Society for the History of Discoveries

Adams, Stephen.  The Best and Worst Country in the World: Perspectives on the Early Virginia Landscape.  Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001. 305 p. ISBN 081392037X.

     Stephen Adams describes landscape as “the ground of our being” in this intriguing book, which illuminates various perspectives on Virginia from the era of European exploration to the end of the seventeenth century. Analyzing landscape as “culturally fashioned and culturally specific,” the author’s primary concern is the way human societies perceive the environment and alter it to meet certain individual and collective needs. Adams asks readers to “defamiliarize” themselves of preconceived notions of the Virginia landscape in order to grasp “the perspectives of our various predecessors” (p. 3).

     Adams begins with an unconventional admission – that he is “an amateur (etymologically, a ‘lover’) rather than a professional historian or environmental studies specialist” (p. xi). In his current position as Distinguished Teaching Professor of English at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, he brings to scholarship a keen appreciation of literary texts, which are his primary analytical tools. Having previously taught and lived in Virginia, he candidly expresses a deep personal connection with his subject.

     The Best and Worst Country in the World does not offer a microscopic analysis of environmental change in particular locales, but instead a compendium of observations about the environment by colonists and contemporary English commentators, with contextual material drawn mainly from recent scholarship. Adams is sensitive and alert to the native worldview, and does his utmost to bring it to life. His book is, however, mostly concerned with colonial interaction with the environment rather than the Native American experience.

     Prior to discussing English colonialism, Adams touches upon Spanish voyages to the Chesapeake of the 1570s and 1580s. He calls our attention to the expedition of Vincente [Vicente] Gonzales, who claimed that mountains lay not far inland – and that it was but a five-day journey from those heights to New Mexico. Gonzales eagerly swallowed what he believed his Indian interlocutors told him about silver and crystal mines to the southwest. He also related that a river in the interior led to the “other sea” (i.e., the Pacific, p. 69).

     Adams presents a quite different perspective on English attitudes toward native peoples than that advanced by Edmund S. Morgan in American Slavery, American Freedom:  The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. Morgan emphasized the openness and fluidity of English views toward Indians in the era of Drake – a time when publicists such as Hakluyts imagined their nation as liberators of the New World from Spanish tyranny. Without directly challenging Morgan, Adams argues that Englishmen, imbued with notions of Christian superiority and dominion over the landscape, were bound to clash with natives who perceived nature as a “sentient” force that they had to appease while living within its spiritual compass (p. 41). Adams describes the English impulse to justify the exploitation and appropriation of native lands through the idea of spreading Christianity and civilization. He details the colonial drive toward the elimination of the Powhatans following the devastating Indian attack on settlements in 1622. Adams may go too far, however, in ascribing to the English a “deliberate policy of genocide and apartheid” (p. 52). As a practical matter, colonial policy aimed at the marginalization, but not the systematic annihilation of those native bands that accepted English sovereignty and their own subordination to white authority. Moreover, colonial leaders developed a complex approach – and one that was not consistently hostile – to native peoples living beyond the sphere of existing settlements.

     The most valuable part of Adams’s work is his meticulous examination of the English debate about colonization during the period of the Virginia Company’s rule (1607-1624). Considering the miseries of the colonists’ plight during these years, English commentators often expressed a harshly critical view of the Virginia endeavor. This perception was fueled by discontented settlers as well as by disappointed fortune seekers returning to England. The negative image was countered by boosters – commonly Company spokesmen – who continually promoted the bounties of the Virginia landscape. Adams reveals a common thread between negative assessments and rosier descriptions that depicted Virginia, in one typical phrase, as “one of the goodlyest partes of the earth” (p. 174). Commentators of various stripes tended to blame the colony’s failings not on the land or climate, but rather on poor leadership and the settlers’ own idleness and negligence. While many observers noted the unhealthfulness of the marshy tidewater zone, they also emphasized the richness of the land and its potential for economic development. Several writers employed the image of Virginia as a woman whose favors had to be won by adroit courtship. Samuel Purchas declared that “she [Virginia] is worth the wooeing and loves of the best Husband” (p. 179).

     The emergence of tobacco as Virginia’s staple is examined within Adams’s theme of counterpoint – “the Best and Worst Country.” Governor William Berkeley damned the colonists’ obsession with the “vicious ruinous plant of tobacco,” but could not wean landowners from the sot weed any more than other critics (p. 213). Adams shows that high-minded opponents of tobacco desired Virginia to be an orderly society, characterized by thriving towns and communal loyalties. These men had difficulty accepting the highly individualistic social attitudes that accompanied the dispersal of settlement. But as the Reverend John Clayton observed, geography as well as tobacco dictated settlement patterns. “This [great] number of Rivers, “he remarked, “is one of the chief Reasons they have no Towns” (p. 225).

     While tobacco was Virginia’s mainstay, Adams reminds us that it was not the sole source of wealth envisioned by leading planters and land speculators. As early as the 1650s, William Byrd I and Abraham Wood became interested in sponsoring western and southwestern exploration. In the 1670s, several explorers, assisted by Indian guides, led expeditions to the “Apalataean Mountains” and beyond. John Lederer, a German immigrant who was commissioned by Governor Berkeley, led one of these ventures. Adams helpfully critiques Lederer’s geographical sketch of his journey, bringing to light a little known, but important segment of Anglo-American expansion. The seeds of Thomas Jefferson’s interest in the west may have been planted by Virginia colonists of the late seventeenth century.

     Quite remarkably, explorers such as Lederer continued to imagine that the Pacific Ocean, or at least the Bay of California, was but a short distance west of the mountains. Some Virginia adventurers expected to find themselves close by Spanish territory in the transmontane region. One hundred years after Drake’s circumnavigation, Virginia’s colonists apparently had no conception of the breadth of North America – and this at a time when La Salle was exploring the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico.

     The Best and Worst Country is especially valuable in elucidating a rich array of English and colonial literary sources. We are therefore keyed into perceptions of Virginia during the seventeenth century – though the author might provide more uniformly the year of a given quotation in the text or endnotes. Adams offers a multiplicity of lengthy quotations from recent historiography. Though these passages are of some interest to scholars, they tend to dull the sharpness of the author’s own argument. T.H. Breen and Jack P. Greene are worth citing, but quotations from their writings carry too much of the weight of contextual analysis in examining the mid-to-late seventeenth century.

     Adams largely fulfills his goals of discerning perceptions of the landscape in relation to colonial development and alterations of the environment. Readers might still benefit, however, from a more detailed examination of Virginia as a series of locales in contrast to the quite uniform colonial environment as generally portrayed by Adams.  The Best and Worst Country includes several fine maps as illustrations, though Adams tends to neglect these texts in comparison to purely literary sources.

     Stephen Adams writes that he intends a multi-volume history of perceptions of the Virginia landscape. The Best and Worst Country has set a high standard for subsequent volumes. Adams is most effective in allowing us to feel the freshness of colonial perspectives as well as the ways that those viewpoints were expressed through literary conventions influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Renaissance. Thanks to Adams, we can understand more fully the colonial penchant for meticulous observation, especially concerning the landscape’s economic potential, along with imaginative leaps of faith to mineral wealth and routes to the South Sea. The area that the English called Virginia was a cultural construct as well as a physical and territorial reality.

David E. Narrett

The University of Texas at Arlington

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