well on the Medical College of Virginia Campus: Human Skeletal Remains from Archaeological Site 44HE814," VCU Scholars Compass, June 18, 2012, 33–67, http://scholarscompass.vcu.edu/arch001/4; Christine A. M. France, Owsley, and Lee-Ann C. Hayek, "Stable Isotope Indicators of Provenance and Demographics in 18th and 19th Century North Americans," Journal of Archaeological Science 42 (February 2014): 356–66; Nicole C. Little et al., "Measuring Heavy Metal Content in Bone Using Portable X-Ray Fluorescence," Open Journal of Archaeometry 2, no. 1 (2014): 19–21; Owsley et al., "Evidence for Injuries and Violent Death," in Skeletal Biology of the Ancient Rapanui (Easter Islanders), ed. Vincent H. Stefan and George W. Gill (Cambridge, 2016), 222–52; Karin S. Bruwelheide et al., "Evidence for Early Seventeenth-Century Surgery and Dissection at James Fort, Virginia," in The Bioarchaeology of Dissection and Autopsy in the United States, ed. Kenneth C. Nystrom (Cham, Switzerland, 2017), 41–60; Owsley et al., "Skeletal Evidence of Anatomical and Surgical Training in Nineteenth-Century Richmond," ibid., 143–64.