The Richmond History Podcast

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

An Unneeded Ominous Omen in Jamestown.

Halley's Comet at Dawn, Elizabeth Shippen Green Elliot, from the LOC

It's mind blowing to imagine anyone willingly getting on the Discovery, the Godspeed or the Susan Constant, the three boats that took settlers to Jamestown in 1607.1  Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the America's was not the first attempt.  Most famously Sir Walter Raleigh took folks to today's Roanoke Island, North Carolina in 1584.2  It was such a failure that today it is better know as the "Lost Colony".  Raleigh left for England and when he returned, the only sign of the settlers was the word "Croatoan" carved into a tree.   This story must have been a terrifying reminder of the danger to come in Jamestown.  Other then leaving a great/terrifying story, Raleigh left the continent of North America a new name, "Virginia".2
Even if you were one of the 101 men and 4 boys who survived (45 died)3 the almost five month voyage across the ocean1 to what is now Virginia, your hopes would include survival, adventure, and the outside chance of fortune, with adventure being the only likely result.  Since the 1570's many merchants’ fortunes had sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic2 (I assume with the merchants), or they were lost to the Spanish or the Natives.2
All of this considered, the last thing these men needed was an ominous sign from God, but that is what they got.  May 13, 1607 the just over 100 settlers got out of their boats and began to clear land and build a fort.4  On the 14th a bright light moved across the sky.1
A terrifying sign from God (as most would have interpreted it), that the trip was a mistake.  We now know this light as Haley's Comet, but at that time comets were thought to be a prediction of anything from floods to war to financial ruin,5 all things the colonist must have been expecting anyways…with good reason.

FYI: If you are planning an adventure with 17th century knowledge of the sky, don't plan it for 2063.  That is the next time Halley's comet will return.6

2. A Savage Kingdom, Benjamin Woolley


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