The Overblown History of 1619 in Virginia

Jim Glanville. Local Historian.

This year has produced many news stories about Virginia historical events in 1619 and their supposed role in the founding of global democracy, the adoption of women’s suffrage, and the acceptance of African-Americans.

These stories originate in a highly-professional, sophisticated tourism campaign aimed at promoting the Jamestown-Williamsburg-Yorktown area, labeled by the tourism industry “America’s historic triangle.”

Readers can judge the extent of the campaign by viewing its slick, high-quality publicity video titled “Evolution of America: 1619 to Today,” viewable via Maryland Public Television at https://tinyurl.com/1619Video. The video’s blurb makes the overblown claim that it explores pivotal events significant in the story of America. The events the video describes were neither pivotal nor particularly historically significant.

Despite its obvious professionalism, the narrative of the video is frequently hard to follow because of the overly loud musical background. The video opens with the Wampanoag Indians and the arrival of the Pilgrim-carrying “Mayflower” in Massachusetts in 1620; that’s interesting, but hardly relevant to the Virginia story.

Funding for this heavily government-subsidized video came from “2019 Commemoration, Inc.” Information about this rather obscure organization comes from its federal tax filing. According to its Form 990, the organization’s mission is “to supplement the activities of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, an agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia, to plan events and programs to commemorate the 400th anniversary of landmark events in Virginia’s history, the first representative legislative assembly in the New World, the arrival of the first recorded Africans to British America, the impact of women to expand the Virginia colony, the precedent for America’s first Thanksgiving and the entrepreneurialism and innovation of the Virginia Colony.”

Trustees of “2019 Commemoration, Inc.” are mostly high-ranked Virginia Republican politicians and high-powered Richmond lawyers. Funding for 2019 Commemoration, Inc. comes from the commonwealth itself and well-known Virginia corporations such as Dominion Resources, Altria Group and TowneBank.

“Evolution of America: 1619 to Today,” promotes the traditional eastern Virginia bias that everything good and great in world history began at Jamestown. Missing is the more comprehensive view that America was built by a massive migration through western Virginia and the continuous westward extension of the Virginia system of local county government.

As this columnist has written elsewhere, “The history of eastern Virginia is perhaps most significant for the history of the state. However, it is the history of western Virginia that is most significant for the history of America.”

It took a long time for the so-called “landmark events” of 1619 to bear fruit in our modern-day Virginian diversity. As late as 1956, massive resistance to the racial integration of its schools was Virginia’s official policy; and still after 400 years Virginia remains one of seven U.S. states never to have had either a woman governor or a woman U.S. senator.

 

There is one minor topic featured in the video, which this columnist can readily support. That is that the first English Thanksgiving celebration in America was in Virginia and not held up north by the Pilgrims in 1620. In a cameo appearance, Graham Woodlief tells that it was his ancestor John Woodlief, the captain of the ship “Margaret,” who first celebrated an Anglo-American Thanksgiving in 1619 beside the James River. More about how the Yankees stole our Thanksgiving in a later column.

Predictably, the video makes no mention of the 1565 Spanish Thanksgiving held at St. Augustine, Florida. Nor does it mention the black African slaves who participated in Spanish expeditions to the future New Mexico as early as 1530.

A cynic could argue that the gathering of representatives of the seven 1619 Virginia plantations at the behest of the Virginia Company in London was more like a stockholders meeting than an exercise in democracy.

Not mentioned anywhere is the fact that 1619 Virginia was supported by English lotteries. According to the historian Arthur Middleton, King James I by a 1612 charter authorized the Virginia Company to raise money through public gambling. So much money was raised in 1619 and 1620 that Parliament received complaints that Virginia trade and industry were being demoralized because of the popular excitement caused by lotteries. In 1621 lotteries were banned, and the Virginia Company lost its only source of revenue. Fortunately, salvation soon came with John Rolfe’s tobacco raising.

Unexpectedly, the publicity campaign for Virginia’s historic triangle has sparked a current political controversy. President Donald Trump has been invited to visit Jamestown in August during the week-long celebration of the “first representative legislative assembly in the New World.” Some Democratic politicians such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi have declined an invitation to attend if the President accepts his invitation and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has resigned in protest from the 2019 Commemoration steering and planning committees.

On the other hand, Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has announced he will attend saying that “historic commemorations are more important than the ‘frenzied and fickle politics of the moment.'” Likewise, U.S. Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.) will not boycott the event because “it’s not about the President,” and U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) also said she planned to attend.

Getting history right is a never-ending challenge, and especially so in Virginia where one has always to be on guard against junk history.

 

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of southwest Virginia. He can be reached at jglanvil@blacksburg.net.

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