July 27-Aug. 9, 2001
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Teachers explore Jamestown’s impact
Matt Kelly
William G. Thomas (top center) and Crandall Shifflett (right) raise some issues of regional history with teachers from around the country, here to study Jamestown and its impact on American history.

Staff report

Anticipating the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America, history teachers from around the country are participating in a major reexamination of colonial America that takes a fresh look at Jamestown’s complex meaning for our national heritage.

Many historians, Native Americans, African-Americans and others are uncertain about what they are to “celebrate” in the anniversary, said Crandall Shifflett, director of graduate studies in history at Virginia Tech, and William G. Thomas, director of U.Va.’s Center for Digital History, co-directors of the seminar, “Jamestown and the Formation of An American Culture.”

For natives of the region, 1607 marked the beginning of the annihilation of their culture. For Africans it marked the coming of the long years of slavery. But Jamestown, more so than Puritan New England, also represented the start of a social order more open than in Europe, the historians said.

New research is showing that the Chesapeake colonies, far from being chaotic enterprises founded on get-rich-quick schemes, were strongly based on the colonists’ desire to form stable families and harmonious communities guided by religious principles. “The pursuit of happiness,” including a drive for economic and social improvement, “was the rule in the cultural formation of British America and the seeds were sown first at Jamestown,” Shifflett said.

By the close of the 17th century, this “Chesapeake model,” which included racial slavery, subjugation of native peoples, commercialism and market centers, had spread throughout the colonies outside of New England, he said, and “in its broadest dimensions was much more pervasive than the Puritan ideal of a chosen people.”

With the support of an $88,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to a joint educational project of the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, 15 high school teachers were selected to participate in a month-long seminar challenging the idea of early New England as the norm and the South as “deviant” in the forging of American culture.

Sponsored by U.Va.’s Center for the Liberal Arts, the Charlottesville-based program gives teachers a chance to conduct new research using important databases of records as well as visit the major archaeological project under way at Jamestown.

While the teachers have access to new and first-hand material on the settlement, they can also learn from each other.

“There are a lot of different perspectives here,” said Kevin Neal, a history teacher from Jefferson, Iowa. He said the other teachers in the seminar came from a variety of disciplines, including art and English, as well as two teachers from Reservation Schools, who added dimension to the discussions. “Iowa’s a great state, but you don’t get these perspectives there.”

Peggy Dudley, who teaches eighth grade American history in Union, Missouri, said the program was a wonderful opportunity for her.

“I’ve learned so much in just a few weeks,” she said. “It is time well spent.”
Dudley, who said she found it very encouraging to be back in adult learning, said she would bring more primary sources into her teaching. Both teachers were impressed with the extent of depth and detail in the materials for the course.

Dudley and Neal are using their trips to familiarize themselves with the geography of Virginia. Neal said it was impressive to be able to visit Monticello, Poplar Forest, Montpelier and Mount Vernon in person. He said it was one thing to read about these places in books, but another to be able to see them first hand, walk the grounds and get a better appreciation of colonial history.

A key part of the seminar and a national discussion about Jamestown’s significance is a Web archive, “Virtual Jamestown,” that includes historical documents, databases and other materials that shed light on the intentions, backgrounds and ideals of the colonists. Shifflett created the award-winning NEH-supported Web site, intended both for classroom use and use by anyone, as a project of U.Va.’s Virginia Center for Digital History.

Thomas said the summer program will conclude with the teachers’ ideas about how to teach about Jamestown in the period leading up to the 400th anniversary in 2007. Both Thomas and Shifflett serve on the Virginia state committee responsible for the “content” portion of the anniversary’s planning.

For additional information about the summer seminar, contact the U.Va. Center for the Liberal Arts at 982-5205.


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