Hello everyone and welcome back to our virtual tour of the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia!
And this tour will literally be a step into time. It snowed Friday all afternoon, big, fluffy, candid flakes, and well into the evening in our little town in the Shenandoah Valley, which rendered me unable to revisit the museum for the promised updated pics. So, I have decided to go ahead and use the photos I’ve taken in September, 2016, when it had been a warm and sunny day. Besides, from what I could see on the museum’s Facebook page, the renovation done to the English Farm seems to be more cosmetic than structural (the facade has been whitewashed and repainted).
If you are new here, the Frontier Culture Museum is an open air, living history museum dedicated to the life on the American Frontier at the beginning of 16th, 17th and 18th Century. It has beautifully restored and preserved farms and houses that accurately depict the life of the first settlers in the American Colonies: the life in West Africa, England, Germany and Ireland are all depicted at the museum.
1600s English Farm
The first English settlers to set foot on the New World’s soil did so in late April 1607, after an almost fourth month journey across the Atlantic. I can imagine how wild and how strange the vegetation and fauna must have looked to them upon arrival. How untamed and harsh.
Many colonists were upper English nobility, ill equipped to deal with the challenges of taming a new frontier and making it habitable. Few of them were actual farmers or carpenters, skills much needed when establishing a colony on an uncharted territory.
Interestingly enough, even though the Spanish were the first to explore and settle in the New World, by 1650, England would be the one to secure a dominant presence on the Atlantic coast.
Over the next century, other English colonies would be established along the Atlantic coast, forming the threshold on which the future United States will be build. By 1700, almost 250,000 people, most of whom were born in England or were of English descent lived in the colonies.
*the English Farm at the museum, as it looked up until 2017. Now, the walls and structure has been fortified and whitewashed.
The first permanent English colony has been established at Jamestown (both the river and the settlement are named after their King — King James I), and the territory after their late Queen Elizabeth, also known as the “Virgin Queen” (more about Jamestown here).
Located in swampy marshlands, Jamestown’s residents suffered a high mortality rate during its first years. Food shortages, diseases and the continuous conflict with Indians (approximately 30,000 Algonquian Indians lived in the region, divided into about 40 tribes) meant that at the beginning, life was impossibly hard for the settlers.
The colonies and its settlers, being established and funded by commercial companies, religious organizations or individual entrepreneurs (rather than governments) sought abundance and wealth in the new land and hoped to improve their economical opportunities. The Jamestown colony, for example, was sponsored by the Virginia Company of London, a group of investors who hoped to profit from the venture.
In order to make a profit for the Virginia Company, settlers tried a number of small industries, including glass making and wood production, but none of them turned out to be successful enterprises and the Jamestown colony seemed bound to fail.
*geese living on the premises of the English farm at the museum.
Only with the introduction of tobacco around 1613 by colonist John Rolfe the situation seemed to improve. Tobacco appeared to relieve boredom and stress and to enhance peoples’ ability to concentrate over prolonged periods of time.
Tobacco production, however, required a large labor force, which initially consisted primarily of white indentured servants, who received transportation to Virginia in exchange for a four to seven-year term of service.
*a look inside the kitchen, where food would be prepared and cooked, a fire built and kept all throughout the day.
*herbs would be dried atop the fire, close to the ceiling, and thus preserved for the winter time.
Due to the fertile soil of the Colonies with its forests, streaming long rivers and swampy areas, as well as the mild winters and hot, humid summers, the colonists soon realized that the climate is ideally suited to plant not only tobacco, but cotton, rice, sugar cane and indigo (which gives a purple dye).
The many waterways helped easily transport and dock the crops which were then sent and sold to the European countries.
*the little pond close to the English Farm.
Soon, vast plantations dominated the Virginian landscape and the Southern Colonies. These plantations needed extensive land to be cleared for planting the crops and cheap labor to harvest it. This exacerbated the conflict with the Native Indians, whom were driven further and further away, as well as increased demand for cheap labor.
The African slaves brought over from West Africa soon replaced the white indentured servants, especially on the cotton plantations. Thus, slavery would be forever intertwined in the fabric and collective consciousness of the rising nation, with racial and psychological repercussions still visible today.
*cotton spinning on a wheel, by hand. Want to see how it was done? check this cool video.
Among the English settlers, there was another group that played a pivotal role in shaping the core of the American values.
The New England Puritans (Protestants) were a pious religious minority who established the Plymouth Colony in 1620 and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony (in present-day Boston) north of the Plymouth Colony. They contributed immensely to the new nation’s sense of mission in the world, its work ethic and its moral compass.
Most Puritans who migrated to North America came in the decade 1630-1640 in what is known now as the Great Migration. If the English settlers that landed in Virginia were mostly men seeking economical opportunities, entire families (over 13,000 men, women and children) sailed to Massachusetts in this decade to make a home in the New World and pursue freedom of religion.
Today, approximately eight million Americans can trace their ancestry to the almost 20.000 Puritans who migrated to New England during this time.
They also were one of the most ridiculed and despised groups due to their strict moral laws and conduct. They were resented for imposing their “puritanical” morality on one and all, wearing drab looking clothes and for being far too zealous in their religious fervor.
This may have something to do with the fact that in their colony, by 1660s, they managed to ban not only Christmas but Easther and other holiday celebrations as well, deeming them too frivolous, unnecessary and distracting. They did not tolerate others’ differing religious and political views either alongside a plethora of behaviors and actions for which they had swift, Old Testament-style punishments (read more about this topic here).
No wonder, then, that the journalist H.L. Mencken considered Puritanism “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.”
In spite of all this, their most notable and novel contribution was their commitment to the separation of church and state. Not only did they reject the idea of establishing a system of church courts, they also forbade ministers from holding public office.
They also encouraged literacy and education by establishing schools and supporting teachers in each community to encourage reading and writing so that the Bible became accessible to both old and young.
The university of Harvard, for example, is founded in 1636 in Massachusetts and named after its first donor, Reverend John Harvard, who left his personal library and half his estate to the new institution. He was also a former Oxford graduate if I remember correctly.
*notice the Alphabet used in teaching.
Thus, the English culture and traditions became a dominant force in the North American colonies. In Virginia, this culture quickly took on the characteristics of southern England in the form of a patriarchal and hierarchical society led by the “gentlemen” of the colony.
With the arrival of other ethnic groups and the emergence of political democracy during the era of the American Revolution, this traditional culture slowly faded. What endured were American versions of English language, law and government, morality, and an ideal of individual liberty.
This post is but an introduction into the life of the English settlers and in many ways, just skims the surface. If you’d like to read more about the timeline and the history of the British Colonial America, you can do so here.
Thank you so much for reading this! I hope you’ve found something useful or interesting in it. If you did, please subscribe and share this post so that others can see it too!
Next week (Sunday at 9:00 am EST) just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, we are visiting the Irish Farm and Forge at the museum so stay tuned for that.
Have a lovely week,