The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America

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“A rip-snortin’ story of shipwreck, intrigue, horror, courage, risk, luck and will . . . gripping.”—Publishers Weekly

The English were latecomers to America, and their initial attempts to establish an overseas empire met with dismal failure. In 1609, another disaster set the final course of this dramatic history, when the Sea Venture, the ship dispatched by London investors to rescue the starving settlers at Jamestown, collided with a ferocious hurricane and was shipwrecked off ...

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The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown: The Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America

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“A rip-snortin’ story of shipwreck, intrigue, horror, courage, risk, luck and will . . . gripping.”—Publishers Weekly

The English were latecomers to America, and their initial attempts to establish an overseas empire met with dismal failure. In 1609, another disaster set the final course of this dramatic history, when the Sea Venture, the ship dispatched by London investors to rescue the starving settlers at Jamestown, collided with a ferocious hurricane and was shipwrecked off the coast of Bermuda. This riveting historical narrative describes how the 150 castaways were seduced by the island’s unexpected pleasures for almost a year and were later riven by mutinies when ordered to continue on to Virginia. Ultimately they built boats with their own hands and arrived safely in Jamestown to face the daunting task of rebuilding America’s first permanent colony.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A rip-snortin' story of shipwreck, intrigue, horror, courage, risk, luck and will.... The authors have brought the drama in the Chesapeake alive in all its gripping detail." —-Publishers Weekly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805090253
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/21/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Lorri Glover is the author of two books on the early South, including Southern Sons: Becoming Men in the New Nation. She is a professor of early American history at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Daniel Blake Smith is the author of An American Betrayal, The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown, Inside the Great House: Planter Family Life in Eighteenth Century Chesapeake Society, and many articles on early American history. Formerly a professor of colonial American history at the University of Kentucky, Smith now lives in St. Louis where he works as a screenwriter and filmmaker.

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Read an Excerpt


Late in the evening on June 2, 1609, an impressive convoy of nine ships launched out of Plymouth Sound. Bound for Virginia with six hundred passengers, livestock, and provisions, the fleet was the largest En gland had ever sent across the Atlantic—an audacious effort born out of the desperate desire to save the dying colony huddled around Jamestown. Three of En gland's "most worthy, honored gentlemen," Captain Christopher Newport, the nation's most experienced mariner; Admiral George Somers, veteran of campaigns in Ireland, the Netherlands, and the Ca rib be an; and Sir Thomas Gates, the next governor of Virginia, led the expedition. Peerless in their "ready knowledge in seafaring actions" and fully convinced that their leadership would restore En gland's fragile claim on America, the commanders on board the flagship, the Sea Venture, headed out into the Atlantic looking for a favorable wind; the other eight vessels followed behind, staying close "in friendly consort together."1

The Sea Venture, a newly built three-hundred-ton vessel, carried some 150 passengers and crew, including an assortment of soldiers, grocers, fishmongers, clothworkers, and tailors. The ship also carried farmers and families; a dozen gentlemen; all the newly appointed leaders of the colony; and an Anglican minister, Richard Buck. Although Rev. Buck was the lone clergyman sailing with the fleet, religion loomed large in the enterprise. In the days and weeks before launching from Plymouth, the rescue effort had been given powerful support from various pulpits throughout En gland. Still fresh in the settlers' minds were the fervent words of Rev. Daniel Price, whose sermon at St. Paul's Cross just five days before the launch made clear that this expedition was not simply about commerce and national power. "Go on as you have begun, and the Lord shall be with you," Price exclaimed, "go, and possess the Land . . . a land of milk and honey, God shall bless you."2

We can well imagine Rev. Buck holding forth in the tiny hold of the Sea Venture, imploring the passengers and crew to remember Price's inspiring words and to place confidence in their experienced Captain Newport. A successful privateer and renowned navigator who knew more about the east coast of America than any other Englishman, Newport piloted the Sea Venture with a steady hand, making good progress in the first six weeks. By July 24 the fleet was within seven days of reaching Virginia. Then clouds thickened and winds picked up dramatically. Sensing danger, Newport jettisoned the small pinnace he had been towing behind the Sea Venture. Despite years of chasing Spanish and Portuguese ships in these Atlantic waters, neither Christopher Newport nor George Somers—nor any of the men under their command, for that matter—was prepared for what came next.3

From out of the northeast "a dreadful storm and hideous began to blow . . . swelling and roaring," until it so darkened the sky as to "beat all light from Heaven." This was a "tempest" that in its "restless tumult" would not relent. Even experienced seamen on board struggled with sails whipped around and rendered useless by the merciless winds—sometimes the strength of eight men was insufficient "to hold the whipstaff" and steer the ship. William Strachey, a down-on-his-luck poet seeking a new start in Virginia, had certainly seen fierce storms before—he had traveled near the coast of Barbary and Algiers—yet nothing compared to the suffering he now witnessed: "there was not a moment in which the sudden splitting or instant oversetting of the ship was not expected." And it never abated: "fury added to fury, and one storm urging a second more outrageous than the former."4

The Sea Venture was facing down a "hurricano." And all the "shrieks" and "hurly and discomforts" that left everyone on board "with troubled hearts and panting bosoms" were about to worsen. Newport and his men lost sight of the rest of the ships in the convoy. Then, passengers discovered that the storm had forced "a mighty leak" in the ship. Within no time, with every joint "having spewed out her oakum [caulking] before we were aware," the water rose to five feet deep above the ballast "and we almost drowned within whilst we sat looking when to perish from above." The rising water ran like terror through the whole ship: "much fright and amazement, startled and turned the blood . . . of the most hardy mariner."5

As the water level in the ship rose before their eyes, passengers and crew frantically searched for the source of the leak. With candles in hand, men crept along the sides and corners of the ship looking and listening for water seeping in. At one point, they suspected the leak had begun in the bread room. "Whereupon," Strachey reported, "the carpenter went down and ripped up all the room but could not find it so." Water kept pouring in, so that the leakage "appeared as a wound given to men that were before dead."6

Governor Gates, throwing matters of class and rank aside, divided the entire company, except the women, into three groups that worked around the clock bailing water from the sinking ship. He ordered cargo, armaments—whatever weighed down the ship—thrown overboard. Men jettisoned hogsheads of oil, cider, wine, and vinegar, along with ordnance and passengers' luggage, and even considered cutting down the main mast—anything to lighten the load as water flooded the hold. For three full days, not only the "common sort, stripped naked as men in galleys" but every man on board took his turn with the bucket or the pump. And still, "the water seemed rather to increase than to diminish."7

Admiral Somers, meanwhile, took charge of the vessel and fought the seas "to keep her as upright as he could." With no food and little sleep, he remained on the poop deck for "three days and three nights together."8

Despite these valiant efforts, by the fourth morning ocean water covered the ship "from stern to stem like a garment or a vast cloud." And dread of the inevitable washed over everyone. The wind and rain even drowned out the passengers' prayers, so that there was "nothing heard that could give comfort, nothing seen that might encourage hope." It seemed that the men and women on the Sea Venture would never reach the land that ministers at St. Paul's Cross promised God was saving for them. With hearts beating and breaths heaving, the passengers and crew realized they were sinking. "For my part," Strachey confessed, "I thought her already in the bottom of the sea." By Friday, July 28, after futilely bailing water for days, the passengers and crew were ready to give up. A few sailors, resigning themselves to death, broke into the remaining liquor supply for a final toast. Others shut up the hatches and, "commending our sinful souls to God, committed the ship to the mercy of the gale."9

As frenzy and fear coursed through the sinking Sea Venture, it must have felt like yet another blow to En gland's effort to stake a claim in the Americas. Despite the hope and confidence that galvanized so much of this rescue mission in 1609, the hard truth was that, for Englishmen, the way west to an overseas empire was littered with false starts and dismal failures.

The English had been latecomers to adventuring in the West; long before them, the Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Dutch had already stretched their own empires beyond the seas. The Spanish virtually dominated the Americas. By the time the Sea Venture was sinking in the Atlantic, the Spanish had been extracting enormous wealth from their gold and silver mines in Mexico and Peru for nearly a century. Even worse for Protestant En gland, every advancing claim of Spain's powerful New World empire strengthened the spreading "menace" of Catholicism.

For its part, En gland could only point to the enterprising but ultimately disappointing efforts of a few remarkable mariners who probed the North American coast in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Initially, most of these explorations focused on finding the elusive Northwest Passage to Asia. Nothing came of these efforts, except for a few seasonal fisheries the English managed to establish off the banks of Newfoundland. In 1576, one English mariner discovered what he thought was gold near Baffin Island and wanted to plant a colony there. The idea died when the two hundred tons of ore he carted back to En gland turned out to be fool's gold. Even a brief moment of modest success turned tragic. Sir Humphrey Gilbert landed at St. John's harbor in 1583 and declared Newfoundland English. But on his way home, Gilbert perished when his ship, the Squirrel, went down.10

The next year witnessed an even more notorious example of English failure: the tragic debacle of Roanoke. Picking up where his half-brother Gilbert left off, Sir Walter Raleigh, the swashbuckling court favorite, received a charter from Queen Elizabeth I granting him exclusive rights to an enormous stretch of land on the east coast of North America. This enterprise spawned the ill-fated "lost colony" of Roanoke, where 116 settlers, after being deposited on the shores of present-day North Carolina, were never seen by their countrymen again.11

Without colonies of its own, En gland was reduced to attacking and plundering Spanish treasure fleets coming out of the Caribbean in the 1580s and 1590s. In this chaotic era of piracy and uncertain Crown support, it often fell to captains and sailors, men like Drake, Newport, and Somers, to maintain England's otherwise feeble presence in the Atlantic world.12 Privateers made a living in the Ca rib be an raiding Spanish and Portuguese ships loaded with gold and silver. But sometimes they returned with little more than trinkets, and sometimes they never returned at all. In more than thirty years of Atlantic adventuring, En gland's explorers and privateers failed to plant a single viable settlement in the Americas.

Then, amid all the aborted efforts and missed opportunities, an opening for a new venture emerged. An ambitious group of London merchants and gentlemen managed in 1606 to secure from the new king a charter for a colony in North America. They targeted the Chesapeake region very near the area that had been scouted some twenty years earlier during the tragic Roanoke misadventure. In the spring of 1607, a small convoy of English ships reached the mainland of Virginia and claimed the site for King James I.

Like so many of En gland's earlier overseas enterprises, the dream for a prosperous and thriving colony in Virginia quickly turned into a nightmare. Despite abundant timber and fish and the need to plant crops, it was the allure of finding gold that most excited settlers and investors back in London. While some colonists fished and traded with the Indians, too many others searched futilely for the precious ore. And they quarreled and conspired incessantly—anything to avoid work. Within a year, Virginia was at the point of collapse.13

Virginia's near failure is a well-known foundational story in our nation's history. But looming over nearly every telling of it lies the iconic roles of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas and the centrality of race in shaping England's first colony in America.14 In fact, a great mea sure of what scholars and the general public know about En gland's early colonizing efforts in Virginia comes to us from Smith, even though much of what he wrote, especially involving his relationship with Pocahontas, was clearly posturing for history. Yet it has been Smith's history of En gland's colonial experiences—most notably the drama of his personal bravado set against combative Indians and lazy colonists—that we have largely come to accept as America's beginnings.

While this story offers important insights into the conflicted and increasingly complex racial world that English settlement prompted, a critical part of the broader picture of English survival in early Virginia has been neglected. In fact, by listening to other voices—especially those involved in the Sea Venture convoy—a far different picture emerges about En gland's first efforts at colonizing America. William Strachey, in particular, struggled to make his voice heard but lost out to Smith's larger name and greater ambition. Strachey's personal observations, beginning on board the Sea Venture, offer an entirely fresh perspective on the story of Jamestown. He does so by showing how the colony's ultimate success depended on a fascinating array of adventurers—entrepreneurs, seamen, servants, settlers, and politicians—whose daring and moving experiences in seeking out a new life in Virginia emboldened them to undertake a dramatic rescue effort that saved America's first colony. Strachey and the others involved in the odyssey of the Sea Venture reveal this poorly understood world of risk-taking adventurers—from investors and clergymen in London to servants and gentlemen on board the ill-fated ship—who never wavered in their commitment to English America. They did so in spite of daunting, often overwhelming, obstacles and lived one of the most surprising adventures in all of American history.

Like most rescue stories, the ordeal of the Sea Venture begins with hope mingled with fear. If only the colony in Virginia could be fortified with new colonists, more provisions, and better leaders, then Jamestown—and this fragile beginning for an English America—could survive, and England could meet the grand destiny that many believed God had planned for it. All of which, no doubt, heartened the promoters, passengers, and crew of the Sea Venture in the summer of 1609. But as that horrendous storm battered their ship, an unnerving fear doubtless crowded the hopes of the anguished passengers. With all the failures that had brought them to this moment, a devastating question must have crossed their minds as the water kept rising: was their cause—to plant the first American colony for En gland and Protestant Christianity—truly God's will?


Copyright © 2008 by Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith

Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Prologue 1

Ch. 1 London Dreams 9

Ch. 2 "A Grand Enterprise" 37

Ch. 3 Voyage to Hell 76

Ch. 4 Distressing News 97

Ch. 5 The "Isle of Devils" 124

Ch. 6 Trouble in Paradise 149

Ch. 7 Jamestown Starving 171

Ch. 8 Redemption in Virginia 186

Ch. 9 God Is English 212

Ch. 10 "O Brave New World" 245

Notes 269

Acknowledgments 311

Index 315

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Customer Reviews

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  • Posted January 3, 2013

    Fascinating story

    A fascinating bit of history that is often left out. This book gives the full context of the Jamestown Colony - the basic idea is that the colony was a failure until London finally decided to actually send enough colonists and enough supplies over. The writing is interesting, although it's occasionally repetitive.

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