Saturday, August 16, 2014

An eerie stillness...

On May 23 the Bermuda pinnaces Deliverance and Patience dropped anchor at Jamestown, no doubt looping their mooring lines around trees at the water’s edge as was the custom. No longboats were needed to carry them to land: they were so close that men and women climbed down their ships’ ladders and splashed solemnly, mournfully ashore. They trooped through the fort gate, whose massive log doors were hanging off their hinges.

That was not a good sign.

Worse yet, there was no one to greet them. An eerie stillness hung over the little fort, as if it were a haunted place. Inside the gate, the barracks and storehouse and the church were still standing, but there was no sign of life around them, and no sounds within them. Around them the clusters of small mud-walled, wood-framed houses were silent, their windows like dark, vacant eyes. Many of the houses were in ruins. Bits of roof thatch and pieces of framing timber lay scattered like jackstraws on the ground. In the warm, humid air, clouds of mayflies swarmed and buzzed.

Was everyone dead?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

“Misery in our people’s faces”

By the next incoming tide the Deliverance and the Patience were on their way up the wide James River, bound for Jamestown. Depending on the tides, the 40-mile journey would take two to three days.
George Percy sailed with them and tried to prepare them for what to expect at Jamestown. Soon, he said, they would

Read a lecture of misery in our people’s faces, and perceive the scarcity of victuals and understand the malice of the savages, who knowing our weakness had diverse times assaulted us without [outside] the fort. Finding of five hundred men we had only left about sixty, the rest being either starved through famine or cut off by the savages, and those which were living were so meager and lean that it was lamentable to behold them, for many through extreme hunger have run out of their naked beds, being so lean that they looked like anotannes [trees on which the old fruit clings until a new crop grows] Crying out, ‘we are starved, we are starved.’ Others going to bed as we imagined in health were found dead the next morning.

Passengers aboard the two small vessels had plenty of time to think about what they might find at Jamestown. The voyage upriver took them two days. There was no breeze, and the air was as oppressive and heavy as their thoughts. One of them wrote that “only by the help of tides (no wind stirring) we plied it sadly up the river.”

No one could imagine what awaited them.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

"Not many more than 60"

Jamestown, 1610: “Of 500, within 6 months after there remained not many more than 60 most miserable and poor creatures.” --The Proceedings of the English Colonie in Virginia (1612).

Aboard the newly arrived vessels in Chesapeake Bay, the Patience and the Deliverance, were 135 castaways who had spent the past ten months shipwrecked on Bermuda. Expecting to find a thriving settlement at Jamestown, they had brought only enough food for their voyage.
Gates’s men in the longboat rowed back to the Deliverance as quickly as their oars could pull though the water. They must soon have shouted out the good news: this fort was called Algernon Fort, and it was English, and all of the Sea Venture ships but one had reached Virginia!

Little did they know what horrors had taken place there.

The Deliverance made fast her longboat, and with the Patience she prepared to draw closer to shore. As the two little ships sailed towards Algernon Fort, William Strachey, one of the new arrivals, would remember that  “a mightie storme of Thunder, Lightning, and Raine gave us a shrewd and feareful welcome.”

It was an ominous sign.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Jamestown, 1610: A Heart-stopping Surprise

           When the unidentified vessels--two small pinnaces--came within two miles of the mouth of the James River, those on board them saw a puff of smoke and heard the report of a cannon. It came from the north shore of the river. Their hearts sank. The Virginia Company’s instructions to them had mentioned nothing about a fort in that location. But those instructions were out of date. The Sea Venture survivors had spent nearly a year in Bermuda. After all that time, had the Spanish managed to plant an outpost in Virginia? The people aboard the pinnaces had no way of knowing. Governor-General Thomas Gates cautiously dispatched a handful of men in the Deliverance’s little longboat to investigate, but told them that under no circumstances were they to set foot on shore. 
On that shore, at Fort Algernon, Captain James Davis, President Geroge Percy, and others had been anxiously keeping watch all night. When the two unknown pinnaces had come within range, Davis had fired the fort’s cannon as a warning shot. In a little while those at Fort Algernon spied the longboat approaching and, as Percy remembered, “We hailed them.” Shouting back and forth across the water, Percy and his companions on shore “understood that Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers were come in these pinnaces which by their great industry they had built 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.”
The lost were found.
The dead were restored to life.

            Well, not all of them.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Starvation within, Indians without, and unknown sails on the horizon.

Jamestown Fort, 1610: Inside the log palisade, anything that moved might be killed and eaten.

         In the cellar pit of the barracks inside the fort archeologists have unearthed the bones of poisonous snakes and musk turtles, butchered horse bones, the bones of the black rat, and dog and cat bones. The dog bones are probably those of a mastiff, which the English used for hunting. In their desperate need, they killed and ate the dogs that might have hunted for game.         But game-hunting was out of the question. No one now ventured outside the palisaded walls. Indians had made it clear that outside the fort,  the English themselves were fair game.
         When the dogs and cats were gone, what was left to eat?

Meanwhile, downriver at Algernon Fort:
         Before nightfall the lookouts at who kept a watch on Chesapeake Bay sounded the alarm. Two vessels, their sails just barely visible on the horizon, were approaching Point Comfort. Captain Davis ordered an armed guard to stand watch all night. President Percy worried. No one slept much.

It looked as if the Spanish were coming at last to attack the English in Virginia.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"To save our men's Lives...."

Algernon Fort, May 1610:
George Percy meant well. He had a Plan B: “And if all this [half the Jamestown colonists at a time] would not serve to save our men’s Lives I purposed to bring them all unto Algernown’s foarte.” That would have meant sailing both of Davis’s pinnaces upriver to transport the remaining men, women, and children, sixty or more severely malnourished people. There was not enough housing for sixty people at Algernon Fort.

Did Captain Davis see a problem with this?  Percy implied as much. He argued with Davis  “that another towne or forte might be erected and Builded, but mens lives once Lost could never be recovered.” Evidently Percy won out. He said that he planned to start for Jamestown “by the very next tide.”

            But that tide came and went, and Percy did not sail with it.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

"A daily diet providing 5000 calories or more...."

In May 1610, after blaming Captain Davis for keeping Algernon Fort’s abundant food a secret whlle Jamestown’s residents starved, President Percy proposed an illogical rescue plan: he would “bring half of our men (what about the women?) from James Towne to be there relieved.” (“Half” by that time would have been about thirty, or all that one of Davis’s pinnaces would hold.) Then, as if Percy feared to impose too many hungry visitors at one time on Captain Davis, Percy said he would  “Return them back again [to Jamestown] and bring the rest to be sustayned there [at Algernon Fort] also.”
How long did Percy think it took for starving people to be “relieved”? One or two hearty meals?
Neither George Percy nor anyone else knew what modern medicine knows about the cure for starvation:

If the degree of malnutrition is severe, the intestines may not tolerate a fully balanced diet. They may, in fact, not be able to absorb adequate nutrition at all. . . . The treatment back to health is long and first begins with liquids. Gradually, solid foods are introduced and a daily diet providing 5,000 calories or more is instituted. (

         No colonist would see 5,000 calories in a day at Jamestown for at least a decade.