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Karen Lange Interview with Karen Lange, January 2007
1607: A New Look at Jamestown
1607: A New Look at Jamestown
Ages 8-12

1607: A New Look at Jamestown is the last word on America's first colony. With expert appraisal of new archaeological evidence, this National Geographic title stands alone for timely authority and visual appeal.

Karen Lange's gripping narrative incorporates analysis of the latest discoveries from the Jamestown site. The text has been researched with the help of National Geographic grantee Dr. William Kelso. The pages come alive with Ira Block's stunning photography, detailing newly discovered artifacts, and highlighting authentic Jamestown reenactments. Compelling new theories, a National Geographic period map, and stunning reenactment photography take us back to Jamestown in 1607, where the course of our country's history changed forever.

About the Author
Karen E. Lange is a journalist and writer with National Geographic Magazine. This is her first children's book. She lives in Takoma Park, MD.

Karen LangeETC:ETC: Your book looks at what new information is coming to light about Jamestown. What else can we expect to learn in the next few years?

Lange: The dig at Historic Jamestowne, led by Dr. William Kelso and funded since 1994 by the owners of the site-APVA Preservation Virginia-will go on as long as there's money to pay for it. Like a lot of archeological excavations, there's plenty more of the site to dig, it's just a question of funding. I know one of the things Dr. Kelso hopes to find is the earliest well, dug on the orders of Capt. John Smith. Wells are important finds because they contain items dropped into them while they were in use and then trash dumped into them when they are abandoned. That means they can hold a huge number of well-preserved objects from a short period of time-kind of like a time capsule.

Another dig that will tell us a lot of the early years at Jamestown is going on at Werowocomoco, the capital of the Powhatan Indian chiefdom, on the York River in Virginia. Werowocomoco had been inhabited for hundreds of years and was a sacred site to Indians when Powhatan chose it as his capital in the early 1600s. This is also where Capt. John Smith was taken as a prisoner of the Indians to meet the chiefdom's ruler, Powhatan, and where, according to Smith, his life was saved by one of Powhatan's daughters, Pocahontas. Archaeological excavations there just started during the last few years, and it's hoped they are going to help better tell the Indian side of the story, which, of course, was not recorded in written accounts.

ETC: Where can readers of your book go to get a deeper understanding of Jamestown?

Lange: There are many books and articles and Web sites listed in the back of the book, but the ones I would urge readers to look at are the primary sources-actual accounts written by those who experienced the early years of Jamestown first hand. These are amazing stories of hardship, treachery, wonder, and adventure, and they are written in a particularly beautiful type of English-the language of Shakespeare's works and the King James Bible, both also produced during the early 1600s. One good collection that brings together accounts from the early years is Jamestown Narratives, edited by Edward Wright Haile. First hand accounts are also posted on the Virtual Jamestown Web site. Their English is very different from what we speak now, so younger readers will probably have to ask their teachers and parents for help in understanding these accounts. But it's worth the effort.

While reading these, people should keep in mind that none of the writers is presenting a completely fair, accurate account. Each writer had his own agenda-his own self interest he was trying to advance and perhaps his own enemies he wished to make look bad. Each was unaware of certain information. All the English writers misunderstood to some degree the Indians. And the voices of the Indians and women and most poor settlers are absent from these written accounts.

ETC: How long did it take you to research the book?

Lange: I already had a little bit of a background on Jamestown, because I had written a short article on the archaeological excavations there that appeared in the June 2002 issue of National Geographic Magazine, where I work as a writer. In order to do the book, I returned to Jamestown to interview Dr. Kelso, Bly Straube, who is curator of the more than a million artifacts dug up, and others on the archaeological team. I also interviewed experts by phone. But most of my time was spent reading books and articles. It's hard to say exactly how many days I spent, because I had to do the research in small pieces, since I have a 9 to 5 job at National Geographic and two small children, then ages one and six. I would say two to three 40-hour weeks. My husband, who is a librarian, helped me locate materials.

Right now I'm finishing up work on Jamestown coverage that will appear in the May issue National Geographic to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the settlers. I'm doing still more research. And there remain many books and articles and accounts I have not read.

ETC: How did you get interested in Jamestown? Was it because of the National Geographic article you wrote?

Lange: Yes and no. The article I wrote certainly left me wanting to learn more about the site. When I was a child, growing up in Connecticut, we didn't learn much about Jamestown in school. It was mentioned, but most of our time was spent studying Plymouth and the Pilgrims. So working on the article opened my eyes to the importance of Jamestown and to the settlement's intriguing story. But the reason I came to work on the article was that I was already interested in history and archaeology. Behind the house where I grew up were acres and acres of woods that surrounded a reservoir and what was left of a town from the 1800s. The land had been bought by a water company in the early 1900s. The company tore down the buildings, built a dam, and flooded much of the area. But the foundations of saw mills and houses and factories remained, with artifacts like gears from the old water wheels. We used to explore them as kids. This got me interested in the past.

Then, starting in high school, I began to study and do archaeology. I dug at a 200-year-old tavern in Massachusetts, mapped and collected stone tools from 6,000-year-old Indian sites in Nevada, excavated at an ancient port from the time of the Bible in Israel, and studied growth layers in animal teeth from prehistoric Arctic sites to figure out what time of year people lived in those camps.

ETC: How did you come to write a children's book about Jamestown?

Lange: After working on the short article for National Geographic, I began to wonder if the new discoveries about Jamestown were finding there way into children's books. And from what I saw they were not. Even research that was decades old was not being covered in books written for children (and some things written for adults). So I decided I would try to write a children's book-my first-that gave kids the latest information. And, fortunately, National Geographic gave me the chance.

The basic question about Jamestown's early years is: Why did so many settlers die? Traditionally the answer, based in large part on Capt. John Smith's writings, had been that many of the settlers were lazy and foolish. Real people make mistakes, and some individuals make better decisions than others, but when you take a whole group of people and label them as lazy and foolish, you know that can't be fair or accurate. You have to ask, "What really caused rational people like myself to behave in a way that did them so much harm?"

ETC: A lot of your book presents a fairly grim picture of Jamestown. No one emerges as a hero. Do you think children ages 8 to 12 are ready for this kind of history?

Lange: Absolutely, In writing the book, I tried to tell the story of Jamestown the way I might explain it to my own children, who are descended both from European immigrants-German, French-Canadian, and Sicilian-and from Native Americans-Abneki. I don't think kids benefit when we leave out parts of the past or sugar coat history. They can sense when we are not being honest with them. And ignoring all the bad things that happened in the past in order to create an inspiring and heroic tale really doesn't work. Because history is supposed to teach us about who we are and give us lessons about how to cope with the present. If the history we read has unrealistic characters who live in a fairy tale world of heroes and villains it does not have much to tell us about ourselves or today. It's not inspiring to read about a past of perfect people who won out over evil and then return to a present where good and evil are not so clear and heroes are rare.