Willem Van De Velde II “Three Ships in a Gale” 1673
Wikimedia commons, Public Domain
It was clear to leadership on both sides of the Atlantic that Plymouth Colony’s continued survival relied on regular support from England. The Merchant Adventurers developed plans for sending ships, either built specifically for the colony or hired to carry provisions, equipment, and more settlers to the colony to capitalize on the labor, expense and human lives already expended on its founding. Bradford saw first-hand, the importance of provisions and healthy, virtuous settlers arriving regularly to shore up the tenuous toe hold the colony had established. Sailing ships were the vital link.
In 1621, when Mayflower returned with news the colonist had settled in Plymouth, outside their previous permitted location, (the mouth of the Hudson River) John Pierce, one of the Merchant Adventurers went about the task of acquiring a new patent from the Council of New England. After a series of negotiations and some shady dealing on Pierce’s part, the patent was granted. Paragon a ship of some age was then engaged to carry sixty-seven passengers and at least thirty-eight tons of goods to Plymouth. The voyage did not go well.
Paragon left London October 16, 1622 but began to leak before it even left the Thames. Despite the leak they continued sailing as far as the Downs on the southeast coast where in rising winds they attempted to anchor in shelter to ride out the storm. Despite this precaution the ship suffered enough that they decided to return to London where they found it would cost £100 and six to seven weeks of time to repair the damage.
While in London, attempting to offset the unforeseen extra expenses Pierce took on more passengers. On January 1st Paragon departed London with 109 passengers. The second, mid-winter attempt to cross the Atlantic reads like a hair-raising nautical nightmare:
It was the middle of February that the storm began, and it continued for the most part of fourteen days, but for two or three days and nights together in the most violent extremity: at the beginning of the storm, their boat being above-decks, was thrown overboard: they spent their main-mast, their round-house was beaten off with the storm, and all the upper works of their ship: he that stood to give direction, for the guiding of her before the sea, was made fast, to prevent his washing over-board, and the sea did so over-rake them, as that many times those upon the deck, knew not whether they were within-board or without, and by her extreme leaking, being a very rotten ship, and the storm increasing, she was once very near foundering in the sea, as they thought she would never rise again: Notwithstanding the Lord was pleased of his great mercy to preserve them; and after great weather-beating and extraordinary danger, they arrived safe at Portsmouth in Hampshire; to the wonderment of all that beheld in what condition they were, and heard what they had endured.
Paragon stayed in Portsmouth while Pierce found himself entangled in legal proceedings with the other Merchant Adventurers related to his shady dealings while acquiring the patent for Plymouth Colony. Likely, Paragonwas scrapped and any timbers from the battered hull that survived the horrific winter storm were sold off at a huge loss.
The Merchant Adventurers had not been idle while Pierce made his attempts to cross the Atlantic with Paragon. It was clear the colonists at Plymouth needed a vessel based in the colony that could carry out trading voyages, be used for fishing, and generally provide transportation all aimed at improving the economic and actual health of the colonist which in turn would enrich the Merchant Adventurers. Toward that end, they had a vessel built specifically for the colony. Nathaniel Morton referred to the ship as the James, others recorded the ship as Little James, and Bradford only wrote of “the pinnace, a fine new vessel, built to stay in the country.”
Following the blueprint of a smaller vessel keeping in company with a larger oneto safely make the Atlantic crossing, (think: Mayflower and Speedwell) The Little James, 44 tuns burden, sailed with the much larger vessel Anne, 140 tuns. Both carried passengers only the Little James had crew bent on mischief.
The ship’s Master was John Bridges, he was responsible for sailing the ship, navigating and running the day-to-day operations aboard. The “Captain” was Emanuel Altham, a wealthy individual, who because he was the younger son of a well-to-do family and not likely to inherit any of their wealth he chose to make his own way in the world. As the captain he had control of military and mercantile affairs. Altham had acquired a “letter of Marque,” that is, written permission from the crown permitting his ship to take foreign vessels for profit. The crew of the Little Jameswas given the expectations they would make their fortunes as legal pirates. In reality they worked for only a small percentage of the profits of the voyage, to be paid at the successful conclusion of the voyage.
Master Bridges, in a letter to James Sherly after they arrived in Plymouth complained that, “no man shall make me venture to sea again with the men upon the same conditions for they care not which end went forwards.”
The following is a brief chronology of the brief but eventful life of the Little James:
April 26th – Little James leaves Portsmouth with 40 passengers
- Fogged in for 7 days in channel off of Cowes, on Isle of Wight (10 miles from Portsmouth)
- Took on more victuals at Cowes especially beer.
- 400 leagues off Land’s End chased after French ship looking for news. Took some fish from them but did not seize the ship. (Start of grumbling by crew).
- Trouble with the stores throughout the voyage. Jenney, part owner of the ship and responsible for the stores, spent much of his time taking care of his very pregnant wife.
- Mistress Jenney gave birth to a son a month before the ship arrived in Plymouth.
- Fog bound off the coast of Maine. They spent time fishing at Pemaquid on the Maine coast.
August 5th – Little James arrives in Plymouth, after a 102-day voyage.
There were mixed emotions on the arrival of the Little James at Plymouth. The crew complained continually that they were cozened into this voyage under false pretenses and refused to obey either Bridges or Altham. Bradford steps in a promises wages to the crew for their labor. Some of the passengers were distraught at the conditions in Plymouth. Bradford noted, “some wished themselves in England again; other some pitying the distress they saw their friends had been long in, and still were under. In a word, all were full of sadness.”
September 11th – Little James sails for the Narragansetts on a trading voyage for corn and skins but they had limited success due to inferior trade goods.
- Returning to Plymouth from Narragansetts, in a storm the ship nearly runs onto Brown’s Island, off the Long Beach peninsula protecting Plymouth. The crew must cut away the mast and rigging to save the ship.
Men from Francisco de Orellana’s expedition building a small brigantine, the “San Pedro”, to be used for searching for food. 1541
March – With a new mast and rigging they sail for Damariscove on a fishing voyage.
– They catch 10,000 fish upon their arrival in Maine.
April 10th – Another storm occurs, driving the Little James up onto the rocks at the harbor at Damariscove, bashing a whole in the ship big enough for a “horse and cart” to drive through. Little James sinks in the harbor. Bridges, and crewmembers John Vow, and Peter Morrett drown.
- Carpenters attach large barrels to the ship, float it to shore to repair the damaged ship.
August 22nd – Little James departs Plymouth for England.
- The ship is seized by two of the Adventures for debt of £250 upon its return to England.
Spring – Little James left England again for Plymouth this time
in company with White Angel.
- They have a successful fishing voyage and depart for England again in company with White Angel.
- The ships enjoy a fair-weather passage across the ocean, the Little James being towed all the way.
- In sight of Plymouth, (England) Little James casts off its towline but is taken by Turkish pirates, the master and men are sold into slavery, and the cargo sold in French, Morocco. Little James sails out of the historical record.
The story of these two ships illustrates not only how dangerous sea travel was early in 17th century but also how fortunate the Pilgrims actually were in their crossing aboard Mayflower. When a decision was made to board a ship and take a chance on an Atlantic crossing, the outcome could not always be counted on to be poisitive.
Frans Huys engraving, 1565
A Dutch Hulk and a Boeier
 Morton, Nathanial, New England’s Memorial, Andesite Press, Scholar Select, Pg. 61-62.
 Bradford, William, Of Plymouth Plantation, ed. by Samuel Eliot Morison. Knopf, New York. Pg. 127.
 Three Visitors to Early Plymouth, ed. by Sydney V. James, Jr. Plimoth Plantation Press, 1963. Pg. 21
 Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, Vol XLIV Pg178
 Bradford, Pg. 130.