17 December 2007

Firearms and Bows 1607: The Jamestown Test

The colonists at Jamestown set up a test to compare their weapons to those of the Indians. Less than a month after the colonists arrived in Virginia, and only a few days after they began constructing the defensive fortifications to give them security in a potentially hostile land, they became the recipients of food brought by forty men from the Native village headed by Paspiha. George Percy, who was there, mentions that the British thought the generosity was part of a ruse to disarm them. A weapons test was conducted during this visit of the Powhatans to the English village.

Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus mentions this episode:
Even for a crack shot, a seventeenth-century gun had fewer advantages over a longbow than may be supposed. Colonists in Jamestown taunted the Powhatan in 1607 with a target they believed impervious to an arrow shot. To the colonists’ dismay, an Indian sank an arrow into it a foot deep, “which was strange, being that a Pistoll could not piece it.” To regain the upper hand, the English set up a target made of steel. This time the archer “burst his arrow all to pieces.” The Indian was “in a great rage”: he realized, one assumes, that the foreigners had cheated. When the Powhatan later captured John Smith, [Joyce] Chaplin notes, Smith broke his pistol rather than reveal to his captors “the awful truth that it could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly.”
Mann, 1491, 64.
I mentioned in “Superior European Technology” Mann’s suggestion that the terms superior and inferior do not readily apply to the differences in the technology of the immigrants and the indigenous inhabitants of the land that was coming to be called Virginia.

George Percy’s Account

Some of the primary sources that aid historians in reconstructing the founding of Virginia are found in an early anthology of travel narratives collected and published by Richard Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his Pilgrimes, contayning a History of the World in Sea Voyages and Lande Travells, by Englishmen and others , 4 vols (1625). This anthology contains an account of the first months of the Virginia colony, George Percy, “Observations gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English, 1606,” in Purchas his Pilgrims, vol. 4 (1625), 1685-1690.

Percy relates the episode that Mann draws upon for evidence supporting his generalizations regarding technology.
The twentieth day [20 May 1607] the Werowance of Paspiha sent fortie of his men with a Deere, to our quarter: but they came more in villanie than any love they bare us: they faine would have layne in our Fort all night, but wee would not suffer them for feare of their treachery. One of our Gentlemen having a Target which hee trusted in, thinking it would beare out a slight shot, he set it up against a tree, willing one of the Savages to shoot; who took from his backe an Arrow of an elle long, drew it strongly in his Bowe, shoots the Target a foote thorow, or better: which was strange, being that a Pistoll could not pierce it. Wee seeing the force of his Bowe, afterwards set him up a steel Target; he shot again, and burst his arrow all to pieces, he presently pulled out another Arrow, and bit it in his teeth, and seemed to be in great rage, so he went away in great anger. Their Bowes are made of tough Hasell, their strings of Leather, their Arrowes of Canes or Hasell, headed with very sharpe stones, and are made artificially like a broad Arrow: other some of their Arrowes are headed with the ends of Deeres hornes, and are feathered very artificially. Pasphia was as good as his word; for he sent Venison, but the Sawse came within a few dayes after.
Percy, “Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie,” 1688-1689.

First Battle between Jamestown Colonists and Natives

In late April, before the colonists had selected the location for their fort, their first encounter with the Natives of Virginia was hostile.
At night, when wee were going aboard, there came the Savages creeping upon all foure, from the Hills like Beares, with their Bowes in their mouthes, charged us very desperately in the faces, hurt Captaine Gabrill Archer in both his hands, and a sayler in two places of the body very dangerous. After they had spent their Arrows, and felt the sharpness of our shot, they retired into the Woods with a great noise, and so left us.
Percy, “Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie,” 1686.
After this skirmish, the English resumed their exploration of the terrain. Percy presents lists of the flora and fauna observed; he describes the shores and rivers, the meadows and forests, and other brief experiences with the Natives. They found an area where the Natives of Virginia had been burning the grass, as well as gathering and roasting oysters. Helping themselves to the warm oysters in the recently abandoned camp, the English found the shellfish “large and delicate in taste” (1686). They also found “a Cannow, which was made out of the whole tree, which was five and fortie foot long by the Rule” (1686).

Peaceful Contact

The English set up a cross to claim Chesapeake Bay for the Crown and named a piece of land Cape Henry. On the last day of April they were drawn into a Native village, where they were welcomed with songs, given a meal and smoke, and then entertained with songs and dances. They learned something of the manners of their hosts. In the narrative of the experiences, George Percy (sometimes spelled Percie) reveals quite a bit about the ideological baggage that colored English perceptions of Native American Indians.
When we came over to the other side, there was a many of the Savages which directed us to their Towne, where we were entertained by them very kindly. When we came first a Land they made a dolefull noise, laying their faces to the ground, scatching the earth wth their nailes. We did thinke that they had beene at their Idolatry. When they had ended their Ceremonies, they went into their houses and brought out mats and laid upon the the ground, the chiefest of the sate all in a rank: the meanest sort brought us such dainties as they had, & of their bread which they make of their Maiz or Gennea wheat, they would not suffer us to eat unlesse we sate down, which we did on a Mat right against them. After we were well satisfied they gave us of their Tabacco, which they tooke in a pipe made artificially of earth as ours are, but far bigger, with the bowle fashioned together with a piece of fine copper. After they had feasted us, they shewed us in welcome, their manner of dancing, which was in this fashion: one of the Savages standing in the midst singing, beat one hand against another, all the rest dancing about him, shouting, howling, and stamping against the ground, with many Anticke tricks and faces, making noise like so many Wolves or Devils. One thing of them I observed; when they were in their dance they kept stroke with their feet just one with another, but with their hands, heads, faces, and bodies, every one of them had a severall gesture: so they continued for the space of halfe an houre. When they had ended their dance, the Captaine gave them Beades and other trifling Jewells. They hand through their eares Fowles legs: they shave the right side of their heads with a shell, the left side they weare of an ell long tied up with an artificiall knot, with a many of Foules feathers sticking in it. They goe altogether naked, but their privates are covered with Beasts skinnes beset commonly with little bones, or beasts teeth: some paint their bodies blacke, some red, with artificiall knots of sundry lively colours, very beautiful and pleasing to the eye, in a braver fashion then they in the West Indies.
Percy, “Discourse of the Plantation of the Southerne Colonie,” 1687

The entire text of Purchas his Pilgrimes is available at the Library of Congress website, where it is part of the Kraus Collection of Sir Francis Drake. Each page of the four volumes has been photographed, including black pages, and is viewable as an image.

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