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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · April 05, 2017

Meddling Metals in Early Virginia

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Jamestown Rediscovery-Omohundro Institute fellow Karin Amundsen discusses the work she undertook while in Williamsburg last fall. The next round of JR—OI fellowship applications is due April 17

by Karin A. Amundsen

“You say metals ‘intervened’ at key moments of Virginia’s early history. It sounds like you are giving them agency?” The upturned lilt at the end of the question suggested that perhaps I had not fully thought this through.  And to be frank, I really hadn’t.

Did I intend to endow inanimate objects and things with the capacity to act or exert power? I mulled it over.  And I came to the conclusion that yes, yes I am granting metals a limited form of agency as means to understand the role they played in the events at Roanoke and Jamestown.

This research is part of a larger project on the influence of metallurgy and alchemy on the development of English colonization projects in the Americas. My dissertation disrupts the persistent association of mining with plunder or easy wealth to examine the variety of motives English adventurers had in pursuing minerals in the Atlantic World.  Scholars typically focus on the acquisition of precious metals to enlarge England’s currency, underwrite overseas trade, and furnish a war chest against their European rivals, primarily Spain.  However, archaeological work conducted at Jamestown, Roanoke, and Falling Creek has shown that English metallurgical activities were not limited to finding gold and silver, but included base metals like copper, zinc, and iron to supplement the home market and satisfy intensified demand for ordnance, while preserving English woodlands for other purposes.[1]

The historiography on the search for mines in the Virginia colony tends to regard it as a distraction from more laborious but sustainable agricultural activities and as evidence of an impermanent mindset among adventurers.  For some adventurers this was no doubt true; however, a significant proportion of backers for both Roanoke and Jamestown already had experience in mineral enterprises and understood its risks, even if they expected to find conditions for mining and refining metals more amenable to profit in North America than in Britain. Mining was labor- and land-intensive and often took years (if ever) to become profitable. Even modest operations demanded considerable capital for labor, fuel, and ongoing maintenance, costs that could easily render a mine unprofitable.

As early as the Roanoke colony, promoters like Richard Hakluyt and Thomas Harriot advocated transplanting a cross-section of English society as the best means to ensure success in overseas mineral enterprises. The plantations they envisioned would exploit North America’s natural resources like timber and sassafras for short-term profits to encourage re-investment and support a miner’s community with husbandmen and artisans to provide for their daily needs. Mining was part of the long-term plan for settlement—albeit one they hoped to profit handsomely from—not an avenue to quick riches. At the end of the Virginia Company period, projectors had not learned that mining was incommensurate with plantation, but that large-scale industry required a stable agricultural base and population in order to be successful. Their plans were premature but not unfounded. Metals, however, did more than shape the desires and priorities of the projectors and adventurers; they were central to the course of events in Virginia.

I came to the Omohundro Institute and the Jamestown Rediscovery Center in Sept-Oct. 2016 to complete my research about metallurgical activities in the Virginia colony.  I had expected to split my time between research at the Jamestown Rediscovery Center and writing. The vast scholarship about Jamestown and Roanoke casts an intimidating shadow for a new scholar looking to say something original on the subject and when I arrived in Williamsburg, I had copious research notes and no argument to speak of. I had already started to dig into the archaeological literature about Jamestown and indigenous sites like Kiskiak, Werowocomoco, and Radford, but the material world of early Virginia only began to make sense to me once I was there.

An ill-timed hurricane cut my visits to Jamestown short, but the brief opportunity to walk among the remains of the fort and to view the sites of metallurgical and industrial activities impressed upon me the physical realities of settlement. A visit to the storage vault at the Rediscovery Center confirmed the ubiquity of metals in the settlement’s affairs: remains of crucibles, scorifiers, and slags testified to the colonists’ hopes of finding precious metals, zinc, and iron; discarded coins, jettons, tokens, beads, and scrap copper represented objects of exchange; copper aglets, curtain rings, and hinges were the ordinary items of English domestic life; and armor plates, helmets, shot, pikes, and halberds evidence of the colonists’ tumultuous relations with their indigenous neighbors and fears that the Spaniards would attempt to wipe out the fledgling settlement. A diversion to Yorktown and an unexpected live demonstration of blacksmithing enhanced my understanding of metalworking and further grounded me in the material world of early Virginia. Aided by fruitful discussions at the Omohundro Institute, the Jamestown Rediscovery Center, and with a colleague in Richmond, by the end of the fellowship period I had found my point of entry for discussing metals in the early Virginia colony.[2]

For better or worse, metals played an integral role in the colony’s development and social relations during the Virginia Company period. The English and Indians endowed metals with culturally-specific meanings, values and functions, which they assumed were more or less evident to those they interacted with. This was a significant source of mutual misunderstanding in the colony’s early decades. Whether as inert matter, a tool, instrument, or weapon, a currency or commodity with an agreed-upon value, or as a talisman of political and spiritual power, metals were supposed to do something, and historians can learn much about the breakdown of Anglo-Indian relations from their failure to behave as expected. Likewise, metals revealed disjunctures between the priorities of the Council, safely ensconced back in London, to find mines and to erect large-scale metalworks and the colonists’ daily struggle to survive and establish an adequate food supply to end their dependence upon the Indians and supply ships from England.

Between 1584 and 1624, metals helped determine the Virginia colony’s course. Initially, French, Spanish, and Indian rumors of an Appalachian El Dorado spurred Sir Walter Ralegh’s interest in the mid-Atlantic coast for an English colony and sustained interest in the Chesapeake during the intervening two decades after the Roanoke colony disappeared.[3]  Precious metals likewise attracted the Virginia Company, but with Thomas Harriot’s intelligence about an indigenous copper economy, they concentrated on locating copper deposits and a quality source of calamine stone to make brass, and therefore prevent the collapse of the English copper industry.  Scrap copper provided by the Company of Mines Royal and the Company of Mineral & Battery Works to test zinc ores proved a means to establish harmonious relations with Wahunsenacawh, paramount chief of the Powhatan. As a source of spiritual and political power, copper gave Wahunsenacawh a reason to tolerate these interlopers, as long as he retained control over its distribution; by 1609, copper helped unravel these relations, after unrestricted English trade devalued it as a prestige good and the English refused to barter their arms for food instead. Faced with famine and his authority undermined by English intrusion into the metal economy, Wahunsenacawh withdrew his protection of the settlement during the “starving time” in the winter 1609-10.  Nonetheless, English copper and base metal goods secured the settlers enough indigenous support to survive. [4]

With the colony on the precipice of disaster, Virginia’s deposits of bog iron attracted a new wave of investment in the company in 1609 and, more consequentially, in 1617-19, as English ironmasters turned to North America to salvage their industry.  Among those who supported Sir Edwin Sandys in his bid to become treasurer of the Virginia Company, iron—the metal defended by Georgius Agricola in De re metallica (Frankfurt, 1556) as the foundation of civilized life—would rescue England from its dependence upon that tyrannous stink weed, tobacco, and establish the Virginia colony’s economy on an honorable foundation. The construction of a blast furnace at Falling Creek, deep in Powhatan territory, initially stood as a beacon of the Virginia Company’s future success, but ultimately doomed it.  In 1622 the Indians destroyed the ironworks as symbolic retribution for the obliteration of their economy, their native identities, and their lands; the company’s inability to rebuild the works prompted the Crown to initiate quo warranto proceedings against the Virginia Company for gross mismanagement. After a review of company records, the Crown revoked the Virginia Company’s charter in 1624.

[1] Carter C. Hudgins, “Articles of Exchange or Ingredients of New World Metallurgy?: An Examination of the Industrial and Metallurgical Functions of Scrap Copper at Early Jamestown (C. 1607-1617),” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 3, no. 1 (Spring 2005): 32–64;  Marcos Martinón-Torres and Thilo Rehren, “Trials and Errors in Search of Mineral Wealth: Metallurgical Experiments in Early Colonial Jamestown,” Rittenhouse: The Journal of American Sciencific Instrument Enterprise 21, no. 66 (2007): 82–97; Nicholas M. Luccketti, “Copper Carrieth Ye Price of All, or How Thomas Harriot May Have Saved Jamestown” in A Glorious Empire : Archaeology and the Tudor-Stuart Atlantic World : Essays in Honor of Ivor Noël Hume, ed. Eric C. Klingelhofer, (Oxford; Oakville, CT, 2013): 1-11; Beverly Ann Straube, “‘And He That in Virginia Shall Copper Coin Receive’: Explicating an Undocumented Fiscal Scheme in the Early English Settlement at Jamestown through Archaeological Evidence,” (Dissertation, University of Leicester, 2014).

[2] Thank you to Karin Wulf, Nadine Zimmerli, and Paul Mapp from the Omohundro Institute, Susan Riggs from the Special Collections at Swem Library, and James Horn from the Jamestown Rediscovery Center for all of their help in locating relevant sources. A special thank you to Nicholas Lucketti and Beverly Straube for their assistance in understanding the archaeology and to Kimberly Borchard of Randolph-Macon College, who graciously shared her work on an “Appalachian El Dorado.”

[3] Kimberly C. Borchard, “Appalachia as a Contested Borderland of the Early Modern Atlantic, 1528-1682.” West Virginia History. Forthcoming Fall 2017; James Horn, A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke (New York, 2010)

[4] James Horn, A Land as God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. New York: Basic Books, 2005; Seth Mallios and Shane Emmett, “Demand, Supply, and Elasticity in the Copper Trade at Early Jamestown,” The Journal of the Jamestown Rediscovery Center 2 (2004).

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