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A Thirst for High Adventure

If you've studied any about American history before, you may have heard of Jamestown a time or two. For refreshers, it was the first successful English colony in North America and was established in 1607. In the past year, my wife and I have been privileged to visit Historic Jamestowne twice! Previously my wife has written about the Starving Time of 1609-1610, as well as Native American princess Pocahontas on her blog. Now, I'd like to write about Jamestown - but this time focusing on colonist Stephen Hopkins.

I find Hopkins particularly fascinating for two reasons - first, through talking with my grandmother and a few fun evenings' of work on FamilySearch, I discovered that Hopkins is my eleventh great-grandfather! Knowing that I have a personal connection to a colonist at Jamestown makes me even more interested in visiting and learning about this era of American history. Secondly, Stephen Hopkins was the only colonist to settle at both Jamestown and Plymouth! But I'm getting ahead of myself.

While not much is known of Steven Hopkins' early life, records do indicate that he was baptized in Hampshire, England during 1581. He was married by 1604, and five years later signed on to sail to Jamestown aboard the Sea Venture as a minister's clerk (1). Hopkins was accompanied, among others, by incoming Jamestown governor Thomas Gates. The Sea Venture was the flagship that led a resupply mission to the far-off colony (2). Unfortunately, part way through the Atlantic crossing a terrible hurricane hit the flotilla and caused the Sea Venture to crash on Bermuda. The group spent the next nine months building two ships that would carry them to Jamestown. However; the stay was not without incident; Hopkins led a mutiny that promoted return to England rather than continuing on to the New World. He barely escaped with his life - and only at the pleading and begging of the other passengers (3)!

Gates, Hopkins, and the others finally arrived at Jamestown in May of 1610. Only 60 colonists, a third of the original number were at the fort; all others had starved to death. It was a matter of mere weeks before Gates decided that Jamestown would be abandoned and all would sail for England (4). However, while they were yet in the James River, they were met by the incoming Governor of Virginia, Lord De la Warr, who insisted that they stay. De la Warr's reinforcements and provisions enabled Jamestown to rebuild and survive, avoiding the fate that had befallen Roanoke Island thirty years prior (5).

Unfortunately, three years later Hopkins' wife Mary died. After being informed of her death via letter, Stephen Hopkins returned to England in 1614 to care for his children (2). However, Hopkins' desire for both love or high adventure was not diminished. In 1618 he married his second wife, Elizabeth. Two years later, he and his entire family boarded the Mayflower, a ship chartered by the Pilgrims with the purpose of establishing another colony in the New World (6). During the ten-week Atlantic crossing, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, naming him Oceanus (3, 7).

Stephen Hopkins played an important role in the Pilgrim social structure. For instance, he was one of the gentlemen who signed the Mayflower Compact on November 9, 1620 (3). This document was a mutual agreement among the leading males that the establishment of Plymouth would be a process where order and civil conduct were required (8). When the Pilgrims landed and started building their Plymouth settlement, Hopkins' prior New World experience - especially with Native American tribes - was particularly appreciated. Hopkins was the point person when Wampanoag such as Samoset and Squanto visited the colonists. He also was involved in other ambassadorial roles with the Native Americans (3, 9, 10). While Hopkins may have narrowly avoided the Starving Time at Jamestown, he and his family went through the brunt of that first harrowing winter at Plymouth. Marvelously, the Hopkins family was only one of four families that did not experience death in those first few months (3). Hopkins served as an assistant to the Pilgrims' governor until 1636, and died in 1644 (10).

As Joseph Kelly, the author of Marooned, once wrote,

"It was out of the mess that was Jamestown, not the order of Plymouth, that American democracy was truly born. It was Jamestown’s colonists—in fact one particular man named Stephen Hopkins, present at both Jamestown and Plymouth—who invented the idea that government derived its authority from the consent of the governed." (11)

While I believe I had heard something in my childhood about Stephen Hopkins being a Plymouth colonist, I had never known about his time at Jamestown or his crossing the Atlantic on the Sea Venture. His is a life that is much more fascinating and intriguing than I had first thought! I find history most relatable when I can identify personally with a historical character, whether well-known or little-known. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns is a superb example of this - for example, in his Civil War film, you learn of the war from the perspective of Union soldier Sullivan Ballou. In Burns' Lewis and Clark film, explorer John Ordway helps to narrate the journey. For me, Stephen Hopkins helps to bring Jamestown - and Plymouth - alive in a way that I've never experienced before.

Recently I published a four-part series of videos that give a highlights tour of Historic Jamestowne's Archaearium archeology museum. As you watch this one or any of the others, I hope you keep in mind the story of Stephen Hopkins and his role of shaping what has led to a landmark of democratic principles: that the governed shape the government. But on the flip side, remember too that Jamestown is where - in 1619 - the first enslaved Africans were brought ashore to North America. And as far back as 1607, Jamestown is also where the Powhatan and other Native American tribes started being pushed out of their rightful homelands.

In reality, real history isn't pretty. It's messy. But the more we whitewash what we remember, the less we get out of studying the subject, and the less we relate to others. Changing our opinions, our communities, and eventually our world starts with understanding where we've come from. This coming week, take a few minutes to listen to a perspective that's not your own. By figuratively walking a mile in someone else's moccasins you may surprisingly find yourself understanding others a bit better than before.

Jamestown can be simultaneously seen as a light upon the hill of what might have been or as a smoking gun of what was inevitable, considering human nature. Let us all contemplate the lessons that this introductory chapter to American history provides. Let us reflect on what we can do to be more loving and inclusive of others in our day-to-day lives.

Footnotes: (1): (2): (3): (4): (5): (6): (7): (8): (9): (10): (11): Resources:


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