As wildfires tore across Western Europe and the American West, I was reading Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World (2022), Barry Lopez’s posthumous essay collection. I hadn’t thought a lot about the actual earth beneath our feet as destiny, as perhaps the largest factor in making us what we are as Americans. But I paused at Lopez’s reminder that “geography, some scholars believe, has subtly but directly influenced the development of our cultures, our languages, our diets, our social organization, and to some degree even our politics.”
Over the past six years, many have concluded that to understand America’s divisiveness you need to set the Way Back Machine to the Federalists/anti-Federalists debates. But maybe, I thought, geography played more of role in this chronic schism.
It was reported in May that the colonial Jamestown archaeological site is on track to be soon underwater owing to climate change. Situated on a low-lying tidewater island in the Chesapeake, it has the James River on one side and a swamp on the other. And more and more rain because of a changing climate.
This submersion seems a sad but fitting coda to the awfulness of Jamestown. If you remember your history, the colony’s disastrous initial settling stands in contrast to the pilgrims’ landing in Massachusetts. The blue-book question is always: Why did one colony succeed while the other faltered?
We know the dark parts of the Puritan narrative from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Arthur Miller—the hypocrisies, the scapegoating, the witch trials and banishments. Still, this was settlement by people intent on forming communities where they themselves would live. The goal was survival and growth—and of course displacing and killing the native peoples who lived on that land.
The meme for puritan geography is Plymouth Rock, an echo of Jesus telling Peter he was the rock on which a church would be built. It also denoted the rocky New England landscape that posed a challenge to anyone envisioning plantation-style farming, at least until the settlers filtered out to better farmlands in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
John Winthrop’s “we shall be as a city upon a hill” established the concept of moral high ground—interpreted by Ronald Reagan to mean tax-avoiding neoliberals sitting high above the fray of an underclass. But you could also interpret as: We ran up against this giant hill of rock and we built a city anyway.
Jamestown, however, was another story. While the Puritans’ rocky ground was at least solid, Jamestown was a mosquito-ridden swampland. And its settlers were completely different—speculators revved up by the Crown-created Virginia Company, representing the worst of British imperialism. These were the crypto maniacs of their day. They got off the boat in 1607 looking for deals—boundless resources to exploit to get rich quick.
What they found instead was disease and starvation, but that’s because men from this social class (and it was initially all men) hadn’t done much actual labor, and when they got sick, their lack of resourcefulness created a death spiral that their manservants could do nothing about. As one colonist lamented: “this place [is] a meere plantacion of sorrowes and Cropp of trobles, having been plentifull in nothing but want and wanting nothing but plenty.”
The tidewater geography rejected and punished. It didn’t portend the bustling independent commerce of 1770 Boston but a landscape of intermittent shotgun shacks on cinderblocks all the way down to the Mississippi delta. In 1624, King James pulled the plug on this early Reagan/Thatcher privatization model, revoking the Virginia Company’s charter and making Virginia a colony.
But the Jamestown speculators did find something to exploit: in 1612 they began planting large crops of the tobacco that native peoples had been growing. Because African slaves were hard to come by during the first half of that century, the brutal work in the tobacco fields was initially done by indentured servants—boys as young as 16 brought over to work for a decade without wages or freedom. And their buyers even speculated on the terms of indenture, selling off contracts to up the margin on human servitude. In short: a warmup act for slavery.
There’s a longstanding argument that New Englanders weren’t more virtuous about slavery; they just didn’t have the land for it. But this doesn’t hold up when you consider the desires of these two vastly different groups: trying to create community (“democracy”) versus trying to create capital (“freedom”). A plantation mentality of social and economic polarization came with the geography—not just slavery but the sharecropper culture of diminished economic expectations.
It’s interesting that the Red State inheritors of the Jamestown business model are the ones whining about “draining the swamp,” when the reason that the nation’s capital was built on a swamp a couple rivers north from the James was to appease Southern states. In terms of geography, the home-court advantage was given to the side that was (and is) “plentifull in nothing but want and wanting nothing but plenty.”
The possible climate-caused archeological loss at Jamestown is admittedly tragic: bones and artifacts of the early colonists as well as possible artifacts from the native peoples who had lived there centuries before and from the first slaves who arrived there in 1619. But this sorry point of entry is still a stain on our nation’s past.
In this era of digital space where so many of us do our living off the actual land, the historical imprint of geography can seem irrelevant. Look longer, however, and you’ll see the nihilistic drive of those Jamestown speculators and later the plantation owners thriving in today’s Republican Party. Their mascots are the white St. Louis couple who waved their personal arsenal of guns at peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in July 2020.
Those in the Jamestown fold have become the drivers of fossil fuels, fracking, deforestation and wetlands destruction, pipelines across pristine wilderness—everything destroying our shared geography. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the stability of our democracy is faltering alongside that of our geography—just when that toxic deal made at Jamestown has finally found its place underwater. §