Time Travelers in U.S. History

By Douglass K. Daniel
Photographs by Matthew Turley

For a busload of Louisiana Boy Scouts and Venturers, the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown colony serves as a lesson in the past and an education for the future.

Artisan Fred Schoppe, a historical interpreter at the Jamestown Settlement, demonstrates leathercraft to rapt Scouts of Louisiana's Troop 65.

No place has a stronger claim to the origins of the United States than a tiny island along a river in central Virginia. In 1607, three ships carrying 104 men dropped anchor there after five months at sea. They named their colony Jamestown in honor of their king, James I.

More people would follow, including women and enslaved Africans. For the first time, the English would survive the hardships of the New World and establish an American colony, the foundation of what would become a 50-state republic.

Exactly 400 years later, another band of explorers arrived in Jamestown. The quiet waters of the James River and the thick woods along its shores were a new world to them, too. For the Boy Scouts and Venturers of Troop and Crew 65 of Monroe, La., Jamestown was their first step on a journey into America’s past.

Sightseeing through history

Each year, by visiting different regions of the country -- even as far away as Hawaii and Alaska some years -- the Scouts return to Louisiana with a deeper appreciation of their nation’s past. Yet teaching Scouts about history is just one goal of Troop and Crew 65’s annual tour. Another is to give its members a better look at America today.

A staple crop at Jamestown, cotton still intrigues Alexis Bright and Joslyn Wright.

“History has a tendency to make people become patriotic,” said Troop 65 Scoutmaster Roosevelt Wright, pastor at the New Tabernacle Baptist Church, the troop’s chartered organization. “You support your country. You love your country when you know its faults, its failures, its shortcomings, as well as all of its successes and its strong points. Patriotism becomes imbedded in you once you know about it.”

In 2007, the Boy Scouts and Venturers chose destinations where the United States began: the 13 original colonies, stretching from Georgia to Maine.

Three dozen youth, accompanied by adult leaders, boarded their Bluebird tour bus for a two-week round-trip of nearly 4,000 miles. Most of these city kids had never seen tobacco fields or sailboats outside a TV screen.

On July 4, the Scouts arrived at Jamestown Settlement, a living-history museum located next to Jamestown Island, now preserved as a national park. Little of the original colony exists -- preservation of the area did not begin in earnest until the early 1900’s. Still, archeologists continue to find coins, armor, pottery, and other evidence of Jamestown’s past. Its most visible remnants, the ruins of a church tower, date to 1639.

To fill that gap of time, Jamestown Settlement built a traditional museum to put the past in focus with a historical narrative peppered with exhibits and artifacts. Then, outdoors, it re-created the key elements of early Jamestown life.

Passing through the museum, the teenagers learned a basic fact: Life was tough in Jamestown. Drinkable water and edible food were often in short supply. Disease was difficult to treat. The Powhatan Indians -- a confederation of 30 tribes in the region ruled by Chief Powhatan -- were hostile at times. And why not? These strange visitors to their lands seemed intent on staying.

The colonists nearly abandoned Jamestown in 1610. Their numbers, once as high as 214, had dwindled to 60 because of starvation and illness. Fresh settlers and supplies arrived just in time, and the colony kept going. Not until after tobacco began to be grown, in 1613, and relations with the Indians eased with the marriage of Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas to a colonist, in 1614, did Jamestown seem secure.

A replica of a Powhatan Village commemorates Jamestown’s first Americans. The round huts of saplings and mats of reed -- called yehakins -- grouped in the woods near the river gave the Scouts a glimpse into Native American life during Powhatan’s time.

Venturer Mary Jones, 16, bent slightly as she walked inside one of the yehakins. “This is kind of nice,” she said, pointing to the bedding of animal skins and the walls with colorful decorations and drying skins. Baskets and small handmade tables, just sticks lashed together, looked simple but sturdy.

To show how some of the items were made, historical interpreters demonstrated daily village chores. Some prepared hides with a shell, while others created rope from marsh grasses. Each yehakin had its own garden for raising corn, peas, squash, and other vegetables. Tools were likely to have been stones, wood, and shells.

Wooden ships

The Rev. Roosevelt Wright escorts Scouts past Jamestown's historic sailing ships.

Just beyond the village the Scouts found replicas of the ships that brought the English to Powhatan’s lands: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. Their cramped quarters offered a daunting vision of a months-long transatlantic passage. Even the largest, the Susan Constant, was little more than 100 feet in length.

Life Scout Travillion Pegross, 16, climbed down a ladder to the area below deck of the Susan Constant. Crossing the length of the ship took only a few strides of his long legs. There was little room for eating or sleeping. Comfort was not nearly as important as space for supplies on a long voyage.

From an opening in the ship’s hull, Travillion could see the James River disappear into the horizon. It was down this river that, in 1619, a Dutch ship brought the first Africans to Jamestown. Some black people in Jamestown were indentured servants, while others were enslaved. The number of slaves grew along with the booming trade in tobacco.

“When I found out that slaves had been brought to this port, it made me think of my ancestors,” Travillion said. “History makes me think about how everyone before me made life simpler and easier for my generation.”

A place to call home

When the English decided where to establish their colony, they immediately went to work protecting themselves. In just a month they pulled down trees and, placing them on end with sharpened points aimed at the sky, built a three-sided fort.

Within the walls of the re-created James Fort, circa 1610, the Boy Scouts and Venturers looked inside a church, armory, blacksmith’s shop, and tiny homes with thatched roofs. The structures were wood with a slathering of clay and sand, a plaster-like material called daub.

Lawrence Davis, a 15-year-old Boy Scout, examined the crude tools and other implements in the workshop.

“People did things more primitively,” Lawrence observed. “They made it without technology.”

Where victory was won

Troop 65 left Jamestown to visit nearby Yorktown.

By the late 1700’s, liberty was on the minds of Virginians. Many joined the Continental Army after the American Revolution began in 1775. And on the Yorktown battlefield, in 1781, Gen. George Washington’s Continental Army defeated the British to secure the independence the colonies had long sought.

At the Yorktown Victory Center, a living-history museum, the Scouts walked through a replica of a Tidewater Virginia tobacco farm. The farmhouse itself had just one room -- the kitchen was in a separate building. Vegetable gardens helped support the family and the enslaved workers living there.

Interpreters dressed in army uniforms staffed a replica of an army encampment, showing how the early American troops lived as they tried to gain their independence.

Alexis Bright, an 18-year-old Venturer, stared at the 5-foot-long, 11-pound land service musket held by 1st Sgt. T. J. Savage. At its end, the interpreter placed a long, sharp bayonet.

“We use gunfire to weaken the enemy’s resolve, then charge with bayonets,” Savage explained. “Bullets are more lethal, but, psychologically, that bayonet is more frightening.”

“You stick people with that?” asked Alexis. “You can’t do that to people!”

“That’s why it’s so effective -- it’s scary, too,” Savage said.

Alexis nodded with understanding. “So,” she said, “it’s a two-in-one weapon: a gun and a knife.”

When the past gets personal

With those simple but deadly weapons -- and a great deal of courage -- the Continental Army prevailed.

The American Revolution ended in Yorktown five years after the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776.

On the evening of their visit to Jamestown and Yorktown, Troop and Crew 65 looked up to the night sky for a blazing display of fireworks celebrating America’s birthday.

From that day on, those places and the ones they would visit in the other original colonies -- New York, Philadelphia, and Boston among them -- would become more than just names to the Scouts from Louisiana.

“I’ve seen it up close. It’s not boring. It isn’t just a picture in a textbook,” Mary Jones said.

“Without Boy Scouts, I probably wouldn’t have seen most of the things in my life,” Travillion Pegross said. “We go out on summer trips to learn. It’s a much greater experience to see it for yourself than just read about it in a book.”

Douglass K. Daniel is an editor in the Washington, D.C., bureau of The Associated Press.

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