I am going to tell the story of Day 14 of our Richmond adventures a little out of order. If someone asked you to describe the first European settlers of the United States what visual image would come to mind?
When a little girl at our Day 14 stop was asked this question, she responded, “Pilgrims.” How many of us think the same? We have the image of Pilgrims and Indians drilled into us each Thanksgiving. We might even think of the story of the United States as one of people seeking religious freedom in a new land.
A tour guide at our Day 14 stop corrected this notion, “Well, that’s the right story . . . if you lived in Massachusetts. But that’s not the right story for Virginia.”
What is the right story for Virginia? Read on.
On Day 14 we headed for Henricus Historical Park. It is about a half hour drive from downtown Richmond. After my battlefield adventures, I was used to driving down country roads but I was not used to driving through territory like this.
We were driving through a serious industrial park with power lines overhead, train tracks, loading docks and large trucks. I was becoming convinced that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere until I spotted this.
Henricus Historical Park is a living history park that tells the story of the “Citie of Henricus,” founded 1611. We made a rare “splurge” on the $8 admission fee and watched a short movie in the visitor’s center about the history of Henricus.
The Jamestown (Virginia) Colony was founded in 1607 and was the “first permanent English settlement” in America. In 1611, based on the success of Jamestown, Sir Thomas Dale was sent to establish a second settlement near Jamestown. At the time, Jamestown was viewed by the crown as a little bit of a mess and Sir Thomas Dale was sent to try to fix things. He established a second settlement, Henricus, named for the King’s son, Henry.
It is interesting to note that Jamestown, founded 1607 and Henricus, founded 1611 both predate Plymouth Colony and the Pilgrims (who don’t arrive until 1620) but somehow in our history we choose to remember the Pilgrims rather than the Jamestown settlers.
When the English arrived in Virginia, they encountered numerous Native American tribes, primarily the Arrohateck, part of the Powhatan Chiefdom. History is a bit sparse here but there were both tensions and peaceful interactions between the two groups. The Arrohateck had a sophisticated system of farming, built large tent-like houses and created wooden boats by burning and scooping out sections of large trees. At Henricus, the first section in the park is a recreation of an Arrohateck village and a costumed Arrohateck Indian provides the information about their life.
Here, we learn the story of Pocahantas, who is much different than the Disney version. Pocahantas is only 13 years old when she is captured by the English. Apparently history varies on what “captured” means but it is fair to say that one interpretation is that it was not voluntary. Pocahantas is instructed in English language and culture and is baptized into the Church of England. She marries John Rolfe at about 14. Again, history varies as to whether this was true love, a strategic decision on her part to create peace between the Arrohateck and English or an involuntary action. Pocahantas is taken to England at 16 with some interpreting her presence there as a form of marketing and publicity for the Virginia Company that the Native Americans can be converted to Christianity. She contracts a serious illness in England and dies at 22, leaving behind a son. Descendants of Pocahantas are alive today.
After we leave the Arrohateck village we enter a recreation of Fort “Henryco.”
The robust fenceline and guard towers were not to guard against Native American attacks but rather to defend English interests from the Spanish. When Henryco was first established, a group of approximately 200 men comprised the settlement. Many left their families behind in England due to the danger involved. This was a business venture and the English thought they would find lots of gold mines in America. Carpenters, blacksmiths and other metal workers were the most heavily recruited men for this venture.
Women arrived several years later. You needed to be a tough sort of woman to handle living in Virginia at that time. Take Alice Proctor for example. Her husband sent her to the colony while he attended to business in England. In his absence, she had to personally defend her home and family against attack by the Powhatan.
Henricus’ key to success was the growth of tobacco. While the colonists tried other products like timber, it was tobacco that made them all their money. The variety of tobacco that was marketable was a Caribbean variety that needed hot summers to grow and could not be cultivated in England.
As the land grab for tobacco farming progressed around Henricus, tensions with the Native American population grew. In 1622, a violent attack by Opechancanough led to the abandonment of Henricus, although plantations nearby continued.
Henricus is known for other historical events too. It’s location on the James River meant that fighting during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War occurred here.
My son and I took a break from the heat to rest inside the replica of the room where Pocahantas received her religious instruction from the local Reverend. While my son napped, one of the costumed reenactors came by to chat for a bit. He told me some interesting information about curious incidents at Henricus including ghost sightings. Around Halloween each year, Henricus offers an “overnight paranormal investigation.” It was a bit eerie to think about but given the amount of activity the area has seen it is not all that surprising.
So what image should a Virginian have in mind for the first European settlers of America? It turns out that we should be thinking of Shakespeare, knee breeches and thatched cottages–not pilgrims. The first European “Americans” in Virginia were the King’s loyal subjects.
After our tour, we took some time to eat lunch in the terrific picnic area overlooking the James River and to walk part of the Dutch Gap Conservation Area, which goes on for miles and miles. In good weather, it would have been an interesting hike but in 93 degree heat, we had to cut it short.
Today’s adventure filled my head with all kinds of new information. In my mind, I think early American history is Pilgrims and George Washington. Henricus taught me that there is a whole century of history missing from this narrative.