A persistent question arising in this park from visitors as well as correspondents is "what happened to the three Jamestown ships?" An attempt to answer this simple but intriguing question has led to the small amount of information available from the limited sources. The individual ship most inquired after is the Discovery, the smallest, which stayed behind in Virginia when the other two, the Susan Constant and the Godspeed, went back to England on a re-supply mission.
The first reference to what may be the Discovery of Jamestown fame is dated 1602. At that time, the East India Company sent out two small vessels, the Discovery under Captain George Waymouth and the Godspeed under Captain John Drew. Their orders were to find a northwest passage to China. It was a non-productive trip with Waymouth blaming the failure on a mutiny by the crew in the latter part of July. The ship returned to Dartmouth on August 5, 1602. The ships' names, along with their descriptions as small ships, could well make them the two smaller Jamestown ships.
There is also a reference in E.K. Chatterton's English Seamen and the Colonization of America to a Discovery of 26 tons with a crew of 13 men and boys. This ship, under the command of Master William Brown, sailed in company with the Speedwell in 1603 for an exploration voyage in the New World. Their course took them by the Azores. June found them in the islands south of Cape Cod working their way down to Long Island Sound. By September, they were back in Bristol with a load of sassafras.
Brown, in his Genesis of the United States, states that these two ships "were the same vessels which returned from Cherry Island, August 15, 1606....It is possible that the Discovery was the Discovery of Pring's voyage to our northern coast in 1603."
The Discovery of our concern is the one of twenty tons burden left behind at Jamestown Colony when the Susan Constant and the Godspeed sailed for England on June 22, 1607. Captain John Smith used this Discovery to trade with the Indians when he was not strong enough to raid them. In a council held on June 13, 1610, "Sir George Summers proposed to lead a two ship expedition to the Bermuda's to obtain a six months provisions for Jamestown." Six days later, Summers, in the Patience (a Bermuda built pinnace of thirty tons) and Captain Argall in the Discovery "fell with the tide" and left Cape Henry astern. Contrary winds separated them and Argall made for Cape Cod, where he fished for several days. With a fairly good catch, Argall made a landfall off the Virginia Capes on June 30, 1610, at 7:00 p.m.
Argall also traded on the Oquicho River in the same year, when he obtained nearly 400 bushels of grain from the King of Patawomeck. The winter of 1610-1611 found Argall, still in command of the Discovery but under the orders of Lord de La Warr, "on a trading voyage up the Potomac where he is said to have found some mines of antimony and lead, and a very profitable trade with the Indians." This seems to be the last definitive trace of our Discovery.
In 1612, however, Sir Thomas Bulton led two ships to explore the Northwest, the Resolution and the Discovery. They spent the winter in the northland and returned to England in the Autumn of 1613. It is doubtful if this is the subject Discovery. Also, in June of 1622, Captain Ralph Hamor was operating in the Potomac in a pinnace of unknown identity in company with the "Barque Elizabeth" which was under command of a Captain Spelman. From 1622 onward, there is frequent mention of ships with the name of Discovery but they are listed as 40 tons or larger. The majority of these references are to a 60 ton Discovery under a Captain Thomas Jones. This ship belonged to the Adventurers of Southampton Hundred.
Robert G.C. Fee, the Naval Architect for the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, in his study for the construction of the full scale replicas of the three Jamestown ships, states that:
This summation seems to be the definitive answer, at least as far as we can now determine, as to "What happened to the three ships?"
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Brown, Alexander. The First Republic in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1898.
The Genesis of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mufflin Company, 1890.
Chatterton, E.K. English Seamen and the Colonization of America. London: Arrowsmith, 1930.
Evans, Cerinda W. Some Notes on Shipbuilding in Colonial Virginia. Williamsburg, VA: Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration Corporation, 1957.
Fee, Robert G.S. Design and Construction of the Jamestown Ships. New York: The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers, 1958.
Kingsbury, Susan Myra (ed.) The Records of the Virginia Company of London: The Court Book, Vol. I, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1906.
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Winsor, Justin. Narrative and Critical History of America, Vol. III. Boston: 1886.
Last updated: February 26, 2015