On the Atlantic, off Hatteras, on April 22, 1607, three ships sailing to America experienced violent thunder, lightning and rain, as frontal storms swept shock waves of turbulent weather out from the North American continent. They had sailed just a dozen days north from the Caribbean islands where they had rested after a long passage from England.
They knew, by taking the angle above the horizon of the sun and the North Star, their height, or latitude. Their distance, thus, from the Earth’s equator with reasonable accuracy on that day was 37 degrees, equal to that of Virginia, their destination. Anticipating that they were near the coast, they sounded for bottom and found none, nor did they the next three days. Their sounding lead went down a hundred fathoms (600 feet) but there was still no bottom. They had no idea what their longitude was, nor how far west they had come.
John Smith later recorded, “the mariners had three days passed their reckoning and found no land.” Each watch of four hours under sail, a seaman had cast the ship’s log to determine their speed. This was entered on a traverse board, and the ship’s master, using the individual times and distances, estimated their position, or “reckoning.”
Without the ability to carry accurate time with them on the voyage—there would be no accurate clocks that could be taken to sea for almost 150 years—they had only this set of records to estimate how far west they had sailed from the Canary Islands, from which their longitude in 1607 was reckoned. It appeared, in fact, that they were hundreds of miles off and were still far east of the continent.
The three ships lay to, bringing some sails aback. No longer filled by the wind and blown back against the rigging, the sails halted forward progress while the mariners paused to reconnoiter. The ships rose and fell on the Atlantic swells, rigging flapping violently as they rolled in the troughs between waves.
Admiral Christopher Newport, aboard the 120-ton Susan Constant, signaled the other ships to communicate with him. He was the functional head of this small flotilla.
Capt. Bartholemew Gosnold of the 40-ton Godspeed and Capt. John Ratliffe of the 20-ton pinnace, Discovery, came within hailing distance. Perhaps one or both rowed across in a small boat.
In any event, they conferred as to what course they should follow. The wind, in this unsettled spring weather was likely westerly, counter to the ships’ need to sail in that direction toward land. Plus, they were far from where they expected to be.
Smith wrote that Ratliffe “rather desired to bear up the helm to return to England than make further search.” This turning tail for home would have sent them east and scurrying downwind. But that very night they were struck by storms, this time the winds swinging into the southerly quarter. They were forced to furl all sail and let the ships lie with their hulls riding athwart the wind.
It would not be prudent to run off blindly before the storm with a whole unknown continent to leeward. They surely had with them Thomas Hariot’s 1590 account of the Roanoke expedition in 1585. In that account, they’d seen Theodore de Bry’s engraving of five ships wrecked on this coast between Hatteras and the supposed mouth of the Bay.
Overnight, the gale blew them downwind, and George Percy, a gentleman, recalled: “and by the storm we were forced near the shore, not knowing where we were.…The six and twentieth day of April, about four o’clock in the morning [which would have been at first light] we descried the land of Virginia.”
Smith’s “Generall Historie” reports the event: “God the guider of all good actions…did drive them by his providence to their desired port, beyond all their expectations. For never any of them had seen that coast.” Percy commented: “the same day we ent’red into the Bay of Chesupioc directly without any let or hindrance; there we landed and discovered a little way.”
They were probably off Lynnhaven Bay, just north and west above the headland they would name Cape Henry. The ships, brought to anchor, lay in 3–4 fathoms of water just outside the coastal shoals. These sandbars raise the bottom to only 2–3 feet depth a half mile from shore.
Smith, a yeoman and not of noble birth was disdained by the “better sort.” As the ship’s company looked at this unknown land, he was under some sort of confinement, the result of altercations that began early in the voyage as the ships lay trapped by unfavorable winds off the Downs, the low sandy country at the mouth of the Thames River. The problem continued, and in the Caribbean, a pair of gallows was actually raised to execute him. Years later, in describing the incident, Smith wrote: “Captain Smith for whom they were intended, could not be persuaded to use them.”
(He was not confined on the islands, though, and later wrote about refreshing his troops there. Each military captain had a number of men assigned to him.)
As a result, he was not among the 20–30 men in the first landing party. As a cash investor in the Virginia Company, this must have deeply galled him. He was not free to go about his business until he was sworn to the Council. Smith would later dismiss these as “Such factions here we had as commonly attend such voyages.” But the threat to him politically and bodily seems to have been real more than once. Battle-tested in more than one war, Smith perhaps knew how to sail this line more safely than it seems to us looking back four centuries.
Percy, who was in first landing party, did not say much about the immediate landscape: low sand dunes facing the sea wind.
These dunes had been built over centuries as beach sand swept along the shoreline by tidal currents—the ocean ever encroaching as sea level rose. Sand thrown up above the high tide mark by storms dried in the wind, which blew it into grasses growing back from the water’s edge. Old dunes eroded away, were reformed and some were covered by more permanent vegetation. These grassy areas were more to his liking, and Percy, referred to them as “fair meadows.”
In low areas, less than a mile inland from the phalanx of dunes, water accumulated in an underground aquifer floating atop seawater that would otherwise intrude deep into the land. This water table emerged above ground in low areas, and here a lush, dark cypress wetland forest had formed. Although Percy, from timber-starved England, commented on the “goodly tall trees,” it was this fresh water that really impressed him.
During their voyage, the ships’ water supplies, Percy had noted, “did smell so vilely that none of our men was able to endure it.” They had refreshed their casks at Mona in the Caribbean, but when Percy got ashore in Virginia and saw the streams “with such fresh water running through the woods as [just renewed by the storms which had belabored them off the coast] I was almost ravished at the first sight thereof.”
It’s not clear how far inland they explored at that first landing but it was almost night when they returned to their ships’ boats. Some men stood by with their pistols ready in case of trouble. At that moment “there came the savages creeping upon all four over the hill like bears, with their bows in their mouths, charged us very desperately in the faces, hurt Captain Gabriel Archer in both his hands.”
One can imagine Archer turning to find a drawn bow, the arrow flies at him, he throws his hands up before his face, and both are wounded as he deflects the projectile. A sailor, Mathew Morton, was shot dangerously in two places on his body. “After they had spent their arrows and felt the sharpness of our shot, they retired into the wood with a great noise and so left us.”
The men marched eight miles into the country the next day. They found a fire the natives had built to roast oyster meat, which once dried, could be threaded on strings and carried inland for trade. Seeing no one around, the explorers “ate some of the oysters, which were very large and delicate in taste.”
That same morning, “The seven and twentieth day, we began to build up our shallop,” Percy wrote. In his next paragraph, though, Percy wrote eighteenth—not eight and twentieth—for the launching of the shallop, and in that slip of the quill uncertainty was planted about how long it took to build the craft. But by the “nine and twentieth day,” the boat was already in use, and it is assumed that the assembly took only a single day.
Gosnold, one of the venture’s movers and shakers, had sailed to what would become New England in 1603. His journals reported that they’d launched and rowed ashore one half of their shallop in the morning and then the other half, assembling it by the end of the day. It’s logical that this proven technique would be employed by the Virginia Company. It was, indeed, used yet again 13 years later by the Pilgrims who settled Plymouth, MA.
(In 2005, anticipating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown and Smith’s exploration of the Bay a year later, Sultana Projects Inc. in Chestertown, MD, researched 17th century small craft and built a plausible shallop, which has been widely displayed around the Bay. The ship and its crew of young sailors will largely retrace the 1608 voyages this summer.)
With the shallop assembled, the machinery was in place for the exploration of the Chesapeake. On the 28th, the captain of Percy’s ship and others discovered a small river along the south side of Virginia’s Chesapeake, finding it too shallow for the ships to enter. This was most likely the Lynnhaven River, the first Chesapeake tributary they encountered.
(In June 1979, our ketch, Galadriel, approached Lynnhaven Inlet. Under the highway bridge now crossing this once open inlet, the steep seas running in raised our boat at just the wrong moment, smashing the masthead anemometer. The Virginia explorers had no such problem, but also no such equipment!
We went on to anchor in Broad Bay, where that party in the 1607 shallop must have gone. It was rimmed in by low cliffs and forest, with side creeks and white sand spits.
We took our tender ashore and climbed a sandy bank, which graded from oak and pine forest hung with rich Spanish moss, into black water swamps and farther inland to bald cypress.)
Farther along, on the south shore of Chesapeake Bay, the Virginia Company party found a wide area with no brush or trees, which they described as “five miles in compass.” possibly near what Smith would later name Willoughby Spit.
They also found a “canoe which was made out of the whole tree, which was five and forty foot long by the rule. Upon this plot of ground we got good store of mussels and oysters, which lay on the ground as thick as stones; we opened some and found in many of them pearls.
“We marched some three or four miles further into the woods, where we saw great smokes of fire. We marched to those smokes and found that the savages had been there burning down the grass as, we thought, either to make their plantation…or to signal others. We passed through excellent ground full of flowers of diverse kinds and colors, and as goodly trees as I have seen, as cedar, cypress, and other kinds. Going a little further we came into a little plat of ground full of fine and beautiful strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) four times bigger and better than ours in England.” (F. virginiana is indeed larger than the introduced wood strawberry, F. vesca, and the Indian strawberry, Duchesnia indica, which is unpalatable.)
As night approached, they returned to the ships. Moving along the south shoreline, they found nothing but shoals for a long way. The shallop rowed across the mouth of the Powhatan Flu (River), which they would rename after King James I, with the hope of his future patronage. There they found a welcoming “channel and sounded six, eight ten and twelve fathom, which put us in good comfort; therefore we named that point of land Cape Comfort (later Point Comfort and Old Point Comfort).”
The ships remained that night at the Bay mouth in their exposed anchorage and, “The nine and twentieth day, we set up a cross at Chesupioc Bay and named that place Cape Henry.”
The next day, likely with a southerly wind and rising tide favoring their course, the ships were brought up to Cape Comfort. It was thus, at the ending of April 1607, that the long and enlightening discovery of the Chesapeake Bay began.