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Away to Virginia

O brave new world.

—Miranda, The Tempest

Bringing the pinnaces through Somers Creek to open ocean was a slow process. Men in small craft called out directions to Christopher Newport on the Deliverance and George Somers on the Patience. To the horror of everyone, the Deliverance struck bottom once with an appalling thump. The vessel backed off the obstruction easily, however, and upon inspection the coxswain in the skiff reported no visible damage and said that the obstacle was a reef that gave way on impact. “Had it not been a soft rock, by which means she bore it before her and crushed it to pieces,” Strachey said, “God knows we might have been like enough to have returned anew and dwelt there, after ten months of carefulness and great labor, a longer time, but God was more merciful unto us.”

The slow wending through the reefs lasted through the night and into May 11, at which point the vessels made deep water at last. Having left Bermuda in a southeasterly direction, the pinnaces would now round the island to the south and head to Virginia. Left behind was a cemetery of graves. “We buried five of our company, Jeffery Briars, Richard Lewis, William Hitchman, and my goddaughter Bermuda Rolfe, and one untimely Edward Samuel,” Strachey said. Two others who were lost were not included in his list. Henry Paine who had been executed for treason was apparently no longer considered one of “our company.” Strachey also left unexplained the disappearance of Namontack. The Powhatan man was simply gone, and his companion Machumps was leaving Bermuda under suspicion but unprosecuted. Two living men were left behind as well. Robert Waters and his confederate Christopher Carter watched the vessels slowly depart through the reefs. Strachey saw an ironic justice in Waters’s staying behind, as if he had been left to tend the grave of the man he had killed—“the body of the murdered and murderer so dwelling, as prescribed now, together.”

Once out of the shallows the crossing from Bermuda to Virginia was an unexpectedly easy one. The swifter Deliverance carrying Gates and Strachey had to trim sail to allow the Patience to keep pace. Twice Newport lost sight of Somers and then found him again. On May 17, only a week after leaving Bermuda, the sailors began to see floating leaves and knew that land was close. The vessels were making a respectable sixty-three nautical miles a day. The deep-sea (or dipsey) line measured thirty-seven fathoms on May 18, then nineteen the next day. Strachey reported that two days later the scent of a verdant jungle reached the pinnaces. “The twentieth about midnight we had a marvelous sweet smell from the shore (as from the coast of Spain short of the straits), strong and pleasant, which did not a little glad us.” Perhaps, too, on the midnight approach the foam at the bow of the vessels reflected the glow of the moon. “A well-bowed ship so swiftly presses the water,” John Smith said of such midnight runs, “as that it foams and in the dark night sparkles like fire.”

“In the morning by daybreak (so soon as one might well see from the foretop) one of the sailors cried land,” Strachey said. The well-navigated pinnaces reached the coast as intended at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Arriving at low tide, the vessels could not fight the current of the rivers flowing out of the bay and so anchored on the morning of May 21 to await the reversal of tide. “About seven of the clock we cast forth an anchor because the tide (by reason of the freshet that set into the bay) made a strong ebb there and the wind was but easy so as not able to stem the tide we proposed to lie at an anchor until the next flood, but the wind coming southwest a loom gale about eleven we set sail again and having got over the bar bore in for the cape.”

As the Deliverance and Patience came up to Jamestown’s coastal Algernon Fort at Point Comfort, a peninsula thirty-five miles downstream from the colony, the expedition had its first contact with other humans in almost a year. “The one and twentieth being Monday in the morning,” Strachey said, “we came up within two miles of Point Comfort, when the captain of the fort discharged a warning piece at us, whereupon we came to an anchor and sent off our longboat [or rather skiff] to the fort to certify who we were.” As the skiff pulled away from the pinnaces, the passengers and mariners at the rails prepared themselves for reentry into a version of the world they had left behind almost a year earlier on the Plymouth quay. The Sea Venture survivors were about to resume their lives in English society—a wilderness form of that world, to be sure, but one that was in contact with the home country. Bermuda was past and some version of a more familiar life lay before them.

Riding before the aromatic Virginia shore, the men and women on the pinnaces had their first look at America. A front of black clouds moved across the bay. Unlike the hurricane that wrecked the Sea Venture , this squall could be watched from a sheltered spot on deck in perfect safety. The thunderstorm was a reminder that hazards awaited them in Jamestown. There was time to think about their future in Virginia as rain lashed the vessels. “Being Monday about noon,” Strachey said, “where riding before an Indian town called Kecoughtan, a mighty storm of thunder, lightning, and rain gave us a shrewd and fearful welcome.”

The Sea Venture castaways had no knowledge that a fort stood at Point Comfort. The advance party from the Bermuda pinnaces approached cautiously to be sure the colony had not fallen to an enemy. George Percy, the acting governor of the English settlement, happened to be at the garrison at the time. The unrecognized sails had been spotted the evening before as they came up the bay. Just as Gates was wary that he might be approaching a colony held by a hostile force, Percy, too, worried that an enemy might be preparing an assault. Jamestown had no reason to expect a visit from two small sailing vessels of unknown origin.

“We espied two pinnaces coming into the bay,” Percy said, “not knowing as yet what they were, but keeping a court of guard and watch all that night. The next morning we espied a boat coming off from one of the pinnaces, so standing upon our guard we hailed them, and understood that Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers were come in these pinnaces which by their great industry they had builded in the Bermudas with the remainder of their wrecked ship and other wood they found in the country. Upon which news we received no small joy, requesting them in the boat to come ashore, the which they refused and returned abroad again for Sir Thomas Gates.”

As the skiff rowed away the men of the fort absorbed the astounding news of the redemption of the Sea Venture voyagers. The colonists of Jamestown had long ago concluded that the flagship had broken up or capsized in the hurricane the previous July and that the hundred and fifty-three people aboard were lost. Now, nearly a year later, they reappeared as if by magic. What’s more, among the returning lost souls was the governor of Virginia. This not only produced amazement in the colonists of the fort; it also prompted the soldiers to glance at Percy and wonder who would now be in charge of Jamestown. Those coming from Bermuda had dramatic intelligence to take in, as well. The first bit of welcome news was that all but one of the vessels of their original fleet survived the hurricane. Only the ketch the Sea Venture towed at its stern had not made it through the storm. The news of the survival of the rest of the fleet reached the Deliverance and the Patience with the oarsmen of the returning advance boat, and Gates and his entourage were rowed to the fort in a buoyant mood—a fine humor that would be short-lived.

“The good news of our ships’ and men’s arrival the last year did not a little gladden our governor who went soon ashore and as soon (contrary to all our fair hopes) had new unexpected, uncomfortable, and heavy news of a worse condition of our people above at Jamestown,” Strachey said. After Gates waded up the bank and entered the fort, Percy told him that Powhatans had besieged the settlement the previous October and famine had killed many during a winter that became known as the Starving Time. Algernon Fort had sufficient food, but Jamestown up the river was in desperate shape. Gates ordered his pinnaces to the settlement to feed the starving colonists with their Bermuda pork, birds, and turtles, though a lack of breeze made it a slow journey. “From hence in two days (only by the help of tides, no wind stirring) we plied it sadly up the river,” Strachey said, “and the three-and-twentieth of May we cast anchor before Jamestown.”

The colony was located on a peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow neck, a strip of land so thin that the Jamestown site was often referred to as an island. The water of the James River scoured the bank as it curved past the peninsula, providing the settlers a natural anchorage close to shore. The deep water along the point was a key reason the site was selected. Marshy shallows separated the peninsula from the mainland, a downside that was viewed as offset by the advantages of the accessible yet easily defended location.

The triangular Jamestown fort was a hundred and forty yards on the river side and a hundred yards on each of the other two. A palisade fence with posts sunk four feet in the ground surrounded houses, a storehouse, a guard station, and a chapel. A lane ran along each perimeter, forming a village square in the center. Guns were mounted on platforms at the three corners to guard the settlement. A main gate opened to the river, and smaller doors provided access at each corner.

Only about ninety of two hundred forty-five settlers had survived the winter of starvation—sixty at Jamestown and thirty at the fort. As many as twenty women were among those who began the ordeal at the fort, and some of them were among the survivors. Gates and the Bermuda castaways were at a loss to understand why Jamestown was in such distress. The colonial experiment was expected to be difficult—even the charter of the Virginia Company talked of “great pain and peril” in the New World. Desperate famine, however, was not anticipated.

Laziness was the cause of the troubles, Strachey believed, and he listed the sins of the settlers as “sloth, riot, and vanity.” The delay in the arrival of Gates was the other source of difficulty, he wrote, because it deprived the dissolute colonists of their leader. If the governor had made it to Virginia as planned he would have used the powers granted to him by the second charter to rein in the “factionaries” and stifle “their ignoble and irreligious practices.” The written orders mandating the new form of government went with Gates to Bermuda, however, and the remainder of the fleet that landed at Jamestown continued to be governed by a ruling council. Steered only by a squabbling assembly, Strachey said, the colony fell to ruin. “No story can remember unto us more woes and anguishes than these people, thus governed, have both suffered and pulled upon their own heads.”

The Virginia Company would adopt Strachey’s analysis of the sufferings of Jamestown when it learned of the survival of the Sea Venture voyagers. In a later publication the company would use a telling metaphor to describe the situation, calling the infighting of the colonial council a “tempest of dissension” that was as damaging as the hurricane that scattered the fleet. While the Virginia Company was blaming the settlers of Jamestown, the colonists were just as adamantly condemning the Virginia Company. To many who lived through the ordeal, the root of the problem was stinginess among the officers of the Virginia Company, especially treasurer Thomas Smith who they contended had not released sufficient money for supplies. The starving colonists were known to berate Smith in absentia as they consumed their meager fare. “The happiest day that ever some of them hoped to see was when the Indians had killed a mare,” one account of the Starving Time said, “they wishing while she was boiling that Sir Thomas Smith was upon her back in the kettle.”

While laziness and a lack of funding were perhaps factors in the distress of Jamestown, much of the blame must be laid to an insidious force that was working against the success of the colony. In 1607, the very year the first settlers arrived, Virginia began its driest seven-year span in seven hundred and seventy years. The stresses of the drought would induce a period of intense warfare between the settlers and the Powhatans. English observers were not immediately aware of the drought, since the Virginia forest appeared relatively green and full to foreigners unfamiliar with normal levels of moisture. The lack of rain nevertheless had a devastating effect on the food and water resources of people of both nations living in the area. Thus did an invading population that could not grow food as expected meet a resident population whose crops were failing them. The clash of cultures might have been less bloody had it come at a time of plenty. Coming at the time it did, it was exacerbated by a major environmental crisis.

Drought did more than just reduce the amount of crops produced. The Jamestown well drawing water a short distance from the river had a higher than normal salt content during the period of lower runoff from the surrounding hills. To make matters worse, settlers trying to make up for a lack of rain showered their crops with brackish water from the river and further diminished yields. An increase in salinity also reduced fish populations where the waters of the Chesapeake Bay met those of the James River. Strachey reported that the river had provided a great store of fish in the past, but in the spring of 1610 it “had not now a fish to be seen in it, and albeit we labored and held our net twenty times a day and night yet we took not so much as would content half the fishermen.”

The English sensed that poor water quality at Jamestown was a problem. “True it is,” Strachey said, “I may not excuse this our fort, or Jamestown, as yet seated in somewhat an unwholesome and sickly air, by reason it is in a marish ground, low, flat to the river, and hath no freshwater springs serving the town but what we drew from a well six or seven fathoms deep fed by the brackish river oozing into it, from whence I verily believe the chief causes have proceeded of many diseases and sicknesses which have happened to our people, who are indeed strangely afflicted with fluxes and agues.”

In the dry conditions the colonists were at greater risk of disease than they would be in a time of normal rainfall. Lower river levels increased the extent of the marsh zone behind the peninsula and provided disease-carrying mosquitoes a larger breeding area. Settlers stressed by salt poisoning and malnutrition were at increased risk of dysentery, malaria, and typhoid. Malnutrition itself brought on vitamin-deficiency diseases such as scurvy, beriberi, and pellagra. Depression was another danger—what Strachey called laziness might have had a physical basis. A lack of motivation is a symptom of both salt poisoning and malnutrition. What’s more, since the English were unable to produce sufficient food for themselves, their main sustenance was the unfamiliar food of the Powhatans, a diet likely to upset their constitutions and their moods. Beyond that, depression similar to the sense of hopelessness documented in modern prisoners of war afflicted the besieged settlers in the winter of 1609 to 1610. All of those factors contributed to the celebrated lassitude of the Virginia colonists.

When William Strachey and the other castaways came ashore at Jamestown on May 23, 1610, they had their first look at the settlement they had been told was a miniature England in the Virginia woodland. What they found instead was a band of skeletal people who had faced starvation while the castaways lived in ease and plenty on the Devil’s Isle. When the people of Jamestown told their story to the survivors of the Sea Venture wreck, they related a horrible tale indeed. Things had been difficult since the six surviving craft of the hurricane-battered Gates fleet had come into Jamestown in the summer of 1609. The vessels had been pounded as much as the Sea Venture, and the people who rode in them were in poor condition.

Gabriel Archer on the Blessing reported that his ship had drifted in a stunned state before reuniting with the LionFalcon, and Unity. Ignoring Gates’s order to rendezvous at Barbuda, the ships limped into Jamestown in mid-August. “The Unity was sore distressed when she came up with us,” Archer said, “for of seventy landsmen she had not ten sound and all her seamen were down but only the master and his boy with one poor sailor, but we relieved them and we four consorting fell into the king’s river happily the eleventh of August.” The Diamond arrived a few days later, Archer said, “having cut her main-mast overboard and had many of her men very sick and weak, but she could tell no news of our governor, and some three or four days after her came in the Swallow with her main-mast overboard also and had a shrewd leak, neither did she see our admiral.”

A colonist named William Box also rode on one of the vessels: “In the tail of a hurricano we were separated from the admiral, which—although it was but the remainder of that storm—there is seldom any such in England or those northern parts of Europe. Some lost their masts, some their sails blown from their yards; the seas so overraking our ships much of our provision was spoiled, our fleet separated, and our men sick and many died, and in this miserable state we arrived in Virginia.”

The tattered vessels of the Gates convoy had brought only broken and ruined containers of food with the exhausted voyagers. The settlers already in Virginia under the governorship of John Smith had watched in dismay as the newcomers who were supposed to relieve them consumed their stores at an unprecedented rate. One resident recalled that when the hundreds of new settlers came ashore there had been “houses few or none to entertain them, so that being quartered in the open field they fell upon the small quantity of corn—not being above seven acres—which we with great penury and sufferance had formerly planted, and in three days at the most wholly devoured it.”

Captain Samuel Argall had arrived at Jamestown in a single vessel just ahead of the hurricane. As the damaged vessels of the Gates fleet began to come in, Argall had left for England carrying news of the great storm. The returning captain would report that the Sea Venture had not yet appeared in Virginia a month after the hurricane, not knowing that the people who rode on the ship were stranded on a mid-Atlantic island that he may have seen on the horizon as he sailed back to England.

In September 1609 the Jamestown colonists had lost the services of nominal president John Smith, who, despite being a trigger to factional-ism, was the most effective agent for extracting food from the Powhatans. Smith had suffered a grievous wound from a gunpowder explosion and left Jamestown for England when five of the vessels that had survived the hurricane returned home. A day before the convoy left, another English vessel had come up the James River and anchored before the colony. The pinnace Virginia had been a part of the original Gates fleet a year earlier but had turned around a week after leaving home. Put in shape for an Atlantic crossing, the vessel had voyaged to Virginia on its own. The vessels carrying Smith back to England left soon after the arrival of the Virginia, taking letters home. A letter from colonist John Ratcliffe reported that hope was almost gone for the hundred and fifty-three aboard the Sea Venture and the thirty or so on the ketch towed at its stern. “Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers, Captain Newport, and one hundred and eighty persons or there about are not yet arrived,” Ratcliffe wrote, “and we much fear they are lost.”

Conditions worsened dramatically during the winter. When Jamestown’s two remaining vessels were sent to barter with the Powhatans for food, one crew was massacred and the other betrayed the colony and sailed for England. As the winter deepened the colonists were besieged by Powhatans and suffered starvation. “Famine beginning to look ghastly and pale in every face,” George Percy said, and the colonists were forced “to do those things which seem incredible”—eat rats and snakes, resort to cannibalism, and dig up the dead for food. Those emaciated survivors of the Starving Time were the people who greeted the men and women on the Patience and the Deliverance when they arrived to begin life in the New World.

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