A Good Place

“Thomas Prater, indentured, arrived Elizabeth Citties 1622.” That item turned up in old family records when I was working on Atkinson history. As I looked further into the research available about this statement, I found that Thomas was a son (a younger son, I’ll bet, though I don’t know) of a well-established, land-holding English family that even could boast a castle—Nunney Castle. The castle, which apparently still stands, was built for Sir John de la Mare, who got rich fighting in France. It was “licensed to crenellate” in 1373.

I had to wonder why Thomas Prater, a young man from those circumstances would indenture himself and put himself into such a perilous setting as early Jamestown. I soon was busily following a fascinating set of facts and attitudes of the Virginia colony in the early 1600’s. These surround the themes of: basic survival, Catholics vs Anglicans, relations among the settlers, the relations of Powhatans (who were Algonquian) with the English settlers and with the Siouan tribes, such as the Monacans, who populated the Piedmont area. And… the roles of servitude–of indenture and of slavery–in the earliest formation of the Virginia colony.

The story primarily takes place on or near John Powell’s land–“Powell’s Hundred”–which we know he had acquired in 1619. Other settings are Jamestown, about twenty miles upriver, the Town of “Elizabeth Cittie,” and the deep woods “above the falls.” “Elizabeth Citties,” a section of land designated for development by the London Company, is now Hampton, Virginia.

It’s believed that John’s first wife, who was probably Margaret Raven, had died in England in 1609, leaving him a three-year-old daughter, Mary. Around the time he received his land grant, in 1619, he married Katherine Burgess, who apparently had recently arrived in Virginia. We also know that John Powell purchased Thomas Prater’s indenture in 1622, that Thomas married Mary Powell in 1627, and that Thomas came from an old English Catholic family.

Those bits and pieces of information are the bases of my story. Historically, it is possible, maybe likely, that they refer to more than one John Powell and Mary Powell, but there’ no way to know.  Developing these snippets into reasonably documented characters and populating the tale with additional fictional characters representative of the time and place is a writer’s dream. And that’s what I’m doing now.

A Good Place will hopefully come out in early Spring 2018.

The Struggle of Jamestown

For in Virginia, a plaine Souldier that can use a Pick-axe and spade, is better than five Knights.”      – John Smith

English settlers’ life in Virginia started out and for decades remained a hazardous undertaking. The painful attempts to establish successful English settlements in the New World—St. John’s in Newfoundland (in the 1570s) and the Roanoke Colony (1587) in what is now North Carolina—for some reason did not deliver useful, practical lessons about establishing and regulating a reliable food supply and trying not to overreact to your discomfort about your native neighbors.

In 1607 the London Company sent 105 men and boys (one of whom died on the journey)to the New World build a colony along the broad river named for King James I. They arrived at the start of May and after a few weeks of exploration chose a peninsula that jutted into the river about 30 miles upstream. There, they built a fort and some houses.

Problems arose predictably (from our perspective):

  • It happened that they chose to establish their site near the center of the approximately 14,000 member 30 tribe Powhatan Confederation. This could only get more complicated over time.
  • The climate was unfamiliar and the depth, density, and expanse of the forests on the shoreline was unsettling for many of them.
  • The Jamestown peninsula was separated from the river shore by a swamp, which made transport of water and venison from the mainland difficult.  Over time, transport of pretty much everything was managed by boat.
  • What had seemed like a good supply of sweet ground water dried up in the summer heat. Many of the settlers became ill from drinking brackish river water.
  • Similarly, game that had subsisted on the limited browsing the peninsula provided was soon used up and meat had to be hunted on the mainland. Starvation was not merely a threat: it was a reality.
  • The Jamestown settlers were mostly not “settlers” at all: most were gentlemen of the upper class, many of whom literally did not know how to do manual work. They hoped to get wealthy by sending home the area’s abundant resources, which they hoped would include gold and jewels. This expectation probably grew out of Spain’s success in what is now Mexico, Central and South America. The Spanish had been active in the New World for a full century before the English and gained considerable wealth from New World resources, especially of gold, silver, and jewels such as emeralds, by exploiting native labor.

And… farming. Even today, with farm machinery, fertilizers, pesticides, and disease resistant seeds, agriculture is hard work and a gamble. The Jamestown settlers, who mostly had not been not farmers before, faced a demoralizing task. They had to literally cut farmland out of the forest, plan and carry out seeding and harvest in an unfamiliar climate. This meant committing themselves to the constant long days of heavy work farming required. With too many gentlemen among them, the settlers were hard pressed to produce food in a useful quantity from the land.

The initial stresses and failures of the early colony are well documented: predominantly starvation, and disease. After a “touch and go” year from 1607-08, in which many colonists died, Captain John Smith became the new colony’s President of the Council. A practical man with years of military and shipboard experience, he established discipline, encouraged farming, managed some peaceful alignment with the Powhatans and famously developed the requirement that no-one who did not work would receive food. Smith inevitably made enemies, though. He was wounded, accidentally or perhaps intentionally, in a gunpowder explosion on the boat where he slept. Smith had to return to England for treatment in October of 1609 and never returned to the colony. His maps and records from Jamestown are among the most valued documents remaining about the early colony and the native tribes.

The Virginia colonists, population, replenished by shiploads from England that offset their losses, persevered and slowly developed into a functional government, starting to achieve some self-sufficiency. The establishment of land grants for settlement, particularly in the four units of land which they called “Citties,” went off to a precarious start, but increasingly provided food crops as well as cash crops of timber, pitch, and tobacco.

Throughout the 1600s, laborers were a constant, critical need. Servitude (mostly indentured in the early times, but over time increasingly enslaved labor) provided the strong backs on which the Virginia colony grew.

It’s in this environment, in a group of rough buildings facing the James River, that A Good Place is set. It’s the story of how John Powell with his new wife Katherine and his daughter Mary, carved a life out of the wilderness. They did it with hard work and with the strength of their servants: an orphaned child of eight, an embittered Puritan prisoner,  eighteen-year-old Thomas Prater, and a nameless, unspeaking Monacan slave from the interior whom they called Isaiah.

The early Virginia colony was flawed and dangerous, a demanding and uncertain place to live. But for at least some of those who lived there, over time it became A Good Place.