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Letter from Francis Perkins in Jamestown to a Friend in England (March 28, 1608)

In this letter dated March 28, 1608, Francis Perkins (also Perkin) recounts to a friend in England his voyage to Jamestown, the hardships of a particularly cold winter, and a fire on January 7 that raged through the settlement.

Transcription from Original

Illustrious Sir.

After my due commendations to you, with thanks for the many kindnesses you have done me and trouble you have gone to for me, which I am able to repay only with prayers to God (and I want to serve you in any way I can), I am so bold as to beg you once more for a favour at this present moment, although you have just cause to forsake me, since when I left I did not say good-bye to so good a friend as you have always been to me. But the hope I have of your customary kindness will [I trust] excuse me this time, for this fault occurred only because I was afraid that something would interfere with this voyage, which I so much wanted to make. I will not fail to make amends, for if I do not look to you to help me and try to make peace with my Lady and obtain in my absence what I explained to you before I left, all the more since I had time to present the matter in person, [otherwise] the whole affair will result in serious detriment and damage to me. But, completely trusting in your usual kindness, I beg you to be so good as to approach Sir William Waad, Sir Thomas Smythe, Sir Walter Cope, Sir Thomas Chaloner, Sir George More and others [concerned], to have me appointed one of the council here in Virginia, not only as an honour to me, but also to enable me to better pay my debts. There are members of the council who understand affairs of state no better than I do, and whom I equal in business [affairs]. It would be a pleasure to see so many competent and intelligent [men] come from our country that I should not deserve to appear among them.

With regard to our trip over and my opinion of the country, I will inform you the best I can. We left Gravesend Thursday the eighth of October, 1607. We arrived at Plymouth the following Thursday, where we stayed until Monday, and since the wind was not favourable we had to put in at Falmouth, where we rode out a great storm until Friday, after which we continued our voyage, [and] in five weeks and two days we arrived at the island of Santo Domingo, which is in the West Indies, and we spent the whole day there trading with the savages, who came on board naked bringing us potatoes, bananas, pineapples (which are a very delicious fruit), bread they call "casadra" made of certain roots, parrots, cocks and hens, linen, and other things which they gave us in exchange for iron hatchets, saws, knives, rosaries, little bells, and other similar trifles which they esteem very highly and are of great worth to those who take them along on similar voyages. And so skirting the other islands in that region for that whole week we came near the island of San Juan on the north side, and on Sunday, two weeks later, we sighted America. The following Thursday the ship which accompanied us, called the Phoenix, lost us in a dense fog which came up when we were not more than ten or twelve leagues from the entrance to the port, and we have had no further news of it since,[sic] That ship brought about forty men who were to stay here with us.

The ship called the John and Francis, with Captain Christopher Newport, arrived at Jamestown on the second of January. The river is very fair and wide, but full of shoals and oyster-banks. The land [is] low-lying and forested right down to the coast. We had warm weather all the time. Afterwards it go so very cold and the frost was so sharp that I and many others suffered frozen feet. A month after this, we went to a region where there was a great deal of frost and snow. The neighbouring region had a great abundance of wild swans, herons and cranes, geese, wild ducks, mallards and many other birds, as long as winter lasts, with the prettiest parrots there are. The cold was so intense that one night the river at our fort froze almost all the way across, although at that point it is as wide again as the one in London. The ice in the river froze some fish which, when we took them out after the ice was melted, were very good, and so plump that they could be fried in their own fat, without anything added.

After we disembarked, which was on Monday, the following Thursday there was a fire that spread so that all the houses in the fort were burned down, including the storehouse for munition and supplies, leaving only three [unburned]. Everything my son and I had was burned, except a mattress which had not yet been taken off the ship. Thanks to God, we are at peace with all the inhabitants of the surrounding country, trading for corn and supplies. They value very highly indeed [our] reddish copper. Their great Emperor, or Werowance, which is the name of their kings, has sent some of his people to show us how to plant the native wheat [corn], and to make some gear such as they use to go fishing, and surely for all we can guess it is very probable that the land will prove very fertile and good, and extensive enough to accommodate a million people. What we are doing most just now is clearing the forests, for the wheat [corn] sprouts in great quantity.

I have sent to my Lady your wife a pair of turtle-doves, others to my Lady Catherine, and others to Sir William Cornwallis, hoping that when our [ships] make another trip I will have better things to send you. I am sending an ear of the native wheat [corn], with two pots of our ordinary earth, and two more to m Lady Catherine, and more to Sir William the elder.

There are many little animals here with skins of fine fur. If I come across any I will send them for you and your friends to see. There is an abundance of [fresh] fodder for any kind of live stock, especially pigs and goats, even if there were a million of them. There is also around the fort, where we have cleared away the trees, a very great quantity of strawberries and other tasty herbs, and, sir, considering that this misfortune of the fire has caused a general lack of everything among us, especially to me, who have suffered a great deal these last years—so much a lack that I do not have even paper and ink with which to write our friends. I beg you to see that my Lady Catherine does not get angry with me, but that, with the usual nobility of her heart and the affection in which she has been pleased to hold me in the past, she will find a way, jointly with you and Sir William Cornwallis, to recommend as urgently as possible my petition, especially with Sir William Smith, since he more than anyone else carries weight in matters of this sort de este estado. Begging at the same time my Lady Catherine to be so kind as to get Sir William Cornwallis to send me ten pounds worth of discarded clothing, be it apparel, underwear, doublet, breeches, mantle, hose, or whatever he likes, for we need everything because the fire burned all we had, and anything will be of use to us. Beg my Lady Catherine also for me to approach Sir William San[dy]s in like manner, for I swear to repay them the value of anything they send me, with the duty of acknowledging that it is by her kindness and that of those gentlemen [caballeros, knights] that I and mine live, and if this is not enough to supply the needs of many, may my Lady and those gentlemen [señores] do me the kindness at least of granting to me and my son, out of their generosity, such of their things as are of little use to them, but of great value to me. I beg you not to be angry with me for this liberty and boldness, but that you remember me, out of your goodness, for I am so far and so separated from my friends, and do me also the favour to grant reasonable kindnesses to my wife if she should have occasion to appeal to you. Begging you to inform my Lady Catherine of the contents of this letter, and if you like to read all of it [to her], and at the same time recommending me most humbly to her, and to those gentlemen, in whose kindness and favour all of my trust is placed, I beg our Lord to guard all of you, this 28 of March, 1608.

Your servant while he lives,

Francis Perkin. From Jamestown

in Virginia.

I am sending to my Lady Catherine and to my Lady your wife, to each of them six pounds of sassafras to use in medicines, or between linens. It used to be worth forty reales the pound not long ago, and is no less efficacious now than then. I shall not fail to send my Lady Catherine, you, and Sir William Cornwallis some trees, fruit, herbs, flowers, and other new things produced by this land, begging you in the meantime to receive what I can now send in the spirit in which I offer it.