Karen Ordahl Kupperman

England was late on the American colonial scene. When Jamestown, the first permanent English colony, was founded in 1607, the Virginia Company and its settlers were intruding on well-trodden European pathways and among very experienced American Indians. Jamestown was the first English colony, but San Agustín in Florida was the first European colony in the future United States. Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English mariners had traveled in the Chesapeake Bay, and Spanish Jesuits had attempted to found a colony there almost four decades earlier. Moreover, the last group of colonists deposited by Sir Walter Raleigh on Roanoke Island to the south two decades earlier may have made their way up to the Chesapeake Bay and lived out their lives among the native population. At least one native of the region, a man known only by his Spanish name Don Luis de Velasco, had traveled to Europe and Spanish colonies farther south before returning to his Pamunkey people. English colonists in Virginia could thus draw on the experience of their predecessors. And the Pamunkeys among whom they settled, known to the colonists as the Powhatans after the powerful chief who led them, understood well the potential benefits and problems their presence would generate.

The 2000 NEH Summer Institute on "Texts of Imagination and Empire: The Founding of Jamestown in Its Atlantic Context" sought to place Jamestown in the context of all the relationships and patterns being formed in and around the Atlantic at the beginning of the seventeenth century. England's entry into transatlantic colonial enterprises was a literary event. Because each colony was sponsored by a joint-stock company, the need for continuing investment was acute, and this need fostered an outpouring of writings from the colonies describing the land, its resources and qualities, the Americans, and the nature and progress of the colonies. All these writings were promotional, but many aspired to accuracy and some to literary quality. Highly educated men such as John Pory, George Sandys, William Strachey, Roger Williams, and John Winthrop wrote for their peers in England. Other men, most notably Captain John Smith, claimed the superior credentials of experience and developed a new kind of authority in writing. All these documents, and the maps, drawings, engravings, and other kinds of texts from the first decades of colonization, formed the focus of the institute.

The institute brought together scholars from literature, history, archaeology, and public history to read the early texts intensively in the light of recent scholarly analysis. Visiting scholars each week brought their own expertise to our discussions and helped us make interdisciplinary connections. We also explored the resources available on the web and decided to offer the following set of essays as our contribution to the ongoing discourse on European expansion and the American response and the kinds of relationships these initiatives spawned. The gateways to the various essays by institute participants are sites on the map of the Chesapeake first published in Captain John Smith's A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Country, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (Oxford, 1612). This book and the map were later incorporated into his great synthesis, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles (London, 1624).

Click to Open the Maltese Cross Map ToolSmith based the map on his own exploration of Chesapeake Bay, and he incorporated native knowledge for the regions beyond his own travels. The boundaries between the two kinds of knowledge are indicated by a series of Maltese crosses.

We deemed Smith's map an appropriate platform from Click to Open the Highlight Map Toolwhich to offer our own analyses of Jamestown's surviving records. Each essay offers links to contemporary illustrations from the Folger Shakespeare Library's rich collections. Click on the highlighted sites to find the essays and their further links.