Discovery, Susan Constant, and Godspeed: Jamestown’s Founding Fleet

Discovery, Susan Constant, and Godspeed: Jamestown’s Founding Fleet

Three Ships That Made History and Stepping Aboard Their Modern-Day Replicas

Although the Mayflower and its Plymouth-settling crew get the most attention in history books, its journey was preceded by 13 years by another set of three British ships – Susan Constant, Godspeed, and the Discovery – who landed at the current-day Jamestown Island in May of 1607. Representing the recently-formed Virginia Company of London and sailing east from England under a Royal Charter, the intrepid group of sailing captains, crew, and passengers survived four months at sea, only to land on the banks of the James River and struggle through the early decades of life in a foreign land, ever so far from the British shores.

Since 1957, when the museum at Jamestown Settlement came into being to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the first permanent English colony’s founding, it has expanded over the decades, adding new exhibits and living history sites. One of the main attractions is stepping onto the real-life replicas of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery, all built to precisely recreate the original fleet's size, look, and feel, down to the exact dimensions of the sails and living quarters onboard. 

When you stay at our Williamsburg bed and breakfast, you’ll be just a 10-mile drive away from Jamestown Settlement, where you can step aboard these three ships of such historical importance, feeling what it was like for the colonists who embarked on their epic journey four centuries ago.

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A Fateful Fleet and the Larger-Than-Life Captains Who Charted the Course

With a passenger list of 105 men and boys and a crew of 39, the 144 brave souls set off from England in December of 1606. Susan Constant, the largest of the three ships at over 100 feet long, carried 71 passengers, while Godspeed and Discovery, both smaller ships, had a combined 73 passengers between them. Reliant on the mercurial wind patterns, their initial set-off from England was delayed by several weeks, forcing them to wait for more favorable winds to get going. After surviving the rough winter months at sea, they eventually reached coastal Virginia on April 26th, 1607. Before heading up the James River, they would explore the Chesapeake Bay and the land on either side of the Virginia peninsula (including Yorktown, a critical battle site later during the Revolutionary War, and up to Annapolis) before docking at what is now Jamestown Settlement on May 13th, 1607.

Jamestown took its name from King James I, who entrusted his three ships to the most fearless and trusted captains of that era. Captain Christopher Newport, who commanded Susan Constant, was a swashbuckling pirate who fought against the Spanish. Even though he lost an arm in those battles, he was a tried-and-true adventurer and proudly took sail on the largest of the three vessels. John Ratliffe, another inveterate explorer, captained the smallest ship, Discovery, and Bartholomew Gosnold brought long-haul sailing expertise (he had sailed to New England in 1602, even naming Cape Cod while there) to Godspeed.

Early Colonial Struggles and John Smith’s Lasting Legacy

Although John Smith was an experienced sailing captain in his own right (he survived multiple shipwrecks before this journey) and would play a crucial role in establishing the well-being of Jamestown Settlement after landing, he did not command any of the three ships. In fact, due to a quarrel with Captain Christopher Newport mid-journey from England to Virginia, Newport locked Smith up in chains for the last two months of the trip, providing the first chapter of much colonial drama to follow.

After landing in the spring of 1607, the colonists faced intense adversity, quickly running out of food with their slow-growing crops due to a historic drought. They were also obsessed with finding gold and treasure while failing to focus on getting corn and other crops going, leading to what they termed the “starving time,” as over ⅔ of the original colonists would die before the end of that year. 

Amid this struggle to survive, John Smith played a crucial role in forming relations with the Native American tribes who called this area home. Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, was an intermediary between the warring colonists and Native tribes, teaching John Smith their native Algonquin language and famously helping spare his life when he was due to be executed. Pocahontas married one of the colonists, John Rolfe, leading to temporary peace, but the Natives and settlers clashed often and brutally, like the raid in 1622 that cost the lives of 350 colonists. 

As for the ships’ fate, Susan Constant and Godspeed returned home to Britain a month after landing at Jamestown Settlement, while John Smith kept the Discovery and explored all over Virginia during the ensuing two years, in the process creating the best maps of the eastern seaboard available at that time. After being wounded in 1609, Smith sailed back to Britain and set his sights on other life adventures, but his imprint on the early years of Jamestown Settlement allowed the group to survive a period that looked all but doomed at first.

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Touring the Ships and What to Expect at Jamestown Settlement

Replicas of these three famous ships were created with the original Jamestown Festival Park, which opened in 1957 for the 350th anniversary of the settlement. In the early 1990s, with the impending 400th anniversary, a reconstruction was executed of the Susan Constant – the most demanding to build, at over 120 tons – followed in later years by the Godspeed and Discovery. When you visit Jamestown Settlement, costumed interpreters will give you an in-depth tour of the ship's design, from the made-to-size kitchen and sleeping cabins below to the masts and massive unfurling sails towering above. It’s one thing to see a tiny Susan Constant ship model at the Smithsonian, but it’s a much more engaging experience to set foot on the wooden deck. Interpreters demonstrate the knots they used and tell stories of their challenges, making their brave seafaring expedition even more palpable and extraordinary.

Although touring the three ships is a highlight, don’t miss seeing the other living history sites nearby. At James Fort, you’ll see how the settlers lived in their first couple of decades after landing, with replicas of their housing, an Anglican church, and where they grew veggies, herbs, and tobacco. A Powhatan village also shows how the Native American tribes lived in villages on the banks of the James River, including a hand-carved version of the dugout canoes that they used for fishing and transportation. Lastly, the indoor museum galleries provide an excellent and in-depth historical overview of the settlers’ time at Jamestown Settlement from their landing until the capital was moved to Williamsburg in 1699, including their often-turbulent relationship with the Powhatan, their adoption of slavery into colonial law in 1662, and their hardship while trying to survive the first chapter of British settlement in America. Hundreds of artifacts are on display at the Settlement Museum. Next door, at Historic Jamestowne, you can view the archeological digs as they explore the original site. They have unearthed over 1 million artifacts, and portions of that collection can be viewed in the Archaearium on the Island.

Explore this Historic Jamestowne interactive map to learn about all of the things to see and do, from visiting the Archaearium Museum to seeing an active excavation.

When planning your visit, you’ll save by purchasing your tickets in advance online, and there are several options on deals for combined access at nearby living history museums. To explore it all, opt for the Historic Triangle Multi-Attraction Pass, which grants you seven days of unlimited access to Jamestown Settlement, Historic Jamestowne, Colonial Williamsburg, Yorktown Battlefield, and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

Stay with us and see the authentic and awe-inspiring founding fleet at the Jamestown Settlement!

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