Authors: Elizabeth Massie
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To my mother, Patricia Spilman, outstanding artist, mother, and a very wise woman. You encouraged in me a freedom of spirit, a peace of self, tolerance, compassion, and the wings to fly forward to new places. I love you!
HERE WAS A
story told among the Powhatans in the late sixteenth century that strangers from across the great waters would come and destroy their people. The strange men would have golden hair, be of light skin, and would carry sticks that spit fire. That story came true.
In 1607 three ships arrived on the shores of what is now the state of Virginia, carrying adventurers from across the Atlantic Ocean. These voyagers did indeed have fair skin and hair, and they brought with them tools, swords, and strange heavy objects that shot fire from their muzzlesâmuskets and pistols.
With great hardship, disappointment, and determination, these men established the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Gentlemen, sailors, and laborers made the difficult voyage for the purpose of finding gold and riches for the Virginia Company of London, an organization of wealthy men who financed the expedition and who expected a good return on their investments. And among the men who made the trip, there were also teenaged boys, young men with as much desire for adventure as those older than they.
“Hostage exchange” was common practice with many explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was seen as prudent by seasoned adventurers to have boys in their early to mid teens to be used as commodities to tradeâlike beads, tools, or other trinketsâto the natives of strange, new lands. Sometimes these boys were considered permanent “goodwill gifts”; other times they were traded for a native as a “cultural exchange”; other times a boy was expected to live among the natives, learn the language and customs, then escape and return to the explorers in order to convey all they had learned, thus giving the explorers an advantage. Whether these boys knew why they had been brought on a particular voyage is unclear; they may have believed they had been selected to be choppers of wood, builders of homes and fortress walls, bearers of arms, and haulers of water. For if they had truly known their destiny, would they have agreed to the long sea journey in the first place?
It is recorded that two boysâThomas Savage in 1608 and Henry Spilman in 1609âwere among the exchanges made between the Powhatans and the men of the Jamestown settlement. These two boys lived to adulthood, served as interpreters during the later years in Jamestown, and wrote about their experiences.
But what of the other boys who came to America with John Smith and Christopher Newport? Their experiences were certainly as traumatic and exciting as those of the others who sailed on the
Nathaniel Peacock and Richard Mutton were real people, two of the young men on the original journey in 1607. What happened to them? Did they live? Did they die during the cruel summers and winters of the early years, when the settlement was on the verge of collapse, when natives were attacking with a vengeance and disease was rampant and starvation became so intense that some men took to robbing the graves of the dead to find meat?
Here is a story of what these boys might have faced, set against the backdrop of true and often horrific events. Many of these characters were real people. Nathaniel and Richard were small players in a dramatic portion of United States history. Yet to these boys, the part they played was frightening, challenging, and personal.
March 11, 1607
At last, praise God, the
has eased its rolling and I am able to write. For 50 days we have been sailing from London across these wretched waters, and for these many days we have been biding our time, some not as well as others. Unlike some men down here on the 'tween deck, I have a strong stomach and the pitching of the ship rarely bothers me. But the other passengers, many gentlemen and wealthy fortune-seekers, whine like babies when we rock back and forth in the waves. They complain and then they vomit. It isn't the jarring sea which makes me sick, but those prissy men and the fact that I am responsible for cleaning up what they spit out. Yet I must act like they do not bother me. They do not like me, but it is best that I act humble and stupid so they will leave me alone.
Gentlemen. I've never had to spend so much time in so close quarters. Back in London, I could run from them and put distance between us, but not here. Here, I must endure them. Here, each one of us is trying to make a “home” out of a space of perhaps two feet wide and five feet long. Some of the gentlemen who boarded first laid claim to barrels, maneuvered them so they were side by side, and put their mattresses across the tops so they would not have to sleep on the floor. Others have nailed canvas sheets from the ceiling in order to make themselves little private closets. As a simple laborer, and a boy at that, I was required to find my space last. I sleep here, near the stern, under the clacking tiller which thumps constantly as it works the rudder. The other commoners here on the
mind their own business and fraternize primarily with each other. They do not bother me, but they have not befriended me, either.
My name is Nathaniel Peacock. I am fifteen years of age, born on the 15th of February in the year of our Lord 1592. It has been a very long time since I've held a pen to write. Paper and ink are hard to come by for such as myself, a poor orphan boy from the London streets. But I won't be a poor boy for long. Soon I will be a rich man with all the money and goods I want, because we are going to Virginia, a land of beauty and wealth, named for the Virgin Queen Elizabeth who reigned until 1603, the time when our King James ascended the throne. In this land of Virginia I shall be able to act as I want and not as I must.
My written words are awkward and splotched, as much from unfamiliarity with this pen as from the shifting of the ship on the water. But as long as I can get my hands on ink and paper, I intend to keep a journal of my adventures.
We have been traveling since December 20th of last year. It's been a much longer journey than planned. We have faced sleet and rain and thunderous waves. Twice we've gone six-on-four rations as commanded by Captain Newport, allowing six men the food of four so we do not run out before we find an island on which to refresh our supplies. We have seen the near-death of our Reverend Hunt from seasickness and have seen his miraculous recovery. But we are together still, and still are headed west.
There are three ships crossing the oceanâthe
The London Company, a group of rich men seeking yet more fortune, raised the money for the ships and the crew and the supplies to take this voyage. The Company named Bartholomew Gosnold to be captain of the
and they named John Ratcliffe to be captain of the
Here on the
the solemn Captain Christopher Newport is in charge. It did surprise Richard and me that John Smith wasn't named captain of this ship. Smith, as everyone knows, is a brave and daring man indeed.
It was John Smith himself who spotted my companion, Richard Mutton, and me outside the Charging Boar Tavern in London last September, and offered us the chance to sail the sea to Virginia. We had been stealing from the passersby as was our usual morning activity, and at first when Smith called to me, I was certain he had seen me take a coin pouch from an old man. To be caught stealing small things in London is to be beaten. To be caught stealing valuables is to be hanged, and I daresay what I'd taken from the old codger had value. But Smith hadn't witnessed the theft. He merely bowed to us and then asked if we were healthy and free to travel. I hesitated, but when he introduced himself as Smith, I assured him right away that we were indeed of good health and free to go wherever he wanted us to go.
Smith said there was a voyage to go to the New World of Virginia in December. I said yes. I also said I could use hammer and nails and an axe, that I could tend animals, could cook, and could fight with musket or sword. All lies, of course, but to get by in this world, one must act many roles. Richard was not as enthusiastic as I to go. He was afraid the gentlemen on the trip would treat us poorly. Why, Richard reasoned, should we get on a ship to be treated poorly in close quarters when we could be treated just as poorly in London where we had room to run away? But I say you must act whatever part you are given at whatever moment that is, and soon you will get what you want. If we act as humble laborers, then we will survive the voyage to gain the wealth we so deserve in Virginia. We could never get wealthy in London, no matter how many old men we robbed. But the Spanish have found gold on their voyages west and so shall we. In Virginia, I've heard tell there is gold lying about the ground, just waiting to be picked up and put into one's pocket.
The blotch on the paper just now is where my hand jerked, throwing off a rat who had nuzzled up to my elbow and proposed to be my friend. I think he's wandered off to bed down with one of the gentlemen.
I stole this paper, the pen, and the inkwell from the wooden box of Samuel Collier, John Smith's brattish page. The boy is red-haired and freckle-faced and believes he is better than me although he is two years my junior. He has a mattress near Richard's and mine, on the other side of a pea barrel and potato barrel. I know how to play the part of meek laborer in front of the men, but Samuel best watch it if he finds himself alone with me.
In spite of the others' complaints, my companion Richard Mutton and I are bearing the trip well. We do what we're told, running errands, bringing food to the men, cleaning rubbish and wastes, killing rats and mice and tossing them overboard, mending loose boards alongside the sailors. Sometimes we make a game of throwing the rats, to see who can pitch one the farthest. I usually win. Whatever our tasks and however poorly the men on the
treat us, I keep thinking of the reasons Richard and I came along in the first place.