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What is the real origin story of America?

Part two of our discussion with Joseph Kelly is about how the whole first three years of Jamestown was basically the struggle of common laborers who discovered what the reality on the ground was and who tried to escape. Many of them did, by melting into the Native American population, others got caught, tortured, and made examples of for their fellows who didn’t make it out.

How did the Virginia Company interact with the Native Americans? Who was John Smith? Was he a pirate king? Was Jamestown a slave‐​labor camp? Do we view the founding of America as truly a pilgrimage story?

Further Reading:

America was Founded by Runaways & Renegades, with Joseph Kelly, Part One: Liberty Chronicles Podcast

Soul Liberty, Toleration, and the Emergence of Religious Freedom in the Colonies, written by Micheal Rieger

The Horrifying Lives of Early Virginians: Liberty Chronicles Podcast



00:04 Anthony Comegna: Joseph Kelly joins us again on Liberty Chronicles for part two of our interview about his recent book, Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and a New History of America’s Origin.


00:20 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.


00:31 Anthony Comegna: Shifting our narrative over, across the water back to Virginia. It’s a mess, it’s a total mess, it’s definitely a failing colony. People are starving, the population is disappearing, the English population. The Native Americans are doing just fine. There are rumors that John Smith wants to set himself up as sort of a pirate king of Virginia, along the James River. Tell us about what is going on in Virginia, especially with attention to the fact that, really, this is still Tsenacomoco, or Native American territory. It’s barely Virginia.

01:10 Joseph Kelly: Right, right, yeah. So this is, while all these events are taking place in Bermuda, and even as the ships are sailing, or are getting ready to sail from England, it’s a “meanwhile, back at the ranch” situation in Virginia, from the very get‐​go. The Virginia Company governance had proved itself to be incompetent in Virginia, from April 1607, when they first came into Chesapeake Bay. By the time we get to the fall, half the people have died. Mostly of disease, and of course, that disease is exacerbated by their malnutrition. The President… Of course, John Smith himself, began the plantation of this colony in chains, because he had been suspected of sowing rebellion even before they arrived in Virginia. His chief kind of opponent was Edward Maria Wingfield, who becomes the first President, and when they get to Jamestown, Wingfield suspects him of insurrection even before they get there. So they put him in chains, and Wingfield actually wants to execute him. And that’s when they stop in the Caribbean Islands, but Newport prevents it from happening.

02:25 Joseph Kelly: When they get to Jamestown, they break open a secret box, which is going to tell everybody who the councilors are, who are gonna be governing. They don’t know who’s named by the company until they get there and they break it open. And lo and behold, one of the names on the list is John Smith. So they basically have to let him out of his imprisonment and allow him to help with the governance of Virginia. But there’s factions from the get‐​go. And within six months, Wingfield is deposed by a faction that John Smith is a part of. Another councilor is executed. The faction that deposed President Wingfield splits into two factions, the Smith faction and the Ratcliffe faction. So from the whole first two years of Jamestown is this history of factionalism, that contributes to their incompetence in providing for the settlers. So from the very beginning, the settlers could recognize this, and they saw that this was a disaster, and they begin deserting. From the very first summer, they are deserting to Indian camps.

03:30 Joseph Kelly: And so down there, on the grass roots, the English settlers have these fantastically friendly and productive relationships with the Indians. Even as some of the Native Americans are attacking the fort and some of the English are fighting some of the Native Americans, down here on the grassroots there’s a black market going on and there’s all sorts of interactions. There’s probably a lot of sexual interactions between the English and the Algonquians. ‘Cause we know, from what we know of Algonquian society, unwed young women were sexually active, and there was no taboo against that. So there’s all sorts of unofficial ties going on on the low level, on the grassroots level. And these continue on for two years. What’s remarkable about… When John Smith eventually gets dictatorial powers, when he becomes President, what’s remarkable about his presidency, is he kind of puts an end to this. He starts actually billeting his people in Indian villages, but he knows where they are. He can’t feed them in Jamestown, so he starts putting them in Indian villages. And essentially what John Smith is doing, is what Wingfield had accused him of, and Wingfield was afraid that he was going to be doing this, was of setting up his own kingdom on the James River.

05:01 Joseph Kelly: I don’t think… This is, again, this is maybe a kind of a controversial interpretation of John Smith, but I think the evidence makes it pretty incontrovertible that John Smith… He doesn’t set himself up basically as a pirate king. I think the analogy, the best analogy would be, he sets himself up as a [05:23] ____. He’s a paramount chief in the same way that the structure of Algonquian society on the Chesapeake was set up. The man we know as Powhatan, of course, is a paramount chief of maybe high 30s, maybe 35 to 40 different districts on the Chesapeake. Most of what we know as the James, New York and the Rappahannock, and even half the Potomac Rivers were under his jurisdiction, if you will, as a paramount chieftain.

05:57 Joseph Kelly: And what John Smith does is he sets his own paramount chieftain up on the James River. He separates the districts, the Native American districts, on the James River from what’s sometimes called the Powhatan Confederacy, so he becomes a rival to Wahunsenacawh, the man we know as Powhatan. So it’s not really a pirate king, but he sets himself up as this chief and he has pretty much dictatorial powers. But because he acts as a dictator, he’s got a lot of those grassroots settlers are very disgruntled with his rule and they’re deserting. They continue their desertions and they aid Powhatan in his attempts to overthrow… Get his districts back from John Smith. So essentially, there’s like a civil war going on the Chesapeake, and John Smith is allied with some Indian districts. And there are several English and other settlers, some German settlers as well, who are allied with the Wahunsenacawh on the York River. So it’s just as crazy what’s going on in Jamestown as what was going on in Bermuda, except writ larger, because there’s more people involved.

07:17 Joseph Kelly: So, this is the situation. Well, eventually, John Smith, he loses his own power struggle to the English and that’s what… The famous Starving Time that leads to cannibalism happened after James Smith, who had been wounded in what was probably an assassination attempt, heads back to England. The failure of the Sea Venture, which got shipwrecked in Bermuda, the failure of it to arrive in Virginia begins the Starving Time. They didn’t get the provisions that they expected from the Sea Venture because John Smith has gone, their relationship with the Indians completely deteriorates. So Jamestown starves. And this is what, once Governor Gates had built a ship in Bermuda and forced the settlers in Bermuda to get onboard and sails to Jamestown, they imagine that they’re gonna be rescued as they sail into Jamestown, that they’re gonna find a vibrant colony that is flourishing. Instead what they find are people who are lying in their cots starved to death, another basically skeleton stumbling out of their roofless huts in Jamestown, holding out their hands to these shipwrecked castaways from Bermuda and looking for rescue from the castaways themselves.

08:41 Joseph Kelly: Hardly ironic situation. So what happens immediately then is everybody, even Governor Gates recognizes how really precarious the situation is. He demands that they spend at least a couple of weeks trying to make it a go in Jamestown, but after those couple of weeks even he has to give in and recognize that this is not gonna succeed, that they’d better sail back to England right away or else they’re all gonna starve. And they get on the boats and they start sailing down the river. As they leave Jamestown, the settlers desperately wanna burn the place down to make sure that they are not brought back to it and essentially enslaved again. Governor Gates prevents them from burning it down, that’s his little pyrrhic victory as they get on the boats and they start sailing out. And lo and behold, before they make their way out of Chesapeake Bay, the fourth re‐​supply shows up with the new governor who’s bringing with him his own retinue of soldiers who force them all to go back to Jamestown.

09:52 Joseph Kelly: And then what ensues in the next year is maybe the worst, not for starvation, but certainly for considering Jamestown a slave labor camp. The new governor is a baron, he’s a lord in England, so he’s got tons of status, Baron De La Warr, our Delaware comes from his name. And he spreads the colony out, he’s got hundreds of new settlers and a giant contingent goes up to basically around the Richmond area where the Falls of the James River are, the highest navigable point. And there’s a big rebellion up there, probably dozens of people are trying to escape to the Indians, to escape out of the English jurisdiction and many of them are caught and they’re horribly tortured in ways that are just horrific to think about. The worst cases, they’re chained to trees and made to starve to death slowly, so their fellows can see them starving, and therefore be terrorized away from stealing their own labor away to the Indians themselves.

11:03 Joseph Kelly: So, the whole first three years of Jamestown is basically this struggle from common laborers who discover what the reality on the ground is and who try to escape. Many of them do, many of them do melt into Native America, others get caught, get tortured, become examples for their fellows who didn’t make it out. And that’s basically, it’s a cycle that goes on and on. I counted 14 different instances of what are described of as mutinies or insurrections by the Virginia Company in the first three years of the Jamestown settlement.

11:42 Anthony Comegna: And a lot of those will eventually emphasize Stephen Hopkins‐​like language that essentially we didn’t, look, we didn’t consent to all this. So then…

11:53 Joseph Kelly: Exactly, yeah.

11:54 Anthony Comegna: The most amazing thing perhaps about somebody like Stephen Hopkins, or him in particular here, is that this guy ends up signing the Mayflower Compact.

12:03 Joseph Kelly: Yes. [chuckle]

12:04 Anthony Comegna: How does that happen?

12:05 Joseph Kelly: Yeah, as I said, truth is stranger than fiction, right? You can’t make this stuff up. And again this is something that people have known basically since it happened, and yet people don’t seem to have made much of it, even Caleb Johnson, the guy I mentioned who is the biographer of Stephen Hopkins, he does kind of suggest that he probably had a hand in the composing of the Mayflower Compact. I think circumstantial evidence demonstrates that he had more than just a little hand. He must have been the one who was dictating the terms of it. If you read William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, the way he describes the circumstances leading to the Mayflower Compact is that because the Mayflower had gone off course and they had a patent to settle in territory that was governed by the Virginia Company and they were far north of the territory that the Virginia Company was allowed by its charter.

13:07 Joseph Kelly: So, Strangers among them and Bradford describes the two classes of people on the Mayflower as Strangers and Saints. And the Saints, of course, are the people we know of as Pilgrims, and the Strangers are those people, those settlers who are not part of the Pilgrim congregation. The Strangers were arguing that because they were about to settle in territory that was outside the Virginia Company jurisdiction, their contract with the Virginia Company was dissolved, it basically did not apply, and once they set foot on land, they would be free to do whatever they choose to do. This is the very language that Stephen Hopkins used to persuade people to his conspiracy in Bermuda.

13:54 Joseph Kelly: According to William Bradford, that’s what triggered the need for the Mayflower Compact. And then, we look at the language of the Mayflower Compact that the signees enter into the civil body politic. This is exactly what Stephen Hopkins was arguing that the settlers were going to do if they were able to get themselves off to their own island, in the Bermuda Islands and set up their own village, their own little town. So, the very language that leads up to the Mayflower Compact and the Mayflower Compact itself is identical to what the disgruntled settlers were trying to do in Virginia.

14:37 Joseph Kelly: And amazingly, I think this is another thing that’s not been recognized by historians which I don’t understand why not, is that this circumstance, in order to be thinking the way Stephen Hopkins was thinking, we’re entering into a contract or we’re governed by a contract. That contract is dissolved. Now, we are essentially political free agents. That whole concept depends on this confrontation with the wilderness, where you are standing in territory that is not governed by any European power, which is what was the case in Bermuda, of course, and what was going to be the case in Plymouth when the voyagers on the Mayflower set foot on dry land.

15:26 Joseph Kelly: They were gonna be entering into a wilderness that there was no pattern for it at all. So, they were entering into, essentially, what we now know of or describe of as the state of nature, man in a state of nature, where each individual is disconnected by any kind of obligations to every other individual and free to enter into any kind of set of mutual obligations where you give up certain rights in order to secure certain protections. So, of course, this is the language that Thomas Hobbes and John Locke are going to use later on in the 17th century, but Stephen Hopkins is pioneering this very concept 30 years before Leviathan is published, 40 years before Leviathan comes out.

16:19 Joseph Kelly: Now, of course, I’m not suggesting he uses that language of the state of nature, but I think even for Hobbes to conceive of the state of nature requires this confrontation with the wilderness that was taking place during the age of exploration and was being lived out by Stephen Hopkins, both in Bermuda and then in Massachusetts.

16:42 Anthony Comegna: And it seems to me, you go almost two centuries later and Tom Paine is there, talking about how this is what America should be. It should be a society built from the bottom up. We have an opportunity to begin government at the right end, just like on Hopkins’ Bermuda.

17:02 Joseph Kelly: Yes, and this is why I think this story is so important for us… Well, for people today to hear this story. It’s important for me to tell the story and what I certainly hope is that this book will inspire further research into what is going on in early America. Essentially, what I’m suggesting is we rethink of these settlements as examples of the frontier thesis. The first American frontier, of course, was the coastal plains up to the fall line, whether it’s in Massachusetts or whether it’s down on the Chesapeake Bay or in Bermuda, for that matter.

17:43 Joseph Kelly: I think we need to rethink what is the origin story of America, because what’s powerful about this story is the notion that we, as Americans, are the inheritors of these people in the state of nature, who enter into a contract with each other, and we do this in every generation. We need to renew it in every generation, so that people here today in 2018… Here, it is election day today, right? What are we doing, except entering into a contracted mutual consent with each other? That’s what’s particularly, I think, important and emphasized in the Hopkins story and the story of castaways and [18:34] ____ people being hurled into the wilderness.

18:37 Joseph Kelly: And it’s a corrective, I think, for what is pretty much the reigning king of American origin stories, which is the Pilgrim Tale. Now, of course, they’re people entering into the frontier, too, but the myth that we get with the Pilgrims is very different than the myth that I’m suggesting we ought to think of as our origin. The central thesis, if you will, of the Pilgrim story is a parallel to Exodus and this is, of course, how William Bradford imagines the Pilgrims themselves when he’s writing the Plymouth Plantation, God’s chosen people who are oppressed, who escape their bondage and head out into the wilderness, but the wilderness is a promised land, a land of milk and honey.

19:30 Joseph Kelly: They make a covenant with God, with the promise, the chosen people. The covenant, and his covenant is actually pretty well‐​articulated in 1630 by John Winthrop on the Arbella and he’s coming to settle the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The covenant says, “Hey, if God will prevent us from shipwrecking, if he can keep us from crashing and being hurled into the wilderness, we will remain faithful to him.” And that’s essentially what Puritan society in Massachusetts ends up doing and they end up setting up a theocracy, that city on a hill image. It’s a city on a hill because it remains faithful to this particularly strict interpretation of Christianity and by the second and third generation already, people like William Bradford are complaining about the backsliding of the settlers.

20:32 Joseph Kelly: So, the problem with Exodus is not just that we think of ourselves as the chosen people of God, but that whenever you think of yourselves as the chosen people of God, if you think of the foundation of our nation as being a covenant between ourselves and God, as opposed to a covenant between each other or contract between each other, always in the second or third generation, what follows the Exodus story is a Jeremiad and…

21:00 Joseph Kelly: Now, the great critic Sacvan Bercovitch recognized this back in the 1970s, this particularly distinctive form or genre of American discourse, American literature and also American political discourse is the Jeremiad, where a prophet rises up to harangue the current generation for not being faithful to the past, for not being true to the principles of our forefathers. So when you have the Exodus tale as your foundation myth, that’s always going to be succeeded. The sequel to Exodus, if you will, is going to be the Jeremiad. And what that demands of the present generation then is that, not that we ourselves make decisions about entering into a mutual contract with each other, but that we ourselves are bound to remain faithful to something in the past.

22:00 Joseph Kelly: Now, what that thing in the past is, what our image of that thing in the past is is gonna vary from generation to generation, which is why you have Ronald Reagan resurrecting this image of the city on a hill for the United States and describing that city on a hill in terms that would actually be abhorrent to the Pilgrims themselves. William Bradford bragged about how unfree this society was that he established in Massachusetts, he was very happy that Plymouth Plantation was less free, there was less liberty there than in England, and that’s what made the city shine, in his view. So Ronald Reagan, of course, borrowed that image, but he says the city is shining because of the virtues of liberty and equality. So the version of the past is gonna be different depending on whoever is, who is the Jeremiah crying in the wilderness. He’s gonna give us an image of a past that we have to remain faithful to. But in my mind, that’s not a very healthy way to think about our democracy.

23:12 Anthony Comegna: Joseph Kelly teaches literature at the College of Charleston, and I really cannot recommend his latest book more highly enough. Along with good old Benjamin Lay, I say let’s go ahead and named Stephen Hopkins another patron saint of Liberty Chronicles. And the kiss my arse guy, too. Gotta love that. It doesn’t get much more genuinely American than this.

23:39 Anthony Comegna: Liberty Chronicles is a project of lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.