Monday, September 1, 2008

The Road West

Here is where it all began. The year was 1607. A boatload of brave Englishmen landed on this exact spot to colonize a small part of Virginia. They had traveled for months on the stormy Atlantic to come for riches of gold and other treasures to send back to King James of England. They fittingly named their little settlement Jamestown, and the wide water that flowed next to it was named the James River.

They were gentlemen who wore fine clothing. There were few among them who were experienced enough with survival skills to thrive in the wilds of southern Virginia. They envisioned being welcomed by the natives with open arms and as conquering heros. They found out quickly that they were to be the conquered. They were conquered by disease, hunger, weakness in the face of a native people who wanted them to leave. Finding food was a big issue, defending themselves against those who wanted them gone was an issue, and staying alive was the biggest issue of all.

They came in late spring 1607 and by August many had died. Their beautiful site that seemed so perfect when they chose it became a mosquito ridden swamp in the hot doldrums of summer, and death came almost half of them that summer. The water of the river turned brackish from the sea a mere 30 miles downstream, so lack of fresh water added to the problems. Many were so sick, they welcomed death as an end to their suffereing.

I wanted to see this place for myself. In the Spring of 2008, my students in my advanced writing class studied the book, "Love and Hate In Jamestown" by David A. Price. Whenever I study about a place like this, I have a deep yearning to see the actual site for myself. Historic Jamestown is the place where archeologists are digging to find evidence of the exact location where the first settlement in the US began. They have found many artifacts, and found the location of the original walls of the fort, which had thought to be lost under the river because of erosion. They reconstructed one of the original pallisade walls to show what it looked like 400 years ago.

Seeing Jamestown for myself was a great thrill. The history that I read about and studied with my students came alive for me that day. It was a long journey for us to get our one hour of living history (we arrived in the late afternoon with only about an hour left before the place closed). For someone not famiiar with the story of Jamestown, this place was less than exciting. But for me, it brought a deeper understanding a very important time in the history of our country.

Then, as we traveled back to the midwest, we drove through the land which was the historic road west that the American settlers took---through the marshy lands of Virginia, to the piedmont, the high land that bridged the area between the sea and the eastern mountains. Then we tackled the highlands of the Appalachain chain of mountains, stretching their rolling hills as far as the eye could see to the north and to the south. How could settlers cross those hills in flimsy wagons, when our powerful truck labored to mount each hill? Their determination and quest for their own patch of land must have been so very strong. The impact of it all came flooding into my awareness as we travelled the miles westward.

We saw the big rivers of the eastern US, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri. Each of these rivers hold their own stories of the settlement of our country. The road west, whether it be on land or on water, contributed to our Irish and German ancestors seeking their place in the world, here in the midwest where we have set our roots. This trip was a living history experience for me, and very enjoyable.

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