Postcard Album Update: Jamestown Revisited

Sometimes postcards reveal attitudes that the original makers didn’t intend. Consider this postcard issued for the Jamestown Exposition in 1907 that celebrated the 300th anniversary of the settlement. The entire message area on the back has a long explanation of the portrait on the front.

It reads, in part: “POCAHONTAS. An idealized portrait made at the time she was in England. Virginia cannot too much honor the memory of this lovely young woman, since to her more than once Virginia owed its existence. And so long as history records deeds dared and hardships endured by the first settlers at Jamestown, so long will Pocahontas be remembered as the guardian angel of the colony.”

In the 100 years since this was written, archaeologists have been hard at work uncovering evidence of the true story of Jamestown, and historians have re-evaluated popular legends. Whether or not Pocahontas ever threw herself on John Smith to save his life, it’s far more likely that her father, King Powhatan, acted from political motives, perhaps hoping to avoid open conflict with the strange people intruding on his territory.

One myth that has been undercut is that the “gentlemen” settlers wouldn’t work. In fact, recent digs have revealed a diversified settlement with cultural remains that suggest the colony was involved in a variety of occupations. The biggest revelation is the way the English lifestyle impacted negatively on the environment enjoyed by Native Americans. Add to this the horrible death toll from European diseases, especially smallpox, and the story of Jamestown is very different from the one told a hundred years ago.

jamestown.jpgLook again at the portrait that symbolized the Jamestown Expo in 1907. It shows a very light-skinned woman with the tiny rosebud mouth that was considered especially beautiful at the time. Although the caption says that this is an “idealized” portrait, it doesn’t admit that no one would mistake this person for a Native American. The artist thought he was honoring Pocahontas by giving her the plump, pale body admired in English gentlewomen at the time. In fact, reproducing this portrait as a symbol of the exposition did a great disservice to the real “little snow flower of Powhata” as she’s also described on the postcard.

Regardless of the attempt to make Pocahontas look like a pampered English gentlewoman, postcard makers issued some very worthwhile cards. The Jamestown Amusement and Vending Co. of Norfolk, Va., which published the Pocahontas card, was responsible for a set of 195 cards and an official catalog of the event, but this was only one of more than 50 firms that issued cards for the expo. Anyone interested in this event or other American expos would do well to locate a copy of AMERICAN EXPOSITION POSTCARDS, 1870-1920, by Frederic and Mary Megson, copyright 1992.

Although Jamestown A. & V.’s cards aren’t the scarcest cards for this expo, they are particularly entertaining, thanks to the sometimes lengthy text on the backs. Card No. 15, Landing of the Maidens at Jamestown, provides this insight:

“In 1619 ninety young women of unexceptionable character, who had volunteered for the purpose, arrived at Jamestown from England. Singular features of the arrangement were that the husband was to pay the cost of their outfit and passage in tobacco, 120 pounds, amounting to about $80, and a proclamation of the Governor that young women who betrothed themselves to more than one lover at a time would be severely punished.”

So not only was Jamestown the first settlement, it was the first instance of mail-order brides, worth at that time their weight in tobacco.

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