Saturday, June 21, 2014

“Crab fishes...would have...saved many of our lives....”

         Jamestown, 1610: As warm weather came, George Percy’s health improved, and he made a momentous decision: “By this Time being Reasonable well recovered of my Sickness, I did undertake a Journey unto Algernon’s fort.” He did not go until May. He gave two reasons for going (as if he needed any): one was to “understand how things were there ordered,” and the other reason was to plan a revenge on the Indians at nearby Kecoughtan who had killed John Martin’s men months before.
         President Percy says nothing about what should have been his main concern: finding sustenance for the starving colonists at Jamestown. That is a curious omission. He knew perfectly well that there was food at Algernon Fort on Chesapeake Bay.
         Something is peculiar here. Percy pretends surprise about the plentiful food downriver. And he blames them, not himself, for the terrible neglect:“Our people [at Algernon Fort] I found in good case and well liking, having concealed their plenty from us above at James Town, being so well stored that the crab fishes wherewith they had fed their hogs would have been a great relief to us and saved many of our lives. But their intent was for to have kept some of the better sort alive and with their two pinnaces to have returned for England, not regarding our miseries and wants at all.”
            At least, that was George Percy’s story.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

No Weapon for a Woman

        Another reason why no one ventured downriver from Jamestown in 1610 may have been the lack of able-bodied men in the fort. Since John Smith’s departure in October 1609 the Indians had killed at least a hundred at the falls and Nansemond. Thirty or forty had been sent to Algernon Fort. Thirty-six had sailed to England with Francis West aboard the Swallow. An unknown number of others had died of disease or run away to live with the Indians. Who was left? The weak, the sick--and the women. (For years, generations of male historians ignored the women.)

        A handful of names are all that history has recorded. Anne Laydon and her infant daughter, Virginia (who was born sometime during that awful winter), Joan Pierce and her four-year-old daughter, Jane (who would grow up to marry John Rolfe after his wife Pocahontas died); Temperance Yeardley, Thomasine Causey—all young women in their twenties. Besides these, there may have been at least fifteen or twenty others whose names we do not know: another Jamestown mystery.

       Women and children could not be left to fend for themselves if the men sailed downriver. What if the Indians killed the men on the way? What if the Indians attacked the fort while they were gone? A woman might load and fire a pistol, but a six-foot-long musket that had to have powder and wadding and a ball rammed down its barrel, another dose of powder in its firing pan, and a spark to ignite it to fire. That was no weapon for a woman.


Saturday, June 7, 2014

May 1610: Downriver, feasting on fish and crabs. Upriver, starvation.

           In one of the most puzzling mysteries of the Starving Time, while the Jamestown colonists were dying from starvation, the thirty-odd residents of Algernon Fort, 39 miles downriver on Chesapeake Bay, had plenty to eat. In fact, they caught so many crabs that they fed the surplus to their hogs. Algernon Fort had been built in October 1609. It was now May 1610. As the months passed, why didn’t President George Percy try to contact Captain James Davis and his people at Algernon Fort? Percy knew they must have food. One of the reasons he had chosen that location for a fort was “the plenty of the place for fishing.”
On the other hand, after all that time, why didn’t Davis send someone upriver to find out what was happening to his countrymen at Jamestown?
Perhaps the people at Algernon Fort did not want to know how things were inside the palisade at Jamestown. In January 1610, as Francis West had sailed for England, he had told them how desperate things were upriver, and how hostile the Indians had become. Perhaps Captain Davis, secure in his fort with plenty to eat, made a decision to keep clear of Jamestown.
        Why Percy and the others upriver did not try to reach Algernon Fort is more puzzling. And if some Jamestown colonists,, according to Percy, ran away to live with the Indians, then why did not others take one of the boats and run away to join their own people at Algernon Fort? Part of the answer lies with the James River. It is an estuarial river (one whose currents reverse with the incoming and outgoing tides). When the tide rose in Chesapeake Bay a boat sailing downriver had to stop and wait several hours to catch the outgoing tide again. Because of this, from Jamestown to Algernon Fort, nearly 40 miles, was a sail of at least two, perhaps three, days.
        A boat on the river would be a sitting duck for Indians.