Lucky to Survive in Jamestown!

This weeks prompt is “Lucky”.  I recently went off on a research tangent and traced a line of my ancestors back to Jamestown – Yes! THE Jamestown of 1607!   It was quite a surprise!   After finding information on their trials and tribulations, I concluded that it was amazingly lucky that these ancestors even survived!    Something of a sacrifice was involved in the founding of Jamestown indicated by the fact that out of 14,000 emigrants sent over from 1607-1622, only 911 were alive at the end of 1622!  There was a great Indian rebellion and massacre in 1622.  That means that over 13,000 people died of starvation, disease, accidents, Indian attacks and other causes in this 15 year period!  The odds of staying alive was slim.  If you did, you were extremely lucky!

Jamestown 1607 fort 001

My ancestor, William Spencer and his wife, Alice Lightfoot, arrived in Jamestown in 1611, just four years after the founding of Jamestown on the ship SARAH.  They are my 10th great-grandparents.  William Spencer was born circa 1590 in Mullberry Island, England or in London.  He is said to be the son of Robert Spencer and Rose Cokayne of Cople Parish, Bedfordsire, England.  He married Alice about 1608 and they journeyed with their young daughter, also named Alice, in 1611 to be among the early settlers of Jamestown.  Just making the voyage across the Atlantic at that time was perilous but luckily, they survived the journey.  Also lucky was the fact that they came after 1609-10 which is designated “the starving time” in Jamestown when the settlement was on the verge of abandonment and out of 500 original people, only 60 -90 had survived.

I found that some sources confused my ancestor, William Spencer, with William Spence (note: no “r” in last name)  who came in 1607 on the SUSAN CONSTANT, the first immigrant supply.  That William Spence was a member of the first house of Burgess in 1619 but he and his wife went missing during the second Powhatan War of 1622 and were presumed dead, killed in the Indian massacre.  Our William Spencer was listed as a Burgess in 1624 and again in 1632-33, after the death of William Spence.   (A Burgess is an elected representative to the legislature which governed with the governor and his council.)

The history of Jamestown is well documented which was quite helpful in researching William Spencer.  He may not have come on the first supply but our William is on the list of approved “Ancient Planters”  This term “Ancient Planter”  is applied to those persons who arrived in Virginia before 1616, remained for a period of 3 or more years, and paid their passage.  They received the first patents of land in the new world.  There is actually an “Order of Descendants of Ancient Planters” which is an incorporated non-profit society founded in 1991 to honor and perpetuate the memory of these Ancient Planters, to promote historical and genealogical research, to inspire patriotism and enhance fellowship.  Their web site is   Wow, who knew!

Finding  quotes about my ancestor from Captain John Smith and John Rolfe was a bonus! Captain John Smith, in referring to the men allotted farms for raising of corn in 1614, said, “From all those farmers whereof the first was William Spencer, an honest, valiant and industrious man, from those is expected such a contribution to the store as we shall neither want for ourselves nor entertain our supplies.”   John Rolfe is quoted as saying, “William Spencer and Thomas Barrett a sergeant, with some others of the Ancient Planters being set free were the first farmers that went forth; and have chosen places to their content; so that knowing their own land they strive who should exceed in building and planting.”

The next information of William and his family was from the “muster of 24 January, 1624-5.”  William, Alice and daughter, Alice, are living in James Island (Jamestown), “the family being well supplied, having ten barrels of corn, 200 fish and for their protection, ammunition consisting of  four pounds of powder, eight pounds of shot and three ‘pieces’ (firearms), along with twelve swine, three goats and two kids.  They also had two dwelling houses and one boat.”    It seems they were doing quite well for themselves.

By researching records of land grants, I found more information on William.  In August of that year, 1624, William, “yeoman and ancient planter” received a grant of 12 acres on Jamestown Island.  He paid a fee or rent of three pence, due yearly, at the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel for this land grant.  In 1629, the General Court granted William permission to take up 400 acres “in any place not already taken up.”  He chose the south side of the James River and  later patented 250 more acres on Lawnes Creek in the same area in 1632.

In 1635, he patented 1100  acres on Lawnes Creek and Hog Island and sponsored the transportation of 22 indentured servants.   Indentured servants would work for the person who paid their fare from England and provided room and board.  After a set number of years, usually 7 or 10, they would have paid their debt through labor and be freed to establish their own homesteads.  Because William could pay the passage for 22 persons, he must have been well off that time.    In 1637, he patented another 550 acres and 1350 acres on Lawnes Creek.

William and Alice had two more daughters, Elizabeth and Anne.  Their daughter Alice died young in Jamestown.  Daughter Anne married William Cockerham and Elizabeth married Robert Sheppard.  Major Robert Sheppard and Elizabeth Spencer are my direct ancestors eventually leading to the Ashlin line of our family history.  William’s wife, Alice Lightfoot Spencer, died in Jamestown in about 1623.  William died on February 10, 1637/38 as evidenced by a recorded indenture involving land in Hog Island, noting that the land was granted to the late William Spencer and added his death date.  Despite all the perils and adversity, William Spencer and Alice survived and thus started our Spencer/ Sheppard/Ashlin/Lyons lineage in Virginia.  Now that was lucky!


Jamestown 1611 001
Jamestown in 1611 when William Spencer arrived.




The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 3, No. 3, Jan. 1896, pp 275-6.


Adventurers of Purse and Person, VA 1607-1624, p. 5 & p. 25

Virginia Patent Book #1, pp. 9, 120, 521.

Boddie, John Bennett, Colonial Surry, p. 48.

Early Virginia Families Along the James River, Vol. 2, Genealogical Publishing Co., Apr 1, 2009.

Hotten, List of Emigrants to America, pp. 173-178; Digital Book on-line at







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