Glenn Uminowicz - October 2007

The Polish Connection to Global Jamestown


Glenn Uminowicz

Executive Director, Historical Society of Talbot County

The Polish contribution to Jamestown and the fabric of early America makes it a cornerstone of the American experience. The saving of Jamestown after its first disastrous year was due in large part to the efforts of those original Poles. The saving of the life of the Jamestown hero Captain John Smith resulted from the actions of these men. The example they showed by their industrious work ethic and their efforts to gain and retain their own individual freedom provided a model for generations of later colonists and Americans.

From The Role and Accomplishments of Polish Pioneers in the Jamestown Colony (July 2007)
A paper prepared by interns at the Polish American Congress

    While a graduate student several decades ago, I came upon a slim volume in a university library. The monograph explored the history of the early Polish settlers of Virginia.
     In 2007, we celebrate what is being billed as “America’s 400th Anniversary.” In 1607, three small ships sailed up the Chesapeake and discovered a land of “fair meadows and goodly tall trees, with such fresh waters running through the woods.” The fortified outpost the settlers constructed became the first permanent English settlement in America – Jamestown.
     The organizers of Jamestown 2007 hope to use the anniversary to “capture the spirit, imagination, and diversity of Americans” and “showcase Virginia’s unique role as the birthplace of modern America and the cradle of American democratic traditions, cultures, ideologies and principles – 400 years strong.”
     The commemoration of significant historical events often says more about the celebrants than it does about the historical figures they seek to recognize. Claiming for Jamestown the title of “birthplace of modern America” constitutes firing a salvo across the centuries at a competitor also staking claim to the nation’s creation myth – the Pilgrims.
     More than one commentator has observed that the story of early Jamestown includes famine, battles with Indians, greed, backstabbing, conquest, slavery, the founding of the nation’s first representative assembly, and a mythic love story between Pocahontas and John Smith. So why have Americans so strongly focused on the Pilgrims and their damned rock?
     In A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America (2005), James Horn observes that Southerners preferred the Chesapeake tale of John Smith while New Englanders celebrated the piety of the Pilgrims in the years before the Civil War. After the war, the cultural ascendancy of the North led to New England’s foundation myth eclipsing that of the South. In addition, the Pilgrim saga proved easier to sanitize and make noble and godly.
     Horn, who serves as director of the Rockefeller Library at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, insists that Americans are now much more accepting of a nuanced interpretation of their history that acknowledges flaws in the national character. In short, an almost failed colonial experiment in a swamp merits as much attention as the Pilgrims’ “Little Commonwealth.”
     For one group of Americans, however, the story of Jamestown as currently being told remains incomplete. In January of this year, Frank J. Spula, President of the Polish American Congress, issued a “Jamestown Appeal” to the Polish-American community. In 1608, the resupply ship Mary and Margaret arrived at Jamestown. On board were eight Germans and Poles tasked with establishing a glass making operation and producing naval stores (tar and pitch). Spula insisted that officials at the Jamestown and Yorktown Foundation had failed to recognize the role of the Polish pioneers in Virginia. He called on all members of the “American Polonia” to set the record straight.
     The claims for the Jamestown Poles remain largely the same as those in the book I discovered several decades ago. By constructing a glass furnace, the Poles established the first industrial enterprise in British North America. When Captain John Smith suffered an Indian attack near the glasshouse, two Poles saved his life. In 1619, colonists voted for the first representative assembly in America. It was announced that only Englishmen would be permitted to vote. In response, the Jamestown Poles laid down their tools, taking the first labor action in defense of civil liberties in the Americas. Finally, the claim was made that the Jamestown Poles brought baseball to America. They did not call it baseball. They called it “batball.” No Polish jokes please. There is no evidence that they tossed a bat and tried to hit it with the ball.
     Not all of the above claims have gone uncontested. The President of the German Heritage Society of Greater Washington D.C., for example, insists that the Jamestown glassmakers were Germans. As for baseball, I have found only one website referencing the possibility that the national pastime was invented in Poland and arrived at Jamestown in 1608.
     In reality, the Polish pioneers offer an opportunity to explore new perspectives on Jamestown. On the website, James Horn participated in a program on “Global Jamestown and the Poles.” Patrick Griffin from the University of Virginia and John Radzilowski from the University of St. Thomas joined Horn.
     Many of the one hundred and four Englishmen who first landed at Jamestown were already men of the world. They had traveled to the Caribbean, South America, West Africa, Russia and China. Captain John Smith fought as a young mercenary across France, the Netherlands and southwest Europe to the edge of the Ottoman Empire.
     From the beginning, Jamestown was a business enterprise. The Virginia Company recruited skilled workers from throughout Europe, including Italian glassmakers, German miners, French winemakers and Poles skilled in making tar and pitch. England connected Jamestown to an Atlantic Economy. The British traded everywhere and anywhere. Grain and lumber products reached London, for example, through the Polish port of Gdansk. At Jamestown, the British hoped to develop their own source of masts, clapboards, tar and pitch. Horn and his colleagues observed that the 17th-century world ran on wood and wood products. Dark, viscous pitch served as the era’s universal glue, sealing up everything from ships to casks to houses. It was the crude oil of the 17th century.
     Placing Jamestown within a global perspective constitutes a new interpretation of colonial history. Exponents of an older viewpoint included architect and arts educator H. Chandlee Forman, who wrote extensively on the architecture and artifacts of Colonial Tidewater Maryland. As a young professional, he was involved in an archeological investigation of Jamestown for the National Park Service. His Jamestown experience and subsequent research led Forman to conclude, “No one can fully understand early Maryland including the Eastern Shore without some knowledge of the history, arts, and customs of Great Britain and Ireland.”
     Forman argued, “Our artifacts show us to be more British than we knew.” This was true of as simple an object as a rushlight that he connected with remote cottages in Yorkshire. For Forman, it was certainly true regarding architecture. He identified five architectural styles in the Colonial and Early National periods, all of which were British. Buildings constructed in these styles after the period in which they flourished constituted a sixth style – the Hangover Style.
     Today, for example, residents of Easton often point to their town’s architecture as marking it as the “Colonial Capital of the Eastern Shore.” In the 1950s, however, Forman himself insisted that his proposed restoration of the county courthouse square was “done not in Colonial or Post Colonial, but in Hangover Georgian.” He further asserted, “Literally, there is no such thing in the architecture of Tidewater Maryland as the Colonial Style or the Colonial Type – Eastern Shoremen, please note. The Colonial is a myth and never existed at all. During the colonial period there were only the English styles.” In short, for Forman, Easton’s architecture did not illustrate that it was the “Colonial Capitol of the Eastern Shore.” The courthouse square and subsequent “modern colonial” buildings brand the town as the Hangover Capitol of the Eastern Shore.
     In 2007, James Horn and his colleagues have broadened Forman’s perspective on the colonial world. They insist that we were more British than even Forman knew. In the 17th century, as the Jamestown Poles illustrate, the British recruited artisans from around the world to produce raw materials and artifacts that reflected a vibrant global economy. With the introduction of slave labor in 1619, African influences were introduced to the colony. The historians at note that we think of ourselves today in global terms. In fact, the first settlers at Jamestown were more like us than we realize.