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Relief from Home

Our royal, good and gallant ship.

—The Boatswain, The Tempest

A woman and a girl who survived the Starving Time were happy beyond all expectation when the rude vessels from Bermuda unexpectedly tied up to the trees along the Jamestown shore. After enduring the hurricane on the Blessing, Joan Pierce and her daughter of the same name had arrived in Jamestown and waited as the other ships of the convoy came up the river. The Sea Venture, with Joan’s husband, William, aboard had not come, and after several weeks the survivors gave up hope that the people on the flagship were still alive. The bereaved wife and daughter had finally come to think of William as gone as they struggled through the dreadful winter of 1609 to 1610. Then on a sunny day in May, William Pierce—incredibly, wonderfully, astonishingly—came back from the dead. Truly it was a miracle!

Though no document describes the reunion of William and Joan and their daughter, they surely stood close to one another as Reverend Richard Buck preached a service of thanksgiving. The gathering presumably took place after Gates had offered the famished colonists food. “Our much-grieved governor first visiting the church caused the bell to be rung,” Strachey said, “at which all such as were able to come forth of their houses repaired to church, where our minister Master Buck made a zealous and sorrowful prayer, finding all things so contrary to our expectations, so full of misery and misgovernment.” The Jamestown church was, according to John Smith, “a homely thing like a barn, set upon crotchets, covered with rafters, sedge, and earth.” Some stood outside at the windows as Buck condemned the fallen state of Jamestown and called them to a new beginning.

After the service the leadership of the colony was formally transferred from Percy to Gates. Then the new arrivals walked about the town. “Viewing the fort,” Strachey said, “we found the palisades torn down, the ports open, the gates from off the hinges, and empty houses (which owners’ death had taken from them) rent up and burnt rather than the dwellers would step into the woods a stone’s cast off from them to fetch other firewood.”

During the coming days the Bermuda survivors ministered to the sick and fed the hungry. “Our governor Sir Thomas Gates did allow them, as we had, with some pork,” Somers said, “and recovered all saving three that did die and were past recovery before our coming. We consulted together what course was best to be taken, for our means would not continue above fourteen days.” The starving people of Jamestown rapidly depleted the food brought from Bermuda, now the only food reserves for two hundred and fifty settlers. The famished colonists ate with great relish the salted cahows, pork loins, dried fish, and fresh-killed sea turtles brought from the holds and decks of the Patience and the Deliverance . The vessels carried only enough food for an ocean crossing to what was expected to be a colony stocked with grains and livestock and run by vital settlers, and it would soon be gone.

After the deliberations with other officers of the colony, Gates decided that everyone in the settlement would starve if they did not leave immediately for England. On June 7 he announced that Jamestown would be abandoned and all would go home. “There was a general acclamation and shout of joy on both sides,” Strachey said, “for even our own men began to be disheartened and faint when they saw this misery amongst the others and no less threatened unto themselves.” Rather than attempt an ocean crossing in four overloaded craft, the vessels would follow the Virginia coast north. English fishermen working the banks off Newfoundland would be able to take some colonists aboard and augment the food supplies of the rest who would return home on the four pinnaces. The decision to abandon Jamestown was welcome news indeed to those who had made it through the Starving Time. One who was there recalled the effect of the announcement on the emaciated survivors. “Every man glad of this resolution labored his utmost to further it, so that in three weeks we had fitted those barks and pinnaces (the best we could).”

The most important work to be done before leaving was to properly seal the Bermuda boats by smearing their seams with pitch and tar to augment the island-made sealants. “Most of our men were set to work,” George Percy said, “some to make pitch and tar for trimming of our ships, others to bake bread, and few or none not employed in one occasion or another. So that in a small space of time four pinnaces were fitted and made ready, all preparing to go abroad.” To expose the underwater portions of the vessels for caulking, they were careened, or tipped on their sides while at anchor by adjusting the ballast and tightening block and tackle connected to a vessel alongside.

As preparations for the voyage were made, Gates had Strachey write out twenty-one new colonial laws to nail to a post in the church. The new rules were rooted in English common law but in their severity were closer to the martial discipline of the battlefield. Allegiance to commander, company, colony, country, and God was demanded upon pain of death. Anyone absent from daily prayers was on first offense to lose food for a day, on second to be whipped, and on third to be imprisoned for six months. A person caught blaspheming would “have a bodkin thrust through his tongue.” Anyone found to have used “disgraceful words” would be “tied head and feet together upon the guard every night for the space of one month.” Severe sanctions were listed for treason, murder, and theft. A law against rape explicitly protected both English and Powhatan victims—“No man shall ravish or force any woman, maid, or Indian, or other, upon pain of death.” The colonists viewed the new laws with sober indifference. Since they were about to leave the colony, they would be subject to them for only a short time. If the colony were to continue they would have looked on them with more concern, but as it was, the laws were not likely to affect their lives.

By early June, preparations for departure were complete. The Virginia was sent ahead to tell the soldiers at Algernon Fort that the ships would soon leave. Since they needed to get away soon to ensure that the food did not run out, the vessels were loaded immediately and the colonists assembled on June 7. Some wanted to burn the town, but to ensure order Gates kept a careful watch during the final minutes. “He commanded every man at the beating of the drum to repair aboard,” Strachey said. “His own company he caused to be last ashore and was himself the last of them when about noon, giving a farewell with a peal of small shot, we set sail.” As the vessels rode the river and the trees finally hid the settlement from view, a colonist said, they “quitted Jamestown, leaving the poor buildings in it to the spoil of the Indians, hoping never to return to repossess them.”

That day and evening the voyagers sailed with the current to an isle called Hog Island, and the next morning they went further downriver to another called Mulberry Island, where they paused to await a favorable current. The slow sail down the river allowed the Sea Venture survivors to reflect on their New World adventure. Remarkably, it had been exactly one year since they left England. On June 8, 1609, the Sea Venture set sail from Plymouth, and on June 8, 1610, its survivors were anchored in the James River awaiting an ebb tide to go home again. Both dates would be turning points in the history of Jamestown.

The longboat approaching the pinnaces as they rode before Mulberry Island first appeared as a smudge on the horizon. A lookout sighted the approaching boat with its rowers taking advantage of the flood tide to counter the flow of the James. Thomas Gates knew there was no longboat at Algernon Fort, so he put the vessels on guard. One way or another, the approaching craft signaled the presence of strangers in Chesapeake Bay.

“About an hour it came up,” Strachey said of the longboat, “by which, to our no little joy, we had intelligence of the honorable my Lord La Warr, his arrival before Algernon Fort.” To Gates the news was not wholly unexpected. Thomas West, Lord Delaware, was the man who had been appointed governor before the Sea Venture fleet departed England. During his entire service to the Virginia Company, Gates had technically served as Delaware’s deputy, and now the rightful governor was finally arriving. The new fleet was expected to carry a thousand settlers in nine vessels, but news of the loss of the Sea Venture had dampened enthusiasm for the venture. Only about a hundred and fifty had signed on, and the convoy numbered only three ships—the Delaware, the Hercules, and the Blessing (the same Blessing that had sailed in the Gates fleet and returned to England with John Smith). Still, the small convoy carried ample supplies, and its arrival meant the departing vessels could return to Jamestown without fear of starvation.

To Somers, the timely meeting of the Delaware fleet was good news that “made our hearts very glad.” Silvester Jourdain was of the same mind, saying the news “revived all the company and gave them great content.” Gladness and contentment, however, were not the emotions of Starving Time veterans who had hailed the news that they would return to England. One colonist said that the announcement from Gates that the vessels would return to Jamestown caused “the great grief of all his company.” When they met at Algernon Fort, Delaware told Gates of hearing from the soldiers of the remarkable return of the Sea Venture castaways, followed by the terrible news of famine. “It was seasoned with a following discourse, compound of so many miseries and calamities, and those in such horrid changes and diverse forms, as no story I believe ever presented the wrath and curse of the Eternal Offended Majesty in a greater measure.”

Delaware and his fellows in turn told the colonists what had transpired in England over the previous year. Samuel Argall had returned in November 1609 with news that the Sea Venture had been lost. Later in November more disaster had befallen the Virginia Company. Two of the ships in the convoy carrying the injured John Smith had encountered a storm off France and “were dashed to pieces on the rocks off the coast of Brittany with all hands on board, one man being saved.” Spanish ambassador Pedro de Zúñiga reported that the four others had arrived home between November 30 and December 21, 1609: “They tell me that the sailors do not come very happy, because [they] are suffering great hunger there and they bring nothing of any consequence in the ships.”

Returning sailors and landsmen alike had spread stories of misery and death. In response the Virginia Company had launched a fresh publicity drive to protect their considerable investment in the enterprise. First an announcement was rushed into print that attacked the character of the returning voyagers and anyone who believed their reports. Those arriving home were “unruly youths” disseminating “vile and scandalous reports” to “color their own misbehavior and the cause of their return with some pretense.” Likewise, those who took up and spread the reports were cowards content to remain in England and “cheer themselves with the prevention of happy success in any action of public good.” The devil was ultimately responsible for the vicious reports: “These devices infused into the tongues and heads of such devisors (by the Father of Untruths) do serve for nothing else but as a cloak to cover the wretched and lewd pranks of the one sort and the stupidity and backwardness of the other.” The company invited right-thinking adventurers to join in a new expedition under Delaware. This time it pledged to accept no “lascivious sons, masters of bad servants, and wives of ill husbands.”

In the winter of 1610, as colonists in Jamestown starved to death, the Virginia Company crystallized its latest defense in a less hysterical form in the pages of A True and Sincere Declaration of the Purpose and Ends of the Plantation Begun in Virginia. That twenty-six-page pamphlet would stand as the company’s most complete response to the scandal that had seized the attention of everyone in London. In True Purpose the company conceded that the venture was facing unmitigated criticism on street corners and around tavern tables, attributing the negative talk to “ignorant rumor, virulent envy, or impious subtlety.” All was not well in Jamestown, the company acknowledged. “We will call before us all the objections and confess ingenuously all the errors and discouragements which seem to lie so heavy as almost to press to death this brave and hopeful action.” The problems, however, were the fault of lazy colonists and incompetent commanders rather than the company. Now the Virginia venture faced new adversity caused by a storm that no one could have anticipated. Should it abandon the project at the most difficult hour, the company asked, or should its members carry on like proper Englishmen? “Is he fit to undertake any great action whose courage is shaken and dissolved with one storm?” No, the company concluded, the colony would go on, and what began as “so small a root” would continue to flower with a “blessed and unexpected growth” into a successful enterprise.

Five months after the loss of the Sea Venture and five months before it was known that the people aboard it had survived on Bermuda, True Purpose audaciously suggested that those on the ship might still be alive. Gates, the Virginia Company said, was “perhaps bound in with wind, perhaps enforced to stay the masting or mending of some what in his ship torn or lost in this tempest, we doubt not but by the mercy of God he is safe with the pinnace which attended him and shall both, or are by this time, arrived at our colony.” The company admitted of Gates that “the loss of him is in suspense,” but supposed that there was reason to hope for his survival—“against some doubt.” The pamphlet apparently had the desired effect, for soon after its publication at least one Englishman reported that, “some say that the admiral is now safely come to Virginia.”

In the winter of 1610 the officials of the Virginia Company used every forum they had at their disposal, including the pulpits of London churches, to bolster sagging confidence in the Jamestown venture. On February 21, Reverend William Crashaw delivered a sermon before Lord Delaware as he prepared to sail, echoing the themes of True Purpose but using more colorful language. The “loose, lewd, licentious, riotous, and disordered men” of the earlier expeditions were “the very excrements of a full and swelling state.” Yet, Crashaw said, “such fellows as these that be the scum and scouring of the streets and raked up out of the kennels are like to be the founders of a worthy state.” All that was needed was discipline imposed by a robust commander. “Let no wise man object that our last fleet was dispersed and sore shaken by a storm, for he cannot but know that such a sail by sea must as well expect tempests of wind as travelers on the land showers of rain.”

The latest effusion of words represented the Virginia Company at its vehement best, but in the post-Sea Venture climate yielded only a hundred and fifty recruits, a fraction of the hoped-for thousand. Delaware left London on March 10 and traveled overland to Southampton, from which his ships weighed anchor on April 1. As it turned out, if he had waited even a few days longer, he would have arrived at a vacant settlement.

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