Three ships and a New World

Thirteen years before the Pilgrims, English colonists set sail to find gold. They founded Virginia.

Imagine sailing through tropical Caribbean islands to a land thought to be full of gold and untouched by other humans. Don't get your hopes too high – there won't be any kayaking or snorkeling stops on this voyage. Were you thinking this was going to be a family vacation? Sorry, no women allowed.

Instead, this journey in the tumultuous waters of the Atlantic Ocean promises a rare adventure. Take yourself back 400 years when three ships – the Susan Constant, the Discovery, and the Godspeed – set sail from England in December 1606 for the New World.

Thirteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in what later became Massachusetts, these three ships brought settlers who established America's first permanent English colony: Jamestown, Va.

The middle-sized ship, the Godspeed, has been reconstructed and is sailing up the East Coast – from Baltimore to Boston – this summer, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the voyage and to preview the celebration taking place next year in Jamestown.

Today's Godspeed crew is doing its best to re-create the feel of the original sail, but there are some things that might not be worth duplicating.

The original 88-foot Godspeed (about two school buses long) carried 52 men and boys (39 passengers and 13 crew members). Both rich and poor signed up to seek their fortunes. Some were sons of earls (British noblemen). Others were tailors and blacksmiths. The Virginia Company of London paid for the all-male expedition in return for what they hoped would be a profit once gold was found.

Aboard the ship, the youngest passengers were responsible for menial tasks such as washing clothes and cleaning the quarters. They took turns sleeping on makeshift mattresses amid the cramped accommodations they shared with cargo, the other passengers, and a few chickens, pigs, and dogs.

"It's just you and your 38 closest friends, who haven't had a bath in 100 days," said Jack Oblein, who gives tours on the reconstructed Godspeed. "It's going to be nasty, and it's going to get funky.... You live, eat, and sleep down below."

To go above deck, the passengers had to be given permission from the sailors. Usually, fresh air was granted for only 45 minutes every four or five days.

What would they eat? Lots and lots of sauerkraut – and not with hot dogs, either. Everything they ate had to be dried, salted, or pickled. Fresh food would have rotted during the long voyage.

So far this trip might not seem very appealing. It's a long and dirty trek, and probably pretty boring – even withanoccasionalrun-in with pirates or a life-threatening thunderstorm.

But keep in mind that although the voyage lasts four months, the dream behind it is that you work a few years in the New World, make a fortune, and never have to work again. Sounds better now, right?

Unfortunately, there wasn't any gold waiting for the men as they sailed up the James River.

More than half of the men died shortlyafterarriving, but eventually more settlers arrived from England, which kept the fragile colony alive.

Although the settlers never discovered gold, in 1613 they found something nearly as profitable at the time: tobacco. John Rolfe, who grew and introduced the new crop to Europe, went on to marry the famous Indian princess Pocahontas, who was later celebrated in books and movies.

Many of the younger English boys in Jamestown decided to live with the natives and ended up playing a vital role as translators between the indigenous tribes and the English settlers.

Although men continued to make up a large majority of Jamestown's population throughout the 17th century, two women did join them in 1608, and 90 more arrived in 1620. Another group of 55 women came to the settlement in 1622.

To this day, both good and bad aspects of American history – the first representative government and the first time Africans were owned as slaves – can be traced back to Jamestown, a historic settlement that many Americans know little about.

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