Family ties to the wreck of the Sea Venture

By: Azalea R. Bolton - Storyteller

In 1607, the London Company established a settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. Then in 1608, supplies and more settlers arrived there to bring the population to around 200 brave souls. At this point, there had already been many deaths, possibly due to lack of experience as to how to survive in this new world that they found themselves in. We can only imagine how it would be to try and live in this different climate and soil composition than what they had grown up with. Then, too, a lot of them were probably affluent members of society who were more used to giving orders than doing the actual physical labor that was required.

A good example of the kind of people who were needed to survive in this new world was given by Capt. John Smith, third president of the Council of Jamestown, in response to a letter from the investors who arrived with the second supply mission. The London Company investors demanded that the colonists send goods to pay the cost of the voyage, a lump of gold, a member of the lost Roanoke colony, and verification that they had found the South Sea. Capt. Smith sent a letter in reply that came to be known as “Smith’s Rude Reply.” Part of this letter says: “When you send againe I entreat you rather send but thirty carpenters, husbandmen, gardeners, fishermen, blacksmith, masons, and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided, than a thousand of such as wee have.” I can’t help but notice that all of these he listed were jobs done by working-class people, not anything associated with the royalty of that day.

The London Company investors must have understood Capt. Smith’s message. The third supply mission to Jamestown was better equipped and was the largest that had been sent so far. They had a new ship built called the Sea Venture and put their most experienced man over it, Christopher Newport. This was a 300-ton vessel which was designed as an immigrant ship and her guns were put on the main deck instead of below deck where they were usually placed. This also meant the walls of the ship did not have to be double-timbered. The hold of the ship was sheathed (protective covering) and furnished for passengers.

The Sea Venture set sail from Plymouth, England on June 2, 1609, as the flagship of the seven-ship fleet, along with two pinnaces (small sailing ships) in tow. This fleet of ships had between 500 to 600 people on board, along with lots of much-needed supplies for the Jamestown colony.

On July 24, the fleet ran into a strong storm (probably a hurricane) and the ships ended up getting separated. One of the pinnaces, named “Catch,” went down and all of those who were on board perished. The “Sea Venture” fought the winds and waves of the storm for three days. It was soon apparent to those on board that the newly-built ship had a fatal flaw. Her timbers had not been allowed to set so the caulking did not hold. All the hands who were on deck started bailing, but the water continued to rise in the hold of the ship.

The ship’s starboard-side guns were dumped overboard to try and help raise the ship up out of the water, but this turned out to be just a temporary solution. The admiral of the company, Sir George Somars, was at the helm of the ship throughout the three-day storm. On July 25, he spied land. The water in the hold of the ship had risen to 9 feet and everybody on board was exhausted from bailing water. At this point, Somars decided to deliberately drive the ship onto the reefs of Discovery Bay (eastern Bermuda) to prevent it from sinking. Apparently, this was the right choice since all 150 people on board were saved — along with one dog.

One of those survivors on board the Sea Venture was my great, great, great (not sure how many greats) grandfather, John Thomas, who was called “John the Immigrant” in our family genealogy (since there has been a John Thomas in just about every generation since that time). I don’t think it was just fate that “John the Immigrant” happened to be on board the Sea Venture or fate that allowed all 150 people to survive. I don’t believe in fate myself. I believe that God is in control no matter what the circumstances and that he was in control even when that hurricane hit that ship and it almost went down.

Those survivors from the Sea Venture did not just sit around Bermuda and soak up the sun. What they did instead was start building a ship, so they could set sail again and try to complete their journey to the Jamestown Colony. They ended up building two small ships (pinnaces) which they named “Deliverance and Patience”. They used the local cedar which was grown there in Bermuda. This wood was locally recognized to be as strong as oak but was lighter in weight. They also used materials that were salvaged from the Sea Venture, especially the rigging.

These survivors ended up being in Bermuda for 10 months while they completed the two ships. During that time, they stored up supplies and food to take with them on the trip. To start with, they only intended to build one ship but ended up building the second one, so they would have enough room for everybody and everything.

The Deliverance and Patience set sail from Bermuda, headed to Virginia, on May 11, 1610. On board the two ships were 142 people (don’t know about the dog). Some other people chose to stay in Bermuda because they liked it there and at least two, named Carter and Waters, had fled into the woods of Bermuda to escape retribution for some type of criminal activity.

The two small ships arrived at the Jamestown colony on May 23. Much to their surprise, they found only 60 survivors from the other ships that had preceded them. A lot of those 60 people were sick and dying because of disease, hunger and warfare with the natives.

Thankfully, John “the Immigrant” Thomas survived all the trials of shipwreck, hunger and disease to eventually settle on Queens Creek in York County, Virginia, on 350 acres of land. His descendants eventually ended up in Jackson Springs, North Carolina. My grandmother, Annie Gladys Thomas, was one of those descendants. She was one of the 12 children born to John Martin and Eliza Jane Whitlock Thomas in Jackson Springs.

I can’t help but be thankful to all those brave people who were willing to board a ship that would hopefully bring them to the new world. I can only try and imagine how fearful yet exciting that would have been. I’m glad to know some of the history of John “The Immigrant.” I realize, however, that so many of those folks who boarded those ships didn’t have a happy ending to their story like his did.

Bon Voyage!

Azalea R. Bolton is a resident of Richmond County, member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, member of the Richmond and Anson County Historical Societies, and co-author of the book, “Just Passing Time Together.”

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Azalea R. Bolton

Storyteller