WOODLIEF-L ArchivesArchiver > WOODLIEF > 2005-08 > 1123893324
Subject: John Woodlief in early Virginia
Date: Fri, 12 Aug 2005 20:35:24 EDT
In the Spring, some of us were discussing what we think we know and don't
know about John Woodlief in England. I thought it might also be pertinent and
useful to have a look at what we think we know and don't know about his early
years in Virginia. In particular, I wanted to examine the idea that he was in
Virginia for some time prior to his voyage in 1619.
Let me start with a key quote from Boddie [Virginia Historical Genealogies,
originally published 1954] (p 191):
"JOHN WOODLIEF came to Virginia in 1608, for Alexander Brown in his 'First
Republic' (p. 345) says that in 1619 'Capt. John Woodlief, who had been in
Virginia 11 years [emphasis added], was to have the command of Berkeley Hundred.'
I have long wondered who Alexander Brown was and when he wrote. On the web,
I found that Dr. Alexander Brown had written The First Republic in America,
published in 1898 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company. Brown appears to have
been a historian working at the end of the 19th century. He also compiled The
Genesis of the United States, 1891, a reproduction of Virginia records from the
beginning to 1617. I have determined that the Rochester, NY, public library
has a copy of The First Republic, and I will make a trip there to see if it
tells any more, like the basis for his statement.
If we take the statement "had been in Virginia 11 years" at full face value,
that is, that he arrived in Virginia in 1608 and stayed there, it makes it
difficult for John Woodlief to have been signing the 2nd Charter, marrying, and
procreating in England in 1609.
Let us turn now to Clifford Dowdey's take on Capt. John. In the second
chapter of his book, "The Great Plantation" (a history of the Berkeley Plantation)
on pp. 30-31. he writes:
The partners of the Berkely Hundred venture "tried to interest Captain John
Woodlief, early adventurer to Virginia [emphasis added] and their selected
governor, in a fifth share. Woodlief might be willing to gamble his life, but
not his money. ... The Berkeley partners ... failed to perceive that men would
not expose their families to the risks and hardships of the frontier only for
the profit of distant investors."
"Woodlief himself was a man of some substance. (The name was spelled
variously Woodliffe, Woodleaf, Woodleefe: Woodlief is the spelling of his Virginia
descendants today.) Privileged to write 'Gent.' after his name and a
subscriber to the London Company, he had adventured to Jamestown in 1608, survived the
'starving time,' and prospered as a planter sufficiently to import four
indenturers to join his wife and children [emphasis added]. The 'captain' seems
to have been an honorary title, doubtless to dignify his responsibility as
A record of these four indenturers comes from the records of Richard
Berkeley, one of the proprietors of the Berkeley Plantation, as transcribed by
Elizabeth Ann Kerman. It is headed "Captayne Woodleefs bill September 1619" and
speaks of the "passage of his fower men in April last" suggesting that these four
men went to Virginia in April 1619. On the other hand, some of the expenses
seem to be for living expenses for these men while they waited at Bristol for
the ship, Margaret, to be ready. The bill lists expenditures for clothes,
food, supplies, tools, etc. for the men, among other items. It concludes with
"Sum total layed out by mr Woodleefe toward his share" 65 pounds.
Boddie [p 192] cites the following from the agreement between Woodlief and
the Berkeley proprietors as follows:
"5 - Item - Whereas the said John Woodlief hath at his owne charges about
Aprill last transported four men into Virginia beinge in his family there
abydinge with his wife and children who are by several agreements by severall
Indentures to serve him fower yeares the peece or nere threabouts, and hath also
furnished at his like charges with apparell and arms. ... "
This last statement seems to state unequivocally that John Woodlief and his
family were in Virginia prior to April 1619, and thus tends to confirm the idea
that Woodlief was hired because he had already been in Virginia and
(presumeably) was experienced in the ways and nature of the place.
Here is a bit more by Dowdey, beginning at the bottom of page 8:
"Of the original band of 105 who landed in Jamestown [in 1607], not one left
a descendant in Virginia; and of the less than 200 survivors of the nearly 800
who came in the first and most perilous period (1607-1610), not five by
record left descendants in Virginia." Presumeably, if Capt. John Woodlief came in
1608, he must be included in those five.
And on page 12: "the majority [of the first adventurers] were privileged to
write 'Gent.' after their names, and it is difficult in our time to
approximate the precise status of these gallants. Products of a fluidly stratified
post-feudal society, they might be younger sons of the lesser nobility or
pleasure minded sons of some successful character who had been knighted; they could
be dandified offshoots of the untitled country gentry or urban lads of decent
connections and a flair for fashion. It is commonly presumed that most of
them had squandered their modest estates in the London fleshpots and were
seeking to repair their fortunes. It seems likelier that most possessed no estates
to begin with, that they were picaresque characters who lived by their wits
and their credit, and were taking the big gamble to get out of hock. In all
there must have been a certain reckless courage and for a certainty all seemed
to exercise that perqusite of 'Gent' which rendered them superior to gainful
employment and manual labor."
The settlement of Jamestown --
Of the original group of some 140 adventurers in three ships that set sail in
December 1606 under the command of Captain Newport 105 arrived in Virginia on
13 May 1607 and, after a series of misadventures, settled on Jamestown
Island. On June 22, Newport sailed for home, "promising to be back with supplies as
soon as he could, leaving behind in beleaguered Jamestown not more than a
hundred men, for already a third of the original company had perished." [From
Behold Virginia, the Fifth Crown by George F. Willison, 1951, Harcourt, Brace
and Company.] Newport did not make it back until January, 1608 (the beginning
of the year in which Capt. John Woodlief is said to have arrived in
Jamestown), with only one of the two ships, the John and Francis, that had started out.
The other ship, Phoenix, vanished in a fog with 40 people. The arrival of
Newport on the John and Francis is known in Jamestown history as the First
Willison continues [pg 53], "The John and Francis landed some seventy
colonists, about half of whom were Gentlemen. After the tales they had been told
at home, they could scarcely believe their eyes at the sight of the
thirty-eight gaunt and ragged survivors at Jamestown, less than a third of the original
company." In the spring, Newport departed in the John and Francis, its hold
filled with "gold ore," dirt dug from the soil of Jamestown, apparently
containing fools gold, iron pyrites. After Newport's departure, the Phoenix
arrived, having turned back to the West Indies for the winter. Eventually the
Phoenix departed for England with a load of cedar.
In September, 1608, Newport returned in the Mary and Margaret with the Second
Supply. If Capt. John came to Virginia in 1608, he must have reached there
on one of these two ships captained by Newport.
The parish register of marriages for Steventon, Bucks, has the following
entry: "John Woodleffe and Mary Archard were married the first day of May 1609."
23 May 1609 -- John Woodlief, Gentleman, is listed in the 2nd Charter of the
Steventon baptismal records show: John Woodleffe, son of John, bapt 29
Dowdey, page 18: "In [May] 1609, to begin the third year of the colonizing
effort, The Virginia Company tried to vitalize the experiment by sending out
nine well-supplied ships loaded with five hundred men, women and children [The
Third Supply]. ... two relief ships were lost on the way, and many
passengers on the other seven died during the voyage. The surviving vessels, except
for the Sea Adventure (see below) reached Jamestown in August. To join the
100 survivors of the first two years, there were 250 unacclimated newcomers,
... . Instead of revitalizing the colony, the added numbers made the
following winter, 1609-10, the worst period the settlers were to experience. [It
was] called the 'starving time.' ... More than one half of the 350 alive in
October were gone by the following June, and the survivors were in hard case."
At the end of July, 1609, the fleet of The Third Supply, led by the flagship
Sea Aventure, was struck by a hurricane. The Sea Adventure became separated
from the rest of the fleet and foundered on Bermuda, but, fortunately, with no
loss of life or supplies. Two boats, the Deliverance and the Patience, made
from the wreckage of the Sea Adventure, reached Jamestown with 150 settlers
and the leaders of the expedition on 23 May 1610.
On 8 June 1610, Lord de La Warr, "Lord Governor and Captain-general, during
his lifetime, of the Colony and Plantation in Virginia," arrived in Jamestown
and took command of the settlement. This event -- the arrival of a capable,
allbeit authoritarian, administrator -- marked a profound change in the
fortunes of the English colony in Virginia. De La Warr returned to England in 1611.
May 1611, three ships under command of Sir Thomas Dale arrived with 250
passengers for a total of over 600 colonists. By 1613, only some 300 remained
It is instructive to note the poor survival rate of those who went to
Of the original 140 who set out for Virginia in Dec 1606, 105 survived the
By Jan. 1608, only 38 remained alive when 60 new colonists arrived with the
Sept. 1608, the Second Supply brings 70 new settlers to add to 70 survivors.
Aug. 1609, the Third Supply brings 250 new colonists to join the 100
survivors of the first two years.
Winter 1609-10, "Starving Time"
May 1610, Deliverance and Patience arrive with 150 more settlers to find only
May 1610, de La Warr arrives with an unknown complement of new settlers.
May 1611, Dale arrives with 250 colonists bringing the total to over 600.
By 1613, only some 300 people remained alive. [Willison, p 153]
In 1619, there were about 700 settlers. [Dowdey, p 27]
March 1622, Indian Massacre. 350 killed, 1050 survive.
Dec. 1622, ship Abigail arrives bringing plague which reduces colony to 500.
After this time, the population began to steadily increase.
May 1624, Virginia becomes a royal province.
If we examine the opportunities Capt. John Woodlief had to take passage for
Virginia prior to 1619, there are very few:
In 1608 -- two, the First and Second Supplies.
In 1609 -- one, the Third Supply.
In some ways, this voyage is the more logical one for Capt.
Woodlief to have taken to Virginia, in that he signed the 2nd charter of the
Virginia Company in May and the ships of the Third Supply departed in May. The
passengers also included "perhaps fifty women and children." [Willison, p94]
If John Woodlief had a wife at that time, she might have come with him.
[Note, the members of the Virginia Company in England refused to acknowledge
publicly the dire conditions in Virginia. In fact, they may well have been
blissfully unaware of the serious problems there because their agents in Virginia
were still painting a rosy picture of the wealth and opportunties of the land.]
In 1610 -- one, with de La Warr.
In 1611 -- one, with Dale. After Dale's arrival, the records I have no
longer list specific ship arrivals. There may have been more in 1611, and there
were certainly others in subsequent years.
I have never encountered any record of or reference to John Woodlief in
Virginia prior to 1619. The first mention that I have seen comes from the records
of the Virginia Company. Those facts do not mean that he wasn't there;
records from that time are fairly sparse.
The story of John Woodlief's arrival in Virginia is fairly well known. The
ship, Margaret, left Bristol 16 September 1619 and arrived 4 December 1619, at
which time Capt. John Woodlief, as instucted by the proprietors, proclaimed
the "first" Thankgiving observance in the New World. However, in the
following year, 28 August 1620, after less than a year of service, Woodlief was fired
from his position as plantation manager. 10 December 1620, Capt. John
Woodlief obtained from Sir George Yeardley, governor of the Jamestown colony, a
grant of 550 acres on the south bank of the James river almost directly across
from the Berkeley plantation [date of grant from Boddie, p194]. This grant was
reconfirmed to his son, John Woodlief II, 24 August 1637, by "right of descent
from his father Capt. John Woodlief, Esq." After 1620, it is not clear
where Capt. John Woodlief was nor what he did. Presumeably he was busy managing
his own plantation.
26 February 1622 is the date of the infamous indian massacre when 350
settlers were killed by indians who had come into their houses and compounds on
ostensibly friendly visits and then suddenly rose up, as if on signal, and killed
as many settlers as they could. It is not known whether John Woodlief was
killed or if was even in Virginia at the time.
Boddie [p 193] notes that Woodlief was not listed in the muster roll of
settlers of 24 February 1624/1625. Boddie states that Woodlief must have been in
England at the time although he later acknowledges that he might have been
killed in the massacre.
Hereabove is a summary of what I think I know about Capt. John Woodlief's
whereabouts in Virginia. If anyone has more knowledge to add, I would be most
grateful to hear about it.
7017 Longview Drive
Naples, NY 14512