Early English settlers in Virginia -1607 continued


Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Part 3 of 3

By June 15th 1607, the English colonists had built a base. A brief description is given of it by the author: “We had built and finished our fort which was triangle wise, having there bulwarks at every corner like a half moon, and four or five pieces of artillery mounted in them.” This is the only description of the general surroundings and the fact that they had planted crops: “We had also sown most of our corn on two mountains, it sprang a man’s height from the ground. This country is a fruitful soil, bearing many goodly and fruitful trees, as mulberries, cherries, walnuts, cedars, cypresses, sassafras and vines in great abundance.”

Despite this effusive portrayal, things were evidently not going well and on 22nd June 1607, Captain Newport set sail for England to send back supplies. The 104 people left were  “very bare and scanty of victuals” and they faced the threat of war with the Native Americans. The settlers hoped the supplies would reach them in some twenty weeks.

Presumably Newport’s mission met with disaster because during most of August and early September, the author listed a series of deaths of the colonists. For example:

“August 15th 1607: There died Edward Browne and Stephen Galthorpe”.

The explanation of all these deaths is summed up in a couple of sentences, but the underlying reason is lack of food. “Our men were destroyed with cruel diseases as swellings, fluxes, burning fevers and by wars, and some departed suddenly, but for the most part they died of mere famine.”

The condition that the colonists found themselves in was deplorable. They did not have the medical facilities to tend their sick properly and as stated the lack of supplies was to prove catastrophic. The description of their plight is chillingly told in the narrative of the book:

“There were never Englishmen left in a foreign country in such misery as we were in this new discovered Virginia: We watched every three nights lying on the bare cold ground what weather soever came warded all the next day, which brought our men to be most terrible wretches, our food was but a small can of barley sod in water to five men a day, our drink cold water taken out of the river which was at a flood very salt, at a low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men: Thus we lived for the space of five months in this miserable distress, not having five able men to man our bulwarks upon any occasion.”

Not only the constant fear of death through disease and famine was uppermost in their minds, but also because of their low numbers the manning of the walls against attacks was near impossible.

The narrative continues in the same vein, regarding the hopelessness of the situation. This written record is sufficient to portray their suffering:

“…our men night and day groaning in every corner of the fort most pitiful to hear, if there were any conscience in men, it would make their hearts to bleed to hear the pitiful murmurings and out-cries of our sick men without relief every night and day for the space of six weeks, some departing out of the world, many times three or four in a night, in the morning their bodies trailed out of their cabins like dogs to be buried: in this fort did I see the mortality of divers of our people.”

Although the settlers greatly feared the local Native Americans, it was they in fact who came to the aid of the colonists in their terrible plight.

The conclusion of the text is a combination of celebration and more death, plus a helping of politics.

“It pleased God, after a while, to send those people, which were our mortal enemies to relieve us with victuals, as bread, corn, fish and flesh in great plenty, which was the setting up of our feeble men, otherwise we had all perished. Also we were frequented by divers kings in the country, bringing us store of provision to our great comfort.”

There was also a change of leadership amongst the colonists at this time.

“The Eleventh day, there was certain articles laid against Master Wingfield who was then President, thereupon he was not only displaced out of his ‘presidentship’, but also from being of the council. Afterwards Captain John Ratcliffe was chosen President.” No further details of this case are given in this account, but I can only assume they are given in detail in another book about this period.

This written account ends with an entry on 19th September 1607. The details of this are taken from the chapter titled “Observations gathered out of a discourse of the plantation of the southern colony in Virginia by the English, 1606 written by that Honourable Gentleman Master George Percy.”

Percy’s account was published in 1625. He died in 1632/33.

 Adrian Skipp




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