America Begins at Jamestown, Québec and Santa Fe

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It would be a century after Christopher Columbus' 1492 trip across the ocean blue to the New World before Europe would show interest in settling that strange continent across the Atlantic.

By the early 1600s, however, France, Spain and England were looking to expand their influence and set their sights on North America.

The new exhibit "Jamestown, Québec and Santa Fe: Three North American Beginnings," on view at the Smithsonian's International Gallery in the Ripley Center, gives an impressionistic view of how these three colonies began to shape a new nation.

It's a big story to tell, and this show offers a glimpse of different aspects of colonial life, from the domestic to the religious to the political and economic. If you're like me and are quickly forgetting third grade history, it's a nice refresher course on the basic events and motivations for New World settlement and expansion.

With regards to the goods, there are spectacular conquistador armor and helmets. There are maps that illustrate how the New World was marketed to potential settlers—basically, if a cartographer drew delicious fish swimming the rivers and friendly-looking inhabitants in the margins, he could rope a few people into hopping the next boat across the Atlantic in search of an abundance of food and friends. There are housewares—pots, bowls, furniture, a wedding ring that's lost its owner—that give you an idea of domestic life 400 years ago and inspire gratitude for modern, plug-in appliances. And at the very least, you can come away from the show with a few lovely bits of trivia to toss around at your next cocktail party.

But for me, the most fascinating things were the objects that signaled how the visual lexicon of Native American populations was beginning to change as those peoples began to interact with Europeans. Take cats for instance. A hallmark of European folklore, cats were unknown to the Pueblo tribes in and around Santa Fe—but as trading relations developed between the two cultures, the Pueblo began including cats in their repertoire of animal sculptural forms.

By the 1700s, North America was very much an international continent. No one culture had claimed dominance over the region—although, in spite of the fact that Native peoples outnumbered the European transplants, they were beginning to suffer decreases in population. To catch a glimpse of America at the start of the colonial era, "Jamestown, Québec and Santa Fe" will be on display until November 1, 2009.  If you aren't able to make it out to DC, check out the exhibit's companion site.

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