Saturday, May 4, 2013

Cannibalism in Colonial Virginia, Samsons Who Became Sallys and Thomasines Who Were Thomases: The Real History of Colonial America

I'm not quite sure why the archeological findings confirming that the Jamestown settlers practiced cannibalism during the "starving time" of 1609-1610 have captured people's imaginations as much as they have this week. People eating people: perhaps that's simply an intrinsically fascinating-repulsive topic, the taboo we never want to think about for fear of opening a door we can't then shut. But we do think about it, and read about it with both repugnance and secret interest, I suspect.

It's not as if the story of cannibalism during the staving time is brilliantly new. As Nicholas Wade notes in the New York Times article to which I've just linked, George Percy, who was leading the Jamestown colony during the starving time, wrote about the cannibalism in a 1625 letter. Perhaps because Percy was a son of the Earl of Northumberland and an Oxford graduate, no one has ever thought to challenge his testimony.

Nor is Percy's the only account we have of instances of cannibalism in early Virginia. Henry Norwood, a member of another titled English family who came to colonial Virginia (though he later returned to England and died there), also left an account of an incident of cannibalism in 1649. Norwood states that when he and other Cavaliers escaping England after Cromwell attained power found themselves marooned and starving on an island off the Eastern Shore of Virginia, they also ate the bodies of fellow colonists who had died.

I have a personal fascination with these stories because I find one of them in my own family lore. A story handed down among descendants of my ancestor John Brazelton, who is thought to have come to Maryland sometime around 1730 (from Wales, the stories say, but this hasn't been confirmed), says that the ship that brought him to America became becalmed in the Atlantic, and when the passengers had used all their food supplies, a decision was made to draw lots to choose one passenger to kill and use as food for the others.

According to the story, the lot fell to John Brazelton, and then the passengers decided to wait one more night before taking this fatal (to John, for certain) step. By morning, the winds had returned and the ship began to sail west and soon reached the American shore. And John's descendants are here to tell the tale--if it's true. (If it is true, then, one has to wonder what it means that stories of cannibalism are so casually told about more than one of the colonial settlements of North America.)

Though these stories do interest me, I think I'm far more fascinated by the stories I keep bumping into of cross-gender behavior in colonial America. One of the places my family liked to visit when I was a boy is a state park and mountain in Arkansas, Petit Jean, about an hour north from where I grew up in Little Rock. We often took family day trips there as I was growing up, for picnics, to hike, and to fish.

And when we did so, my parents invariably told us the legend of Petit Jean, the French woman for whom the mountain was named. I find numerous variations of this legend, and it's one replicated in other parts of North America that had early French colonies, it seems. In the version my family told me, a young French woman whose beau had left her to go soldiering in North America followed him to his home in the French territory now Arkansas, found he had married, and threw herself off a cliff in despair. And so the mountain now has her name.

A male name: Little John. It has that name, the story goes, because Jeanne followed her beloved dressed as a soldier, Petit Jean. And it was only when she had thrown herself off the mountainside that her gender and identity were known.

And then there's this: in an Ulster Scots Blair family that appears to be one of my own ancestral families, one Samson Blair who was a soldier in the army of King James went into hiding when the king's armies were defeated, so family stories tell, and about 1700, whisked himself aboard a ship bound to Philadelphia, where he disappeared from history. He took himself off to Philadelphia disguised as one Sally Blair, that is, wearing women's clothes.

And so the fascinating thought I've had ever since I first encountered this story is, of course, whether Samson vanished from sight because Sally took over in the new world. And I wonder how frequently such gender shifts may have occurred among people starting entirely new lives in entirely new places.

I have to ask this question when I read about the tortured history of Thomasine/Thomas Hall of Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, who was christened Thomasine and raised female by her parents and then an aunt in London in the early 1600s. Then Thomasine cut her hair, assumed a male identity, and became an English soldier in France, Thomas Hall. He then returned to England and lived at Plymouth as Thomasine, a lace-maker.

Thomasine then reverted to Thomas and went to Virginia as a servant of Robert Eyre, and encountered no end of trouble when questions about his gender began to stir about after he was alleged to have slept with Great Bess, a servant of Richard Bennett, later the Puritan governor of Virginia. I won't link to the many online sources that tell the story of Thomasine/Thomas Hall, since readers can easily find these by googling.

What intrigues (and, I have to admit, appalls) me the most about these stories is the number of instances in which Thomasine/Thomas was submitted to body searches, gropes, investigations by groups of prurient men and prurient women (the groups always had to be separated for decency's sake) intent on reading the mystery of a body that appears to have been hermaphroditic--so that the General Court of Virginia decided in 1629 that Thomas should be known as both a male and a female, Thomas Hall, rigged out in men's clothing but topping the male rigging with women's headgear and wearing an apron.

What to make of these stories of gender-bending in colonial America? I'm inclined to wonder if they tell us (as do those about cannibalism) that our early history is far wilder and more varied than many Americans care to admit. With our mythology about pious Pilgrim founding fathers and mothers setting up their cities on hilltops, we've left little room for the reality of human experience and human communities that immediately built, Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter reminds us, jail houses beside their churches.

At a pop cultural level, many Americans are inclined to handle the wildness, the sordid edge of our foundational history, by relegating all that's seamy to the hot and steamy South, where all manner of abominations proliferated, as the Puritans laid the real foundations for America in their more proper and genteel hilltops to the north of the seamy side of the colonies. This neat division forgets, of course, that the Puritans who landed at Plymouth were actually headed to Virginia and ended up in Massachusetts only by accident, when winds blew their ship off course. And it forgets that four Puritan colonies had already been founded in Virginia before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth--so that the history of Anglo North America is one history, and can be divided into the neat divisions of north and south, good and bad, light and dark, only on the basis of artificial distinctions that ignore the more complex reality of what actually happened in real time and real place and not in the order of historical narratives.

What actually happened: a world in which even gender, male and female, may not have been so neatly and absolutely sorted as some of us today would like to imagine, as we seek to keep the divisions clear and unmuddled, the hierarchical arrangement placing men on top and women on bottom firmly in place. And as we call for a return to the good old days in which it was morning in America, when women knew their place and men ruled the world--forgetting that some of our Sallys and some of our Thomasines may well have been Samsons and Thomases before the wild new world worked its thaumaturgic transformations on their lives.

The graphic is an illustration of a Puritan family from Hutton Webster, Modern European History (Boston, MA: D.C. Heath & CO., 1920).

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