The following article appeared in the August, 2014 edition of the Willis-Gordon-Garnett and Allied Families Journal. It is an update of the Beheathland article which originally appeared on this website, here.
American’s love our nation’s history, particularly the histories (some might say myths) associated with the nation’s founding, and stories of the intrepid explorers, early colonists, and pioneers who carved a nascent civilization out of a remote wilderness. As children we were taught about the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Massachusetts and their desire to found a community where they could practice their religion without persecution. Unfortunately, we were rarely taught much beyond the basic myth of their earliest aspirations and successes.
The old families of New England who claim founding family status in America take a great deal of pride in their heritage – and deservedly so. However even today, the lion’s share of Americans have little idea that the Pilgrims of Plymouth were actually latecomers to England’s colonial ambitions. Few American’s realize that while New England’s founding families were still in England, the Netherlands, and Holland, America’s true first families were already established and achieving a certain amount of success in the Tidewater region of Virginia.
After the Confederacy’s defeat in the American Civil War, it became politically expedient to revise American history in order to diminish the importance of the South’s contribution to the American drama. For a century and a half, the story of Jamestown’s settlement became a margin note in the history texts. The story of her adventurers and original planters all but forgotten, buried in the brackish blackwater swamps of the Chesapeake Bay. The memory of Jamestown was kept alive by native Virginians who knew themselves to be descended from the earliest colonists. Even among those old families however, there remained little depth of understanding about who their founding ancestors were, or what motivated them to venture from England into the wholly unknown wilds of Virginia. Thanks to the work of the Jamestowne Society, the determination of the Jamestown Rediscovery Team under the leadership of head archeologist Dr. William Kelso, and a small but enthusiastic community of historians and genealogists, the true history of Jamestown and her “Original Planters” is being recovered and preserved.
Along with the effort to recover the true history of Jamestown’s founding, a renewed enthusiasm among descendants of Jamestown’s first families to know their ancestors personal stories has emerged. The goal of this article is to provide a deeper understanding of what sort of world these men and women occupied both before and after the first unsteady settlement of English colonists on the banks of the Chesapeake. In particular, we’ll focus on one very important 1607 colonist – Robert Beheathland – who holds the distinction of being the only original colonist to survive in Virginia long enough to marry, have children, and establish himself as the founder of America’s true, original, first family.
Robert Beheathland was born in the last decades of the sixteenth century at St. Endellion, in County Cornwall, England.1 He arrived in Jamestown in 1607, probably aboard the Susan Constant with Captain John Smith. He survived the first, most terrible year of the Jamestown experiment. He survived the “Starving Times”, when some colonists resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. He survived the Anglo-Powhatan wars, and the disease, failures, and hunger which plagued the nascent colony during the first decade of its founding. He married Mary Nicholson sometime after 1608 and she bore him a son and two daughters who survived into adulthood. Their eldest, Dorothy, was born about 1610. The youngest, Mary Bernhard, was born about 1615. Both girls married and had children. Robert and Mary Beheathland’s son John, traveled back to England on family business, but died on the return voyage to Virginia without ever having married or having children. Thus the Beheathland surname died on the American continent, even while Robert Beheathland’s descendants flourished.
While those facts are interesting in every respect, it has been my observation that too often genealogists get lost in the facts of birth dates, marriage dates, death dates, and when and where wills were proven. We often forget that the people who we so carefully document were just that – real people. They were individuals with complicated stories, personalities, dreams, hopes, ambitions – and fears. People with families dependent upon them, or hopes for them, or both. We too often get so sidelined by the rigid facts that we neglect to step back and thoughtfully consider the world in which these people lived. We neglect to ask ourselves what motivated them to become who they became or how in the face of incredible odds they managed to survive. To answer these questions we often have to turn toward the larger social and civil history of the lands they left behind.
Before we go into the details of the life and death of our earliest European ancestor on American soil – Robert Beheathland – we’re going to take a step back and consider some aspects of his world. Moreover, we’re going to examine what could possibly have motivated him in 1607, to put himself on a sixty-foot long wooden sailing vessel, bound on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, destined for a place that didn’t even have a name yet. In due course, the place Beheathland eventually made his home would come to be called Jamestown. But before there was Jamestown, before the Virginia Colony or even the Virginia Company which founded both, there was England. England in Robert’s era was no less wild – though in a wholly different manner – than the wilds of unknown Virginia. Understanding England in Robert Beheathland’s era is crucial to understanding how Jamestown and the first English Colonies in America came to exist. Jamestown, as it evolved, displayed itself as a perfect microcosm of the whiplash social and civil environment that defined early seventeenth century England.
Tudor & Jacobean England
England in the early seventeenth century was, contrary to our modern interpretation, not a terribly romantic place in which to live. While it’s true that this period is considered the “Golden Age” of discovery, we should keep in mind that everything that glitters is not gold. There were perhaps a few thousand people in all of England, Ireland, and Wales who could be considered truly wealthy. Among them, a few hundred perhaps, who were generally independent men. The rest, millions of people throughout the country, were “subjects”. “Subject” to corrupt courts, corrupt landlords, and corrupt aristocrats – “subject” to a corrupt system that was rotten from the core to the skin.2
Even among the wealthy and powerful, survival was tenuous. Political intrigues and backhanded maneuvers by upstarts and competitors often resulted in a total reversal of fortune. If the fall from grace – grace of the sovereign, grace of a patron, grace of a landlord or employer – was severe enough, you could find yourself homeless, in jail, or headless. Occasionally all three in quick succession, as Sir Walter Raleigh found out not long after his beloved sponsor Queen Elizabeth I died, leaving her throne to the less benevolent James I (IV) of Scotland.3
At court in London there were constant political intrigues, plots against the crown or against favorites at court. There were spies and spy watchers, and an endless whisper of suspicion and rumor against any and all. England, in the era of Robert Beheathland, was not yet an imperial power. It was hardly even a united kingdom. It teetered on the brink of civil upheaval and suffered dreadfully from political corruption and social injustice from the parish level, to the seats of Parliament, to the very crown.4
Persecution of Catholics and Dissenters
Under Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509 to 1547, Catholics were converted by force, exiled or killed. Their property and lands confiscated and redistributed to loyal favorites. Under Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter who reigned from 1548 until 1603, it still wasn’t healthy to be a Catholic, but it was even worse to be a non-conformist. Under her successor, James I, who reigned from 1603 until 1625, religious tolerance was encouraged from the throne, but the Church of England stubbornly refused to go along. A schism developed between James’ supporters, the Established Church, and the growing community of non-conformists and dissenters who opposed the church, sought to limit the power of the monarchy, and demanded greater civil liberties, including freedom to practice the faith of their choosing, and rights of free speech and free assembly. The end result of this schism was the English Civil War in which the King (Charles I) was executed by the non-conformist Oliver Cromwell. For a period Cromwell and Parliament ruled England. England fell into factions and rebelled – violently.
This was a difficult time to be a person of conviction and courage. The political and social winds changed direction so schizophrenically and with a force so deadly, that it was impossible to know where to stand, and who to stand with, lest you be blown over or mowed down. This was the era in which the first English colonies in the New World were planned, conceived, and born.5
Economic Paradigm Shift
If all this religious and political intrigue was not enough, let’s consider the economics of life in England at the time. This period – late Tudor through the Jacobean – introduces to Europe the first real whiff of Capitalism and economic competition. Pre-Renaissance England, like most of Europe, had been entirely feudal. The greatest majority of the people lived on the land; land owned by a feudal lord who in turn paid tribute and loyalty to a greater lord or a prince or king. The people worked the land collectively and were generally guaranteed employment for life, a home of reasonable quality in which to live, and protection from enemies, criminals and invaders. This, of course, in exchange for their unquestioning loyalty, their labor, and occasionally their willingness to go to battle and perhaps die in defense of the status quo.
With the rise of international trade, organized banking systems and fractional reserve lending, sovereign debt, competition at court, religious conflict, an emergent class of professional lawyers who advised the nobility and the King, and the introduction of the concept of competitive Capitalism, things got much more complicated for the average person just trying to make a living. The result by the end of the sixteenth century, was that most of the common lands which had been farmed cooperatively by the tenants of nobles were closed, fenced off, sold, or confiscated. Tenants, the overwhelming majority of whom claimed ancestral ties to the land going back to the Anglo-Saxon era, were turned out to fend for themselves. With nowhere to go except into towns in an attempt to find wage paying work, and with few skills other than farming, they were lost – completely destitute. The cities began to fill up with what chroniclers of the era called beggars, sharpers, drifters, and all variety of vagrants. These people formed the first great underclass of the first true city in the British Isles – London.
Between 1500 and 1600 London’s population exploded from 60,000 to 225,000 as a result of these sweeping social and legal changes. By 1660 the population of London swelled to 460,000 souls. One in ten Englishmen lived in the city. This was a complete reversal of the demography from just two generations earlier.6
We can hardly imagine what a walled city of half a million people must have been like. A city with no sanitation services, no running water, no toilets, or waste water disposal. Nor did they have building codes, zoning restrictions, fire codes, hospitals, a police force or emergency services of any sort. The place was a teeming, seething, reeking, den of chaos in which just about anything could and did occur without warning. Food shortages were the norm. Inflation was rampant. Crime was endemic. Employment in anything legal was the exception rather than the rule. Violence, lack of sanitation, deprivation, sickness, and disease kept the life expectancy to about thirty years old. The infant mortality rate was a frightening 50%.7
Dysentery was a favorite friend, as was typhoid. The bubonic and pneumonic plagues made several visits and in 1665 did their part to diminish the over-crowding problem by wiping out 30-40% of London’s population (deaths were estimated at 100,000 people in less than one year alone.)8 When the plague was done, the Great London Fire of 1666 destroyed much of the city, especially the poorly constructed slums and suburbs where foreign immigrants and new arrivals from the countryside were forced to live.9 There was no FEMA to come to anyone’s aid. People lived out of doors. They got sick. The sick died. The dead often lay in the streets for days before being dragged off by dogs or hauled to mass graves on the edge of town. It was truly a hellish existence for the greatest swath of society. Not a romantic period at all. This is a place that most people – if they could have – would have left. Even if it meant crossing an ocean and landing in a wilderness to do it.
The overwhelming majority of Jamestown’s first colonists were recruited (or conscripted) from the ranks of London’s citizens. There is good evidence that about half of these were from the lower classes of slum dwellers – people with very few options and absolutely no financial resources with which to improve their condition. Given the limited opportunities and dreadful living conditions that London offered its poorest citizens, it isn’t difficult to imagine that the Virginia Company was successful in recruiting “adventurers” willing to risk the months-long Atlantic Crossing. These folks had little to lose and everything to gain if the adventure succeeded. But what about the other half of the colonists, the “gentlemen” and the more fortunate participants who were recruited from remote regions of the kingdom?
Robert Beheathland, as example, never lived in London so far as we know. At the time just before the first Jamestown voyage, he was just a teenager living on the far western coast of England. His home, St. Endellion in County Cornwall, is literally as far west from London as one can travel without going for a swim in the Atlantic Ocean. In the seventeenth century it was a rural, under-populated countryside that offered physical distance from the plagues of the city, and a good, healthy, fresh air life to its inhabitants. On face value it would seem incredible that someone from a place seemingly as bucolic and safe as St. Endellion would chose to risk life and limb to go to Virginia. We have to look closely at the reach of social upheaval and the economics of early 17th century England to understand such a decision.
First – Cornwall was still staunchly Catholic in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Landed gentry and noble families who escaped the plagues, perils, and persecutions of a century earlier still clung (usually secretly) to their Catholic faith in Cornwall, but that holding-on was tenuous at best. A Catholic who came to the attention of the established church authorities (whether by his own actions or that of a competitor) could be exiled, jailed, have his lands seized, lose his life, or perhaps all of the above. One way a family ensured its survival against this kind of persecution was by sending its children out of the country. It was an early form of spreading the risk. There is excellent archeological evidence from Jamestown that there were practicing Catholics among the earliest colonists.10 What’s more, early promoters of colonization openly stated that they believed “planting colonies” was a preferred way of getting rid of undesirables in England, from criminals and vagrants to political enemies to religious dissenters like Catholics and non-conformists.11
Next – We know that risk and debt often played a big role in a family’s decision regarding participation in capital ventures. It was not uncommon for rural landowners of this period (more common among so-called “gentlemen”, semi-noble, and noble families, than among yeomen farmers) to get into significant debt by over-extravagant living. The nobility were often land-rich and cash-poor, which made it difficult to live “up to” their position in society without going into debt. One solution to this dilemma – an often ruinous solution – was to participate in a capital venture that promised tremendous rewards – if it paid off. The Jamestown adventure was just such a capital risk. The formation of the Virginia colony was not a government sponsored operation. It was a privately funded venture – no different from a high-tech start-up today. The “adventurers” were the early investors. They either invested cash to fund the start-up, or they invested flesh and blood. Some landowners who wanted to get rid of their tenants put them on boats to the colonies with a hope of a return on their labor if they survived. Some, seeking greater returns, sent excess family abroad.12
Captain John Smith in his reports back to the Virginia Company complained bitterly about the over-abundance of “gentlemen” among the first colonists, and not enough people with the skills, knowledge, and willingness to do the difficult, physical work required to carve a functional, self-sufficient community out of the raw wilderness of Virginia.13 Robert Beheathland was listed among the first planting of colonists at Jamestown as just such a soft-handed “gentleman.” Most of these “gentlemen” were the fourth or fifth sons of cash-poor, landed gentry or lower nobility. They were, in the coldest view of seventeenth century life, excess to the needs of society.
Robert Beheathland was the youngest of four sons.14 That was a terrible thing to be in seventeenth century in England. Every good landed family needed a male heir to take over the property. It needed a spare in case the eldest died young. This second son was usually educated in the law in order to assist his older brother in the management of the estate, keep the family on solid financial and legal footing, while also earning a living on the bench. If there was a third son, he was trained for the clergy or sent into the Army or Navy to seek his fortune on his own wits. Good situations in any of these professions could be purchased at an affordable price. Fourth, fifth, or later sons – they were simply out of luck. After establishing the third son, most families were out of funds to purchase good positions in professional society, pay for education, or support the spare children beyond their most basic needs – certainly not enough to marry, have a home, or start a family. Robert was unfortunate in regard to the order of his birth. He didn’t even have the benefit of being a lowly yeoman farmer’s son – a boy who would have been raised knowing the generalities of everything from farming and livestock management, to building, to carpentry, to blacksmithing. He had few skills and no money. His prospects for making his own way would have been extremely difficult and his family was under no legal or even traditional obligation to maintain him. The venture offered by the Virginia Company provided Robert’s father, as well as many others like him, a potential means to make a quick return on investment while disposing of an unwanted expense – if things worked out right. If they didn’t, then his loss, in the cold, hard economics of 17th century life, would be no real loss at all – except the obvious sadness of losing a child who, given the circumstances, had a very limited chance of survival at home.
Given the time that’s passed since Robert Beheathland’s era and our own, we can’t know which of these possibilities put Beheathland on the boat that left Blackwall in late December 1606. What we can know with a moderate level of confidence is that it was probably not young Robert’s idea, and he probably wasn’t happy about it. He certainly knew that he had no other prospect, so – like many others who followed him in the decades and centuries to come – he put his head down and steeled himself to his fate.
The voyage wasn’t an easy one. Before the adventurers were even twenty miles off the coast of Devon, the weather turned, preventing the three vessels from sailing west. The ships – the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed – languished off the English coast for nearly a month. Burning through their stores of fresh water and food, enduring freezing temperatures and drenching rain, the colonists broke out early into bitter regrets. There was lots of whining and complaining – followed by the death of one of the passengers. This early bad luck didn’t bode well for the future success of the voyage.15
The English Class System – Compressed
There were even greater complications for this first voyage than bad weather and bad timing. This collection of would-be colonists, sailors, adventurers, and officers represented a microcosm of 17th century English social strata; all trapped together on board three tiny vessels. The people languished without anything to distract them over a many months long voyage, without enough food, clean water, or privacy. All ranks of society pressed together on the turbulent seas, cheek by jowl. It would have been impossible for difficulties not to break out. The most dramatic event that occurred was a petty, high seas power struggle which threatened the lives and futures of every member of the crew and would-be colonists.
Christopher Newport was the Captain of the Susan Constant, the flagship of the little fleet. According to Virginia Company orders, Newport also served as commandant of the overall voyage until the colonists were safely planted in Virginia and a governor could be selected. On the high seas, his position was one of absolute authority. He had the power of arrest, and even the authority to execute someone if the offense was serious enough – like mutiny, for example.
Another important person on the voyage was Captain John Smith. Smith was already a legend in England, well-known for his exploits from Turkey to Russia, to his mercenary battles against Spain. His career was renowned because he was his own biggest promoter. Among his myriad talents was that of published author and gifted storyteller. He was headstrong. He was smart. And – to his detriment among the elite on board the ship – he didn’t subscribe to the classic English custom of mild-mannered deference to his social betters. He believed in trusting ability and accomplishment before birth and title, and he let everyone know it.
Smith was born into a small-hold, yeoman farm family in a remote part of eastern England. He left home at sixteen years old and went to sea. Over the course of a thirty-year career he made himself into one of the world’s greatest adventurers, survivors, and professional soldiers. He was a geographer, a map maker, a writer, and even a bit of a poet. He was a true Renaissance man in nearly every respect. He’d been all over the world and survived to tell it.16 It was his experience in dangerous expeditions like the one to Virginia that brought Captain John Smith to the attention of the Virginia Company. The organizers became convinced that they needed his experience, his bravery, and his wits to make a go of it. He was one of the few men in the kingdom with the skills and the fortitude to make a venture like this one succeed. He was recruited by the founders of the Company – among them his biggest fan, Richard Hakluyt – to join the venture and take a leading role in its direction.17
Christopher Newport was not John Smith’s biggest fan. Newport was made Master of the Royal Navy in 1606, just before his jaunt to Jamestown. Prior to this Royal appointment, he made a vast fortune for himself and others among London’s merchant elite, acting as a privateer, picking off Spanish treasure ships as they made the perilous crossing from Central America back to Spain, laden with tons of gold and silver. Newport’s successes were just as well documented as Smith’s and his swashbuckling reputation was further buoyed by his immense, if recently acquired wealth – the sole advantage that Captain John Smith lacked. While Newport was no noblemen in the strict English sense, he was firmly entrenched among the newly minted class of self-made aristocrats swiftly gaining importance in Capitalist England. Because of his immense wealth, he was able to move among the nobility and upper gentry as a relative equal, even if he lacked a title or old family lineage.
Unfortunately, there was not enough room to accommodate both Newport’s and Smith’s egos in all of the Atlantic Ocean. There certainly wasn’t room for both on board a single tiny ship.
In the short run Newport won the dangerous game the two played during the voyage. John Smith was placed under arrest on charges of mutiny. He was put in chains in the ships hold until Newport could determine what to do with him. Whether these charges were legitimate or trumped-up, it’s difficult to know, but given the accusation that Smith intended to murder his superiors (Newport, et al), seize the ships, and then make himself “King” of Virginia, the charges do seem a little extreme (and given Smith’s carelessness for titles, also unlikely.). Newport planned to execute Smith when the ships made landfall, but that plan didn’t quite work out.
“…Such factions here we had, as commonly attend such voyages, that a paire of gallowes was made, but Captain Smith, for whom they were intended, could not be persuaded to use them.”
- General History of Virginia, by Captain John Smith
Captain Smith had friends and supporters on board all three vessels. Once they were all united on land, Newport had to accept the fact that their high opinion of the man outnumbered his fears. Technically he could have carried out the execution, but that would not have played well back in London given the overwhelming number of voices claiming Smith’s innocence and demanding his release. The last thing Newport needed was a genuine mutiny. He had more than 110 people on board three ships to care for, including prospective colonists and crew. His fate and reputation depended upon him getting them safely to their destination without catastrophe or insurrection. He swallowed his pride and got on with business, hoping for a new day of reckoning with Smith. Smith remained under arrest for the remainder of the voyage. It’s unlikely that he remained a silent, cooperative prisoner.
Captain John Smith was a man either loved or hated by any who knew him. There was no middle ground. Likewise, he was a man of strong opinions. He either determined you were valuable and worthy of his respect, or he dismissed you entirely. Sometimes his opinions and loyalties switched directions in a blink. He was as unpredictable as he was ruthless. Generally speaking however, his concerns were directed in the best interest of the colony’s survival. If history has painted his character fairly, he rarely put his own gratification – either material or psychological – above the well-being of the colony at large. The same could not be said of his enemies, most of whom glorified and pampered themselves while the colonists suffered.
Robert Beheathland had a few things going for him that some of his fellow-colonists did not. The first was that Captain John Smith apparently liked him. It was simple luck that most likely put Robert on board the same ship with Smith. He may even have been chosen by Newport to tend to Smith – bring him food and water, check on him, etc. – when Smith was in chains in the ships hold. That would make sense given Robert’s youth and elevated social station. Newport would have considered Robert a safe caretaker, someone who could not materially or physically assist the prisoner, someone who would not have the fortitude to go against the true authority on board the vessel. Beheathland was a “gentleman” after all, and he knew his slightly elevated place in the pecking order. He knew as well that Smith was a commoner of no social consequence – something that would have mattered materially back in England. Once in Virginia, the usefulness of such distinctions would quickly come into question. This was something Smith anticipated – while Newport and his fellow aristocrats clearly did not.
The other advantage that Robert Beheathland had over his companions was his youth. He was probably not more than twenty years old when he boarded the ship that would carry him to Virginia. Because he was young his habits were not fixed. He had not grown as lazy and arrogant as some of his fellow “gentlemen”. In addition, his youth made him teachable and probably even eager under the right tutelage. Captain Smith provided a mentor the likes of which most of us can only dream of.
Consider it. You’re an impressionable youngster from the rural hinterlands of England, stuck on board a ship with forty grown men, the majority of whom are Londoners in lace sleeves and ruffled collars. You have just been given the assignment to spend time with the toughest, shrewdest, leanest, meanest, adventurer in English history. This man is swarthy, scarred, built like a fortress, and he has the most amazing stories to tell. You spend your time listening to his tales of outsmarting the Turks, whipping the Spaniards, surviving off the land across the wilderness of Russia with enemies in hot pursuit. Who are you going to align yourself with? The effete, lace-cuffed captain and his lace-cuffed friends at the helm? Or the unsinkable, unkillable, undefeated superhero in the hold? You’re an untested boy who is stuck on a voyage to the edge of the world. It’s not a difficult decision to make.
Newport accomplished his mission. He got the ships and his human cargo safely to Virginia. The fleet anchored in the broad river up the Chesapeake Bay on May 13, 1607. In a demonstration of loyalty to their king, they named the river “James”.18
Captain Smith was still under considerable suspicion by the elite men of the voyage when the contents of the box containing the orders of the Virginia Company were unlocked and read aloud before the whole party of colonists. According to the rules outlined by the Company, Edward Maria Wingfield (1550 – 1631), was named President of the infant colony. His appointment was an obvious one. He was a nobleman. As important, he was one of the prime movers in the Virginia Company “showing great charge and industry”. He was one of the four incorporators of the London Virginia Company in the Virginia Charter of 1606, and one of its biggest financial backers. He recruited about forty of the 105 colonists, and was the only shareholder in the venture to sail with the expedition.19
Wingfield’s first decision as leader was the selection of the site of where the company would land and make fortifications, the place that they would name “Jamestowne” in deference to their sovereign, James I.20 Even in this early decision, Wingfield revealed his worthiness to lead such an adventure as woefully inadequate. The site was low, swampy, and wet. The water supply was brackish and stagnant. The area was infested with mosquitoes and ticks, and the soil was unsuitable for cultivation, being too thin, too salty, and too acidic to grow much of anything successfully except scrubs and marsh grasses. The only benefits the site offered was a deep water landing for the temporarily moored ships and an excellent view of vessels approaching from the Chesapeake and from upriver. At least in this regard the site offered a reasonably good defensive position.21
The orders from the Virginia Company complicated the politics of the new colony. John Smith’s name appeared second on the list of seven councilors appointed to govern the infant colony, just after that of Bartholemew Gosnold, Wingfield’s cousin, and also a mover and shaker in the financing of the Virginia Company expedition. Wingfield, a man of social and financial consequence, determined immediately to hate and distrust John Smith. He made the unilateral decision to exclude Smith from the crew of counselors who would govern Jamestown, going against the explicit instructions from the Virginia Company. Unfortunately for Wingfield, democracy was already beginning to flower in the nascent colony. The colonists steadfastly demanded Smith be freed from his arrest and restored to the governing council. The colonists won the day, much to the chagrin of Wingfield, Newport, and a host of lace-cuffed “gentlemen” who desperately wanted to put the brash, low-born soldier in his place.22
It’s not my goal here to recount the entire history of the Jamestown settlement. What is important to know is that Wingfieled failed miserably as a leader and was sent back to London in short order to answer for his mismanagement. Wingfield’s cousin, Gosnold died within three months of landing in Virginia, and so shortly John Smith was made president of the colony. With the colony on the brink of collapse, John Smith whipped the place into shape and saved the entire venture. He saved the colonists from starvation and eradication at the hands of the natives. He didn’t make a lot of friends, however. The “gentlemen” especially, grew to resent him because he enforced a “No work, no food” law which required every man to pull his own weight – or starve.23 Under Smith there was no deference given to social rank or political connection. Even the effete, lace-cuffed gentlemen were required to cut and split wood, raise and repair buildings, plow fields, cook and clean, and tend to all the necessary chores required to keep the colony afloat. It’s not surprising to learn that after the imposition of the “No work, no food” rule, the overall health of the colonists improved remarkably.
At Smith’s right hand throughout the early drama of the colony, throughout the intrigue and death-defying exploits amongst the native Indians – along with a few other hand-selected followers – was “Master Beheathland.” Robert Beheathland proved himself as a bodyguard and a skilled soldier on several occasions when the natives attempted to double-cross Smith and his companions. Beheathland’s name appears glowingly in the written accounts penned by Smith in reports to the Virginia Company, as well as in later recounting of his exploits in Virginia.24
Of the 105 or so original colonists, most never intended to stay in Virginia. The greatest number of the “gentlemen” believed they would come to the colony, discover piles of gold lying on top of the ground, make a fortune and return to England fabulously wealthy. In fact, of the few men who actually made it back to England, most returned broke, sick, disgruntled, and telling anyone who would listen what an absolute catastrophe the place was. Those survivors were the lucky ones. Of the original 105 or so men who arrived at Jamestown in 1607, only 37 remained alive after the first year. The rest were leveled by disease, execution, murder, accidental death, hunger – and some were killed by the natives.25
Researchers have spent years pouring over the statistics and reports of this early settlement. They have discovered that the 15 to 20 men who spent weeks and months exploring the inland with John Smith, spending time with the natives and even dealing with violent attacks and weeks of sleeping outside, survived at a much higher rate than the men who remained safely ensconced inside the palisades at Jamestown. Historians now believe Captain Smith and his men’s higher rate of survival is due to a healthier setting, fresh food, clean water, and exercise. The men who remained at Jamestown were prisoners to an infected and violent environment.26 Robert Beheathland was always with Smith.27 This simple fact helped him live.
In Smith’s company, he learned invaluable lessons of survival that would pay off in the months and even decades to come. He learned how to trade according to native Indian custom. He learned how and what to plant in order to eat year-round and what could be collected wild in the forest. He learned at least the rudiments of the native language and native customs. He learned how to maneuver outdoors in an inhospitable environment. He learned how to work hard, how to navigate the waterways and travel quickly and quietly over land, and how to sleep with one eye open. In essence, he learned how to live – while most of his peers at Jamestown only learned how to die in competitively spectacular and tragic ways.
At Jamestown they died from malaria, bowel infections, and starvation. They died by the gallows, blade and bullet execution. They died at the hands of their fellow colonists in blinding fits of frustrated rage, and in some cases – the worst of all during “The Starving Times” – they were eaten by their compatriots. Jamestown was a horrible place. It’s no wonder that Captain John Smith and his loyal band stayed as far away from the fort for as long as they could. The native Indians, no matter how strange, were not as barbaric or desperate as their fellow Englishmen.28
Gradually things did improve for the colony. Additional supply ships arrived, bringing victuals, tools, and eventually fresh colonists who were better suited to building a community in the wilderness. Among them were carpenters and blacksmiths, foresters and farmers, men that Captain John Smith approved of and saw real value in. Some women even began to arrive and this brought stability and a measure of civilization to the community. It’s recorded in the early Jamestown history that Robert Beheathland married a woman named Mary Nicholson. Since Robert was quite young when he first ventured to Virginia, it’s unlikely he was married prior to his journey. It’s far more likely that Mary ventured to Virginia only after Robert survived the first two or three most difficult years of the experiment. It’s certain she did not come to Jamestown prior to 1608, as this is the first supply of colonists to include any women. We know very little of Mary except that she was believed to also be from St. Endellion, Cornwall. It’s fairly certain that Robert knew Mary prior to his adventure. It’s possible that they were as close kin as cousins.
Mary Nicholson must have been made of as tough a substance as her husband Robert. In Virginia she gave her husband at least three children who survived into adulthood. These include Mary, John, and Dorothy. Dorothy married Randall Crewe (c.1604 – c.1630), of Cheshire England,29 from whom our direct line descends.
In 1620 Robert Beheathland returned to England as a representative of his fellow colonists for the purpose of petitioning the Royal Council of England for a qualified governor for the colony in Virginia. In 1639, Robert and Mary’s son, John, made the voyage from Virginia to Cornwall, in order to sue Ursula Beheathland (John’s aunt by marriage to Anthony Beheathland, Robert’s brother, John’s uncle) for John’s portion of his grandfather, Richard Beheathland’s estate. He won in court (£80), but John died en route back to Virginia before he could reunite with his family.
Can you imagine traveling across an ocean for £80? Risking your life for it, as John did? In the 17th century £80 would have been worth about $23,000 today.30 While we may not risk life and limb for $23,000, we might think seriously about it. In colonial Virginia £80 would buy an awful lot of land, tobacco seed, and labor to work it all into a profitable crop.
We know that Robert Beheathland was deceased by 1628, when his widow Mary’s name appeared in court records in regard to land she inherited. In this record, she is shown remarried to a Lieutenant Tomas Flint of Elizabeth City. In subsequent court records, her daughter Dorothy’s name appears in tandem with her husband, Randall Crewe. From Randall and Dorothy, as the 17th century gave way to the 18th, a vigorous and successful family line filled Southside Virginia and the northern border counties of central and eastern North Carolina with innumerable descendants bearing the surnames Crew, Crewe, and Crews. Most of these early descendants became farmers. More than a few climbed swiftly into the gentry class, building wealth and social status by acquiring large tracks of land, buying and selling slaves, and growing tobacco for export into an insatiable European market.
Robert Beheathland is designated an “Original Planter” of the Jamestown Colony. His descendants can claim ancestry from one of the very first European families of this nation. Of the 105 or so colonists to land and stake claim to Virginia soil in 1607, it appears that only Beheathland lived long enough to have descendants who survived into the modern era.31 Robert Beheathland lived through a period of upheaval and conflict that we cannot comprehend. He persevered when all others around him either perished or fled. He found a way to succeed in a world racked by betrayal, failure, war, and incomprehensible suffering and loss. The fact that Robert Beheathland not only survived but thrived is something we can all – as his living legacy – take a great deal of pride in. We descend from remarkably resilient stuff – a particularly American flavor of ancient nobility.
Notes & Footnotes
1. The Jamestowne Society. “Washington & Northern Virginia Company – Biographies of Ancestors of Members – Robert Behe(a)thland.” Last modified, November 2003. http://www.jamestowne-wash-nova.org/RobertBeheathland.htm.
2. For a precisely detailed, incredibly well-researched picture of the everyday person’s life in Tudor England, consult, Picard, Liza. Elizabeth’s London – Everyday Life in Elizabethan London. (St. Martin’s Press, 2004.)
3. Picard, Elizabeth’s London – Everyday Life in Elizabethan London. Chapters14 and 15.
4.For an accessible examination of the high-level political intrigues of the Tudor and Jacobean eras, consult the following three volumes:
Jardine, Lisa and Alan Stewart. Hostage to Fortune – The Troubled life of Francis Bacon. (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1998.)
Cooper, John. The Queen’s Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England. (Pegasus, 2013.)
Budiansky, Stephan. Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage. (Plume, 2006.)
5. Trevelyan, Raleigh. Sir Walter Raleigh: Being a True and Vivid Account of the Life and Times of the Explorer, Soldier, Scholar, Poet, and Courtier – The Controversial Hero of the Elizabethan Age. (Macmillan, 2002.)
6. Stone, Lawrence. “The Residential Development of the West End of London in the Seventeenth Century,” in After the Reformation: Essays in Honor of J. H. Hexter, ed., Barbara C. Malament and Jack H. Hexter. (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1980)
7. Historic Royal Palaces. “Death,” by Dr. Peter Marshall. Accessed June 22, 2014. http://www.hrp.org.uk/Resources/Peter%20MarshallFINAL.pdf
8. Platt, Colin. King Death – The Black Death and Its Aftermath in Late Medieval England. (Toronto: University Press, 1997; first published 1996.)
9. Leasor, James. The Plague and the Fire. (London: House of Stratus, 2001.)
10. Keslo, Dr. William. Jamestown, the Buried Truth. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.)
11. Richard Hakluyt, “A Discourse Concerning Western Planting Written in the Year 1584,” in Maine Historical Society Collections, ed., Charles Deane (Maine: Maine Historical Society, 1831.)
12. Rabb, Theodore. Enterprise and Empire: Merchant and Gentry Investment in the Expansion of England, 1575-1630. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.)
13. Smith, Captain John. Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America, ed., James P. Horn (Library of America, 2007.)
14. “Virginia Gleanings in England”, in The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 11, (Baltimore, Maryland: The Genealogical Publishing Company, 1980.) 657. (Originally published in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, 1904.)
15. Smith, Captain John. A General Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles, with the Names of the Adventurers, Planters, and Governours, from their first beginning, An. 1584 to this present 1624. (Murfreesboro, NC: Johnson Publishing Company, facsimile reprint, c. 1980.) 41 – 42.
16. Smith, Writings with Other Narratives.
17. Hakluyt, “A Discourse Concerning Western Planting Written in the Year 1584,” in Maine Historical Society Collections.
18. Philip Barbour, ed., The Jamestown Voyages Under the First Charter, 1606-1609, (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press,1969.)
19. Barbour, The Jamestowne Voyages.
20. Barbour, The Jamestowne Voyages.
21. Barbour, The Jamestowne Voyages.
22. Barbour, The Jamestowne Voyages.
23. Barbour, The Jamestowne Voyages.
24. Smith, A General Historie of Virginia.
25. Barbour, The Jamestowne Voyages.
26. Keslo, Jamestown, the Buried Truth.
27. Smith, A General Historie of Virginia.
28. Keslo, Jamestown, the Buried Truth.
29. Hotten, John Camden, ed., “The Original Lists of Persons of Quality; Emigrants; Religious Exiles; Political Rebels; Serving Men Sold for a Term of Years; Apprentices; Children Stolen; Maidens Pressed; and Others Who Went From Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600 – 1700. With Their Ages, the Localities Where They Formerly Lived in the Mother Country, the Names of the Ships in Which They Embarked, and Other Interesting Particulars,” from Manuscripts Preserved in the State Papers Department of Her Majesty’s Public Record Office, England. (New York: Reprinted by Empire State Book. Originally printed in London, 1874.)
Quoted from text: “Servant’s – Randall Crew aged 20 yeres in the Charles 1621.”
30. To arrive at the rough figure of $23,000.00, I used a publicly available inflation rate calculator available at: http://www.whatsthecost.com/cpi.aspx. This tool only allows historical inflation rates to be calculated from data going back to 1751, therefore it is to be presumed that the actual value of the original £80 was actually worth even more than £13,453.51 in today’s money. After resolving a general increase from inflation, I applied the daily (06/22/2014) conversion rate (1 to 1.70) for BPS to USD, thus arriving at $22,870.96.
31. Thorndale, William. “William Spencer and the Whiting Family of Earliest Virginia” in The Virginia Geneolgist, Vol. 36, No. 4, October – December 1992. (Falmouth, VA: John Frederick Dorman, 1992) 289.
Summary of article: Until recently it was believed that one other original Jamestown colonist – William Spence(r) – also survived to marry and have descendants. There is a great deal of debate raging among historians, archeologists, and genealogists as to whether Spence’s descendants actually survived. Initially William Spence (no “r”), who arrived on the Susan Constant in 1607, was confused with William Spencer, who arrived aboard the Sarah in 1611. Spencer’s family has survived – that is not in question. However, he is not considered an “Original Planter”. It appears now that William Spence (no “r”, who arrived on the Susan Constant in 1607) and his wife were killed by natives during the Anglo-Powhatan war. Their 3 year-old daughter Sarah was left an orphan with no further indication of her survival past the single court record appointing a guardian for her in 1624. Given this new information it appears that only Beheathland’s descendants can, with any certainty, claim “first family” status.