Tobacco and Jane of Jamestown

When you are in Colonial Williamsburg you are transported back into time. It is easy to look around view it just as a tourist attraction. You can look around and see people around just like you, adorned with cameras, maps and comfortable walking shoes. You can also choose to let your mind travel back 300 years into some of the best and worst times in our history’s past. Williamsburg was a perfect way to alter my mindset for the remainder of the trip.

Today after walking through busy Annapolis all day we traveled 3 miles outside of the city to London town. We arrived at the Historic London Town and Gardens. We met with our tour guide John, who took us around to the reconstructed sites. We started at the William Brown house, it was built in 1760, years after the town was founded in 1683. We learned that the Brown house was built using Georgian architecture, which places an emphasis on symmetry not only on the exterior of the house but on the interior as well. When viewing the brick mansion from the outside I noticed there was something different about the bricks, they almost looked smaller.The brick laying pattern is unique and usually only found in wealthier colonial mansions because by utilizing only the short side, or head of the brick, you need more of them. While this may seem wasteful to people today it was all about appearances during the 18th century, sound familiar? It was common if at all to have one or two main sides of the house to be covered in that pattern but Mr. William Brown was a showy man who decided to have it on all sides of the house. Not only is the house ornate, made nearly entirely of bricks including the interior walls, and perfectly symmetrical it was I am sure in its time filled with fine imported goods.

The location of the town shows how valuable having a house in that area would be. London Town was founded because of the three major “T”s trade, transportation and tobacco. London Town is situated on the South River, which serves as a ferry crossing along the main route which connects the 13 colonies. London Town is not only conveniently located amongst the 13 other colonies but also has navigable water on the Chesapeake Bay which makes international transport seem simple.
Transportation among the colonies and import and trade of goods internationally lead to heightened success in the town during the mid 18th century. It is the third “T” tobacco that lead London Town to its highest success and then became its greatest downfall.

Through our study of the history of the Chesapeake Bay and early colonization we have learned about the impact tobacco has had on the New World economy. Just as they say though ‘all good things must come to an end’. Tobacco production came to a screeching halt in the late 18th century. It’s downfall can be attributed to a number of things. Overproduction of the crop lead to decreasing prices both locally and internationally. There was also an unfortunate lack of understanding of how farming works, the importance of concepts like crop rotation were learned the hard way when year after year production levels dropped.

Tobacco like this served as an intergral part of the New Worlds economy and social culture.
Tobacco like this served as an intergral part of the New Worlds economy and social culture.

Initially tobacco farming brought settlers but as the crop production began to take off more hands were needed to care for the crop. The colonists began to import slaves and indentured servants, who would spend hours in the field tending to the plant. Picking off bugs and breaking off flowers were among some of the ways that could make a tobacco plant more productive. One of the most interesting stories we learned in London Town was the story of the body beneath the floorboards. During an excavation of a site, which is now known as the Carpenter’s Shop an area approximately 1×3 ft was discovered. The area which showed typical signs of soil variation indicated that a coffin had been there. The discovering archaeologist carefully dug deeper finding a shadow of a skeleton. The only salvageable bones left were the teeth. The teeth they know belonged to a young child between the ages of 2-5.

There were not any western traditions like this at the time the child was buried. There were however some west african traditions and historical records that indicated boats from Angola and Barbados carried slaves and servants over to work during these times. The body although not identifiable by race is believed to have been the child of a west African slave who followed tradition even though thousands of miles from home. The child was buried between the joists, which are parallel wooden boards that connect the floorboards. This evidence supported the belief that the child was buried at the “heart of the home” after its construction.

This discovery, similar to the excavation of Jane in Jamestown goes to show you how much artifacts can tell you about life hundreds of years ago. It is only thanks to aerobic conditions that so much of our history has been preserved. In the soil table if there was large amounts of oxygen found in the soil, bacteria and microorganisms would flourish and break down anything considered a “foreign object” to the natural environment. Among numerous artifacts preserved in the soil there were tobacco pipe pieces found all over. Our tour guide explained that the long pipe would get clogged and people would simply break off the clay piece and continue to smoke. Everyone smoked. If you were a man, a woman, or a child over 12 you smoked. They believe that smoking was good for you and could cure ailments as wide ranged as a cough to female labor pains. Tobacco was smoked so regularly that the grit from the clay in the pipe would actually wear down a hole like area in the teeth. The tooth wear down pattern is still visible in the jaw and tooth structures we are unearthing today.

I think it is incredible to be able to dig artifacts out of the earth. Artifacts are not just pieces of our history, they helped shape our history. I think that artifacts allowed for enrichment in our past during Journey 1. What is now a 23-acre historical site, used to be a busy and productive town. The things we now find in the soil were used by the people who walked on the land beneath our own footsteps 300 years before us. They didn’t know everything about the soil, as we can see reflected in the mismanagement of tobacco. Today it is clear that we do not know everything, and quite frankly I do not think that knowing exactly how and why everything is the way it is, is the answer. I think that just as we speculate about our past we can only speculate about our future.

Society in certain terms has not changed much over the last 300 or even 400 years. Sure we have social and racial equality and I am by no means undermining their importance, but we need more than that. It’s not a matter of equality anymore as far as I’m concerned. Advancements in technology that’s a category within itself but its more general than that.

Understanding the relationship between humans and nature is something far more crucial today than it has ever been. As a society we have always placed an emphasis on instrumental values. It’s been the things, who has the biggest door, biggest house, biggest field that have ruled our society. Starting in the 17th century here in America there has been pressure to “keep up with the Jones’s”. After 400 years I am not sure how to understand the origin of this social class breakdown. It’s all about competition even today in the 21st century. Who has the fastest car? Biggest vacation home? You get the point but what I’m trying to say is there is no turning back. Our past should stay where it has and always will be, in the past but it has managed to infiltrate through generations.

The problem we face today is hard to conceptualize but understanding the origin of the environmental problem is even more challenging. We are all products of the 21st century and as much as I would like to go back and live 400 years ago, knowing what I know today I cannot. I do feel that our only hope is to understand the past, not just learn about it by reading stuff in textbooks but to actually experience it like we have this week. The problems we face today especially those regarding the Bay are all rooted in a lack of understanding. We still have a lot to learn about the world and the environment …I mean just think about how many years people thought the earth was flat?

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