In 1602, Bartholemew Gosnold, then 29, set forth from Sussex, England, commanding a modest expedition to the New World. The expedition sailed to today’s New England, where Gosnold discovered Cape Cod and the adjacent island now known as Martha’s Vineyard.
Any skiff carried aboard Gosnold’s small ship would be inadequate once they reached America, where a more substantial boat was needed to explore shallow or winding rivers; sound out rocky harbor entrances; tow the smaller ship in calms; or recover a fouled anchor. The boat was also necessary for trade with Native Americans.
The problem was solved by stowing below decks a boat that had been cut in half but which could be easily and strongly rejoined. The account of Gosnold’s voyage notes:
“But comming to an anker about nine of the clocke the same day, within a league of the shore, we hoised (hoisted) out the one halfe of our shallop, and captaine Bartholemew Gosnold, my selfe and three others, went ashore.”
Heading inland, they determined that Cape Cod was a peninsula, not an island, and “So returning (towards evening) to our shallop (for by that time, the other part was brought ashore and set together.”
When Gosnold returned to England in 1603, Queen Elizabeth I had died and King James I ascended the throne.
A new venture was also afoot. The Virginia Company of London was bent on planting a New World English colony in middle latitude America to counter Spanish influence as well as to get their share of some of the continent’s wealth.
As an ancillary mission, the venture hoped to find the members of the lost Roanoke colony, not heard from since 1585. The colonists had been left on their own while England was fending off the massive Spanish Armada. Also, while King James supported finding the colony, the problems of organizing and funding the effort took a few years.
Gosnold—fresh from his successful experience—was soon involved in planning this costly venture. It is thought that he might have even been the one who introduced the young soldier/adventurer—and sometimes privateer—Capt. John Smith to the project. Smith’s European military experiences had left him with some gold, and it’s speculated that he invested some personal capital, as well as his skill and daring, in the Virginia Company’s effort. The pair enjoyed a friendship and mutual respect thereafter.
Gosnold was appointed captain of the Godspeed, one of the three ships that carried the adventurers and supplies to found the first English New World settlement, which they named Jamestown—and the river it was situated on, the James—to honor their king.
Discovery, described as a pinnace, was the smallest ship of the expedition. It was commanded by Captain Ratliffe and was likely laden with supplies.
Susan Constant, captained by Christopher Newport, was the largest, and carried the bulk of the adventurers, including John Smith. In her hold was another disassembled shallop or “discovery barge” which was probably the vessel Smith later used to explore the Chesapeake.
Records from the period are unclear about the nature of this boat. Smith described her as a barge of “three tuns burthen”—her cargo carrying capacity was for three tons or nominally, casks of that size and weight. Her sailing rig had at least one mast, although during his voyage, the mariners wrote about losing their foremast.
On their arrival in Virginia in April 1607, colonist George Percy wrote: “The seven and twentieth day we began to build up our shallop.” There is then a puzzling reference: “The eighteenth day, we launched our shallop.” This must be an error because, if it took 18 days to build up the shallop, it would have been finished on May 14. My interpretation is that the process took, in fact, just a day and that Percy meant to write “eight and twentieth” because a few paragraphs later he says, in connection with traveling about in the shallop, “The nine and twentieth day, [of April] we set up a cross at Chesupioc Bay and named that place ‘Cape Henry.’”
As in Gosnold’s exploration five years earlier, the explorers began voyaging the same day the shallop was launched: “The captain (Newport) and some gentlemen went in her and discovered up the bay. We found a river on the south side (likely Lynnhaven Inlet) running into the main; we entered it and found it very shoal water, not for boats to swim in.”
This barge, used by Newport and other mariners, made many voyages over the next 14 months.
In June 1608, Smith marshaled the men and resources for the two voyages during which he “discovered” and mapped the entire Chesapeake. It’s these voyages, the map and the written accounts by Smith, and several of his crewmen, that have given us our first clear vision of the Bay, its people and wonderful natural resources.
As the 400th anniversary of Jamestown approaches, interest in Smith’s voyages has grown. The anniversary has energized efforts, including funding, to thoroughly excavate three sites: the original fort site in Jamestown; what’s believed to be Powhatan’s paramount village of Werowocomaco; and the probable site of the Toghwah settlement on Maryland’s Sassafras River.
Meanwhile, after the 18th century replica schooner, Sultana, (See “Past is Prologue,” September 2003) had been completed in Chestertown, MD, shipwright John Swain’s team of boat builders weren’t ready to disband. About a year ago, the team sought funding and began a widely acclaimed project to research and reconstruct a plausible shallop that would be capable of following John Smith’s voyages pretty much exactly—by the calendar—400 years after the first trips were taken.
Their research took them to libraries and maritime historians far and wide, including a field trip to England and the Maritime Museum at Greenwich. They found scores of contemporary shallop illustrations, but nothing specific about the one boat at Jamestown which they wanted to build.
Others, like naval architects William Baker and Howard Chapelle, and boat builders like George Surgent, have envisioned slightly or radically differing vessels.
In the end, the Sultana team took known rules of the time and designed a likely vessel, added a likely rig and worked out how one would divide and stow such a vessel aboard its transport.
Swain and his colleagues, most of whom were volunteers and veterans of the Sultana shipyard, began their shallop project about a year ago.
They chose a durable but not locally native wood for most of the joinery, osage-orange Maclura pomifera. This tree was introduced from Arkansas as a hedgerow shrub, but grew so prolifically—like many non-native species—that it was considered a pest by the 1970s and was, to quote botanists Russell and Melvin Brown, “now mostly eradicated.” A grove of tree-size osage orange was found on the Eastern Shore and, because the wood was hard, strong and available, Swain chose it for the shallop, as he had chosen it for some of the Sultana’s timbers.
The boat, probably like the original, was built entire, as a single vessel, but a double bulkhead was constructed amidships, coming up to the height of the rowing thwarts (seats), and a few key, joining members were removed so that the completed hull could be sawn in half.
On Nov. 4, having worked frantically against deadlines, the Captain John Smith 400 Project convened a high-profile launching.
Two thousand people, including an impressive list of dignitaries, showed up. The completed shallop, about 20 feet long, was poised on greased wooden slipway next to the Chester River. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich of Maryland—a history buff and supporter of the project—used a big crosscut saw to sever the last joining members between the now separate hulls.
I’d sort of expected to see the whole vessel slip into her intended element and float proudly, but there went the stern half, all by itself into the river, leaving the bow to be launched at a later ceremony in Virginia in 2007.
A couple of hands were put aboard the stern segment, which is named Maryland, and with a couple of sweeps, they bent to their oars like Gosnold’s crewmen 395 years earlier and rowed the half-shell ashore. Instead of being joined with its the bow half—which is named the Virginia—and exploring the Bay, the two will be jointly exhibited the next year and a half throughout the Chesapeake.
Gosnold died on Aug. 22, 1607, just three months after reaching America. He succumbed, during that steamy Chesapeake summer, to some form of what later Virginians would describe as “the seasoning.” This was for many individuals a period of sudden, often inexplicable illness. It killed 18 of 20 Jamestown men who died in the 28 days surrounding Gosnold’s end. (The other two died of wounds delivered by Native Americans.)
Many more colonists succumbed to the seasoning, and historian Ed Haile calculated that 85 percent of those arriving from England would be dead at the end of the first decade.
Smith, in particular, mentioned his misfortune in the loss of his friend Gosnold.
Fellow colonist Percy suggested that Gosnold was the glue that held the governing council together, because it descended into bickering after he died. He wrote that Gosnold was “honorably buried having all the ordnance in the fort shot off with many vollies of small shot.”
An illustration from Gosnold’s 1602 New England exploration shows him holding a flag flown from a staff. In 2003, a grave excavated at the 1607 Jamestown Fort contained the spear point-like finial of a flagstaff laid adjacent to the deceased at burial. DNA was recovered from the dead man’s bones, and an effort is being made to find a match among Gosnold’s relatives buried in St. Edmundsbury, England.
It is a shame the well-liked and capable Gosnold died without seeing the fruits of the expedition he helped to place afoot, including Smith’s explorations the next year, which would reveal the diversity, glory and richness that was Chesapeake Bay.
Kent Mountford is an environmental historian and an estuarine ecologist.
Half-assembled boat not uncommon in colonies
The idea of a boat that could be shipped in two sections and assembled in a short time was not unique. When the Pilgrims arrived at Cape Cod Bay in 1620, though, they had problems with their boat, according to Gov. William Bradford:
“They having brought a large shallop with them out of England, stowed in quarters in the ship (the Mayflower), they now got her out and set their carpenters to work to trim her up; but being much bruised and shattered in the ship with foul weather, they saw she would be long in mending.”
It took about 17 days to repair the damage, but the boat went on to serve the colony.
John Smith, who voyaged to New England in 1614, may have even touted the utility of this disassembled boat based on his own experience at Jamestown and that of Gosnold before him.