Capt. John Smith died on June 21, 1631. His last will and testament, rediscovered 337 years later in 1968, revealed that Smith was not well off at his death and was living with Sir Samuel Saltonstall, to whom he left £5, out of an estate of barely £80. Based on the price of gold, then and now, this equals about $1,000. Purchasing power is hard to equate, but this was not a large estate.
Smith described himself as “being sick in body, but of perfect mynde and memory.” He went on to give the family land and houses he had inherited to Thomas Packer in return for settling Smith’s debts. One of the specific bequests gave Packer’s son Smith’s “best suite of apparell of a tawny color…hose dublet Jerkin and cloake.” He also gave “Packer” (it doesn’t state whether it is the father or son) “my trunk bound with iron bars standing in the house of Richard Hinde in Lambeth together with half the books therein…the other halfe part of the bookes I give unto Master John Tredeskyn and the said Richard Hinde to be divided between them.”
The late, eminent Smith historian Philip Barbour concluded that “Tredeskyn” was indeed John Tradescant. The curator of the London’s Ashmolean museum, Arthur MacGregor, told me during my 2005 visit to London that “It was certainly Tradescant the Elder. It’s a pity that there is no Captain Smith in the list of benefactors printed in the back of the 1656 catalogue.”
Tradescant likely received Smith’s books, although none were found among the surviving rarities in his collection. The bequest certainly implies, though, that Smith knew one or both Tradescants.
I think it likely that Smith visited the Tradescant’s personal museum, Tradescant’s Ark, in its early years. I can conjecture him walking among the rarities, commenting on those from the Middle East where he had fought and been enslaved long before Jamestown.
The Tradescants were near the top of their game in 1631. John the Elder was head gardener to the “Rose & Lily Queen” Henrietta Maria, consort to King Charles I. (Terra Mariae Nova, known today as Maryland, was named in 1632 for this queen.)
But when King Charles I was executed in 1649, and his son fled into exile, Tradescant, the former royal gardener suddenly found himself in a difficult position and at risk of being associated with policies of the now-hated king.
He survived by employing his considerable skill with plants for other clients and by collecting 6 pence (small change) from visitors touring the Ark.
The collection had been started by Tradescant’s father, who had twice been an investor with the Virginia Company’s ventures in North America. His participation and personal communication with more substantial investors no doubt disposed people to send him specimens from Virginia. Tradescant the Younger had traveled twice to the Chesapeake colony in search of further cutural and natural rarities. These enhanced the exhibits at Tradescant’s Ark, as well as his gardens, which were a nursery for exotic plants, which he sold and traded widely.
Tradescant’s and his father’s plant introductions were being spread far and wide to other gardeners and wealthy benefactors.
John the Younger had also attained considerable fame as a gatherer and propagator of plants, significantly those from England’s colony in Virginia. Some were ornamentals, others had potential or true medicinal value. These plants, in many ways, are part of the real “treasure” from the New World, and still grace English gardens in the 21st century.
In September 1647, Tradescant’s 19-year-old son and heir, John III, died, adding even more stress to to his parents, John the Younger and his wife, Hester, and his daughter, Frances, amid these turbulent times.
Parliament, or more directly Oliver Cromwell, a Cambridge-educated lawyer ruled England—now a commonwealth instead of a kingdom—with a brutal hand. Called “Roundheads” for their distinctive battle helmets, Cromwell’s military supporters ruthlessly suppressed the Irish and defeated supporters of the dead king’s son. Cromwell dissolved Parliament in 1653 and established himself as England’s “Lord Protector.”
Amid this political turbulence, Tradescant, in 1654, chose to again leave Hester in charge of his affairs and make a third voyage to Virginia.
But politics was not the only threat looming over the Ark. Tradescant had formed a friendship with an influential lawyer and historian, Elias Ashmole, and his wife in 1650. In Tradescant’s absence, Ashmole, who apparently had designs on the collections, began to increase his influence over the Ark. Circumstances suggest that although Hester may have suspected the threat, it was not obvious.
Tradescant had spent the early 1650s creating an index to his collections called “Musaeum Tradescantianum or A Collection of Rarities Preserved at South-Lambeth neer London By John Tradescant.” It was the English-speaking world’s first museum catalog. Tradescant clearly wanted posterity to understand that this was not a random collection of oddities, but rather a resource which persons then and in the future should understand.
This little catalog was published 1656 with significant assistance from the well-connected Ashmole, who had supervised the inventory process. Being a collector himself, Ashmole also took a very close look at the artifacts, all the while befriending John. Records suggest that Ashmole’s wife was quite often at the Tradescant’s home.
When Cromwell died from natural causes in 1658, the monarchy was restored and Charles II assumed his throne on 29 May, 1660, promising a general amnesty and “liberty of conscience.” He married Catherine of Braganza and became known as the “Merry Monarch” because of his ebullient social life.
The Tradescants’ circumstances also greatly improved and by 1662, John was again serving as royal gardener.
While the curiosities that Tradescant and his father had collected, purchased or received as donations had been indexed for all time, it is unfortunate that they never made a complete list of the hundreds of plants cultivated at South Lambeth. Many of his finest and most famous specimens had come from the Chesapeake, including black locust, red maple, American plane tree, tulip or white poplar and Virginian or swamp cypress.
A 17th century watercolor of the Tradescant’s spacious estate features a decades-old oak, standing alone, its limbs spread wide with three wooden beams propped under them for support. There are also tall pines, and fenced gardens over against his ample home.
Tradescant probably had some concerns about the ultimate disposition of the large collection and impressive gardens he and his father had built. John was now 46, and his father had died at 48.
Anticipating his death, Tradescant signed away rights to the rarities by executing a “deed of gift” which Ashmole had written up, making himself the recipient of the “closet of rarities.” Tradescant, who trusted Ashmole, probably believed that there had been a gentleman’s agreement that Hester would continue to benefit from the exhibit and the small fees visitors paid to view the rarities during her lifetime. He later thought that a donation to the University at Oxford would have been a good idea. But nothing ever came of this notion, and Tradescant died in 1662.
Not long after his death, Ashmole was in court with Hester Tradescant, suing for actual possession of the collections. She continued to press her claim against Ashmole, but what was a commoner’s widow against a trained lawyer and gentleman?
It seems suspicious, but the matter, dragging on for five years, was made moot when in April 1678, Hester was found drowned in her pond at the Tradescant estate at South Lambeth—for so Ashmole records in his diary.
Hester Tradescant was laid to rest near her father-in-law, husband and son at St. Mary’s Churchyard.
The tragedy increased when part of the former Ark holdings and much of Ashmole’s own collections were damaged or destroyed in a fire at his apartments in London. Ashmole donated the remaining artifacts to Oxford University—in his own name. His condition was that the rarities be housed in a building constructed for that specific purpose.
The memory of John Tradescant persisted strongly, though. Eighty-two years later, in 1750, visitor Dr. William Watson described the site of Tradescant’s gardens: “many Years totally neglected and the House belonging to it empty and ruin’d yet though the Garden is quite cover’d with Weeds, there remain among them manifest Footsteps of its Founder.” The pines, perhaps those in the 17th century watercolor, were still to be seen as well as an arbutus, the largest Watson had ever seen.
Today, Tradescant’s Ark is gone, and their beautiful house and estate replaced by late 19th century development.
On my trip to England, I visited Lambeth Palace on the south bank of the Thames, close to where the Ark had stood. It is the longtime residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the place where ecclesiastical policy has been forged. Its Lollards Tower has a singularly depressing room where generations of religious dissidents were imprisoned. Those who survived by wit or silence about their independent beliefs, went on, it is said, to influence later U.S. philosophy through such groups as the Puritans.
Just beside Lambeth Palace is the former Church of St. Mary-at-Lambeth. Saved from demolition, it is now home to the Museum of Garden History, and in its graveyard, all three John Tradescants share a tomb decorated partly with curious shells and plants they collected from the far corners of the globe. Hester must be there, too, but I found no stone. The American black locust and blooming Tradescantia were there for me to contemplate.
Next to the Tradescants is the tomb of Capt. William Bligh, who introduced another species—the breadfruit—to the Caribbean.
Today at the Salisbury estate, Hatfield House, Tradescants’ complex Tudor Knot Gardens are being recreated with public contributions sought by the Tradescant Trust.
The remnant rarities from Tradescant’s Ark that Ashmole donated to Oxford resided in the first Ashmolean Museum. While this building still stands in Oxford, a new Ashmolean has been built, with more, far-reaching collections. Thanks to its curator, MacGregor, who organized the rarities, and edited a comprehensive annotated catalogue, I was able to view the few remaining Tradescant items from the Eastern United States. These included a damaged belt of Algonquian shell wampum beads, and a strange, pointed “purse” decorated with shell beads from Virginia, which was probably worn draped over a waist cord. It may have been made to contain sacred items that would protect or empower its wearer.
There are three Native American war clubs, called “tamahacks” by Tradescant, which look very much like the one shown on an engraving in Smith’s “Generall Historie,” where the weapon is raised by a Native American man standing at Smith’s head. The illustration depicts his supposed near-execution at the hands of Powhatan, and his miraculous rescue by Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas.
Tempting as it is to place these clubs in Virginia, the Ashmolean’s curators suggest they may have been carved elsewhere in the Eastern United States, and one differing from the others might have been captured or traded from other Native American tribes. A thin section of one club’s wood suggests it was carved from either a dogwood or buckwheat tree. This latter is less probable as this tree is only found on a regular basis in or south of North Carolina.
For me, the most intriguing artifact in the collection was the very large and prominently displayed artifact called “Powhatan’s Cloak.” When Terry Malick made his feature film “The New World” about Jamestown, I noticed immediately that in one scene, Chief Powhatan, walked away in his lodge wearing a replica of this cloak! I would like to think John Smith saw it when it was first presented to Christopher Newport, (See “Past is Prologue,” November 2006.) and again years later, on display at Tradescant’s Ark, as I did on that day in 2005.
I found it quite moving to see these artifacts in person and to look upon the likenesses of the Tradescants, their children and the controversial, and pompous Ashmole.
The connection I felt to my own home, the Chesapeake and its rich history was palpable. It persisted across thousands of miles, as the airliner bringing me home arced across the upper Bay and rapidly descended into Virginia, where Tradescant and Smith had explored hundreds of years ago.
Editor’s note: This column continues the history of the Tradescants and their museum, the Ark, which began in November’s Past is Prologue.