During a recent three-month trip to the USA, where I travelled from Maine to Florida, I stayed at a farm in Virginia. One evening we watched a DVD about recent archaeological finds in the state, which shone a new light on the story of Pocahontas.
(It was a farm in the middle of nowhere so our evening entertainment was, on occasion, whichever DVDs were available to rent from the tiny, local village library)!
I had heard of the story of Pocahontas and John Smith, but did not know many details. Very briefly, Englishman Smith and his fellow explorers colonised the area around Jamestown in Virginia at the turn of the 17th Century, creating the first English settlement in the USA. They clashed with Native American tribes who had long been resident in the area and in 1607 Smith was captured and taken to meet the chief of the Powhatans at Werewocomoco.
This dramatic passage of history – which contains exploration, battles, culture clashes and romance – is a fascinating one and has understandably become part of American folklore, with Pocahontas even becoming a glamorised Disney princess.
That this period of history – a major turning point in the early development of the USA – is known at all is largely thanks to diaries kept by John Smith. He also produced maps of the area around Chesapeake Bay, used by subsequent explorers for many years.
The account is from one person’s viewpoint, which begs the question, how reliable is it? Indeed some historians question the entire validity of Smith’s account regarding his romance with Pocahontas.
Still, it got me thinking. What if John Smith had not written any of his experiences down? What if he had not kept the maps he produced? What if Samuel Pepys, James Boswell or Virginia Woolf has not kept diaries? And what will people do in, say, 2116, when they look back a century previously, to a time when the main forms of communication were via texts and social media?
I grew up with written-down words that could be read for years to come: essays, letters, diaries, postcards, even shopping or holiday packing lists; this was the norm.
How things change! During my US travels I communicated with friends and family using Facebook, email, WhatsApp and Dropbox (for photos). I conducted a holiday romance via WhatsApp (between the first and second time we met up). I sent postcards to friends too – I am too old-school to give that up! But no letters.
Obviously my trip did not change the course of history in a dramatic way… but on a personal level I do wonder what will happen when I try to remember it in, say, 30 years’ time? As a writer I still note down thoughts and ideas sometimes, but increasingly use text, WhatsApp and so on.
And yes, potentially emails are preserved (my Yahoo emails go back 18 years now), but I’m not totally convinced there won’t be some global computer superbug or ultra-sophisticated hackers at work in the not too distant future, wiping out computer memories across the world.
I love the amazing collection of ephemera at the Little Shop of Memory. Postcards, theatre programmes, ration books, restaurant menus, letters, school reports, recipes, receipts, and of course photos. An ordinary yet incredible collection and powerful reminders of times past.
That’s the beauty – and, I think, clever foresight – of the Living Memory Association. Stories recorded, photos filed, for posterity. Not accounts of such geographic scope as that of John Smith, but no less important on other levels.
How will the events happening now and shaping history be recorded and preserved? If the Little Shop of Memory was transported 50 or 100 years into the future, what would it contain?
♦ This is an edited version of an article that appears in the latest issue of TheLMA magazine, available (for a donation) at the Little Shop of Memory in Ocean Terminal and Edinburgh Central Library.