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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Poison

I fear a madness held me.

—Alonso, The Tempest

The sails of the remaining two ships of Thomas Dale’s fleet appeared on the horizon off Point Comfort in May 1611. The Virginia Company’s primary order to Dale was to expand the settlement beyond Jamestown and Point Comfort. The two abandoned forts at Kecoughtan, now named Fort Henry and Fort Charles, were to be reoccupied and planted with corn. The settlement at Jamestown was to become a fully functioning village. Once those goals were accomplished, Dale was to reoccupy and develop the upriver site where Delaware had spent the winter. The new leader’s efforts were to be spent strengthening the colony rather than seeking silver.

“The twelfth of May we seized our bay,” Dale reported, “and the same night with a favorable southeast gale (all praise be to God for it) we came to an anchor before Algernon Fort at Point Comfort, where to our no small comfort again we discovered the Hercules even then preparing to take the advantage of the present tide to set sail for England.” The Hercules had exchanged its cargo of settlers for one of fish and was set to return home. Percy was at the fort to see the ship off, and the veteran colonist greeted Dale with the news that Delaware had left Virginia a month earlier and Dale would consequently be in charge of the entire colony rather than just its military activities.

Given the rapid advance of the growing season, the marshal immediately took his ships to Kecoughtan instead of going upriver to Jamestown. There he found that the English encampment remained vacant. Housing and corn were his priorities, so he wasted no time in establishing both at Kecoughtan. Dale ordered carpenters to restore the cabins at the site, and put the rest of the colonists in his ships to work planting the fields around the destroyed Powhatan village. After a week, he left a contingent of settlers at Kecoughtan to tend the fields and moved on to Jamestown.

Arriving at the Jamestown palisade on Sunday, May 19, Dale found the residents living an undisciplined existence. As colonist Ralph Hamor sarcastically put it, the people were found to be going about “their daily and usual works—bowling in the streets.” The lack of crops in the ground and the perceived lack of effort angered Dale, who vented his frustration on Christopher Newport. The former captain of the Sea Venture had returned to Virginia with him, apparently after supporting the contention of Virginia Company treasurer Thomas Smith that the colony was adequately provisioned. “Sir Thomas Dale, at his arrival finding himself deluded by the aforesaid protestations,” a witness said, “pulled Captain Newport by the beard, and threatening to hang him, for that he affirmed Sir Thomas Smith’s relation to be true, demanding of him whether it were meant that the people here in Virginia should feed upon trees.”

Dale immediately set the colonists to work restoring the settlement. William Strachey was always quick to show loyalty to a strong leader, and he was careful to avoid being among those who were subjected to Dale’s wrath. The new acting governor would retain Strachey as secretary of the colony, and one of their first joint projects was an expansion of the laws first imposed by Gates. Strachey spent hours with Dale as the marshal dictated dozens of new civil and military regulations. By the time they were posted on June 22, the original list of twenty-one civil laws had been expanded to thirty-seven, and fifty-one military commandments had been laid out as well. Few colonists were happy with the new rules. “Sir Thomas Dale immediately upon his arrival,” one resident said, “to add to that extremity of misery under which the colony from her infancy groaned, made and published most cruel and tyrannous laws, exceeding the strictest rules of marshal discipline.”

Dale’s civil laws were much like those imposed by Gates. Anyone killing a domestic animal without permission would be punished by the branding of a hand and the loss of both ears. Despite the threat of attack, settlers were told to go at least a quarter of a mile from the fort “to do the necessities of nature, since by these unmanly, slothful, and loathsome immodesties, the whole fort may be choked and poisoned with ill airs.” Colonists were to keep their houses clean, with the beds at least three feet off the ground to escape contagious vapors. Some of the laws were directed at women—any laundress who stole clothes or surreptitiously replaced new articles with worn ones, for example, was to “be whipped for the same and lie in prison till she make restitution of such linen.” Beyond the civil laws, a new section of military decrees applied only to the male colonists when they were acting as soldiers. If they transgressed while on duty they might be whipped, held in irons, forced to ask forgiveness on their knees, run a gauntlet of pikes, lose a hand, or be executed by their own weapons. Soldiers were subjected to a strict code of honor and were not to “outrage or injure anyone without a cause, in deed or in words, privately behind his back like a sly coward or openly to his face like an arrogant ruffian.”

A bond formed between Strachey and Dale as they drafted the expanded laws. The new leader of the colony found a loyal lieutenant in the secretary, and would trust him thereafter with personal projects. After living for a short period under the unsure leadership of George Percy, Strachey admired Dale’s imposition of fierce discipline on what the secretary had always seen as an unbridled rabble. Strachey would stay close to the acting governor’s side for the remainder of his time in Jamestown.

Dale and his council of advisers developed a list of construction projects to restore Jamestown. They made plans to repair the church and storehouse and to construct a stable, barn, armory, powder house, fish-drying shack, wharf, forge, second well, and additional blockhouse. First on the agenda were the church, stable, and wharf. As work commenced on those, it became clear to colonist Ralph Hamor that Dale would be “severe and strict” in his rule and expect each of his orders “with all severity and extremity to be executed.”

In addition to reinvigorating Jamestown, Dale wanted to expand the colony to a new site. To that end, in early summer he undertook a scouting expedition with a hundred colonists, including Strachey. First Dale planned to explore the Nansemond River, a tributary of the James that branched off downriver from Jamestown. He would then return past the colony and go upriver to inspect the rude fort Delaware had built there. Machumps would serve as a guide. The Powhatan traveler had returned to Virginia with the Sea Venture castaways, apparently telling Wahunsenacawh that Namontack had stayed behind in England. The colonists continued to suspect him of foul play in Namontack’s disappearance in Bermuda but continued to use him as a guide and interpreter. Machumps, Strachey said, “comes to and fro amongst us as he dares and as Powhatan gives him leave.” When in Jamestown he would occasionally dine with the leaders of the colony. “Before their dinners and suppers the better sort will do a kind of sacrifice, taking the first bit and casting it in the fire and to it repeat certain words,” Strachey wrote. “I have heard Machumps at Sir Thomas Dale’s table once or twice (upon our request) repeat the said grace, as it were, howbeit I forgot to take it from him in writing.”

On one of his extended visits to Jamestown, Machumps told a story that the colonists wanted to believe. At an inland village, he said, “the people have houses built with stone walls and one story above another, so taught them by those English who escaped the slaughter at Roanoke.” The fate of the 1587 colony located down the coast at Roanoke had been of intense interest to the English since a supply ship found the site deserted in 1590. Machumps claimed that the colony was overrun and the attackers “preserved seven of the English alive—four men, two boys, and one young maid (who escaped and fled up the river of Chanoke).” Though the colonists would search as best they could and inquire at parlays, no further evidence of the seven captives has ever been discovered.

Machumps was aboard when the expedition departed for Nansemond. As the vessels of the colony made their way up the tributary river, the English and Powhatans encountered each other and clashed. The soldiers wore armor brought over by Dale, which deflected most arrows. Nevertheless, Captain Francis West was impaled in the thigh and Captain John Martin in the arm, and an arrow pierced the brim of Dale’s helmet, just missing his head.

“In these conflicts many Indians being also slain and wounded and, not being acquainted nor accustomed to encounter with men in armor, much wondered thereat,” Percy said, “especially that they did not see any of our men fall as they had done in other conflicts. Whereupon they did fall into their exorcisms, conjurations, and charms, throwing fire up into the sky, running up and down with rattles and making many diabolical gestures with many necromantic spells and incantations, imagining thereby to cause rain to fall from the clouds to extinguish and put out our men’s matches and to wet and spoil their powder. But neither the devil whom they adore nor all their sorceries did anything avail them, for our men cut down their corn, burned their houses, and besides those which they had slain brought some of them prisoners to our fort.”

Reverend Alexander Whitaker, who had arrived in Virginia with the Dale fleet, was a witness to the battle. The Nansemonds’ call for rain was successful, according to Whitaker, though it failed to dampen the English powder. “As our men passed by one of their towns there issued out of the shore a mad crew, dancing like antics [as] our Morris dancers before whom there went a quiockosite, or their priest, [who] tossed smoke and flame out of a thing like a censer. An Indian by name Machumps amongst our men seeing this dance told us that there would be very much rain presently, and indeed there was forthwith exceeding thunder and lightning and much rain within five miles and so farther off, but not so much there as made their powder dank.”

Dale and his men returned to Jamestown, and while there they received a Powhatan delegation that delivered a warning from Wahunsenacawh. The English were not to venture upriver, the Powhatan leader said, and were immediately to return the prisoners they had taken at Nansemond. “Otherwise he threatened to destroy us after strange manner,” Whitaker reported. “First, he said he would make us drunk, and then kill us, and for a more solemnity he gave us six or seven days’ respite. Sir Thomas was very merry at this message and returned them with the like answer.”

Days later Dale and his men proceeded up the James as planned, and during the venture Wahunsenacawh attempted to make good on his threat. “One night our men being at prayers in the court of guard,” Whitaker said, “a strange noise was heard coming out of the corn towards the trenches of our men like an Indian hup hup! with an oho oho! Some say that they saw one like an Indian leap over the fire and run into the corn with the same noise, at the which all our men were confusedly amazed. They could speak nothing but oho oho and all generally taking the wrong end of their arms.”

“Thanks be to God this alarm lasted not above half a quarter of an hour and no harm was done, excepting two or three which were knocked down without any further harm,” Whitaker said. “For suddenly as men awakened out of a dream they began to search for their supposed enemies but finding none remained ever after very quiet.”

The Powhatans had tried to use poison against the English once before, and may now have managed to slip a hallucinogenic herb into the water of the company, perhaps a tea made from the seeds of jimsonweed. “A fantasy possessed them,” Percy said of Dale’s men, “that they imagined the savages were set upon them, each man taking one another for an Indian and so did fall pell-mell, one upon another, beating one another down and breaking one of another’s heads, that much mischief might have been done but that it pleased God the fantasy was taken away whereby they had been deluded and every man understood his error.”

After the disturbing but harmless episode, the expedition continued up the river, stopping at the deserted village of Appomattox that Delaware’s men had attacked the previous fall after the killing of the miners. The men walked through partially burned houses looking for artifacts, and in one of them Strachey found a pair of severed cat paws hanging on a wall. The claws probably belonged to a bobcat taken by a Powhatan hunter, though the colonists envisioned something larger. “I found in an Indian house certain claws tied up in a string,” Strachey wrote. “They are assured unto me to be lion’s claws.” After going on and inspecting the upriver fort, Dale decided to build his satellite settlement at that location. After a few days the company returned to Jamestown, with plans to return with a construction team as a prelude to the permanent occupation of the site.

Plans to develop an upriver settlement were delayed by an event that occurred soon after the expedition returned to Jamestown. The colonists had long feared they would encounter the Spanish in the New World, and now for the first time it came to pass. The sight of the sail of a Spanish caravel off Point Comfort caused the soldiers of the fort to immediately prepare for war. On board the approaching ship, most of the sailors were just as tense. All but three of them were confused as to why their commander was directing their vessel to approach an English fort. Only Captain Diego de Molina, Ensign Marco Antonio Perez, and pilot Francisco Lembri knew that the true purpose of their voyage up the coast from the Caribbean was to spy on the English colony. The rest had been told their mission was to search for a lost munitions ship.

The Spanish claimed the New World wholly for themselves and were still on uneasy terms with their former enemy. They saw the establishment of an English settlement on the Virginia coast as a dangerous precedent. Three years earlier Spain almost launched an attack on Jamestown. A fleet was outfitted in 1608, but the ships were diverted to the war in the Netherlands and the plan went no further. Now in the spring of 1611 the Spanish had decided they were content to allow England to pour capital into an enterprise that was yielding little return. The Spanish Council of War was still interested in knowing the strength of the colony, however, and on its orders the caravel Nuestra Señora del Rosario had headed north from Havana to scout Jamestown.

The misinformed Spanish sailors were mystified by their captain’s insistence that they sail toward the fort, and equally baffled by his suggestion that the English ship they saw anchored there might be the lost Spanish vessel. The soldiers at Point Comfort fired a warning shot as the Spaniards approached, and the caravel anchored and responded with a shot of its own. Molina, Perez, Lembri—an Englishman formerly named Limbrecke who had been living in Spain for many years—ordered ten armed men to join them in a longboat and row to shore. As they neared the beach, the oarsmen saw sixty or seventy men near the fort and asked Molina to turn around. The captain responded sharply, according to an official report by one of the sailors: “Don Diego said no one should say a word or he would break his head.” The longboat continued on until it was just off the beach. There the Spaniards saw footprints of boots they identified as English or Flemish. The sailors refused to leave the longboat, and only Molina, Perez, and Lembri splashed into the surf. As the longboat pushed off, fifty Englishmen emerged from hiding, surrounding the three Spaniards on the beach, disarming them and leading them to the fort.

Inside the Point Comfort palisade, the Spaniards told Commander James Davis that they wanted to search the James River for the lost vessel. Somewhat surprisingly, Davis agreed to send an English pilot aboard the caravel to help it navigate the James, apparently judging it an opportunity to get the vessel to Jamestown, where Dale and his three English vessels could take it at will. English pilot John Clark was thus sent to the caravel. Signals from Molina on the beach brought the Spanish longboat back in. To ensure that Clark would not get his clothes wet, the sailor’s report said, the Spaniards carried him to the longboat—“one of the mariners put him into the boat, carrying him on his shoulders.”

The master of the caravel was not inclined to sail up the James. His only desire was to extract himself from his present situation, retrieving if he could the three colleagues who had in his view embarked on a reckless venture. Instead of being allowed to take the ship up the river, Clark was held prisoner. The next morning the master of the caravel came near shore himself and, in shouted negotiations with Davis on the beach, proposed that the three Spaniards be traded for Clark, an offer Davis refused. At that the longboat returned to the caravel and the vessel set sail for Havana. The standoff thus ended with the three Spaniards in the hands of the English and pilot John Clark bound for Cuba.

The captive Spaniards were brought up the river to Jamestown. After a report from Davis, Dale ordered the three men questioned by Percy and Newport, with Strachey taking notes. After an extensive interrogation in a mixture of Spanish and English, Percy reported to Dale that “their intent was as evil as we imagined.” The men would be held prisoner at Jamestown for the time being. The Spanish incursion worried Dale, and in a report to the Virginia Company he said he feared it was a precursor to an invasion. The colonists, Dale said, “are here so few, so weak and unfortified” that they would have little chance against even a small Spanish force.

A few weeks later it appeared Dale’s fears would be realized. On August 2, Davis sent a longboat from Point Comfort to Jamestown with word of nine sails off the coast. Dale immediately began preparations to meet the enemy. Since the palisade at Jamestown would provide little defense against the guns of Spanish ships, Dale ordered everyone in the colony onto the three vessels then on hand—the Starre, the Prosperous, and the Deliverance. Meanwhile he sent a boat with thirty armed men back down the river to return as soon as possible with more intelligence. When the scouts came back in three hours’ time, they brought good news. “It was an English fleet, Sir Thomas Gates general thereof,” Ralph Hamor reported. Instead of a bloody battle with the Spanish, the colonists would welcome a large company of fresh settlers. This new flotilla under Gates was the largest since the 1609 convoy led by the Sea Venture. Nine vessels had departed England in May with three hundred people and a hundred domestic animals. On board were “the choicest persons we can get,” the Virginia Company said, because “it is not intended anymore to burden the action with vagrant and unnecessary persons.”

In the English Channel Gates had encountered the incoming ship of Lord Delaware, who had abandoned the plan to go to Nevis and sailed for home. The two leaders paused at the Isle of Wight to confer on the state of the colony. At harbor in the island town of Cowes, Delaware told Gates that contrary winds had forced his ship to abandon its course for Nevis in favor of making for the Azores. A few weeks spent on those islands had proved beneficial to the governor, whose ailments apparently included scurvy: “I found help for my health, and my sickness assuaged by means of fresh diet, and especially of oranges and lemons, an undoubted remedy and medicine for that disease.”

Gates had left Delaware at the Isle of Wight and sailed for Virginia. The voyage had been uneventful, except for a deep personal loss for Gates himself. Among those who traveled with him were his wife (whose name is now lost) and three daughters. Only Gates and daughters Mary, Elizabeth, and Margaret reached Jamestown, however, as “his lady died by the way in some part of the West Indies.” Thus it was a grieving Thomas Gates who brought his fleet into Jamestown in August 1611.

William Strachey and the other Sea Venture survivors who had remained in Jamestown had not seen their former leader for a year. Those who had stayed behind when Gates returned to London in the summer of 1610 had now spent more time in Jamestown than they had on Bermuda. Gates was a year removed from the wilderness, his recollections of the Bermuda stay and a brief stop in Jamestown overlaid with the routine memories of a year at home. Now an officer of the colony, Strachey resumed his friendship with Gates. As his former commander told stories of life in London—about the theaters, the houses, the food, the social life—the flood of reminiscences was enough to convince Strachey that he had spent sufficient time in the wilderness.

Gates immediately took over the leadership of the colony and Dale returned to his intended role as marshal. Gates’s arrival removed any impediment to Dale’s immediate deployment upriver to build the new fort. A month after the new settlers arrived, Dale and a large force of 350 headed up the James to the site of the new palisade, while Gates remained at Jamestown with the aim of revitalizing the main settlement. Others headed in the opposite direction—downriver toward the open ocean. To some the arrival of Gates meant their own departure from the New World and return to England. Among those who were homeward bound was William Strachey.

When Strachey boarded the Prosperous in the late summer of 1611, he carried his journals, a packet of letters from the colonists to officials and family members in England, and a copy of the laws set down by Gates and Dale. At their request he would publish the laws in England and send them back in book form. Strachey also carried two hooded and tethered New World birds of prey as gifts for patrons of the enterprise. “I brought home from thence this year myself a falcon and a tiercel,” Strachey later wrote, “the one sent by Sir Thomas Dale to his highness the prince and the other was presented to the Earl of Salisbury—fair ones.” He also carried the cat claws he had found on his last expedition. As the ship cast off from the Jamestown shore and the river gave way to open ocean, William Strachey prepared to resume life in England.

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