The English arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.
Well, everyone knows that, right? Let’s move on.
Hold on, I told my students. History is all about asking questions.
Don’t you have any questions?
Nope. We’re good.
In an effort to get my students thinking, I asked them two very basic questions about that seemingly simple sentence.
How many ships did the English colonists have with them? And what was the weather like when they took their trip? Did they leave in June or January?
These seem like trivial questions, but they led my U.S. History students on a cool journey of discovery and empathy.
One of my students did some quick in-class research, and found this Wikipedia article about the History of Jamestown, which answered my question — there were three ships. And if you look at the start of the second paragraph, it says they landed in April, so it must have been lovely weather. Case closed. Let’s move on…
But wait a second — if we take a moment to read the second paragraph beyond the names of the three ships, we learn that these ships crossed the Atlantic and arrived not at Jamestown, but at the Spanish colony of Puerto Rico, where they apparently stopped to get provisions before venturing north. Take a second look:
This stop in Puerto Rico is significant because it reminds us that the Spanish were all over the “new world” long before the English entered the picture. Thanks to this information about the stop in Puerto Rico I now have a different mental picture of what the English colonists’ route looked like.
Before, I pictured something like this:
But now, armed with new information about the stop in Puerto Rico (how long did they stop for? Did the English have a Spanish translator on their boats? Did some kids growing up in England take Spanish as a second language?), I now picture this route:
I have since learned that the reason for this seemingly roundabout route (down, left, back up) had everything to do with ocean currents. Here’s a map showing the initial sailing routes between England and Virginia:
And here’s more detail, from a website dedicated to colonial shipping routes:
The National Park Service describes the typical 1500’s transatlantic sail from England as follows:
- Following the clockwise flow of winds and currents, the expeditions sailed south from England, past Spain and Portugal, and stopped over at the Canaries, Madeiras, or Cape Verdes for food and water before attempting the long Atlantic crossing. In the absence of major obstacles, such as foul weather or pirates, this leg of the voyage usually took ten to fourteen days.
- Then, with the northeasterly trade winds and the Equatorial Current at their backs, the voyagers made for the West Indies, sailing as a later generation of English square-rig sailors would say “south ’til the butter melts, then west.” An uneventful crossing usually required four or five weeks.
- After replenishing supplies once again, the fleet picked up the Florida Current (precursor of the Gulf Stream) and followed it northeast from around the Strait of Florida to the latitude of Roanoke – a trip of another ten days to two weeks.
- For the return trip to England, ships usually took the Gulf Stream and its extension, the North Atlantic Drift, back to Europe, perhaps with a stop in the Azores for provisions and prize ships. Being more direct, the homeward voyage usually took much less time.
So now, if we look back at the two paragraphs from the History of Jamestown Wikipedia article, we have more context for understanding just how unusual it would be for a trip across the Atlantic to take more than four months:
The people on that boat must have been sick of sailing!
So when did they leave London? In order to arrive in Virginia in April of 1607, the people on these three ships must have left London in December of 1606. And in fact, that’s just what happened, according to this website about Jamestown from the National Park Service:
On December 6, 1606, the journey to Virginia began on three ships: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. In 1607, 104 English men and boys arrived in North America to start a settlement. On May 13 they picked Jamestown, Virginia for their settlement, which was named after their King, James I. The settlement became the first permanent English settlement in North America.
The site for Jamestown was picked for several reasons, all of which met criteria the Virginia Company, who funded the settlement, said to follow in picking a spot for the settlement. The site was surrounded by water on three sides (it was not fully an island yet) and was far inland; both meant it was easily defensible against possible Spanish attacks. The water was also deep enough that the English could tie their ships at the shoreline – good parking! The site was also not inhabited by the Native population.
Because we were not satisfied with the simple sentence that so many students memorize — The English arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 — and because we consulted multiple sources, we started to empathize with the people on those boats. We thought about sea currents and weather and language barriers.
It matters how many boats there were — and it matters what time of year it was. It also matters that there were no women on the boats. It all matters. And the more you can stop to empathize, the more history comes to life and becomes more than just a flashcard to remember.
And for the record, it turns out there’s a quicker way to find out how many ships went on the journey — just look on the back of the state quarter for Virginia: