“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” the hard-bitten newspaperman, Maxwell Scott says to Ransom Stoddard in the classic western film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance. So many legends have been attached to the founding of the United States it is sometimes difficult to see through the haze of myths to the real beginnings. A number of direct predecessors to the nation are often sought through the activities of predominantly English-speaking settlers on the eastern seaboard. This is popularly recounted annually in the Thanksgiving Festival, of course, which celebrates the survival of a group of religious refugees who traveled on the Mayflower to New England in 1620. However, by the time they arrived a colony further to the south, at Jamestown, was already well-established and Virginia was within four years of formally achieving statehood in the form of recognition as a crown colony. In fact, the Mayflower pilgrims were aiming originally to join the Jamestown settlers but were blown off course.
The founding of Jamestown had much to do with fool’s gold, the common term for the glittering, golden, sulfide of iron mineral, pyrite. In fact, fool’s gold is a common thread linking the activities of all the early European explorers to North America. In each case, these pioneers shipped back tons of fool’s gold to Europe in more-or-less successful attempts to raise funding for further expeditions. Jacques Cartier led an expedition into Canada in 1536 and sent back “diamonds and gold” to France, which turned out to be quartz and fool’s gold, in a successful attempt to persuade King Francis I to fund further expeditions. Groups of merchant adventurers in London were encouraged by Queen Elizabeth I’s government to look for gold in the Americas, following the success of the Spanish conquistadors further south and the rumors of French successes further north. Martin Frobisher led an expedition in 1576 to the Arctic coast of Canada that involved a successful financial scam whereby hundreds of tons of pyrite, shipped back to England, were promoted as gold by a gang of highly-placed fraudsters. Walter Raleigh funded an expedition that established the now lost colony of Roanoke in the Carolinas in 1584. We know they were looking for gold since they had Joachim Gans, a distinguished Bohemian metallurgist on board and his goldsmith’s crucible has been found amongst the archaeological remains at the site, together with lumps of smelted copper ore.
None of these early fool’s gold-fueled expeditions managed to establish a permanent settlement and even Cartier’s legacy at Charlesbourg-Royal on the St Lawrence River was abandoned in 1643. The first permanent European colony on the Atlantic seaboard was established by the Virginia Company at Jamestown in 1607 with a specific remit to look for gold. The captain of the first expeditionary fleet, Christopher Newport, was so sure that gold was to be found that he insisted that pyrite found near the settlement was real gold and shipped a load back to England. The idea was to encourage more immigrants to journey to the colony with the promise of gold — a sort of Elizabethan version of a 19th century gold rush. The puff achieved its aims; the rumor of gold was sufficient to lure more settlers. Captain Newport returned to Jamestown in 1608 with more settlers and the Jamestown settlement was established (in the sense that more people arrived than had died). It was after the Civil War, when the northern settlement in Massachusetts was written up by the victorious Union hagiographers, that the legend of a group of far-seeing and devout pilgrims became fact and they — rather than those duped by false promises offered by fool’s gold — became the Founding Fathers.
The idea that this great nation was founded on fool’s gold may seem particularly appropriate today. The recent financial crisis unearthed some really unpleasant financial verities about the richest nation on Earth. For example, one giant US finance house announced a loss of nine billion dollars on derivative trading in just one month in 2012. They essentially acted as bookmakers, spreading risks to other banks in a win-win situation – as long as the values of the primary assets (the houses) did not collapse. The operation has all the characteristics we associate with the idea of fool’s gold: a worthless asset believed by some people to be of real value. To put this in perspective, this one institution has some 70 trillion dollars tied up in derivatives, which is a banker’s way of saying that it’s 70 trillion dollars in debt. This amount of money is larger than the total global economy. It is extraordinary to think that the amount of money owed by just one US company is greater than all the money in the world.
The idea of a false certainty that is expressed in the term fool’s gold seems to be very appropriate today. April 1, All Fool’s Day, should be celebrated by all Americans.
Feature Image: Pyrite crystals. Photo by JJ Harrison, CC BY SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.