A Sense of History at LePort

Amid the safety and comfort of Orange County, it is hard for us to imagine that living in America once meant risking your life for an uncertain future. Yet this was exactly the challenge early British settlers faced in the untamed New World. Thousands of miles from family, friends, and king, settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, and in the colony at Massachusetts Bay, literally struggled for basic necessities while working to build a future for themselves and their descendants.

This school year, the students in LePort’s 7th-grade history class are studying early America, and last month they completed an assignment allowing them to vicariously experience the life of an early colonist. Writing as a fictional settler in one of the first American colonies, the 7th graders’ mission was to compose a letter to a friend or relative back in England and attempt to convince him or her to travel across the ocean to join the new colony. Within the bounds of what they learned from lectures, assignments and discussions, along with independent historical research, students were left free to determine the details of their letter – of their settler’s life, values, and voice. They completed their research, planning, and initial writing in history class, and received additional feedback on further drafts from their language arts teacher, Mrs. Longley. The results were impressive.

Below is one example student letter. Sidney Bowen – or Sir Terrance Francis Williams XVI – chose to write from the perspective of a settler who came to seek gold in Virginia, and found himself quite unprepared for the rugged life he now leads. In inviting his friend across the Atlantic to join him in America, “Sir Terrance” tries to put a good spin on the challenges he has faced, but does not quite succeed. I hope you enjoy reading Sidney’s letter as much as I did!

January 12th, 1622

Dear Sir Arnold Louis Bennet,

How are you, my old friend? How is your insuperable daughter, Mary? (I am only joking…) I am now living in the “New World” in Jamestown, Virginia. It is quite a lovely place, indeed! The reason I am suddenly speaking to you on such matters is because I wish for you to join the settlers and come to the new land. I know you were a wealthy man, just as I was, and I have heard that you are beginning to lose your fortune, as I had sixteen years ago in 1606. I was running low on gold, but I did not want to work, and why should I? Should a handsome, dashing gentleman be forced to plant crops and pick up foul cow manure? I think not! But before I went to weep in a corner, I heard that the London Company was going to send three ships out to Chesapeake Bay to search for gold. GOLD! In an instant I decided to invest in the London Company and board one of the ships to become a gold hunter, in order to gain back my fortune and possibly receive more. In late August of 1607, we all arrived in Jamestown, named after King James. We faced a few conflicts with illness, as any colony did, because of the lack of food and the swampy atmosphere. But a man named John Smith, whom I happened to abhor, saved some of the other gentleman settlers who were having a miniscule bit of trouble with local natives. The colonists and I were at the time living near the Algonquin Indians, whom John Smith befriended. This friendship allowed us to trade food and crops with the Indians.

After we settled briefly, all of the gentleman settlers, including me, went out to search for gold. After a few days of unenthusiastic rummaging, we all spotted yellow dirt deep in the ground! We brutally and viciously dug, and dug, and dug until we found immense pounds of gold! It was a precious sight…until we sent it back to England. We realized that our riches were not truly riches, but pyrite (fool’s gold). John Smith believed that we spent too much time searching for worthless gold. (But anyone could’ve mistaken it for gold, Smith!) Then—the nerve of the man!—he created a ludicrous law that we needed to plant our own crops or we would not receive food. “He that will not work shall not eat”, he snorted insolently.

In 1609, John Smith fortunately left our colony and went back to England, but then we had a little glitch in our lifestyle. People now call it the “Starving Time”, but that saying is quite exaggerated. We merely had a lower amount of food in our supply, which made us lightly gnaw on wild animals, and dead bodies…but it wasn’t as horrid as you might think. It could’ve happened to any colony without the proper tools for building homes. Luckily, England heard of our inconsequential troubles, and they instantaneously sent over supplies. We were saved…I mean, helped. In 1611, the London Company sent Sir Thomas Dale over to Jamestown to become governor of our little colony. He gave each person a three-acre amount of land, but we were forced to work in order to keep it. Soon after, we discovered that the Indians had found a plant, which they would smoke out of a clay pipe. The plant was named tobacco. After this incredible plant was discovered, everyone was planting tobacco in their land to sell to English merchants at exorbitant prices. And believe me, this plant that is formed into smoke is the most addicting material I have ever tasted.

1619 was one of the most exciting times in Jamestown because a ship of women arrived to enlarge the colony’s population. According to the colony’s laws, I am obligated to work most of the time in order to keep my land, which is a contemptible rule. The arrival of these women was principally exciting for me because I wouldn’t have to work nearly as much with a wife. My dear and charming wife, Jane, is not only beautiful, but labors day and night like a mule for her loving husband. Also, I do not have to pay my mule…I mean wife. Jane helps me through the horrendous pain by making our own clothes, planting crops for food, making soap, candles, and more! My favorite chore to watch is the process of candle making. There is a large iron kettle held on a crane over the fire, and when the fat and grease melt, she dips the cotton in the fat and allows it to dry.

From what I have explained about the colonies, you may not be entirely convinced to join me, considering all I have spoken about is work. If and when you arrive in Virginia, you will recognize that life is not only work, but there are families living in the colony, whose young children are receiving a glorious amount of education. I, for one, despise children, so I do not have any because they whine and cry, run around in dirt, and more things that I don’t wish to share with you. Since you always wanted to raise a family, you might consider having a child here. Although, I’m sure introspection will bring you to a firm decision to NOT have children, since they damage your life greatly.

Well, my dear friend, I have had a longing desire to see you again, for it has been sixteen years, and that is too long, Arnold. I anticipate that you find my letter influential enough that you will perhaps consider joining the colony. It is unlike anything I have experienced my entire life, and I believe you will concur with me. I hope to see you in the new land, Arnie!

Sir Terrance Francis Williams XVI

One of our goals in the LePort history program is that students do not just study history, but are immersed in it — that the past is understood not as a series of names, dates, and events to be memorized, but as flesh and blood. Taking on the role of a historical character is one of the most rewarding ways to immerse oneself in history, but also one of the most demanding, because making such writing realistic and compelling requires a student to integrate a wealth of information. For assignments like the settler letter, students need to know more than the 5 Ws of history (the who, what, where, when, and why); they must have a full-blown sense of the past — of the goals, manners, and values of historical cultures and people. Sidney clearly achieved that in her letter, as did her peers in theirs, and the result is a meaningful understanding of early America that will not be forgotten.

Matt Ballin, History Teacher