Jamestown's Early Days Were Brutish and Short This month marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Va., the first permanent English settlement in North America. Many historians see Jamestown as the birthplace of modern America. Was the original colony really a success?
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Jamestown's Early Days Were Brutish and Short

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Jamestown's Early Days Were Brutish and Short

Jamestown's Early Days Were Brutish and Short

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And next, let's turn to the story of some very early immigrants to what became the United States.

Later today the Queen of England arrives in Virginia to mark the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement. It's considered to be the first permanent English colony in North America. But whether that colony was really successful is a matter up for debate. Which is why we brought in Bob Deans. He wrote a book about what happened to Jamestown and he joins us to help sort it all out.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. BOB DEANS (Author, "The River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James"): Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: People know a few details about Jamestown - 1607, John Smith, Pocahontas. What really happened there though?

Mr. DEANS: Well, I think what really happened there was a lot of misery, some horrific things, cannibalism, torture, murder, floggings, martial law. About three out of four of those early colonists perished within the first year being at Jamestown.

The Jamestown settlers came for profit. They were part of the Virginia Company of London. And they came seeking gold and a shortcut to China. They found neither on the banks of the James River, and they didn't begin to make any profit until 1612, when John Rolfe began growing tobacco.

INSKEEP: What makes this an inspiring story to you?

Mr. DEANS: I think the endurance of it and the fact that they did evolve over time. We had by 1619 20 elected burgesses meeting as the General Assembly right there at Jamestown. And the reason was the Virginia Company began to understand that they could not run Virginia from London, that the local people who had a stake in the place had to begin to have a voice.

INSKEEP: So the beginnings of democracy or some of the beginnings of democracy were right there.

Mr. DEANS: The beginnings of democracy where there in Jamestown. And astoundingly the seeds of American democracy were sewn side by side with the seeds of American slavery, because just three weeks after that general assembly adjourned in August of 1619, up the river came the first Africans to arrive in English America in chains.

INSKEEP: What was the purpose of bringing them?

Mr. DEANS: They had been stolen on the high seas by a Dutch man-of-war from a Portuguese slaver, and then the Dutch brought them up the James River, where they traded them to the locals for provisions.

INSKEEP: So it wasn't even that someone said I need some slaves here. Somebody saw a marketing opportunity and went in and made some sales.

Mr. DEANS: Absolutely. And these first Africans arrived in a sort of nebulous labor world. Some of them became indentured servants. They worked off their indentured servitude and became free. Some of them ended up buying slaves of their own later on. But they very quickly developed in Virginia a difference between the way white indentured servants were treated and blacks.

INSKEEP: This is clearly an opportunity, the 400th anniversary, for people in that area to promote Jamestown. But I wonder, could you see this story factoring in our debates today in the same way that it seems to have factored in debates in the past?

Mr. DEANS: What I saw was American identity and the issues, the epic conflicts that have defined us as a nation, the conflict between European settlers and Native Americans, the conflict between a free and democratic people and American slavery, and the difficulty of creating government by the people where we reflect the will of the majority but respect the will of the minority. It all started right there. And the modern, almost sacred miracle of Jamestown is not what happened there 400 years ago; it's what we have become right here.

INSKEEP: Bob Deans is the author of "The River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James." Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. DEANS: Thank you, Steve.

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