Home > History of Wine > “Vines in great Abundance”: The First Vintages of the Colony of Virginia

“Vines in great Abundance”: The First Vintages of the Colony of Virginia

“Vines in great Abundance”: The First Vintages of the Colony of Virginia

Source: The Southern States of America (published in 1909)

Source: The Southern States of America (published in 1909)

In my previous post “Grapes Very Fair and Excellent Good”: The First Known Vintage in the Colony of Virginia I learned from the diary of Captain Robert Davies and Samuel Purchas that grapes were found by the Popham colonists at Fort St. George near the Sagadahoc River.  With the grapes being found on October 6, 1607, and Captain Robert Davies departing for England aboard The Mary and John on October 8, 1607, this first wine would have completed fermentation and have been drunk in October, 1607.  Two days after the arrival of The Mary and John on December 1, 1607, and Sir Ferdinando Gorges’ late night letter to the Earl of Salisbury describing the production of wine by the Popham Colony, Sir Ferdinando Gorges corresponds again.  He describes how Captain Robert Davies and the physician Mr. Turner have come to solicit supplies and “inform the state of every particular.”[i]  Sir Ferdinando Gorges is clearly moved by what he has learned, expressing “I make no question but that you will find it to be of greater moment than it can easily be believed to be.”  He then notes he has sent along the journals from one of the ships which cover departure to return.

Determining the first vintage of Jamestown proves difficult for the earliest references occur over one year after the first arrival.  While I could attempt to advance the date that wine was first produced through inference, this is, at best fruitless.  For example, in Wingfield’s Discourse he notes they have drunk the common stores of Sack and aquavitae thus are down to two gallons of Sack reserved for Communion by July 7, 1607.  This alone might provide enough motivation for the Jamestown colonists to start producing wine.  However, Captain John Smith’s A True Relation chronicles the early life in Jamestown, through perhaps May 1608, certainly June 2, 1608.  This is when the Phoenix departs Jamestown for England.  In this letter Captain John Smith makes no mention of winemaking.  Given the detail of his observations this could imply no wine was made.  Thus in this post I examine only the earliest references to vines, grapes, and wine in Jamestown.

The Vines and Grapes of Jamestown

Captain Christopher Newport first arrives in England from Jamestown on July 29, 1607.  Within one month Don Pedro de Zuniga wrote an encoded letter with what appears to be the first documentation of vines in the Jamestown colony.[ii]  He writes, “they say, they think that vineyards can be planted and that these will be very good, because there are many wild grapevines.”  We learn from George Percy’s Discourse published in 1609 that vines were found on May 12, 1607, as well as May 20, 1607, and June 15, 1607, with “Vines in great abundance”.[iii]   Robert Johnson writes in the New life of Virginea that “to engage themselves to solicite their friends to assemble and consult advisedly how to replant this unnatural vine to make it fruitfull…”[iv]  Francis Magnel states in a letter dated July 1, 1610, that “There grow in that country wild many forest grapes.”  The gentleman R. Rich writes of “Great stores of Fowle, of Venison, of Grapes, and Mulberries,” in his poem about the fate of the Third Supply published in 1610.[v]  Captain John Smith first writes of vines and grapes in the 1612 publication of Map of Virginia which is based on his experiences through October 1609.  We also find in Purchas Pilgrimage from 1613 the mention of grapes. [vi]  Grapes and vines were found and written about both before and after the site selection of Jamestown Island on May 15, 1607.  These discoveries were written about in 1607 then first published by George Percy and Robert Johnson in 1609.  This was followed by additional works published in 1610, 1612, and 1613.

Exploring the Earliest References to Wine Made in Jamestown

There are letters to the Earl of Salisbury describing the return of Captain Christopher Newport from Jamestown in July and August 1607.[vii]  The earliest mention of wine from Jamestown, Virginia which I can find in the Calendar of State Papers Colonial and the Calendar of Cecil Papers dates to December 1610.[viii]  This document references wine and contains “Instructions for such things as are to be sent from Virginia with notes for their better preservation, and the prices they sell for in England.”   We know from Captain John Smith that “Of those hedge grapes we made neere twentie gallons of wine, which was like our French Brittish wine”.  Captain John Smith departed Jamestown for England in October 1609.  Thus the initial date range for the production of wine at Jamestown spans May 1607 through October 1609.  Moving backwards in time Robert Johnson writes of samples of commodities including “sope ashes and Tar” along with “some wine of those countries grapes for a trial” arriving in England before the fleet departed in June 2, 1609.[ix]  In Captain John Smith’s work we find “Captaine Newport being dispatched, with the tryals of Pitch, Tarre, Glasse, Frankincense, Sope ashes; with that Clapboord and Waynscot that could be provided.”  It was in December, 1608 that Captain Christopher Newport departs Jamestown for England where he arrived in January 1609.  This narrows the production of wine from May 1607 to December 1608.

Francis Magnel provides no further focus as to the vintage in his conversation with Florencio Conryo, Archbishop of Tuam where he “said in his own language, is here faithfully translated into the Spanish Language.”[x]  On July 1, 1610, he related to the archbishop “There grow in that country wild many forest grapes, of which the English make a wine that resembles much the wine of Alicante, according to the opinion of the narrator who has tasted both.”  Francis Magnel states “This narrator returned to England in the same vessel with the said son of the Emperor.” He also stated “that he returned from Virginia to England in 31 days.”  Alexander Brown footnotes this passage that Magnel alludes to Namontack who sailed for England with Captain Christopher Newport April 10, 1608.  Francis Magnel was an Irish sailor who may have been on the first voyages to Jamestown which arrived in May, 1607.  His report states that he was in Virginia for eight months.  This would put his initial departure from Jamestown in January, 1608.  However, it was January 8, 1608 in which Captain Christopher Newport arrives in Jamestown from England with the First Supply.  So clearly something is amiss with this timeline.  Also, the April 10, 1608, departure from Jamestown did not arrive into England until May 21, 1608.  At five weeks and six days this is greater than the 31 day duration he claimed.  It is possible that he was not on the initial voyage.

If we do believe Francis Magnel visited Jamestown then it could have been aboard the First, Second, or Third Supply.  In looking through the list of colonists of Jamestown for the Original group, First Supply, and Second Supply there is no “Francis Magnel” nor “Francis Maguel”.[xi]  So chances are he falls under “divers others” which is understandable considering his occupation.  The best fit would be his sailing out under Captain Francis Nelson during the First Supply.  Captain Francis Nelson departed England on October 8, 1607, wintered in the West Indies then arrived in Jamestown April 20, 1608.[xii]  While Captain Francis Nelson departed for England on June 2, 1608, Captain Newport returned sometime in December 1608 arriving in England before January 16, 1609.  This later trip would place Francis Magnel in Jamestown for eight months.  While we do not know the duration of this voyage it could have been 31 days.

Francis Magnel writes that the “English make a very great quantity of soap-ashes, which they send home to their country.”  Soap ashes were sent back to England in December 1608 and October 1609.  So he could have learned about the soap ashes first hand.  If it was possible for Francis Magnel to switch captains then we can place him in Jamestown for eight months and he could return in a ship carrying both wine and soap-ashes.  Unfortunately this does not reduce the range of dates when wine was first made in Jamestown.


I could not find a set of documents allowing the determination of the first Jamestown vintage of wine.[xiii]  Grapes were discovered right away in 1607 and were mentioned in several early documents published between 1609 through 1613.  Through the works of Captain John Smith and Robert Johnson we may narrow the date of the first wine produced in Jamestown from May 1607 through December 1608.  Unfortunately the contributions from Francis Magnel are confusing and even my best guess at his dates in Jamestown simply suggest wine was produced by December 1608.  This leaves us with 1607 as the first vintage for the Popham Colony in what is now the state of Maine and 1607 or 1608 as the first possible vintage for Jamestown in what is now the state of Virginia.

[i] ‘Cecil Papers: December 1607, 1-15’, Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, Volume 19: 1607 (1965), pp. 351-383. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=112379&strquery=gorges salisbury journals take Date accessed: 29 April 2013.

[ii] Letter from Don Pedro de Zuniga to Philip III, August 22, 1607.  As appears in Barbour, Philip L. The Jamestown Voyages Under The First Charter 1606-1609. Volume I.  Cambridge University Press, American Branch, New York, 1969.

[iii] Percy, Geroge. Discouse of the Plantation of Southerne Colonie in Virginia by the English, 1606. As appears in Brown, Alexander, The Genesis of the United States Vol 1., 1890.

[iv] Johnson, Robert.  The new life of Virginea. 1609.  As appears in Peter Force Tracts Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America. Vol. 1. Washington, DC, 1836

[v] Rich, R. Nevves from Virginia. The lock Flocke Triumphant.  Edward Allde, London, 1610.

[vi] Purchas, Samuel.  Purchas his Pilgrimage.  London, 1613.

[vii] ‘Cecil Papers: August 1607, 1-15’, Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House, Volume 19: 1607 (1965), pp. 202-219. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=112371&strquery= Date accessed: 29 April 2013.

[viii] ‘America and West Indies: December 1610’, Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, Volume 1: 1574-1660 (1860), pp. 10-11. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=68932&strquery=virginia wine Date accessed: 29 April 2013.

[ix] Johnson, Robert. The New Life of Virginea, 1612 As appears in Peter Force Tracts Relating Principally to the Origin, Settlement, and Progress of the Colonies in North America. Vol. 1. Washington, DC, 1836.

[x] Magnel, Francis, Relation.  As appears in Brown, Alexander. The Genesis of the United States. Vol 1. 1890.

[xii] Barbour, Philip L. The Jamestown Voyages Under The First Charter 1606-1609. Volume I.  Cambridge University Press, American Branch, New York, 1969.

[xiii] I am indebted to Thomas Pinney A History of Wine in America Vol. 1 for providing many additional references to check.

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