On April 27 1607, the day after the Jamestown colonists landed at Cape Henry, some of the settlers began to build or assemble a small boat. George Percy, one of the original colonists, reported that it was completed and launched on April 28.
It appears, therefore, that 350 years ago—on the sandy beach near Cape Henry—the Jamestown bound colonists made their first important commodity by hand in the New World.
Contemporary records reveal that many small boats were built at Jamestown from the earliest years of the settlement. They afforded the best means of transportation through the uncharted wilderness, and were used for fishing, trade, and exploration.
The conjectural illustration shows colonists building a small boat at Jamestown Island—near Back River—about 1650.
The Jamestown cooper was a busy craftsman. Many barrels, hogsheads, and casks were needed in the colony, and large quantities of barrel staves were made for shipping to England. (Painting by Sidney E. King.)
n 1620-21 the Jamestown colonists established an iron furnace at Falling Creek—about eighty miles upriver from Jamestown. It was the first ironworks built in America by Englishmen, and the furnace was the first one (of which there is definite record) in which iron was smelted. The contemporary records also indicate that a few tools were made in the forge shop. The enterprise was short-lived, however, for in 1622 the Indians massacred the ironworkers and their families and destroyed the furnace. Although never rebuilt, its importance cannot be overstressed, for the Falling Creek site can rightfully claim the honor of being the birthplace of the American iron industry.
The day the colonists landed at Jamestown (May 14 1607) they began building a triangular-shaped fort ("a pallizado of planckes and strong posts, foure foote deepe in the ground, of yong oakes, walnuts, &."), "A setled streete of houses," a church, a guardhouse, and a storehouse.
Shortly after the Jamestown colony was planted the English adventurers explored the rivers and bays in the vicinity of the settlement, visited many Indian villages, and traded colorful articles to the natives in exchange for foods, furs, and other commodities.
The first exploring party left Jamestown a week after the establishment of the colony. Twenty-four of the settlers sailed up the James River as far as the falls, a distance of about ninety miles. At Arahatteak (near present-day Richmond) the explorers gave the Indians "penny knyves, sheeres, belles, beades, glass toyes &c ..." for mulberries, wheat, beans, tobacco, and a "crowne which was of deares hayre, dyed redd." Before leaving the village Captain Newport presented the Indian chief with a hatchet and a red waistcoat.
Making Brick At Jamestown About 1650
Glass was made at Jamestown in 1608-1609, and again in 1621-1624, its manufacture being one of the first English industries in the New World.
Among the colonists who reached Jamestown in October, 1608, were "eight Dutchmen and Poles," some of whom were glassmakers. When Captain Christopher Newport sailed for England a few weeks later he carried with him "tryals of pitch, tarre, glasse, frankincense, sope ashes; with that clapboard and waynscot that could be provided." It is not known what kinds of glass were taken to England by Newport.
In order to build brick houses lime was needed by the bricklayers and plasterers for making plaster and mortar. Contemporary records reveal that "lymeburners" emigrated to Jamestown as early as 1610. As four lime kilns were found during archeological excavations, it is evident that the lime used by the Jamestown builders was made on the historic island. In the kilns oyster shells from the James River were burned and converted into lime by the limeburners.
A pewterer who lived thirty miles from Jamestown—Joseph Copeland by name—made the oldest dated piece of American pewter which has been found. In the 1930's, National Park Service archeologists, working at Jamestown, recovered the significant specimen—an incomplete pewter spoon which is a variant of the trifid or split-end type common during the 1650-1690 period.
Soap-ashes and potash were among the first commodities produced by the English in America. Potash was made from soap-ashes (wood ashes, especially those obtained from burning ash and elm) and was used at Jamestown for making both soap and glass. Soap-ashes were exported to England as early as 1608, and throughout the remainder of the century it appears that both potash and soap-ashes were shipped to the mother country, As early as 1621 soap-ashes were selling for six shillings to eight shillings per hundred weight, whereas potash was bringing between thirty-five shillings and forty shillings per hundred weight
Pitch and tar—used by shipbuilders from time immemorial for caulking and covering seams of vessels—were made at Jamestown as early as 1608. After the second supply ships reached Jamestown in October, 1608, one of the settlers wrote:
No sooner were we landed, but the President dispersed [as] many as were able, some for glasse, others for pitch, tarre, and sope ashes.
A month later trials of pitch and tar were carried to England by Captain Christopher Newport, as reported by Thomas Studley, one of the original planters:
Captaine Newport being dispatched with the tryals of pitch, tarre, glass, frankincense and sope ashes, with that clapbord and wainscot [which] could bee provided ... returned for England.
As pitch and tar were made in Virginia throughout the seventeenth century, mainly for exporting to England, it appears that the colonists made some profit from the sale of such products.
Pitch and tar were obtained from pine trees, one of the common trees in the Tidewater Virginia woods. Tar is an oily, dark colored, product obtained in the destructive distillation of pine wood.
During the early years of the Jamestown settlement the Virginia Company of London encouraged many agricultural pursuits, including the planting and cultivation of grape vines and the making of wine. The reasons seemed to have been twofold: first, to make money for the Virginia Company, whose stock-holders had invested much capital in the new colony; and secondly, to insure the mother country a steady flow of inexpensive wine—which was impossible as long as continental merchants charged exorbitant prices for wines sent to England. Then, too, if wine could be made successfully in Virginia, the people living in the new settlement would profit accordingly.
Seafood was an important food for the early colonists. At times, especially during the first years of the settlement, it was one of the main foodstuffs.
Timbering was one of the first activities undertaken by the Jamestown colonists and was one of the first English industries in America. The day the settlers arrived they began cutting down trees, for timber was needed to build their fort and town as well as to export to the mother country. Thomas Studley, a member of the first colony, reported that clapboards were made for loading on the ships which were to return to England:
Now falleth every man to worke, the Councell contrive the fort, the rest cut downe trees to make place to pitch their tents; some provide clapboard to relade the ships, some make gardens, some nets, &c.
Captain Newport left Jamestown in June, 1607 and aboard his two ships were clapboards and other wooden products.
Silk was made at Jamestown during the seventeenth century, but the enterprise seldom brought profit to the planters. The majority of the colonists had to struggle to grow crops and produce goods with which they were familiar, and were reluctant to experiment with a commodity which required a special skill that they did not possess. A few settlers, however, made serious efforts to raise silkworms, and at times small quantities of silk were made and shipped to England.
The silk-making venture died a hard death, but the large mulberry trees which still grow in many places in Tidewater Virginia (perhaps scions of seventeenth century ones) are reminders of a day when a few Virginia colonists fed and nurtured silkworms and "wound off" silk thread onto primitive wooden reels.
In the conjectural illustration a woman is drawing silk thread from the cods; the man is winding the thread on a wooden reel.
A blacksmith, James Read by name, was a member of the first group of colonists who planted the Jamestown settlement in 1607. Perhaps he helped forge the small chisels which Captain John Smith mentioned (writing of the month of September, 1607):
As yet we have no houses to cover us, our tents were rotten, and our cabbins worse than nought: our best commoditie was iron which we made into little chissels.
Many small chisels have been unearthed at Jamestown, and one may wonder whether any were made during the hard autumn of 1607, when the state of the new colony was at such a low ebb.
Virginia in the seventeenth century was a woodsman's paradise, and there is every reason to believe that most of the furniture used in Jamestown houses was made by colonial cabinetmakers. In the forests grew magnificent specimens of oak, walnut, pine, cypress, cedar, maple, and many other varieties; and although contemporary records are scanty, it is believed that the "James Citty" furniture makers made skillful use of such woods. William Strachey, who reached Jamestown in 1610, wrote that the church furniture was made of cedar and black walnut:
It [the church] is in length threescore foote, in breadth twenty foure, and shall have a chancell in it of cedar, and a communion table of blake walnut, and all the pewes of cedar, ... a pulpet of the same, with a font hewen hollow, like a canoa....
One seventeenth century building unearthed at Jamestown appears to have been used as a place where beer, ale, brandy, and other alcoholic beverages were made. Nearby were found pieces of lead, which may have been part of a lead cistern which held barley, and inside the building were three brick ovens, which may have been used for drying malt. A handle from a copper kettle was discovered near one of the ovens, and pieces of copper and lead pipes were recovered not far from the building. Historical objects excavated near the site revealed that the structure was used between 1625 and 1660.
After the settlement had become fairly well established the colonists began building a few brick houses. In the picture English artisans are shown erecting a small brick structure at Jamestown about the year 1630. It is quite clear from the documentary records and the archeological remains that the colonists not only made their own bricks—and probably many of their roofing tiles—but that the process, as well as the finished product, followed closely the English tradition.
The man who first made intensive experiments with native plants was Doctor Lawrence Bohun. Arriving at Jamestown in 1610, he is mentioned several times by William Strachey, who [Pg 65]also reached Jamestown in 1610, in The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania 1612: