Portals to the Hidden Histories of Early America
Abby Sullivan portraying Sabilla Jackson, indentured servant on the Godiah Spray Plantation, Saint Mary's City, Maryland.
This article of mine originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of SOLANDER MAGAZINE, published by the Historical Novel Society.
In popular imagination, historical fiction seems to focus on novels illuminating famous figures of the past, such as Robert Graves’s I, Claudius and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. While countless readers, myself included, enjoy the vicarious delights of reading about emperors and queens, historical fiction can also be used as a tool for exploring the hidden lives of common folk who contributed just as much to the fabric of our history. Eminent historical novelist, the late Mary Lee Settle wrote, “Recorded history is wrong. It’s wrong because the voiceless have no voice in it.” The voiceless in history include most women, most people of non-European ancestry, and people of the servant and peasant classes. Some of the freshest and most moving historical fiction is written about historical underdogs, including Settle’s own classic Beulah Land Quintet. Charles Frazier’s recent novel, Thirteen Moons, depicts the fight to save Cherokee homeland, while Lalita Tademy’s epic novels, Cane River and the Red River, are based on the struggles of her African American ancestors in the 19th century.
What research tools exist for historical novelists who wish to give voice to neglected histories? When I was researching the lives of women, small planters, and indentured servants of the Colonial Chesapeake settlements for my novel The Vanishing Point (Mariner 2006), I discovered that my best sources were living history museums. At Mount Vernon, George Washington’s birthplace, I learned about spinning wool and flax, and how even women of the wealthy elite spent their “leisure” hours spinning to keep their families clothed. In Colonial Williamsburg, I spent an entire day talking to various re-enactors about everything from tanning leather to period cures for consumption – cantering around on horseback was believed to be quite efficacious. The re-enactors at these museums don’t deal in dry facts or dates, but an entire way of life. This article will focus on the two museums that had the biggest impact on me: Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and Historic St. Mary’s City in Maryland. Both these sites provide excellent inspiration for historical novelists and history lovers who would like to know more about the diversity of lives in Early America, not just the lives of “great men,” such as Washington and Jefferson.
Historic St. Mary’s City
How do you recreate a place that disappeared centuries ago? Historical novelists try to do this with research and imagination. Historic St. Mary’s City, tucked away in a remote corner of Southern Maryland, has recreated Maryland’s first capital through archaeology and primary sources. Researchers have used clues from ancient foundations and fragments of glass to reconstruct historic buildings and give visitors an idea of what life here was like in the years spanning 1634, when the settlement was founded, to 1695, when St. Mary’s City was abandoned for the present Maryland capitol of Annapolis.
The most remote part of the museum is Master Spray’s Plantation, a working colonial farm situated away from the other sites and also from Maryland Route 5 and most signs of modern civilization. “It’s easier to suspend disbelief and imagine you are in the 17th century,” Public Programs Director, Dorsey Bodeman explains. Spray’s Plantation is a first person site with interpreters in period costume and in character. “We give visitors the opportunity to step into their lives,” says Bodeman. “They will come upon interpreters doing tasks people would have done in the 17th century.” These interpreters include Master and Mistress Spray, and their indentured servants. Their tasks deal with home and hearth – things that that twenty-first century people can relate to. “Master Spray will talk about what he’s doing in the tobacco field,” Bodeman says. “This serves as an entry to the visitors asking him questions. It’s much easier to ask the interpreter questions than asking the same questions in a lecture hall. The discussion can then develop into a more in-depth discussion about, for example, the economies of tobacco planting.” Bodeman believes that visitors will have an easy time connecting with the interpreters, who are trained to make them feel at home. Other exhibits include Smith’s Ordinary, the reconstructed State House of 1676, and the Maryland Dove, a replica square-ribbed ship that brought colonists to the New World. Buildings recreated on the historical model are being added to the site each year. The rebuilt print house will open next spring and in the following year, the chapel will be finished.
Visitors can also learn about the ongoing archaeological sites. Archaeologists aren’t present year round, but interpreters are on hand to talk about the archaeological background. “Visitors are very interested in behind-the-scenes information about how we know about a place that disappeared off the face of the earth,” Bodeman states. She admits that it is difficult to reconstruct people’s daily lives from archaeological artifacts alone. “Archaeology doesn’t find many life-way things.” The only artifacts that survive in the ground for 400 years are things like stone, bone, metal tools, oyster shells, and glass. Some artifacts found on site, however, do open a window into lost lives. One is a container with small holes in it and a bone stopper. The container was probably filled with a noxious substance and worn to banish fleas in an era when whole families shared the same bedding, as did travellers at inns and ordinaries.
The museum is not focused exclusively on the lives of European settlers. At the Indian Village Site, staff in contemporary dress, who are not necessarily Native American themselves, discuss the lives of Native Americans in the 17th century. These interpreters practice what Bodeman calls “experimental archaeology.” Since very little about Native American history was written down, interpreters don’t just learn from books but from living on site and building Native American-style huts by trial and error. “The staff are out there living the life, learning to make fishhooks from the toe bones of a deer.” Bodeman adds that these were inspired by deer bone fishhooks found by archaeologists.
African-American history is not interpreted at the museum, because there would have been very few, if any, enslaved Americans present in the original settlement. Slavery did not become a major institution before the 1660s. Throughout most of the 17th century, European indentured servants were much cheaper and more readily available.
There were also very few European women. Bodeman states that in 1650, the white population in the colony numbered about 600 and fewer than 200 of those people were women. Even at the end of the 17th century, there were still three men for every woman. The bulk of people coming to the colony were male indentured servants. A handful of wealthy men, such as the Calverts, came over to get the colony started. Malaria took a huge toll on the population and high death rates impacted both sexes. This, coupled with the scarcity of women and with high infant mortality, meant that immigration contributed more to the white population than live births. Moreover, indentured servants would be around 30 by the time they were free to marry and this also served to curb the birth rate. Yet court records of the period prove that some female indentured servants had children out of wedlock. Their masters would then seek to prolong their indenture to cover the costs of feeding the child. Court records of midwives provide a further glimpse into these early women’s histories.
What does Bodeman hope visitors will gain from a day at St. Mary’s? “A connection to the people who came before us,” she says. “I hope they would go away not with just bits and pieces of factual information, but a connection to what life was like 400 years ago. What motivated people then – things like getting clothes, food, and shelter – wasn’t different from what motivates people now. But how hard people had to work to get these things was very, very different.”
Those who are unable to visit St. Mary’s in person can take a virtual tour via the website.
In contrast to St. Mary’s serene backwater, Colonial Williamsburg is comprised of a monumental 301-acre Historic Area surrounded by a 3,000 acre greenbelt to help keep out 21st century intrusions. From 1699 to 1780, Williamsburg, Virginia was the capital of England’s oldest, largest, wealthiest, and most populous colony in the Americas. Named in honor of King William III and designed by Royal Governor Francis Nicholson, Williamsburg is one of America’s oldest planned communities. The restored city features no fewer than 88 original buildings and hundreds of others that have been reconstructed, most on their original foundations. Colonial Williamsburg portrays the capital during the years 1774-1781, the critical formative period of the American Republic. Also on site are Bassett Hall and the Wallace Gallery, which form the Museums of Williamsburg. The huge stores of collections include everything from period farm instruments to portraiture.
“The most unique thing about Williamsburg is our setting,” says Dr. Rex Ellis, vice president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “It’s like a stage set to tell a three-dimensional story. It allows us to take in the good, the bad, and the ugly. The buildings and reconstruction, the collections and reproductions build and design and acknowledge history in a different way than a textbook. We use a variety of ways to tell the story of history.”
The diversity of Early American experience is in evidence from sites ranging from the Governor’s Palace, the seat of British authority in the colony, and the Capital, the seat of colonial power and home of Virginia’s vote for independence, to Great Hopes Plantation, a working farm, which invites guests to become part of the experience of 1770s-era enslaved Americans and middling white planters. In contrast, the Peyton Randolph House examines urban slave life through participatory programs.
First and third person interpreters play a crucial role in bringing history to life. “The buildings are just structures,” says Ellis. “It’s the people that bring life to those things, the people that animate the buildings. The artifacts and collections are just a backdrop.” Interpreters are available throughout the day, and visitors who stick around until the evening can watch performances with scripted presentations.
The African-American experience in colonial Virginia is brought vividly to life by interpreters playing characters such as Lydia Broadnax, cook and slave to George Wythe, who was a mentor to Thomas Jefferson and one of signers of the Declaration of Independence. Wythe eventually freed Broadnax, who chose to remain in his service until his death – one of his heirs poisoned him. Eventually she acquired her own house in Richmond. Another interpreter plays the role of Gowan Pamphlet, a slave owned by entrepreneurial businesswoman Mrs. Jane Vobe, who ran the King’s Arms Tavern. In her service, Pamphlet waited on the likes of William Byrd III and George Washington. Gowan Pamphlet’s spiritual calling, however, steered his life in a completely different direction. He became a preacher, acting in defiance of laws not only forbidding persons of color to preach but also forbidding slaves to hold gatherings. After years of performing his ministry, including baptisms, in secret, he finally got his freedom and founded the First Black Baptist Church. Also interpreted is Ann Wager, a white woman who became mistress of the Bray School for African American children in 1760.
Third-person interpreters include costumed artisans representing the tradesmen and women of their day. These are professional, full-time artisans dedicated to specific trades, including carpentry, culinary arts, brick making, saddlery, apothecary arts, and gunsmithing. Guests can observe the artisans at work and ask them questions about their trade.
One program that Ellis believes no visitor should miss is The Revolutionary City. “This is the newest program we have to interpret history in a more responsible way,” Ellis explains. To convey the series of major events that illustrates Williamsburg’s central role in the American Revolution, each day consists of a two hour interactive program that portrays Colonial Americans’ transition from British subjects to citizens of a newly fledged American nation. This is conveyed in a series of scripted performances, such as a 30-year-old carpenter torn between family and war, and slaves weighing the ironies of the freedom their masters seek while denying the same liberties to them. Visitors will have the chance to connect to the characters’ personal stories. Ellis says he hopes this program will provide insight into the privilege and responsibility of being an American, and also an awareness of the sacrifices made by enslaved Americans, as well as European Americans, in the struggle for independence. “You can’t visit Williamsburg without being struck by the sacrifices made by our ancestors.” The Revolutionary City can also be experienced by video via Colonial Williamsburg’s website, details below.
I recommend devoting at least a full day to Williamsburg. There are plenty of hotels in the area and those who book ahead can enjoy a period meal in one of the taverns in the Historic Area. It’s an interesting experience to walk around the site in the evening after the crowds have gone home.
But even those who cannot manage to visit can learn a great deal through Colonial Williamsburg’s extensive website, which offers a variety of resources including virtual tours, podcasts, articles and online slideshows exploring African American history, children’s programs, an online research library focused on the 18th century and colonial period, and even a source list for 18th century costume design. .
Jamestown Settlement and Yorktown Victory Center
Close by Williamsburg are two additional living history sites, also superb. Jamestown Settlement has recreated the first English settlement in the Americas. Founded in 1607, Jamestown recently celebrated its 400th anniversary. Visitors can learn about the lives and trades of people in 17th century Virginia, including Powhatan Indians and European and African immigrants. Yorktown Victory Center is a must-visit for American Revolutionary War enthusiasts. The site interprets the lives of the men and women who witnessed the decisive Battle of Yorktown in October, 1781, which ended the six-year struggle for American independence. Information about both Jamestown and Yorktown can be found at the website.