October 31, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. The 16th century is a fascinating era of big personalities, schisms, and upheavals, many of which led to the birth of the modern world. Biographies and historical narratives bring the past to life, and many new books are being published to commemorate this crucial time in Western history.
What would really happen if thousands of people died in a city every day from an illness? Even worse, a city with few to no hospitals and only a bare bones emergency infrastructure? When the illness might leave no mark on a person until he or she fell over dead in front of you? And that’s when you realize, you have been exposed and could be next. What would you do?
History, particularly popular history, need not be dull, something that Cormac O’Brien demonstrates readily in his book, The Forgotten History of America. Written in a conversational tone and broken into vignettes, old history is made new when written this way. Even so, it’s not the standard stuff taught in schools. It’s about wars and both sides in those wars, reaching back to the country’s colonial beginnings in the 16th century. With personalities writ large on both sides and a good understanding of the differences in modern and historical society, O’Brien leads his readers on journeys back in time:
It begins with the first permanent European settlement in North America:
Pedro Menedez de Aviles anxiously paced the deck of his flagship, San Pelayo. Two days earlier, off the coast of Florida, he had gone ashore and met with Indians who offered valuable information about the prey he was desperately seeking. Now, confident of success, he led his five vessels northward along the coastline, scanning the beaches for any sign of European settlement. The day was September 4, 1565, and Menendez was hunting heretics.
The American Revolution didn’t start with the Tea Party.
For more than 100 years before that, the immigrants who came to America had very cogent reasons for leaving the civilized world. Many were hotheads—rebels against the king and his policies on religion. Others had come to the colonies hoping to make their fortunes and discovered much to their dismay that the king was very interested in taking a cut of their profits through high taxes, particularly on tobacco.
In Virginia, high taxes meant that the small farmers were left landless when they could not pay. Their farms were taken by wealthier landholders and the dispossessed went to the frontier to find new land to support them and their families. Not surprisingly, this meant clashes with the native population, some of which were quite bloody. Royal Governor Berkeley’s refusal to support the frontier farmers with soldiers—and his obvious friendships with the wealthier Tidewater land barons--led to Bacon’s Rebellion against the king’s most powerful representative and was but one example of the tension felt between the colonists and their royal masters’ representatives.
"As soon as he entered the wood all those great trees, and the interlaced brambles and thorns, separated to let him pass. He walked towards the castle, which he could see at the end of a great avenue. He was surprised that none of his companions had been able to follow him, since the trees had closed in again as soon as he had passed. But he did not falter. A young prince in love is always brave."
Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella. Puss in Boots. Little Red Riding Hood.
These enduring stories were created as we know them by a brilliant man who lived in 17th-century France. Although similar, but simpler stories were gathered more directly by the folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the 19th century, it was Charles Perrault's addition of delicate and amusing words, crafted to entrance a noble audience, that caught fire with readers' imaginations and were the basis for the way these stories are remembered today. It is easy to see the difference between a story collected by Grimm and a tale sculpted by Perrault. A Grimm tale is simple and direct and sometimes alarming while Perrault's are laced with details that still fire modern imaginations.
In the year 1675 four interesting events were recorded in Stafford County. Three of these were considered omens of the fourth, and the fourth was considered of significance to the history of our area.
The first event was in the heavens. In the southwestern sky, for more than a week, each day appeared a large comet with a long tail resembling that of a horse on a windy day. The Indians and the whites alike wondered what might be the meaning of this heavenly sign.
Anyone interested in Virginia's earliest colonial history ought to get to know the passengers and crew of the Sea Venture. This ship was sent to relieve Jamestown's starving colonists but never made it. The survivors landed on Bermuda, known as the Devil's Isle, where their saga continued. Their story was the inspiration for Shakespeare's The Tempest.
XII. That each Indian King, and Queen have equall power to govern their owne people and none to have greater power then other, except the Queen of Pomunky to whom severall scattered Indians doe now againe owne their antient Subjection, and are agreed to come in and plant themselves under power and government, whoe with her are alsoe hereby included into this present League and treatie of peace, & are to keep, and observe the same towards the said Queen in all things as her Subjects, as well as towards the English.