When the opportunity for freedom and independence brought settlers to the Jamestown colony, Stephen Hopkins, a merchant from Hampshire, England, missed the first two chances to go. But, when the Virginia Company was looking for recruits a third time, Hopkins was ready. At 28 years old, he left his pregnant wife, Mary, and three children to join the Third Supply expedition to the New World. When a hurricane hit them and the colonists were forced to make a detour, Hopkins’ rebel spirit almost cost him his life.
When they set sail in May 1609, Hopkins was aboard the Sea Venture, the flagship vessel of seven ships. They were commissioned to bring desperately needed supplies and more settlers to the Jamestown colony. He signed on as a servant
who would receive free passage to the colony, lodging, food and ten shillings every three weeks to send back to his family in England. After living in the New World for three years he would be free of his obligations to the investors and receive 30 acres in the colony. Such an arrangement seemed like a small price to pay for someone as independent minded as Hopkins.
Onboard the ship, Hopkins was characterized as a loud mouth who quoted the Bible a lot. Even though he was not especially religious, he was very knowledgeable of the Scriptures and became the clerk to the chaplain. It was his duty to read the Bible verses during the Sunday church services.
A DISASTER AT SEA On Monday, July 24, two months after leaving England, the expedition was only about a week away from their destination when a hurricane out of the south proved to be more than they could handle. The seven ships were scattered like autumn leaves, and they lost track of each other. The planks of the Sea Venture were held together by oakum, fibers from ropes wedged between the boards and covered with tar. The seal did not hold, and through the leaks, the ship took on water.
For four days Hopkins and the other male passengers were pumping and bailing water. It was estimated that they dumped 6, 400 gallons of water every hour, but that was not enough to keep them from sinking. They also had to throw overboard half of their guns and a lot of their luggage, food and supplies.
Determination and hope were barely outlasting exhaustion and hunger, and most of the passengers were sinking into the resignation that they would die very soon at sea. On Friday, July 28, their efforts were rewarded, however, and land was sighted. Energy was renewed, and the ship was able to precariously run aground at Bermuda. Miraculously, no one was killed or seriously injured in the storm.
SO CLOSE AND YET SO FAR Landing at Bermuda turned out to be a happy accident. There was plenty of food and since it was an uninhabited island, the castaways didn’t have to defend themselves against natives. The worst that happened to most was getting sick from eating too many berries or drinking too much “bibby” made from the fermented fruit of the palmetto tree.
Despite the positive experience the castaways were having, the goal was still to get to Virginia. The Sea Venture was destroyed in the storm, so they used whatever wood they could salvage and supplemented it with local cedar to build two boats to carry everyone on to Jamestown.
Hopkins, however, knew a good thing when he saw it. He wanted to take advantage of the riches Bermuda offered and to colonize it. He theorized that since they hadn’t made it to Jamestown they were no longer obligated to the Virginia Company. Hopkins had to secretly try to enlist supporters because Sir Thomas Gates, who represented the Virginia Company as the incoming governor in Virginia, had already reminded the group that dissent would not be tolerated and that, traditionally, going against the commander’s orders was punishable by death.
Two men who entertained Hopkins’ proposal but then feared being associated with him reported the rebel to Gates. Hopkins was tried on January 24, 1610 for mutiny. After hearing condemning testimony against him, Hopkins had only one strategy to save himself. He cried and begged that his life be spared for the sake of his family back in England. He made such a dramatic plea that several men became sympathetic enough to hound Gates until he pardoned Hopkins.
YOU CAN GET THERE FROM HERE On May 10, 1610, after nine months of relatively comfortable island living, Hopkins and the castaways set sail on two ships, Deliverance and Patience, for their original destination. Both ships made it safely to Virginia, and they were greeted with good news: the other six ships in the original expedition had gone directly there, although the passengers were in very bad shape.
The bad news was that on their arrival at Jamestown on May 23, the newcomers found that the population of settlers had been decimated by a devastating drought, famine and harsh winter, and they had been forced to resort to cannibalism for survival. The food and supplies the Third Supply expedition was to bring were lost in the hurricane.
Gates acknowledged that the only chance they had for survival was to go back to England. Just as they were abandoning Jamestown, help arrived. Lord Delaware and his convoy of three ships brought enough food for a year. Delaware became governor and rebuilt the settlement into a successful community.
Hopkins’ wife died in 1613, and he made his way back to his homeland some time after that to be greeted by the news and to learn that his children were orphans in the custody of the Church. He reclaimed his family and moved to London where he worked as a tanner. In February, 1618 Hopkins married Elizabeth Fisher and had a daughter at the end of the year.
HEADED BACK TO THE NEW WORLD Once again an irresistible opportunity came knocking. A group of Separatists were going to the New World to establish a community free of religious ties to the Church of England. They were interested in settling near a more tolerant Dutch colony near the mouth of the Hudson River. In order to increase their numbers, they recruited some whose ambition was more for the economic opportunities than for religious reasons. Hopkins was the perfect candidate, especially with his previous experience in Jamestown, and he signed on as a “Stranger.” This time he packed up his family to make the voyage with him on the Mayflower, leaving on September 6, 1620.
Hopkins’ party included his pregnant wife, three children and two servants. Somewhere in the Atlantic the baby was born, and they named him Oceanus.
The journey was not as dangerous as the previous one, but it wasn’t a pleasure cruise either. Elizabeth and children stayed in the dark gun deck in makeshift compartments. Hopkins slept in a hammock wherever he could find a place to hang it. They did encounter a couple of severe storms that drenched the passengers and their belongings and cracked a main beam of the ship. Fortunately, some clever passengers were able to fix that and stop the leaking.
After 66 days at sea, on November 11 the Mayflower stopped in Provincetown, Massachusetts, north of their Hudson River destination. There was a lot of discussion about whether they should continue on to find the Hudson or stay put. Hopkins, despite almost being killed for his independent ideas in Bermuda, politicked for staying where they were so they would have less governing oversight and more freedom to do what they wanted. He argued, again, that since they hadn’t reached their original destination they were exempt from obligation to their original agreement.
After much deliberation, Captain Jones made the safe decision, considering it was winter, to weigh anchor there. Jones assembled Hopkins and the other male passengers into his cabin to determine how to proceed. During that meeting it was decided that a set of laws was needed to unify the group and create a “civil body politic” for the good of the whole colony. Hopkins was one of the 41 present to sign the document called the Mayflower Compact.
Because of his previous experience in the New World, Captain Miles Standish chose Hopkins and a few other men to explore the territory. They were scouting for weeks to find a suitable location to establish their colony. One morning they were attacked by Indians, and later they got caught in a storm that damaged their boat. On December 11, 1620 they found “Thievish Harbor” where there was fresh water and no natives. Five days later, the Mayflower landed there, and two weeks later they began construction on the common house, the first building of the Plymouth Plantation. The settlers lived on the Mayflower until they could build houses for themselves.
Hopkins had one of the largest houses in the settlement. It had the typical fenced garden, a barn, dairy, cowshed, and apple orchard. There was enough space to accommodate the five children who were born after 1622. He built the first wharf in Plymouth, a tavern, and a small store where Indians could trade beaver skins for English goods.
Having Hopkins in the community was a great asset. He was adept at fishing and hunting, and because of his previous experience as a colonist, he acted as a liaison to the local Indians, often welcoming them into his own home to dine and even spend the night. One native, Squanto, lived with the Hopkins family. He had learned English when he was kidnapped by previous English explorers and taken to England for a while, and he was the sole survivor of his tribe which had been wiped out by disease brought to the New World by the foreigners.
Squanto’s association with the colonists was mutually beneficial. He made possible a visit by Woosamequin ‘Yellow Feather,’ the chief of the Wampanoag tribe. Both the Wampanoag and the settlers feared another tribe, the Narragansetts, and needed allies. With Hopkins acting as host, Governor Carver and the chief negotiated a peace treaty that guaranteed support in the case of attack, a compact that lasted for 50 years.
LAW MAKER AND BREAKER Although loyal to King Charles I, the citizens of Plymouth created their own laws and local government. Hopkins was elected as one of seven Council Assistants who served as advisors to the governor and ruled in judicial matters. Being one to help create the laws did not make Hopkins a model citizen, however. In June, 1636 he was found guilty of beating John Tisdale and fined £5. As the owner of a tavern, he was responsible for the behavior of his patrons. Several times he was fined for serving drink on Sunday, for permitting servants to drink and play shuffle board at his place, and for allowing his friends to get drunk. He was also guilty of price gouging. He had to pay £5 for selling wine, beer and liquor for exorbitant prices, and he tried to sell a mirror for 16 pence that could be bought somewhere else for nine pence.
One incident landed Hopkins in jail. His indentured servant, Dorothy Temple, was pregnant by a man who had been hung for murder. She was whipped for having a bastard child, but then she had nowhere to live. The court ordered Hopkins, as her owner, to be responsible for her support for the duration of her contract. Hopkins wanted to resolve the matter on his own terms without a court order, and he was found to be in contempt. He spent four days in jail until John Holmes agreed to take Temple and her son to live with him for the payment of £3, relieving Hopkins of his obligation.
Hopkins again outlived his wife when Elizabeth died in 1640. Four years later he prepared for his own passing. He wrote his will on June 6, 1644 and died sometime shortly thereafter, although the exact date is not known. He was 63 years old. He was considered wealthy by local standards and bequeathed to his children his house, many animals and “moveable goods” such as books, rugs, flannel sheet, a frying pan, fire shovel, butter churn, two wheels, a cheese rack, scale and weights and four skins.
QUESTION: Do you think it’s more important to stand up for what you believe at all cost or to find a way to compromise to fit into a group?
©2011 Debbie Foulkes all Rights Reserved
Woodward, Hobson, A Brave Vessel, The True Tale of The Castaways Who Rescued Jamestown and Inspired Shakespeare’s The Tempest. New York: Viking, 2009.
Philbrick, Nathaniel, Mayflower, A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Viking, 2006.