The Island Connection

By Carolyn L. Barkley

I began writing articles for this blog in January 2008 and it’s hard to imagine that almost 130 articles have been posted between then and now. In that inaugural article I discussed the small world of the 1600s and mentioned how Stephen Hopkins, a passenger on the ill-fated Sea Venture, en route to Virginia with much needed supplies, was shipwrecked off Bermuda in 1609. Hopkins, although he finally arrived in Jamestown in 1610, returned to England two years later, and was a passenger on the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth in 1620.

I did not think about this Virginia/Bermuda connection until May of this year when my husband and I took our first cruise, choosing Bermuda as our destination. On the last day of our stay in Hamilton, I (of course) sought out the local bookstore and, while I found very few genealogical titles, I did buy Lorri Glover and Daniel Blake Smith’s The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown: the Sea Venture Castaways and the Fate of America (Henry Holt, 2008). The title reminded me of my first blog article and prompted me to want to learn more about this island connection.

James VI of Scotland and I of England issued three sets of letters patent (1606, 1609, and 1612) for exploration and settlement of the eastern cost of North America in order to prevent or reduce Spanish, Dutch,  and French colonization efforts. The first charter (10 April 1606) specifically mentioned the names of Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Somers and resulted in the establishment of Jamestown. The second charter (23 May 23 1609) added merchants to the earlier group of investors. These merchants were interested in keeping Atlantic shipping lanes free from a Spanish/Portuguese monopoly.

It was under this second patent that Sir George Somers was named Admiral of the Virginia Company’s nine-vessel third supply relief fleet (the Diamond, the Blessing, the Falcon, the Unitie, the Lion, the Swallow, the Catch, and the Sea Venture) that sailed from London, with a stop at Plymouth for supplies and additional settlers for Jamestown. Somers’ ship was the newly-built Sea Venture. The ships had reached the Azores by late July 1609 when on the 25th, a strong hurricane struck, lasting for several days. The ships of the fleet were separated, and the Sea Venture was blown hundreds of miles off course. Miraculously, it wrecked on the reefs of modern-day Bermuda’s Discovery Bay and those aboard gained the shore with no loss of life. Among these individuals was not only Sir George Somers, but also Governor-Elect of the Virginia Colony, Sir Thomas Gates, Christopher Newport, and John Rolfe. They named the island “Virgineola,” in honor of the former Queen, Elizabeth I. Later, the King, perhaps not too well-disposed toward the Queen responsible for his mother’s execution, sought a more fitting name. In honor of the bravery and leadership of Sir George Somers, the islands became known as Somers Isles. Word of their safe landing would not be known immediately, although seven of the original nine vessels would reach Virginia in August of 1609. The story  of the perilous voyage of the Sea Venture would later provide Shakespeare with the basis for his play, The Tempest.

Stranded on the Somers Isles, the passengers, over the next ten months, set about insuring their ability to reach Jamestown. William Strachey’s diary recorded the details of their lives while they built the thirty-ton Patience and the eighty-ton Deliverance, using pieces salvaged from the Sea Venture as well as local cedar. They also built St. Peter’s Church in St. George’s Parish. Finally in May 1610, 142 survivors sailed from Bermuda headed for Jamestown, with several individuals volunteering to stay behind. Their arrival there, after a ten day voyage, was fortuitous for the Jamestown settlers whose numbers had been reduced to a mere sixty (down from 490) individuals due in large part to sickness and famine. The settlers had decided to abandon the colony, but the supplies that arrived on Somers’ ships meant that the settlement could continue to survive, at least temporarily. Some of the food brought from Bermuda was new to Virginia and included hogs as well as the first onion fig, and olive plants. In any case, the Jamestown colony was saved by the arrival of the Patience and the Deliverance.

Jamestown’s viability was not assured and in June, just one month later, with food again running short, settlers once again decided to abandon Jamestown. As they were leaving, however, they met ships, under the command of Lord de la Ware, bringing supplies enough for at least another month. Somers volunteered to return to Bermuda to collect additional food and fish. He arrived safely, but died on           9 November 1610. He left instructions for his nephew to remove his heart and bury it in Bermuda and to then return his body to Virginia. Instead, after burying his uncle’s heart as requested, he returned the body to Somers’s birthplace of Lyme Regis, Dorset, where he was buried in 1611.

King James’ third charter (25 March 1612) extended the boundaries of Virginia to include “the bermoodies.” The islands that make up Bermuda today, while retaining the Somers Isles as their alternate name, would later be named after the Spanish captain, Juan de Bermudez, who first sighted them in 1503.

Although Bermuda became a British colony in 1684, it would continue to play an important role in United States history. During the American Revolution, the islands, dependent on food from the American colonies, fell under the Continental Congress’s embargo on trade with Britain and its loyal colonies. To insure that they were able to continue receiving their food shipments, a group of Bermuda citizens stole gunpowder and sold it to the Americans and, as a result, the embargo was lifted. During the Civil War, Bermudians ferried supplies and munitions to the Confederates, often providing “safe harbors” for blockade runners. In early 1940, the United States leased a large portion of the island in order to construct military installations. This relationship would continue until the mid-1990s, when both America and the British closed their bases on the islands.

In addition to The Shipwreck That Saved Jamestown, mentioned earlier, Julia E. Mercer’s Bermuda Settlers of the 17th Century: Genealogical Notes from Bermuda (1982, Clearfield, 2008) helps illustrate the island’s connection to America. These notes were originally published in Tyler’s Quarterly between 1942 and 1947, and represent the earliest known records of Bermuda settlers. As such they are a useful supplement to Hotten’s Original Lists of Persons of Quality (1874, Clearfield, 2007) and Martha W. McCartney’s more recent Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary.

A variety of other sources will assist you in researching Bermuda genealogy:

Bermuda Index, 1784-1914, an Index of Births, Marriages and Deaths as Recorded in Bermuda Newspapers by C. F. E. Hollis Hallett (Juniperhill Press, 1989).

Bermuda Past and Present: A Descriptive and Historical Account of the Somers Islands by Walter Brownell Hayward, (Dodd, Mead, 1912).

Civil Records of Bermuda under the Somers Island Company 1612-1684 by A. C. Hollis Hallett (Juniperhill Press, 2004-5).

Early Bermuda Records, 1619-1826: A Guide to the Parish and Clergy Registers… by A. C. Hollis Hallett (Juniperhill Press, 1991).

Early Bermuda Wills, 1629-1835 by C. F. E. Hollis Hallett (1993, out of print).

Nineteenth Century Church Registers of Bermuda by A. C. Hollis Hallett (Juniperhill Press, 2005).

Nineteenth Century Bermuda Wills, 1835-1913 by C. F. E. Hollis Hallett (Juniperhill Press, 1993).

Sea Venture: Shipwreck, Survival, and the Salvation of the First English Colony in the New World by Kieran Doherty (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008).

Online sources:

In addition to the Bermuda connection, you may also want to research connections to the Bahamas and Barbados in the following:

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