Virginia (pinnace)

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Pinnace "Virginia" on Hunt's 1607 Map of Popham Colony
Pinnace "Virginia" on Hunt's 1607 Map of Popham Colony.
Career (England/"Virginia")
Name: Virginia
Ordered: Winter, 1609
Builder: Mr.Digby, James Davis
Laid down: Winter, 1609
Launched: Spring, 1609
In service: Spring 1609
Out of service: ?Fall, 1610
Homeport: Popham Colony, then Jamestown, Virginia Colony
Fate: unknown
Status: ?wreck
General characteristics Small Pinnace
Type: pinnace
Displacement: 30 tons
Length: 50 ft (15 m)
Beam: 14.5 ft (4.4 m)
Draft: 6.5 ft (2.0 m)
Propulsion: At least three rigs possible: a) square-rigged main mast, gaff-rigged second mast, square sail under bowsprit, topsail; b) fore-and-aft rigged with sprit mainsail; and/or c) aft-rigged mizzen mast with lateen sail.
Speed: ? 2-7 knots
Range: offshore, ocean
Complement: ?2
Armament: None
Armour: None
Notes: Virginia is a fine example of the 'small' pinnace design which could be fitted with a variety of rigs, and thereby had great flexibility as to designated tasks.

The Virginia or Virginia of Sagadahoc was a pinnace built in 1607-08 by colonists at the Popham Colony. She was the first English-built ship in what is now Maine and possibly in all of the English-colonized areas of North America.

Little is known about the details of her architecture, but written accounts of the colony and historical records of similar ships suggest that Virginia was a pinnace that displaced about 30 tons and measured somewhat less than 50 ft (15 m) long, with a beam of 14 ft 6 in (4.42 m). She had a flush main deck, drew about 6 ft 6 in (1.98 m) fully loaded, and had a freeboard of less than 2 ft (0.61 m).

A demonstration of the new colony's ability to build ships, Virginia was built at the mouth of the Kennebec River in what is now Phippsburg, Maine. The ship was a project of the Plymouth Company, branch of the proprietary Virginia Company, on land England claimed as belonging to the Virginia.

First ship built in America[edit]

The pinnace makes an appearance early in the European exploration of North America.

Map of Ft. St. George, Popham Colony Maine, by John Hunt 1607

The Popham Colony was established in 1607 by the Virginia Company of Plymouth. It was also known as the Sagadahoc Colony, taking its name from the Abanaki word for the confluence of a river and the sea. At this time, all of eastern North America from Spanish Florida to New France (in Canada) was called 'Virginia' by England. The territory originally chartered to the Virginia Company of Plymouth extended from present day Delaware to New France in the Canadian maritimes, 38°N to 45°N. Leaving Plymouth England on May 31, 1607, 120 colonists arrived at the mouth of the Sagadahoc River on August 13, 1607, aboard the Gift of God, and on August 16, 1607, aboard the Mary and John.[1][2] Popham Colony leader George Popham was aboard the Gift of God, with Raleigh Gilbert second in command. Robert Davies was captain of the "Mary and John". The expedition had come to find gold, the Northwest Passage, a river passage to China, to fish and hunt Beaver for fur and to sell and prove that New World forests could build English ships. Construction of Fort Saint George was begun immediately. On December 1, 1607, about half the men returned to England with Captain James Davis aboard "The Gift of God", a journey that took 53 days. It was hoped that by drastically reducing the colony's population: a) available food would last throughout the brutally cold winter; and b) the difficulty of trading with hostile Abanaki neighbors would be negated. With one exception (Sir George Popham, leader of the colony died in February 1608), each of the colonists made it through the winter. A young, disinterested Raleigh Gilbert became the new governor. Captain James Davis, who commanded the short lived Fort St. George at the Popham Colony was to have a noteworthy career at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia.

The pinnace "Virginia" was the first ship of noteworthy size for which solid evidence exists that she was built in America. She was a pinnace of the smaller type. Note that the shallop is mentioned as often as the pinnace in earliest records of water craft in the European colonies in North America but is rarely described as a 'ship'. The largest shallops might approach the smallest 'small' pinnaces in size, but average size was much smaller and places the shallop within the category 'boat'.[citation needed]

Because plans of early 17th century British or American sailing vessels have not yet been found, reconstructing Virginia of Sagadahoc was a challenge. Nonetheless, there is historical information about the 'small' pinnace design that can be utilized, and from which a reasonable plan can be extrapolated. The choice to build a 'small' pinnace for the Popham Colony was a good one. Able to support at least three different rigs, the 'small' pinnace was very versatile and could be assigned to offshore fishing, the North Atlantic fishing grounds, or readied for a trans-Atlantic journey to England with equal ease.[3]

Virginia's hull and rig[edit]

There is a very small 17th-century sketch of a pinnace on J. Hunt's October 8, 1607, map of Fort St. George at the Popham Colony in southern Maine - see the Info Box in this article.[4] This boat is thought to be the 30-ton pinnace Virginia that was built in 1607–1608 at the Popham colony on the Sagadahoc River (now Kennebec River) in southern Maine. Assuredly, lofting was done by 'eye'. Assembly was done under the guidance of shipwright Mr. Digby; and James Davis (mariner), Master of the "Gift of God".[5]

Pinnace approaching Virginia shore, Seth Eastman c.1850.

Virginia would have been about 56' feet long with a beam of 15'5", a flush main deck that drew approximately 6'5" fully loaded, a free board of less than 2 feet, and weight of approximately 30 tons. Sketches of the replica's hull design and framing are online at the Maine First Ship website.[6] For ocean voyages, the Virginia would likely have been rigged with a square-rigged main mast, a much smaller second mast that was gaff rigged, and a small square sail under the bowsprit. The main mast on many pinnaces would have been large enough to carry a small topsail. Plans for Virginia that include a plausible rigging are available from the Maine Maritime Museum.[7] For coastal work, Virginia would have used a fore-and-aft rig with a sprit mainsail and one headsail.[8] How the coastal rigging would have been changed for a cross-Atlantic voyage is not yet fully understood. In John Walker's drawing of the Virginia when rigged for a trans Atlantic voyage, an aft-rigged mizzen mast carries a sail that resembles a lateen sail more closely than a spanker.

A non-profit organization, Maine' First Ship - Reconstruct "Virginia" has been formed to build a reconstruction of Virginia on the grounds of the Bath Freight Shed in Bath, Maine. The organization educates people about Maine's role in early American and European history], the 400-year tradition of shipbuilding, and archeology.

A four-year building project of the "Virginia" began in July 2011 with two shipwrights, a teacher, a media specialist, fourteen high school students and many adult volunteers. The keel was laid on July 3, 2011.

This variety of rigs enabled the 'small' pinnaces of this era for several different assignments. They could be used as fishing boats, storage at anchor, tender to large ships or supply ships that were often towed to their destination by a larger ship.

Voyages of the Virginia[edit]

The Virginia is commemorated on a 1957 U.S. Postage stamp

By the spring of 1608, gold had not been found at the Popham Colony and relations with the local Abenaki were poor, although the colonists did manage to obtain some furs and sarsaparilla. On October 17, 1608, the Popham Colony was abandoned. News of his elder brother's death prompted Raleigh Gilbert to return to England aboard the "Mary and John" to claim his inheritance. Captain James Davis and 45 colonists who had found the food situation and climate unbearable packed into the "Virginia" and also returned to England.[9][10][11]

Structurally sound, the Virginia had more work to do. The background to these next expeditions was the new Charter of the Virginia Company, drafted by Roger Bacon and signed by King James I of England on May 23, 1609. This Charter granted a vast extension of territory and expanded powers to the Virginia Company. Virginia was one of two pinnaces and nine ships in the fleet known as the Third Supply. With 5-600 people, the Third Supply left Falmouth, Cornwall, England on June 8, 1609, for the colony in Virginia by way of the Azores and Bermuda. The Virginia and one other pinnace were towed by the 300 ton flagship, Sea Venture which was the first single timbered, merchantman built in England, and also the first dedicated emigration ship.

After passing the Canary Islands, the fleet encountered a powerful 3-day hurricane [12] which did serious damage to two ships. The "Catch" went down with all aboard lost [needs reference: said to have been "a ketch" in tow by the 'Sea Venture' and intentionally cast adrift in the hurricane; why do we suppose anyone at all was still on board?], and the Sea Venture was heavily damaged.[13] Sir George Somers and the Sea Venture had 'discovered' an uninhabited archipelago that would later be named the Somers Isles then Bermuda.[14] Meanwhile, Captain James Davis (mariner) guided the Virginia safely to Jamestown, arriving on October 3, 1609. This arrival was six weeks later than the other ships of the Third Supply that had not been 'captured' by the Bermuda hurricane of late July, 1609. The long travel time suggests that the Virginia may once again have been in tow behind a larger ship.

[15] Afterward, the Virginia with Captain Davis returned safely to England. The last known voyage of the Virginia was in 1610 when she once again delivered settlers and supplies to the Jamestown Colony. There is no mention of the Virginia afterward in known historical records. [16][17][18]

Patience and Deliverance in Bermuda[edit]

The second and third pinnaces built in the English colonies followed closely upon the construction of the "Virginia" at the Popham Colony in New England. Two pinnaces were built in Bermuda from local Bermuda cedar, which was a wood especially prized by regional ship builders because it was as strong as oak, yet lighter. This misnamed juniper species could be worked with immediately after felling, and it has high resistance to rot and wood worms. Materials salvaged from the beached wreck of the Sea Venture, the ill-fated flagship of the Third Supply on its way to the Jamestown Colony, were also used.[19] Patience and Deliverance were constructed between late fall 1609 and early spring 1610 under the guidance of the Virginia Company Admiral, Sir George Somers, Sir Thomas Gates and James Davis (mariner), captain of the "Gift of God" who possessed considerable ship building knowledge. This close dating estimate establishes that these two ships were the second constructions of pinnaces in the New World English colonies. Ships of the Third Supply that escaped the terrible 3 day Bermuda hurricane brought few provisions to the Jamestown Colony as most supplies had been on the flagship Sea Venture. Under the command of the experienced and trusted Christopher Newport, who had been the captain of the Sea Venture, Patience and Deliverance set sail for Virginia on May 11, 1610, and arrived at the Jamestown settlement on May 23, 1610, a journey of less than two weeks.[20] Meanwhile in the fall of 1610, Sir George Somers returned to Bermuda with the pinnace Patience to obtain wild pig and food that had been stockpiled for the Jamestown Colony by the passengers of the Sea Venture during their months on Bermuda. Unfortunately, Sir George died in Bermuda from a "surfeit of pork". The Patience captained by his nephew Mathew Somers returned to Lyme Regis in Dorset, England.[21] Aboard the flagship Sea Venture had been the expedition's specialist in growing tobacco. John Rolfe lost his wife and young son while the Third Supply reorganized in Bermuda. Rolfe made his way to Virginia with 142 survivors aboard the Patience and Deliverance. Finally, Christopher Newport and a pinnace had delivered the salvation of the Jamestown Colony in what would be his last trip to the colony.[22]

'Small' Pinnace under full sail - artist

Pinnaces and their uses[edit]

Identification of some pinnaces in contemporary historical documents is often difficult because there was no standardization of pinnace design, be the type 'small' or 'large'. The term seems to have been applied to variants of what may be called the full-rigged pinnace, rather than the alternative use of the term for a larger vessel's boat. Furthermore, several ship type and rig terms were used in the 17th century, but with very different definitions than applied today. Re-assessment of the design of some 17th century ships not designated "pinnace" sometimes uncovers the unexpected. For example, in the 17th century, brigantine referred to a two-masted sailing ship that was square-rigged on the foremast, and fore-and-aft rigged on the main mast. The designation 'brig' did not exist until the early 18th century, by which time vessels described as pinnaces had been well known for at least a century and a half. By the late 17th century, a brigantine in the Royal Navy was a small, square-rigged, two-masted ship, that could be rowed as well as sailed. 'Brig' referred to any ship that was square-rigged on both masts. When 'brig' and 'brigantine' were too widely applied, other possibilities for ship types were obscured.[23] There is also the problem in sorting out what is meant by a 'barque' in the early 17th century. Note that the 'barque' or 'bark' rig as we understand it, was not known in the first half of the 17th century, and so exactly what is meant by a 'barque' is not clear. "When Governor Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wrote of 'barques', he referred to ships that were both 'small' and 'large' and weighed 12 to 40 tons". thereby suggesting the two types of pinnace and their usual range in tonnage.[24]

A second pinnace 'type' was often much larger than the first, and frequently carried enough cannon to be considered an (armed) merchantman, or fast and maneuverable small warship. "The pinnace is perhaps the most confusing of all the early seventeenth-century types of vessels. Pinnace was more of a use than a type name, for almost any vessel could have been a pinnace or tender to a larger one. Generally speaking, pinnaces were lightly built, single-decked, square-sterned vessels suitable for exploring, trading, and light naval duties. On equal lengths, pinnaces tended to be narrower than other types. Although primarily sailing vessels, many pinnaces carried sweeps for moving in calms or around harbors." The rigs of pinnaces included the single-masted fore-and-aft rig with staysail and sprit mainsail to the mizzenmast, and a square sprit-sail under the bowsprit. Open square-sterned pulling boats were also called pinnaces at least as early as 1626.[24]

Often decked over, the 'small' pinnace was able to support a variety of rigs, each of which conferred maximum utility to specific missions such as fishing, cargo transport and storage, or open ocean voyaging. The mature 'small' pinnace design emerged as versatile with several different options and rigs possible. The expected popularity of the pinnace in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the first half of the 17th century is documented. By the 1630s, historical records mention many ships trading or fishing with the Massachusetts Bay Colony, some of which were also built in-colony. Above all, the fishing trade had taken hold off the shores of New England, and was immediately successful. The pinnace may have been the preferred, multi-use small ship of the first decades of English settlement in 'Virginia'.[25]


  1. ^ The Popham Colony was situated near the present town of Phippsburg, Maine near the mouth of the Sagadahoc River, now the Kennebec River.
  2. ^ This expedition was the second attempt by the Virginia Company of Plymouth to plant a colony in 'Virginia'. The Richard sailing from Plymouth in August 1606 was captured by the Spanish near Florida in November, 1607.
  3. ^ “Building a Replica of the Virginia.” Retrieved December 8, 2010. Fred M. Walker and Associates of Tenterdon produced concept drawings, David B. Wyman, Naval Architect developed the working design with important input from Captain Steve Cobb, Shipwright Rob Stevens and Maine's First Ship Historian, John Bradford. Plans were finalized and the Maine's First Ship Project was formed at Bath, Maine in 2007.
  4. ^ Surviving Sketch of the Virginia at the Maine Penobscot Marine Museum, Searsport, Maine, 2006. Retrieved September 18, 2008. Interestingly, this map was found in an archive in Spain, deposited there by a well-intentioned spy at an unknown date. Retrieved December 18, 2010.
  5. ^ History of Popham Colony. Retrieved December 19, 2010.
  6. ^ Virginia Drawing Slide Show, n.d. Retrieved December,7 2010.
  7. ^ Catalog of Plans of Historic Boats and Ships at the Maine Maritime Museum, Bath ME, 2008. Retrieved September 1, 2008.
  8. ^ Sailing Ship Rigs, nd. Retrieved January 26, 2011
  9. ^ According to Charles M. Andrews ("The Colonial Period of American History", Yale University Press, 1934, I, 92) confirms the return of Virginia to England with Popham colonists, after which she would return to the service of the Virginia Company. John H. Morrison (History of the New York Ship Yards, New York, 1909) corroborates the above and indicates that colonists sailed in her to the colony at Jamestown in 1608.
  10. ^ Captain James Davis, 1580-1623: The Early Settlement of New England & Virginia. retrieved September 2, 2008..
  11. ^ History of Popham Colony, Retrieved December 18, 2010. Evidence of the Popham Colony remained buried until discovered by Dr. Jeffrey Bain in 1997.
  12. ^ Wash & NoVa Company - Biographies - James Davis
  13. ^ Sea Venture was leaking badly because new timbers had not 'set' and fresh caulking was leaking out of the hull. Virginia Company Admiral, Sir George Somers had taken the helm amidst the hurricane. He intended to save lives at the cost of his flagship and he did so by deliberately running the Sea Venture aground on a nearby beach. 150 passengers and crew and a pet dog survived.
  14. ^ On board the Sea Venture was historian and author William Strachey who wrote an account of the storm and the Third Supply ships wrecked in Bermuda. This narrative may have formed the basis of Wm Shakespeare's play The Tempest.
  15. ^ Captain James Davis, 1580-1623, The Early Settlement of New England & Virginia by Kerry S. Davis, 2009. Retrieved September 2, 2009. John Smith's flamboyant personality had promoted political divisiveness, and the arrival of Virginia arrival was not greeted with enthusiasm. Nonetheless, Captain James Davis became the Commander of the Fort Algernon at Point Comfort. The Virginia had become a safe refuge when Indian hostilities erupted. She was also used to go inland to relieve Fort Algernon and attempt trade with the Powhatan confederacy. During this trip, Captain Davis decapitated two Indians and left their mutilated bodies near the fort. On yet another inland foray, he destroyed a Powhatan village, burnt their corn and killed all men, women and children. Captain Davis was soon in command of three forts.
  16. ^ 1606/1607 Voyage To Virginia., Retrieved on Sept.22, 2008
  17. ^ Captain James Davis, 1580-1623, The Early Settlement of New England & Virginia by Kerry S. Davis, 2009. Retrieved September 2, 2009. Mention of Captain Davis continued. He is noted as commanding colonists at Henrico, Virginia in 1616. Possibly, he brought his wife and daughter to Virginia in 1624/5 and settled down to live another ten years in the Colony. No record has been found of the ship used for this possible voyage from England to the Virginia Colony.
  18. ^ English Expeditions to Powhatan Country, nd. Retrieved December 5, 2010. In 1612, the charter of the Virginia Company was extended to encompass Bermuda (Somers Island). The long boat of the Sea Venture was fitted out with a mast and sent to Virginia under the command of Henry Ravens, never to be seen again.
  19. ^ Forests filled with 'cedar' were everywhere on Bermuda, and the colony became a major ship building center after the dissolution of the Somers Isles Company in 1684. Export of Bermuda cedar for ship building had been severely restricted by the local assembly in 1627, but shipbuilding had denuded much of Bermuda's landscape by the 1830s.
  20. ^ Christopher Newport had an extraordinary career as privateer and then ship captain for the Virginia Company of London. He captained the flagship Susan Constant that planted the first settlers in Virginia, landing on April 26, 1607. He then commanded the John and Francis, and Phoenix, two ships that comprised the First Supply, and delivered 120 additional colonists to Jamestown on January 8, 1608. As captain of the 150 ton Mary Margaret, Newport also led the Second Supply to Jamestown. The Second Supply landed in September 1608 and delivered 70 colonists that included the first women from England. Adventure never stopped with Christopher Newport. On a voyage to Indonesia for the British East India Company, he died in Java in 1617.
  21. ^ Overall, the food and supplies brought by the Third Supply were not adequate. 80% of the colonists would die during the Starving Time of 1610. Afterwards, survivors at Jamestown had boarded the Deliverance and Patience and were sailing downstream to the ocean when they met yet another resupply fleet. Lord Delaware was this expedition's leader and he turned the distraught settlers back. He had brought a doctor but food supplies remained inadequate.
  22. ^ While in Bermuda, John Rolfe had obtained Spanish tobacco seeds that were already being grown successfully in Trinidad and South America even though sale of such seeds to a non-Spaniard carried the death penalty. His selective breeding experiments in Virginia with 'sweet' South American strains of tobacco proved very successful and laid the foundation for America's large-scale tobacco plantations, thereby to foster slavery (which began in 1619), and a distinctive, regional 'southern culture'. A survivor of the 'Starving Time', Rolfe met and then married Pocahontas in 1614 with whom he had a son they named Thomas Rolfe. Many of the prominent families of Virginia trace their ancestry to John Rolfe's grandson John Bolling, whose maternal grandfather was indigenous royalty. Chief Powhatan, also known as Wahunsenacawh, was the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy in Virginia.
  23. ^ "The Sailing Ships of New England, 1607-1907", by John Robinson and George Francis Dow, Marine Research Society, Salem, Massachusetts: 1922, pp.10-11.
  24. ^ a b Some Seventeenth-Century Vessels and the Sparrow Hawk, by William Avery Baker. Pilgrim Society Note, Series One, No.28, 1980. Updated May 18, 2005, retrieved February 2, 2011.
  25. ^ "The Sailing Ships of New England, 1607-1907", by John Robinson and George Francis Dow, Marine Research Society, Salem, Massachusetts: 1922, pp.10-11. A house carpenter at the Plymouth Colony in 1624 or 1625 constructed a pinnace from a shallop, an 'extreme make over' that is occasionally noted throughout the 17th century. He sawed a large shallop in half, then lengthened and decked it over to make a pinnace that did "good service for seven years".

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]