The Jamestown Project

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Overview

Listen to a short interview with Karen Ordahl Kupperman
Host: Chris Gondek | Producer: Heron & Crane

Captain John Smith's 1607 voyage to Jamestown was not his first trip abroad. He had traveled throughout Europe, been sold as a war captive in Turkey, escaped, and returned to England in time to join the Virginia Company's colonizing project. In Jamestown migrants, merchants, and soldiers who had also sailed to the distant shores of the Ottoman Empire, Africa, and Ireland in search of new beginnings encountered Indians who already possessed broad understanding of Europeans. Experience of foreign environments and cultures had sharpened survival instincts on all sides and aroused challenging questions about human nature and its potential for transformation.

It is against this enlarged temporal and geographic background that Jamestown dramatically emerges in Karen Kupperman's breathtaking study. Reconfiguring the national myth of Jamestown's failure, she shows how the settlement's distinctly messy first decade actually represents a period of ferment in which individuals were learning how to make a colony work. Despite the settlers' dependence on the Chesapeake Algonquians and strained relations with their London backers, they forged a tenacious colony that survived where others had failed. Indeed, the structures and practices that evolved through trial and error in Virginia would become the model for all successful English colonies, including Plymouth.

Capturing England's intoxication with a wider world through ballads, plays, and paintings, and the stark reality of Jamestown--for Indians and Europeans alike--through the words of its inhabitants as well as archeological and environmental evidence, Kupperman re-creates these formative years with astonishing detail.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

The Jamestown story needs retelling, says NYU historian Kupperman (Providence Island) not just because 2007 marks the 400th anniversary of its settlement. It also needs retelling because Americans tend to locate our origins in Plymouth and distance ourselves from Jamestown, which we associate with "greedy, grasping colonists" backed by "arrogant" English patrons. The first decade of Jamestown's history was messy, admits Kupperman, but through that mess, settlers figured out how to make colonization work. Plymouth, in fact, benefited from the lessons learned at Jamestown. What is remarkable is that a colonial outpost on the edge of Virginia, in a not very hospitable location, survived at all. Kupperman, of course, shows how the colonists negotiated relationships with Indians. But her more innovative chapters focus on labor. Colonists began experimenting with tobacco, and colonial elites gradually realized that people were more willing to work when they were laboring for themselves. Backers in England began to think more flexibly about how to create colonial profits. But the dark side of this success story is the institution of indentured servitude, which proved key to Jamestown's success. Kupperman, marrying vivid narration with trenchant analysis, has done the history of Jamestown, and of early America, a great service. 41 b&w illus. (Mar.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Generations of American schoolchildren have learned that Jamestown was the English seed from which the United States sprang. But little focus has usually fallen on how iffy a thing were both its planting and its survival. Now, on the eve of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown's founding, these three works together offer opportunities for reexamining U.S. origins. Kupperman (history, NYU; Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony) extends her earlier work to revisit the people and politics that planned Jamestown and made it work. Her nine chapters incorporate the setting of the May 1607 landing at the James River into the discourse of how Europeans imagined America and of how the reality of America dawned in initiative and forbearance. Deftly drawing on wide-ranging sources, Kupperman re-creates the sights and sounds of homeland and wilderness that together reveal the trials, errors, and triumphs that made Jamestown a go for people on the ground but prevented absent investors from making money.

Deans (national correspondent, Cox Newspapers) roves far beyond Jamestown's first couple of decades. Tracing the James River from its prehistoric headwaters, he narrates a story of a new civilization that would change the world. Emphasizing his native Virginia's contributions, the nine chapters sweep across the landscape of U.S. history to bring to the present the past lessons of clashing civilizations. His succession of stories brims with drama and vignettes of famous and not-so-famous people. More commentary than history, the book reduces to a romance Liberty's succeeding as the dream and reality of Americans regardless of race.Investigative journalist Hashaw (Children of Perdition: Melungeonsand the Struggle of Mixed America) takes a hard look at Jamestown's beginnings. His four-part, 19-chapter saga stretches back to Africa rather than Europe. Tracing roots and branches from what he dubs the "Black Mayflower" that in 1619 landed Africans in Virginia, Hashaw develops the African contributions to America's founding. He details the skills and successes of the first black generation, marking their story up to 1676. Insightfully integrating developments in the triangle connecting Europe, Africa, and the Americas, his rich narrative brings to life named blacks of Bantu origin who, rather than suffering as slaves for life, established self-sufficient independence on their own ground amid promise of open competition in early America. Yet he shows also how, amid struggles for civil and religious freedom for some, racial slavery evolved as an institution from the political ideology of European absolutism. His work, like Kupperman's, should delight both scholars and general readers. Collections on black history will want Hashaw; collections on early America will want both Hashaw and Kupperman. Local Virginia collections may be interested in Deans's work.
—Thomas J. Davis

Los Angeles Times

The strength of [this] Jamestown history lies in how [it] charts the intellectual, cultural and political landscape in Europe, the Mediterranean and other parts of the Americas that produced, a decade or so before Plymouth, what became the first permanent English settlement on this side of the Atlantic. What Kupperman...make[s] clear is that Jamestown should be seen not simply as prologue to Massachusetts Bay—though prologue it was, for good and for ill—but also as an element of a much larger brew of global political, religious and economic forces...An elegant, intellectually rich account...Kupperman makes a compelling case that Jamestown succeeded only after a kind of democracy began to develop there. Purely commercial operations, controlled by companies from afar, could not inspire and sustain the kind of commitment that transatlantic settlement required.
— Jon Meacham

Philadelphia Inquirer

Karen Kupperman expertly articulates another traditional foundation tale in The Jamestown Project, a superb, clear-eyed history...Kupperman's accurate, balanced take on the relative roles of Jamestown and Plymouth in our collective memory acknowledges Jamestown's sins, yet credits the earlier colony with painfully forging the business and political model—capitalist, representative democracy—that permitted English civilization to endure in the New World...Most Americans remain ignorant of basic Jamestown facts, a lacuna that Kupperman fills.
— Carlin Romano

Choice

The Jamestown experiment receives a new slant in this carefully researched book. Indeed, Kupperman...treats all of the factors that converged to bring forth the realization of the project, emphasizing the extraneous aspects of the founding of the Virginia colony rather than the unfolding of the New World venture itself. Not until two-thirds of the way through does the author take up the actual Virginia settlement. Kupperman places Jamestown in the context of a hundred years of European expansion. The book is especially valuable for thorough introductions of important players hitherto neglected by historians.
— H.M. Ward

Booklist

In this four hundredth anniversary year of Jamestown, historian Kupperman enlarges its story to encompass the Atlantic world that gave rise to it. The view from England toward the New World is what the author strives to reconstruct, successfully so. A century behind rival Spain in colonizing ventures, English captains eyed the east coast of North America with myriad possibilities in mind: as a base for raiding Spanish ships, as harboring a water route to the East Indies, and as an opportunity for reestablishing Christianity on a purified footing. The encounter of these concepts with the reality that was America—its people, climate, and landscape––is where Kupperman's account thrives, as she explores the experiences of various colonizing ventures, of which Jamestown was but one. Kupperman argues that Jamestown survived by attracting tremendous public interest in England, which translated into sustained supply for a decade, and by a trial-and-error method for motivating settlers through incentives rather than compulsion. A fine contextualization of the oft-told Jamestown epic.
— Gilbert Taylor

New Republic

[Kupperman] is the preeminent contemporary scholar of English exploration and colonization.
— Alan Taylor

Boston Globe

[A] probing account.
— Michael Kenney

Times Literary Supplement

Karen Kupperman adopts a boldly innovative perspective on the Jamestown settlement...Hers is an altogether different interpretative path. For her, the founding of Virginia was neither a particularly English nor a particularly American story. What draws her attention are the many ordinary people during the early modern period who moved easily from culture to culture. They crossed political and religious boundaries, sometimes looking for the main chance, but often finding themselves swept up by forces which they did not quite understand, but with which they dealt on their own terms....Without a doubt, Kupperman's most striking accomplishment is placing the history of early Jamestown persuasively in a global context.
— T. H. Breen

Roanoke Times

Kupperman's informative account of the many events and forces influencing the settlement is a valuable piece of the Jamestown story.
— George Kegley

Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Jamestown Project is a major book of wide-ranging erudition that invites readers into a world very different from ours and reveals that England colonized North America in a different context than our old school books presented. English explorers, pirates, clergymen, rich investors and government officials living on the edge of Europe and in the shadows of great empires—Spanish, Portuguese and Ottoman—planted a small colony on the edge of a distant continent as an early chess move in the bold game of empire building...For many reasons, The Jamestown Project belongs on the bookshelf of every serious student of the English origins of the American people.
— Brent Tarter

Journal of the American Oriental Society

Offers an impressive synthesis of almost thirty years of scholarship on Atlantic colonization. Kupperman gracefully describes the colonial project from multiple perspectives, both Native and European.
— Frances Flannery

Choice - H.M. Ward
The Jamestown experiment receives a new slant in this carefully researched book. Indeed, Kupperman...treats all of the factors that converged to bring forth the realization of the project, emphasizing the extraneous aspects of the founding of the Virginia colony rather than the unfolding of the New World venture itself. Not until two-thirds of the way through does the author take up the actual Virginia settlement. Kupperman places Jamestown in the context of a hundred years of European expansion. The book is especially valuable for thorough introductions of important players hitherto neglected by historians.
Peter C. Mancall
Americans have too long obscured Jamestown's history by shrouding it in nationalistic myths and overwrought stories of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. With extraordinary skill, Karen Ordahl Kupperman corrects the record by placing the settlement into its proper context as one among a number of early modern English ventures. Happy Four Hundredth Birthday, Jamestown: you now have the history you have always deserved.
Daniel K. Richter
If anyone is equipped to say something really new about Jamestown at its four hundredth anniversary, it is Karen Kupperman, with her deep knowledge of early modern colonial ventures of all sorts. This marvelous book teaches us why our usual way of thinking about Jamestown as the "first English colony" is utterly wrong--and why, nonetheless, Jamestown invented patterns that every other English colony would follow.
John Murrin
The Jamestown Project is the culmination of nearly everything that Karen Kupperman has written in the last three decades. She makes a compelling case that early Virginia, despite its false starts and appalling mortality, taught the English what successful colonization required. A rare combination of exhaustive research, original ideas, and graceful writing.
Booklist - Gilbert Taylor
In this four hundredth anniversary year of Jamestown, historian Kupperman enlarges its story to encompass the Atlantic world that gave rise to it. The view from England toward the New World is what the author strives to reconstruct, successfully so. A century behind rival Spain in colonizing ventures, English captains eyed the east coast of North America with myriad possibilities in mind: as a base for raiding Spanish ships, as harboring a water route to the East Indies, and as an opportunity for reestablishing Christianity on a purified footing. The encounter of these concepts with the reality that was America--its people, climate, and landscape––is where Kupperman's account thrives, as she explores the experiences of various colonizing ventures, of which Jamestown was but one. Kupperman argues that Jamestown survived by attracting tremendous public interest in England, which translated into sustained supply for a decade, and by a trial-and-error method for motivating settlers through incentives rather than compulsion. A fine contextualization of the oft-told Jamestown epic.
Journal of the American Oriental Society - Frances Flannery
Offers an impressive synthesis of almost thirty years of scholarship on Atlantic colonization. Kupperman gracefully describes the colonial project from multiple perspectives, both Native and European.
Boston Globe - Michael Kenney
[A] probing account.
Los Angeles Times - Jon Meacham
The strength of [this] Jamestown history lies in how [it] charts the intellectual, cultural and political landscape in Europe, the Mediterranean and other parts of the Americas that produced, a decade or so before Plymouth, what became the first permanent English settlement on this side of the Atlantic. What Kupperman...make[s] clear is that Jamestown should be seen not simply as prologue to Massachusetts Bay--though prologue it was, for good and for ill--but also as an element of a much larger brew of global political, religious and economic forces...An elegant, intellectually rich account...Kupperman makes a compelling case that Jamestown succeeded only after a kind of democracy began to develop there. Purely commercial operations, controlled by companies from afar, could not inspire and sustain the kind of commitment that transatlantic settlement required.
Richmond Times-Dispatch - Brent Tarter
The Jamestown Project is a major book of wide-ranging erudition that invites readers into a world very different from ours and reveals that England colonized North America in a different context than our old school books presented. English explorers, pirates, clergymen, rich investors and government officials living on the edge of Europe and in the shadows of great empires--Spanish, Portuguese and Ottoman--planted a small colony on the edge of a distant continent as an early chess move in the bold game of empire building...For many reasons, The Jamestown Project belongs on the bookshelf of every serious student of the English origins of the American people.
Philadelphia Inquirer - Carlin Romano
Karen Kupperman expertly articulates another traditional foundation tale in The Jamestown Project, a superb, clear-eyed history...Kupperman's accurate, balanced take on the relative roles of Jamestown and Plymouth in our collective memory acknowledges Jamestown's sins, yet credits the earlier colony with painfully forging the business and political model--capitalist, representative democracy--that permitted English civilization to endure in the New World...Most Americans remain ignorant of basic Jamestown facts, a lacuna that Kupperman fills.
New Republic - Alan Taylor
[Kupperman] is the preeminent contemporary scholar of English exploration and colonization.
Times Literary Supplement - T. H. Breen
Karen Kupperman adopts a boldly innovative perspective on the Jamestown settlement...Hers is an altogether different interpretative path. For her, the founding of Virginia was neither a particularly English nor a particularly American story. What draws her attention are the many ordinary people during the early modern period who moved easily from culture to culture. They crossed political and religious boundaries, sometimes looking for the main chance, but often finding themselves swept up by forces which they did not quite understand, but with which they dealt on their own terms....Without a doubt, Kupperman's most striking accomplishment is placing the history of early Jamestown persuasively in a global context.
Roanoke Times - George Kegley
Kupperman's informative account of the many events and forces influencing the settlement is a valuable piece of the Jamestown story.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674024748
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2007
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.52 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Ordahl Kupperman is Silver Professor of History at New York University.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments     vii
Introduction: Creation Myths     1
Elizabethan England Engages the World     12
Adventurers, Opportunities, and Improvisation     43
Indian Experience of the Atlantic     73
English Hunger for the New     109
Grasping America's Contours     145
A Welter of Colonial Projects     183
Jamestown's Uncertain Beginnings     210
The Project Revised     241
James Cittie in Virginia     278
Notes     329
Index     371
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