S1E10: The Story of Stephen Hopkins
In a story that you have probably never heard before but will recognize the character's names from other mentions in history, with perhaps the lead character in our story, Stephen Hopkins and we're here to remedy that.
S1E10: The Story of Stephen Hopkins
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Bag of Bones
Season One: Episode 10-
The Story of Stephen Hopkins
He didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence. He wasn’t even considered one of America’s forefathers. Nor was he the drunken clown as Shakespeare’s charicture of him would lead you to believe.
He was however, a man who helped settle two of England’s colonies, a signer of the Mayflower Compact and Indian Ambassador for the new world.
let me share with you how this opinionated inn-keeper’s story has impacted a nation.
The Virginia Company was charged with settling colonies in the New World for the glory of England. They were to be self-governing and it’s main purpose was to find gold, silver and other minerals or profits to payback the investors.
The company chose it’s own leaders, and officials and they were responsible to provide settlers, ships and supplies to ensure success of the colonization.
It is thanks to the many letters and journals and secretaries of the company and settlers that we have so much information about how the colonies grew and their shortcomings and the intimate details of day to day life.
William Strachey, was one such scribe and thirsty for the knowledge of the New World and its inhabitants. He longed to known as a poet and author and hoped his new adventure would help him accomplish this. He signed on as a farmer for the Virginia Company, since the position of secretary was taken. And because of his careful notes and his manuscript AND being BFFs with William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, that our boy Stephen Hopkins was put on history’s radar.
Strachey’s narrative, The True Reporotory of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight gave full account of his participation in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tale that Stephen Hopkins was very much a part of- THEN gave Shakespeare the inspiration for his last play called the Tempest. Shakespeare was known to “borrow” ideas from others so imagine Strachey’s surprise while sitting at the Blackfriars Theatre and seeing his letters transformed into a stage play- giving him no credit but using some of his exact phrasing- thus, with the popularity of the Tempest, it left no room or interest for his manuscript…
Have I lost you? Let me back up a bit…
Stephen Hopkins was a common man. He was born in England to common parents and married into the tavern life as his wife’s family ran a local “inn”.
But as his family grew, he sought out work as a minister’s clerk who’s job involved reading psalms to the workers of the Virginia Company. In 1609, his ministerial duties took him aboard the ship Sea Venture bound as a supply ship for the new world and England’s second attempt at a Settlement- Jamestown. The ship was one of 9 that promised to bring food, tools, new settlers, it’s new governor, Sir Thomas Gates and introduced Strachey to Hopkins.
In May of 1607, 104 men and boys landed and broke ground for what would become Jamestown. Jamestown was depicted as an “earthly paradise” in a promotional pamphlet saying the first settlers were quote “ravished with the admirable sweetness of the stream and with the pleasant land trending along on either side.”
For those who were concerned of the savages, the pamphlets continued : the use of guns and armor was endorsed if the gifts of Christianity and Western civilization were not readily accepted. (Meaning, quote “Our soldiers trained up in the Netherlands to square and prepare them to our preacher’s hands.”)
And to ease any fears of the ocean crossing, the pamphlet continued quote “most winds that blow are apt and fit for us, and none can hinder us.”
The promise of riches and precious metals encouraged folks to raise their hand to the prospect of owning their own parcel of land and a share in the profits. But if that wasn’t enough, the black plague was daily sweeping away the lives by the thousands… and so the English noblemen, artisans, farmers and laborers alike set out to the New World.
In June of 1609, Stephen Hopkins left his wife and three children and from the River Thames the Sea Venture headed out into open waters.
They were already two months into their trip and more than half way to their destination when the flotilla of ships were hit by a vicious hurricane. For three days and three nights the waves swirled up and tossed the boats challenging them to stay upright. One ship was swallowed up, taking its stock and crew down with it.
The Sea Venture, which was the largest of the vessels, and carried most of the supplies, and the most prominent of passengers was assumed lost at sea.
But it struggled against the constant battering to carry it’s passengers to safety. It was damaged and water was pouring in through separated planks of the hull. Everyone on board nobleman and common man alike pumped water from the hold while others poured out buckets of water over the side in attempt to save their lives. The water found new ways to seep in even though they attempted to patch up the holes with everything from cloth to salted beef.
They were exhausted and at their end. The more they poured out water, more poured in. They were worn down. Their muscles ached, their bellies were empty and they were tired. The crew and passengers had finally succumb to their fate, when some shouted the sighting of land.
“Hearing the news of land,” Strachey would write, “they grew to be somewhat revived, being carried with will and desire beyond their strength, every man bustled up and gathered his strength and feeble spirits together to perform as much as their weak force would permit him.”
The Sea Venture turned toward the island onto a reef about a mile from shore. The survivors scavenged what weapons, food, tools they could and took all 153 souls to shore.
The exhausted, nearly drown voyagers were confronted with a tropical paradise. Plenty of fish, fruit, ample timber, fresh water sources, birds and wild pigs.
Bermuda had everything they needed and was a far cry from the situations happening at Jamestown.
While the lost ship of England’s Third Resupply, attempted to get their bearings, Jamestown was in utter turmoil. The new settler’s were made up of noblemen with titles who thought it beneath them to work, inexperienced farmers who came on the journey for a chance at a new life, and soldiers, hired to protect and fortify the settlement.
This lead to a large number of mouths to feed and no one planning for a future to feed them. No one planted but instead tried to barter with the local natives, but when Indians grew tired of supporting their unwelcome needy neighbors, the settlers resorted to stealing and killing the natives.
When the other ships of the Third Resupply showed up in Chesapeake Bay, there were only about 40 lean and starving men left. The new ships which were supposed to be a saving grace to the settlers fighting for their life, instead, it plunged them deeper into physical depression. The new settlers, barely surviving the storms, stumbled off the ships to the welcomed dry land battered and beaten with hardly any supplies. There was little to no food available before they got there, but now the combination of original settlers and new arrivals greedily devoured what they had not thinking about their tomorrows.
It was May of 1609 when the on again- off again president John Ratcliffe (who had left the colony in order to bring back more supplies) returned with more food, 300 more settlers, but it wasn’t enough, the damage was already done and they were at the mercy of the Indians once again.
Chief Powhatan allowed for John Ratcliffe and a dozen of his men to come to his campfire to discuss the matter. It was a ruse. Most of the men were killed and Ratcliffe was bound in front of the fire and stripped naked. His skin was flayed from his body with the sharp edges of mussel shells and tossed into the fire as he watched. In the slow, torturous death, his face was peeled last. The memoirs say that he was still alive until they burned his body at the stake.
Meanwhile, back on the Island of Paradise, most of the castaways from the Sea Venture are perfectly happy to stay in their new surroundings and don’t want to leave.
They had settled into a life with gardens, fishing boats and nets, huts and a possible future. “the climate is so temperate and agreeable to our English constitutions” one castaway would later write.
Governor Thomas Gates has no intention of staying, but rather completing his mission to get to Jamestown, Virginia. He believed that the obligation of all lay with the Virginia Company that had financed the fleet and supplies and to whom everyone on the island pledged loyalty.
He ordered a group of men to start building a boat from the scavenged planks of the Sea Venture and the Bermuda cedars on the island saying that every person who rode the Sea Venture was bound by contract and reputation to go to Virginia.
Building of the new ship was slow going as the men did not want to hasten it’s completion.
Finally a group planned to escape and make a new home for themselves on another island, but Gates discovered their plot. Convicting them of mutiny, their punishment was that they were sent to that other to an island but without tools or food or supplies for several days. Near starvation, they were brought back and forced to beg for mercy.
Gates was relentless in their treatment of the castaways. He gave them no opportunity for rest or leisure, kept a tight fist on how much food was doled out and worked them from morning until night. They were counted in the morning and again in the evening to make sure no one attempted to abandon the camp.
By January of 1610, one of the new hybrid ships was almost complete. The day of everyone leaving the island and sailing on to lies fed to them about the “New Britian” was almost upon them.
Stephen Hopkins could stay quiet no more. He gathered a few of the settlers and reminded them that they had all contracted with the Virginia Company for x number of years and in exchange for that contract, they would feed and clothe them and deliver they safely to Jamestown. But the hurricane thwarted the original plan and landed them in Bermuda. The shipwreck, Hopkins decided, dissolved their contract with the Virginia Company and they were “freed from the government of any man.”
Hopkins declared that everyone was free of their contract and could choose for himself if they would complete the boat and continue on to Jamestown, strike out on their own or create a new settlement right here.
He went on to say that, “in light of the discovery of the potentially lucrative resources of Bermuda, they had a new obligation to claim Bermuda for the Company. Similarly, they owed it to their families to seize the opportunity for enrichment they discovered by chance and at great risk to their lives.”
The people all knew how Gates felt about even discussing the matter of altering the course of the expedition would not be tolerated, but listening to to Stephen Hopkins speak for the people and a future of their own choosing was enticing.
However… the plot had been discovered and this time Hopkins was put on trial on January 24th.
He was chained and sentenced to death. After days of settlers begging for his clemency, finally Stephen Hopkins, himself was put in front of the assembly to beg for his life.
Strachey writes, “So penitent was he and made so much moan alleging the ruin of his wife and children in this- his trespass, as it wrought in the hearts of all the better sort of the company who therefore with humble entreaties and earnest supplications went to our governor whom they besought, likewise did Captain Newport and myself, and never left him until we had got his pardon.”
Gates forgave the crime.
The castaways had been on the island of Bermuda for eight months now- one final rebellion had reared up to attempt to stay on the island but this time, Gates had reached the end of his patience.
The main perpetrator Henry Paine, was condemned to hang… immediately. Paine resigned to his fate made the request that since he was a gentleman, he requested a gentleman’s death. Instead of a hanging, he was “allowed” to be taken into the wood, placed against a tree and shot.
This marked the end to any more thoughts of remaining on the Bermuda Islands.
Hopkins planted the seeds of a life in an ideal commonweath but it was not meant to be on the island, but glimpses of his thoughts will appear again…
By spring of 1610 two ships were complete and the castaways were put to the task of gathering food for the trip. Five hundred fish were caught, salted and packed in barrels. Live conch in their shells were immersed in seawater in barrels. Hogs and the large seabirds were butchered and salted and turtles were caught and kept alive by placing them on their backs for the voyage. The island was also a welcome place for hundred of birds to come and nest and the eggs were easily collected.
In May of 1610, almost a year after leaving England, the castaways set out for Jamestown, Virginia once again.
Trivia: only one man died of the original 153, and then one was born. She was called Bermuda Rolfe. Her father was John Rolfe. And no, this was not Pocahontas, but his first wife who gave birth to the first English Bermudian child.
She would only live a few weeks. Another month following another birth occured. The first boy English Bermudian child was born. Bermudas Eason. He lived to see the Virginia colony and beyond.
Their “side trip” to Bermuda had actually saved their lives. The winter of 1609 to the Spring of 1610 was named the Starving Time in the history of Jamestown.
The struggle for enough food has always plagued the new colony but when you add a fractured leadership, poor relations with an aggressive native tribe, dysentery, typhoid and the marshes ebb and flow of salt water you have a pretty nasty recipe for failure.
The Powhatan Indians retaliated by threatening to kill anyone who leaves the fort. The settlers, trapped in their own fort, resorted to tearing apart their structures for firewood, sneaking out for game after dark and burying their dead inside the walls of the fort. President George Percy writes, “Indians killed as fast without the fort as famine and pestilence did within.”
They had long killed their horses for meat and Percy writes, “we were glad to make shift with vermin, as dogs, cats and mice.” Some tried to sneak outside the walls to hunt for game or roots but were killed by the Indians.
He also claims that the starving settlers resorted to cannibalism quote “they dug dead corpses out of graves” to eat them.
The supplies that the Sea Venture were able to provide would only last a short time, so Governor Thomas Gates decided that they should abandon the settlement and sail for England.
And just as they got everything buried, and pack up, loaded on the ship, their path was blocked by the newest ship led by the new governor of the colony Lord De la Warr (Delaware). He insisted that they turn around and salvage and rebuild Jamestown.
And so they did.
Stephen Hopkins kept his head down and his opinions to himself and really dug in helping to save the colony. Under the leadership of Delaware, despite the fact that he was on his deathbed for much of the time, his leadership was able to bring the colony back around.
Hopkins became an asset to the colony expanding his knowledge on the tribes and their languages, farming and his oratory skills, were still there, but he remained a student, learning the ways of building a colony.
At some point, Stephen received a letter telling him of the death of his wife, so he joined the crew of a ship sailing back to London, England.
At this point, we really don’t know what Stephen Hopkins did to pass the time back in London, England, but he was successful. By the time Hopkins rejoins our story he got remarried, this second wife was Elizabeth Fisher, they had their first child together, plus his other three, gained prosperity and had two men servants.
In 1620, The Merchant Adventurers, which was a different group of investors that financed the sailing and planting of the new settlements invited Stephen Hopkins to join the Mayflower voyage and stay to help the colonists with his advice (knowing his way around new colonies and as a laborer was the Adventurers way to ensure the colonists strived to repay their debt.
So despite, surviving a hurricane, getting stranded on a deserted island, being charged with mutiny, almost hanged, building two ships only to face near death and starvation… he said yes.
September 6, 1620, Stephen Hopkins, his very pregnant wife, children, two servants and all of their earthly belongings, join the other 102 passengers and crew on the Mayflower bound for the New World.
There may not have been a hurricane this time around for Stephen, but his newest son was born on the ship as it fought with turbulent storms and violent waves. And while a baby is a thing of joy and Stephen gets to have the honor of the olny child born enroute, Baby Boy Oceanus was born under the most terrible, unsanitary conditions. Because of the storms, there were to have been no dry beds, as the ship was leaking due to the extra weight and many suffered from seasickness,
And because of the turbulence, no one was allowed to go to the upper deck for fresh air or… uh relief, so all they had was chamberpots… and I’m sure you can imagine that it would be difficult to keep a full chamber pot still…
After two months on the over populated and over stocked cramped quarters of the Mayflower, fierce storms blew them off course causing them to land further north than their designated lands in Cape Cod in Massachusetts instead of Virginia.
The provisions were running low so it was suggested that they scout out the area and stay where they landed. SOME of the passengers even went so far as to say that the contract made with the Merchant Adventurers of London was for Virginia and since they were NOT safely deposited in Virginia, they believed that they were no longer obliged to uphold the original contract and once they stepped off the boat, they were a “free agent”, in modern day vernacular.
Now, I won’t mention any names, but They were quoted as saying, they would “use their own liberty: for none had power to command them.”
Sounds a bit familiar, don’t you think?
The pilgrims desperately needed the help so they agreed to establish their OWN government while still on the Mayflower, but were still abiding in their allegiance to England.
The Mayflower Compact was created and signed by 41 men. It basically states that they must adhere to the government of the king, but within the colony, it would fall to a majority rules.
“…we… do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually… covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid…”
A few more words and some thee’s and thou’s, 41 signatures and it was done.
16 men left the ship to scout out the land, they found the remains of an Indian burial and stole the corn that was left for the Indian’s afterlife. A second expedition was cut short due to bad weather and the third time resulted in their first encounter with the native Americans in which they fired upon.
The colonists decided to look elsewhere after not finding suitable grounds to host their new colony but many feared that they angred the Indians for stealing their dead’s corn and of course… shooting at them.
They backed out and moved the Mayflower with it’s uncomfortable, and exhausted human cargo to their original destination of Plymouth Harbor, where they were supposed to be in December. They spent three days scouting the land and finally agreed on a recently abandoned Native American site.
Bad weather and a harsh winter kept the passengers on the Mayflower longer than expected and it surely aided in the deaths of almost half of the original voyagers.
Stephen Hopkins and his entire family, managed to survive the first winter in the New World.
Hopkins would be instrumental to the development of Plymouth. He helped in building the residences and the common houses and in the spring of 1621, he acted as host to their first Indian guest, Samoset, and invited him to stay with his family for the night.
Because of his time with the settlers and the Indians in Jamestown, Hopkins became the assistant to the Governor and first formal meeting with the natives was held at his home.
The town grew, thanks in part to Stephen adding ten of his own children to the mix, but he finally settled in opening his own ordinary. (An “ordinary” is another term for tavern or inn. They would offer drinks and food: sometimes games such as shuffleboard and sometimes lodging. He kept his tavern and his stubborn ways until his death in 1644.
It was documented that he was reprimanded and fined for “serving men drink in his house on the Lord’s day”, and allowing his patrons to get drunk was also frowned upon and also price-gouging… yeah, it was a thing back then too. If you got caught charging more for your “wine, beer, strong waters or nutmegs at excessive rates, you would be fyned.
At his death, he was considered perhaps not rich, but had done quite well for himself. He requested to be buried next to his wife and his remaining living children, he left his belongings in great detail.
The 1600s was a time of great adventure for those who had the stomach for it, and Stephen Hopkins proved that he was quite an asset to the founding of this great nation and in part, we can thank him for introducing in a round-about way the acceptance of majority rule and a glimpse of what we would later called… democracy.
Trivia: Anne Buras, one of the first two women to arrive in Jamestown in 1608 marries John Layden in the first wedding at Jamestown only two months later.