adventure/history by Terrell Ledbetter, March 25, 2020

The virgin and protestant queen, Elizabeth I of England, died on March 24,1603 after ruling for forty-four years. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife who was executed two-and-a-half years after Elizabeth’s birth.

Thirty-seven years before Queen Elizabeth’s death, James IV of Scotland was born in Edinburg (1566) to Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. Mary was later imprisoned and beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle for plotting to take the crown for Catholics. A year after the execution of his mother, James agreed to terms of the Treaty of Berwick with Queen Elizabeth. This stated that James would acquire the English throne upon Elizabeth’s death for his support against Catholic aggressors.

As agreed, James became King of England at the age of thirty-seven after Elizabeth’s death.  Shortly afterward, James was petitioned by a Puritan branch of the Church of England to swing the church more to Puritan practices. The practices of no singing in service, no bishops and strong support of the poor were not embraced by James, who at this time was trying to commission his new English Bible translation which would be called King James Version. It was finally published in 1611.  James did not agree to the requests by the Church of England.  During this period, some Puritans began to immigrate to the new world as James continued to ignore the petition.

James for years had been obsessed with witchcraft and became the only monarch in history to publish a treatise on it. Daemonologie (the science of demons) was the result of meticulous work on James’s part that took years to complete. This work was to convince people of the existence of witchcraft.
James believed in natural weakness and inferiority of women and his hatred towards them was unusually intense. The attitude of the crown against women and superstitions by the populace was extremely unhealthy and dangerous especially since over four thousand had been burned to death in Scotland alone.

This was a Europe deeply steeped in religious persecutions and distrust of new ideas. Italian Giordano Bruno proposed that stars were distant suns surrounded by their own planets, and he raised the possibility that these planets might foster life of their own. He also insisted that the universe is infinite and could have no center. Bruno was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600.

A further example of the attitude in England against Catholics under James was typified when Thomas Atkinson, an English Roman Catholic priest, was hanged, drawn and quartered at the age of 70 in 1616.

There were basically only the poor and the rich in England. Houses were usually one bedroom and the cities ripe with smell of garbage. This was not a good life for craftsmen and working people. A move to a new world surely was enticing.

In 1606, James agreed to “The London Company” with the purpose of making money by colonizing the southeast coast of North America. Puritans were already leaving for New England. That same year, James adopted a new flag representing England, Scotland and Ireland called the Union Jack (union of Jacobus or Jacob).

union jack

Union Jack

To work and grow the colony in Virginia, the rich English landowners needed craftsmen, soldiers, doctors, farmers, servants, gentlemen and maids who would endure the long sail to the new world. The Virginia Company plan for the year 1621 was to ship at least 800 immigrants to Virginia. It was intended to send 400 tenants and 100 sub-tenants (craftsmen), 100 maids, 100 boys and 100 servants.

The tenants/sub-tenants were mostly of the following trades and crafts:
• Husbandmen (farmers)
• Farriers (blacksmiths)
• Iron workers
• Brick masons and brick layers
• Carpenters and sawyers
• Bakers, brewers, butchers and wine makers
• Ship/boat/mil wrights
• Masons
• Coopers and ropemakers
• Weavers, tanners, cobblers, potters
• Fowlers and fishermen
• Doctors, surgeons and apothecary

In February of 1620, a ship left England for Virginia with 97 persons on board. This was a 160-ton sailing vessel named Margaret and John captained by Captain Anthony Chester. A passenger on the ship wrote a summary of the voyage, had it translated to Dutch and the story was published by Peter Vander Aa in 1707. The ship arrived in Virginia in May,1621. Much is not known of this long journey but I will unravel as much as recorded observances and circumstantial facts will take it.


The open Atlantic

Initially it must be stated that in England and the American Colonies, the new year began on March 25, therefore the trip dates are February,1620 to May,1621, which seems strange without knowing the date of the year change. The practice of a springtime new year stayed in place until the year 1752. The Roman Catholic world had already been using the Gregorian Calendar since 1582. Eventually the remaining world would follow.

  • There were not many merchant ships of the size of the Margaret and John in 1620. We do not know the type of ship Margaret and John was nor where it was built. An article by Dr. Ian Friel entitled “Elizabethan Merchant Ships and Shipbuilding” does indicate that the tons burden included 1/3 for the crew, stores, fittings and weapons. This would leave 107 tons for passengers and cargo. It is likely the ship was from a Dutch shipbuilder and would be long and narrow to carry much cargo. There would be 3 masts and a large hold. The main and fore masts would carry 2 square sails. The third sail would be a lateen sail (triangular) which would be attached to a long yard and a crossbar. We can rule out Galleon or Frigate vessels and they were naval fighting ships. Candidates for the type of ship for Margaret and John could possibly be: Caravel- a small maneuverable sailing ship by the Portuguese with large capacity but a fragile vessel with one mast; Bark- a three or four mast, efficient and fast sailing ship not well suited for high tonnage; Dutch fluyt (Mayflower type)

For comparison, the Mayflower was 180 tons and about 100 feet long. I suggest that the Margaret and John was likely a fluyt and 90 feet long with its 160-ton burden.

Mayflower Asail


Dr. Friel has stated that keel, beam and depth were also used for determining tonnage. The principal Elizabethan method for calculating tonnage was laid down in 1582 by Matthew Baker. For merchant ships, the key figure was to work out how much a ship could carry, measured in terms of the capacity of the wine tun or barrel of 252 gallons of wine. This measure of capacity, ‘tons burden’, had originated in the medieval Bordeaux wine trade.

Matthew Baker’s Rule was very simple: Keel x Beam x Depth (measured in feet) in the hold divided by a 100 = tons burden or carrying capacity. Modern measurements utilize a factor of 0.67 times that formula for ship-shaped hulls. The tonnage was more of a relative figure than an actual one.
A large three-decked ship like the Margaret and John had the hold in the bottom of the hull. Bulkheads separate the hold into compartments. The hold was used for the stowage of ship’s stores and cargo.
On a four-decked ship, the deck above the hold is called orlops. On the Margaret and John, lines and winches were likely stored on the first deck. The ship’s superstructure stood on the third deck. The third deck consisted of a forecastle at the bow and then a half deck which ran from the main mast to the stern. The main mast provided a clear demarcation line between the ship’s officer in charge and the common sailors. In other words, sailors lived before the main mast and the officers lived aft of the mast on the half deck.

The steersman’s station would be on the half-deck as would the master’s cabin. The master’s cabin was normally under the poop deck which was the highest point of the superstructure. Access to the hold was down through a hatchway in front of the mainmast. There were smaller hatches, called scuttles, which gave access to all decks for the crew.

Merchant vessel were shored up by an array of small pieces of wood, nails, iron bolts, washers, pegs and braces. Seams were made water-tight with a caulking of tarred hemp fibers or oakum. The ships were flexible and able to work under the forces exerted by the wind, the sea and the cargo.


Basis the report of the journey and traditional immigrant sailing vessel crewing, here is my guess at the passenger listing (The London Company indicated 97 at departure and 6 Frenchmen were added in Guadeloupe):
• Captain Anthony Chester
• James Chester
• John Mines-the captain’s son-in-law
• Thomas Hothersall-interpreter
• Thomas Charn- pilot for the West Indies
• Griffen Parnell- master
• John Langle- master’s mate
• Humphrey Sherbrook- master’s mate
• James Jerland- surgeon
• William Joyce-quartermaster
• William Lucus- carpenter’s mate
• Ship’s cooper
• Ship’s master gunner
• Ship’s carpenter
• Two boatswains for rigging, rope, tackle and sails
• Ship’s cooks (2)
• Men before the mast, common sailors-possibly 38. Two of those were salt-man Thomas Vernam and sailor Edward Nubery
• Two or three young apprentices for errands, dirty duties and for running powder during use of the cannon
• Known passengers: Doctor Bohun, Thomas Dodmister, Thomas Read, William Garrett, Gabrial Peyes, David Pathering, Ralph Phillips, Francis Annis, Willliam Bird, Alexander Boverton, William Bannington, John Watkins, Philip Darwin, Robert Lector, Anthony Brown, Mr. Howe and a servant of Jasper Stallenge

• Departed ship at Elizabeth City were: William Branlin, Jeremiah Dickinson, Theodore Jones (16, a servant), Edward Mintrene (12), Richard Mintrene (40), William Beane, John  Inman, William Morton and Lawrence Peale (23)

At least 12 crew or passengers not identified. My 8th great-grandfather/grandmother Thomas Ledbetter and Mary Molisse Thomas from Seaham, County Durham, England came to Charles City around 1621 and possibly worked at Berkeley 100.  They could have been on this ship or another behind it. They were young, 20 years of age. The identity of the missing names is due to the author not recalling all of the names. It is also possible that the missing 12 names were women and children or seaman and apprentices (after all the Mayflower had a crew of 50). The London Company had indicated that women and children were aboard, so this is most likely the missing 12.

Twenty of the above were listed as apothecaries and surgeons (doubtful).


From sailing days of the Portuguese, it was known that sailing directly west from England or Spain was not practical because of the west winds and the unfavorable currents. North Atlantic weather is mostly determined by large wind currents and air masses generated over the North American continent. Near Iceland, air flows counterclockwise while at the Azores, the wind flows clockwise. The meeting of these two winds creates the west wind.

The Portuguese, and Christopher Columbus as well, found north-east trade winds that would propel them south along the west coast of Africa, then east to the Caribbean. Then there was the matter of water, fruits and resupply. This would be accomplished at anchorages at the Canary Island and the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Nevis before sailing on to Virginia.

Captain Anthony Chester set sail for his 2400-mile journey to the Canary Islands. He steadily moved south along the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal and now to the west coast of Morocco. On days with fair winds and good seas, he could get 8 miles per hour travel.

The Castilians had completed conquering the Canary Islands over a hundred years ago. There were 6 large islands called La Palma, El Hiero, Tenerife, Gran Canaria; Fuerte Ventura and Lanzarafe. Canary was a translation from “island of the dogs” which meant that dog worshippers had lived on Gran Canaria. Africa was merely 67 miles away.

For English sailing ships to dock and get water and fruit was tricky and a dangerous endeavor. England and Spain were at war and if there were a Spanish Galley or Galleass nearby, an English merchant ship would be a target. Most likely there were few dockings of Spanish ships on their way to South America. Captain Chester would be wary as he approached the islands. The most likely stop would be Tenerife with its abundant crops. It must have been common knowledge that inhabitants would sell to the English for profit. The Margaret and John passengers would enjoy temperatures nearing 70 degrees Fahrenheit and be thankful for the landfall.


The Canarys

After leaving the Canary Islands, Captain Chester began his westward 3000-mile sail over open water toward the Guadeloupe Island in the Caribbean. To make this sail. the ship would have to be seaworthy, the Captain, Master and crew had to be experienced and all problems and issues along the way had to be successfully addressed.
Captain Anthony Chester as Captain had supreme authority
• The ship’s sailing master stood watch and commanded the ship. His duty was navigation and setting the sails for the needed course. He maintained the ship’s compass.
• The master’s mates took care of the fittings, ropes, pulleys and sails. When ordered, they hoisted or lowed the anchors.
• The boatswain supervised the maintenance of the vessel and the supply stores. He inspected sails and rigging. He was in charge of deck activities such as handling of sails and anchor.
• Quartermaster was keeper of stores, supplies or loot
• The ship’s carpenter was responsible for the maintenance and repair of the wooden hull, masts and yard. He sealed planks with oakum and plugged leaks with wooden plugs.
• The master gunner was responsible for the ship’s guns and ammunition. He was to sift powder often to keep it dry and to keep metal cannon and guns rust free.
• Able-bodied-sailors worked rigging and sails but frequently were called on to steer, help the carpenter or clean the vessel.
• Riggers worked aloft on rigging and furling or lowering sails.
• Powder boys were young boys who ran gunpowder to cannon crews
• Swabs mopped decks.

Everyone on board had few changes of clothing, probably two, and little else. The crew slept on thin pallets of their own supply laid out of harm’s way on the deck or perhaps below on hammocks. The weather was often wet, cold and windy. The ship motion, the weather and the lack of good food caused sickness, and on some voyages, death. But the passengers had each other to get to know. When on deck the passengers would be fascinated by the workings of the ship’s crew but above all else, the language that they heard changed their own vocabulary.

Below deck there was bad air mainly caused by smoke from candles or tobacco smoking, mold, pungent vapor from tar fiber oakum and waste in the bilges. All this would tend to cause long-term poor health of sailors and the passengers.

Being a sailor meant danger. Injuries and sometimes fatalities resulted from falls from the rigging, slips on the deck, falling overboard, or getting caught in ropes. Minor cuts could easily result in infections, which when untreated could result in amputations, many of which were not successful. An amputation could be performed by a ship’s carpenter without anesthetics. A disease (scurvy – a vitamin C deficiency) could cause exhaustion, paleness, swollen gums and bad teeth, joint pain, and bone loss.

Most of the passengers began to understand the crew. The sailors could endure the work and hardships but they could not withstand short rations or rotten provisions. The typical diet of sailors included ship’s biscuit, salt pork, beer or rum. Rations were predetermined for each sailor and could included one pound of biscuits and a gallon of beer each day. During a week, the meals could include beef, salted pork, cod, peas, and butter/cheese.

Sailors’ bread was unleavened biscuits made with cheap and roughly ground wheat flour. One pound of biscuits consisted around five biscuits. Biscuits often came in hundred-pound bags.

Beautiful beach with palm tree, St Kitts


An English translation of the journey, originally written by the Dutchman Peter Vander Aa, was done by Charles Edward Bishop and first published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 1901. This historical work is held in the William & Mary and University of Virginia libraries. I have amplified the story to what follows:

Around March 14th the ship passed Martinique and Dominique. The pilot, Thomas Charn, guided the ship through the rocks and barriers. The ship anchored off of Guadeloupe where 6 Frenchmen were taken on board. Here the full 103 souls were on board the Margaret and John.


On March 30,1621, the ship reached the island of Nevis about 100 miles Northwest of Guadeloupe. At this anchorage, they wished to take on water.

Nearing anchorage at Nevis, the ship’s company spotted two vessels laid at anchor which were flying Dutch, or Hollander, flags from the mid mast. The Hollanders were friendly to England and a seafaring power. The Hollanders were in the 53rd year of war against Spain.


Dutch colors

From close anchorage to the Hollander ships, a skiff from the Margaret and John, with a few sailors, approached the Admiral’s ship to reconnoiter. Conversation quickly revealed that these were Spaniards and the ships were Spanish Man-of-War. The skiff reported back to the Margaret and John where the crew began to ready the ship for a battle. To clarify the situation with the Spaniards, the skiff was sent back for more discussion. As the skiff moved toward the Spanish Admiral’s ship, the few pieces of cannon on the Margaret and John were readied. The ship was so full of goods that cannon could not be placed in desired locations but the light weight of the pieces made them easy to be moved.
The Margaret and John had eight cast-iron pieces (cannon) and one small falcon. The cannons were brass and held a 3.25-3.75 inch bore and most likely 8 to 9 feet long. An oversized bore made precision dependable.

Once the skiff reached the Vice Admiral’s ship, the sailors inquired as to the nationality of the ship. The Spaniards demanded their surrender. The skiff quickly turned back and rowed rapidly back to the Margaret and John. The Spaniards shot at the skiff with none striking any sailors but causing some damage to oars. When the skiff pulled away, a big cannon from the Man-of-War was fired. When the sailors re-boarded the Margaret and John, the Spaniards hoisted sails and raised their flag on their mizzenmast (typically shorter than the foremast and lateen-rigged).

spanish flag of 1621

Spanish colors of year 1621

The Spaniards approached quickly and upon closing, enquired as to what nationality was the Margaret and John. Captain Chester replied that he was English and had no intention of harming them unless forced to do so and that his desire was to proceed peacefully on his journey.

The Spaniard officer demanded that the ship take down its mainsail, which, according to the Spaniard, was required by the rights of the King of Spain and marine practice. Captain Chester replied that he could not subject himself to any such rights nor did he intend to harm the subjects of the King of Spain. The Spaniards demanded that Captain Chester board the Spanish ship and show his papers. He refused. He countered saying the Spanish could come on board the Margaret and John to see the papers.
The Spaniards answered with two pieces of cannon and a hail of musket fire.
A war ship fired a broadside. The Margaret and John was attempting full flight as it did not match up with two Spanish Man-of-War. The Spaniard gave no chance for flight so there quickly became one of two choices; fight desperately or to surrender into slavery or worse.

The Margaret and John chose to fight and attacked the Spaniards aggressively and with accurate fire from their brass pieces and the falcon.  The Man-of-War drew close and grappled the Margaret and John. The Spaniards with their swords drawn attempted to board, but the ship’s fighters, crew and passengers, sprang forward with their muskets and received them. The first attack was repelled and the ships backed away.


guns on Spanish Man-of-War

The Admiral’s ship was 300-ton burden and carried 22 big guns and was well supplied with men and ammunition. The Vice Admiral’s ship was also of 300-ton burden and carried 16 big guns with an ample supply of men and ammunition. The man-of-war typically had three masts, each with three to four sails. The ship could be up to 200 feet long and could have up to 124 guns: four at the bow, eight at the stern, and 56 in each broadside. All these cannons required three-gun decks to hold them. It had a maximum sailing speed of eight or nine knots.

It was not long before the Spaniards returned again with loud fire and grappled once more. The Spaniards began to come on board. Again, Captain Chester and the crew and passengers received them with muskets, spears, and grappling axes. The Spaniards were driven off again with many dead and injured. This, however, did not satisfy the Spaniards as they attacked and grappled a third time and during the fierce hand to hand fight, the Spanish Admiral was shot down. A sailor cut the ropes that the Spanish used to grapple using an axe. The Spanish, with a surprising hue and cry, took flight, continuing to fire cannon and muskets as they pulled away. During this fight only 4 of the 8 brass pieces on the Margaret and John had been able to have been used.

Captain Chester attacked the second Man-of-War of the Vice Admiral furiously. The ship was disabled and the crew abandoned the ship for shore. The Man-of-War with the injured Admiral aboard could possibly return for more fighting.

The night following this battle, passengers and crew were busy filling cartridges and cleaning cannons and muskets. Quick ship repairs were begun. At dawn it looked as if the Spaniards were preparing to attack again. After looking at each other for about two hours, the Spaniard hoisted sail and took their course towards the nearest island, their movements being such that it was plain that they had a good many dead and wounded.

The Margaret and John had eight slain outright and two others died later. Those deceased were: Doctor Bohun, Thomas Dodmister (or Demeter), Thomas Read, William Garrett, Thomas Vernam, Gaberial Peyes, David Pathering, and Ralph Phillips. The two who died later were Francis Annis, Gentleman, and Edward Nubery, a sailor.

Some twenty were wounded and later recovered. Among these were the Captain Anthony Chester, James Chester, William Bird, Alexander Boventon, William Bannington, John Watkins, Philip Darwin, Robert Lector, Anthony Browne, Mr. Howe, William Joyce (quartermaster), William Lucas (Carpenter’s Mate), John Robbins, Mr. Steward, three Frenchman and three sailors.

The London Company had sent on the ship a good store of silkworm seed obtained out of France, Italy and Spain, and under the charge of a servant of Mr. Jasper Stallenge, the man had been skillful in breeding of worms and winding of their silk. He was to work in Virginia for three years where he would also teach others the skill. The silk worms were destroyed in the fight.

After repairs and resupply, the Margaret and John left Nevis and set sail for the remaining 1700 miles to Virginia.



Nevis – “Our Lady of the Snows”. Christopher Columbus saw clouds on Nevis from afar and thought it was snow on a mountain, thence the name Nevis. Nevis is 36 square miles and was a stop-over for English and Dutch ships on the way to North America.

Well into the sail to Virginia, the passengers began to understand the vernacular of the sailors.  Sailor language was concise, clear and specific so as to avoid the perils of sailing. Sometimes the words were manufactured to avoid specifics, thus a true contradiction. The language was a by-product of the sea life.
The functions of the ropes on board created diction specific to sailing tasks. A “lashing” meant secured one object to another with rope, “seizing” bound ropes together or to other objects, “worming” is the laying-in of small stuffs between the strands of a rope to fill up the spaces, and “parceling” is the process in which a strip of canvas is wound spirally around the rope with the lay, and heavily tarred.
The passengers heard words repeatedly and picked up the meaning for them. Such words were: topside, port, starboard, leeward, windward, stern, awash, bilge, course, heading, chart, ballast, anchor, helm, lookout, keel, seaworthy, flank, mast, pilot, rudder, bring to, mast, moor, cast off and launch.
Some phrases required the passengers to ask about, such as “devil to pay”. The task of ‘paying the devil’ was caulking the longest seam by squatting in the bilges. This was the worst job onboard and the term means a seemingly impossible task.

A block and tackle were used as a pulley system used on sailing ships to hoist the sails. “Chock-a-block” describes what occurs when there is no more rope free and the blocks jam tightly together. The sailor meaning was it is crammed so tightly there is no movement.
Often ship had their foresails or jib sails cut thinly so that they could maintain point and not be blown off course. Upon sighting thin foresails on a distant ship, a captain might not like the “cut of his jib” and would take flight.

A measure of six feet of the depth of water at sea is called a “fathom” and the conveyed meaning is that they are trying to fathom it or get to the bottom of it.

The bottom portion of a sail is called the foot. If it is not secured, it is “footloose” as it dances in the wind.
“Hazing” was the practice of keeping the crew working all hours of the day or night, whether necessary or not, in order to deprive them of sleep and to make them generally miserable.

Old rope, no longer able to carry a load was cut into shorter lengths and used to make mops and mats and was called “junk”.

The lee side is the side of the ship is sheltered from wind. A ship that doesn’t have enough “leeway” it is in danger of being driven onto the shore or an obstacle.

The most common method of punishment aboard ship was flogging. A sailor was often tied “over the barrel” of a deck cannon.

Scuttle meant to chop a hole in something and often it was a butt or barrel. The scuttlebutt was a water barrel with a hole cut into it so that sailors could reach in and dip out drinking water. “Scuttlebutt” was the place a sailor could gossip.

The worst watch station on a ship was on the “weather” (windward) side of the bow. The sailor endured constant pitching and rolling of the ship. The sailor would be soaked from the waves crashing over the bow. A sailor who was assigned to this unpleasant duty was said to be “under the weather.”

james river at berkely 100

      James River at Berkeley Plantation

Captain Chester carefully navigated by the treacherous outer banks south of Virginia, maneuver up the Chesapeake Bay and anchor in the James River off Jamestown Island.
The plantations and developments were divided into four political divisions, called “Burroughs” or “cities”. These were:
• James City
• Charles City
• Henrico City
• Kecoughtan–changed to Elizabeth City

After picking up a return cargo, Captain Antony Chester returned to England. News of Margaret and John fight and victory over the Spaniards made its way around England. England was quite proud of this victory, a merchant vessel defeated two Spanish Man-of-War. A few years later, Captain Chester retired in the English countryside.

The English colony along the James River would be the target of a Powhattan Federation massacre on March 22, 1622, only ten months after the Margaret and John had brought new colonists. Reports indicate that 347 colonists were killed or about a quarter of the population.

Picture credits:
Purchased from istock: Fluyt ,Canary Island, Man-of-War
Free from unsplash: Hilthart Pederson, Joachim Pressl, Amanda Phung, Ubey Ahmed, Dusan Smetang and Massimiliano Morosinotto
James River: photo by me