Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  A Fight for Life

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Fight for Life

By Colonel Henry Norwood (c. 1614–1689)

[From A Voyage to Virginia.]

WE approach’d the shore the night of January 3. with little sail; and, as the morning of the fourth day gave us light, we saw the land; but in what latitude we could not tell, for that the officers, whose duty it was to keep the reckoning of the ship, had for many days past totally omitted that part; nor had we seen the sun a great while, to take observations, which (tho’ a lame excuse) was all they had to say for that omission. But in truth it was evident, that the desperate estate of the ship, and hourly jeopardy of life did make them careless of keeping either log or journal; the thoughts of another account they feared to be at hand, did make them neglect that of the ship as inconsiderable.

About the hours of three or four in the afternoon of the twelfth eve, we were shot in fair to the shore. The evening was clear and calm, the water smooth; the land we saw nearest was some six or seven English miles distant from us, our soundings twenty-five fathoms in good ground for anchor-hold….

When the anchor was let loose, Mate Putts was ordered to make the first discovery of what we might expect from the nearest land. He took with him twelve sickly passengers, who fancied the shore would cure them; and he carry’d Major Morrison on shore with him in pursuit of such adventures as are next in course to be related; for according to the intelligence that could be got from land, we were to take our measures at sea, either to proceed on in our voyage in that sad condition that has been in some proportion set forth, or to land our selves, and unload the ship, and try our fortunes amongst the Indians.

In four or five hours time we could discover the boat returning with Mate Putts alone for a setter, which we look’d upon as a signal of happy success. When he came on board his mouth was full of good tidings, as namely, that he discovered a creek that would harbour our ship, and that there was a depth of water on the bar, sufficient for her draught when she was light. That there was excellent fresh water, (a taste whereof Major Morrison had sent me in a bottle.) That the shore swarm’d with fowl, and that Major Morrison stayed behind in expectation of the whole ship’s company to follow.

I opened mine ears wide to the motion, and promoted the design of our landing there with all the rhetorick and interest I had. The captain was no less forward for it, hoping thereby to save the lives of the passengers that remained: and that he might not wholly rely on Mate Putts’s judgment in a matter wherein he was most concern’d, he embark’d with me in the wherry, with a kinsman of his, and some others; and the seamen were glad of my help to put the boat to shore, my hands having been very well season’d at the pump, by taking my turn for many weeks at the rate of three hours in twenty-four. My passionate desires to be on shore at the fountain head to drink without stint, did not a little quicken me, insomuch that the six or seven miles I rowed on this occasion, were no more than the breadth of the Thames at London, at another time, would have been toilsome to me….

As soon as I had set my foot on land, and had rendred thanks to Almighty God for opening this door of deliverance to us, after so many rescues even from the jaws of death at sea, Major Morrison was pleased to oblige me beyond all requital, in conducting me to the running stream of water, where, without any limitation of short allowance, I might drink my fill. I was glad of so great liberty, and made use of it accordingly, by prostrating myself on my belly, and setting my mouth against the stream, that it might run into my thirsty stomach without stop. The rest of the company were at liberty to use their own methods to quench their thirst; but this I thought the greatest pleasure I ever enjoyed on earth.

After this sweet refreshment, the captain, myself, and his kinsman crossed the creek in our wherry, invited thither by the cackling of wild-fowl. The captain had a gun charged, and the moon shining bright in his favour, he killed one duck of the flock that flew over us, which was roasted on a stick out of hand by a seaman, whilst we walk’d on the shore of the creek for further discovery.

In passing a small gullet we trod on an oyster bank that did happily furnish us with a good addition to our duck. When the cooks had done their parts, we were not long about ours, but fell on without using the ceremony of calling the rest of our company, which would have been no entertainment to so many, the proverb telling us, “The fewer the better chear.” The bones, head, legs, and inwards were agreed to be the cooks’ fees; so we gave God thanks, and return’d to our friends, without making boast of our good fortunes.

Fortify’d with this repast, we inform’d our selves of the depth of water at the bar of the creek, in which the captain seem’d satisfy’d, and made shews in all his deportment, of his resolution to discharge the ship there in order to our safety. Towards break of day he ask’d me in my ear, “If I would go back with him on board the ship?” I told him, “No, because it would be labour lost, in case he would persist in his resolution to do what he pretended,” which he ratify’d again by protestations, and so went off with his kinsman, who had a large coarse cloth gown I borrow’d of him to shelter me from the sharpest cold I ever felt. That which had sometimes been a paradox to me, was by this experience made demonstrable, viz., That the land on the continent is much colder than that of islands, tho’ in the same latitude; and the reason is evident to any who shall consider the many accidents on the continent that cool the air by winds that come from the land; as in those parts of America, the mighty towring mountains to the north-west, covered all the year with snow, which does refrigerate the air even in the heat of summer; whereas winds coming from the sea are generally warm. And this hath proved a fatal truth to the inhabitants of Virginia, who, in the south-east winds, have gone to bed in sultry heat and sweat, without any covering, and have awaked in the night stiff and benumb’d with cold, without the use of their limbs, occasioned by a shifting of the wind in the night from sea to land.

No sooner had the captain cleared himself of the shore but the daybreak made me see my error in not closing with his motion in my ear. The first object we saw at sea was the ship under sail, standing for the capes with what canvas could be made to serve the turn. It was a very heavy prospect to us who remained (we knew not where) on shore, to see our selves thus abandon’d by the ship, and more, to be forsaken by the boat, so contrary to our mutual agreement. Many hours of hard labour and toil were spent before the boat could fetch the ship: and the seamen (whose act it was to set sail without the captain’s order, as we were told after) car’d not for the boat whilst the wind was large to carry them to the capes. But Mate Putts, who was more sober and better natur’d, discovering the boat from the mizzen-top, lay by till she came with the captain on board.

In this amazement and confusion of mind that no words can express, did our miserable distress’d party condole with each other our being so cruelly abandon’d and left to the last despairs of human help, or indeed of ever seeing more the face of man. We entered into a sad consultation what course to take; and having, in the first place, by united prayers, implored the protection of Almighty God, and recommended our miserable estate to the same providence which, in so many instances of mercy, had been propitious to us at sea; the whole party desired me to be as it were the father of this distressed family, to advise and conduct them in all things I thought might most tend to our preservation. This way of government we agreed must necessarily reside in one, to avoid disputes, and variety of contradictory humours, which would render our deliverance the more impracticable; and it was thought most reasonable to be placed in me, for the health and strength it had pleased God to preserve unto me above my fellows, more than for any other qualification….

It was, to the best of my remembrance, upon the fifth day of January that we entred into this method of life, or rather into an orderly way unto our graves, since nothing but the image of death was represented to us: but that we might use our outmost endeavours to extract all the good we could out of those evil symptoms that did every way seem to confound us, I made a muster of the most able bodies for arms and labour; and, in the first place, I put a fowling-piece info every man’s hand that could tell how to use it. Amongst the rest, a young gentleman, Mr. Francis Cary by name, was very helpful to me in the fatigue and active part of this undertaking. He was strong and healthy, and was very ready for any employment I could put upon him. He came recommended to me by Sir Edward Thurlan, his genius leading him rather to a planter’s life abroad, than to any course his friends could propose to him in England; and this rough entrance was like to let him know the worst at first.

All our woodmen and fowlers had powder and shot given them, and some geese were killed for supper. Evening came on apace, and our resolution being taken to stay one night more in these quarters, I sent my cousin Cary to head the creek, and make what discovery he could as he passed along the shore, whether of Indians or any other living creatures that were likely to relieve our wants, or end our days. To prepare like men for the latter, we resolved to die fighting, if that should be the case; or if, on the contrary, the Indians should accost us in a mien of amity, then to meet them with all imaginable courtesy, and please them with such trivial presents as they love to deal in, and so engage them into a friendship with us.

My cousin Cary was not absent much above an hour, when we saw him return in a contrary point to that he sallied out upon. His face was clouded with ill news he had to tell us, namely, that we were now residing on an island without any inhabitant, and that he had seen its whole extent, surrounded (as he believed) with water deeper than his head; that he had not seen any native, or any thing in human shape, in all his round, nor any other creature besides the fowls of the air, which he would, but could not, bring unto us.

This dismal success of so unexpected a nature, did startle us more than any single misfortune that had befallen us, and was like to plunge us into utter despair. We beheld each other as miserable wretches sentenc’d to a lingering death, no man knowing what to propose for prolonging life any longer than he was able to fast. My cousin Cary was gone from us without notice, and we had reason, (for what followed) to believe he was under the conduct of an angel; for we soon saw him return with a cheerful look, his hands carrying something we could not distinguish by any name at a distance; but by nearer approach we were able to descry they were a parcel of oysters, which, in crossing the island, as he stept over a small current of water, he trode upon to his hurt; but laying hands on what he felt with his feet, and pulling it with all his force, he found himself possessed of this booty of oysters, which grew in clusters, and were contiguous to a large bank of the same species, that was our staple subsistence whilst we remained there.

Whilst this very cold season continued, great flights of fowl frequented the island, geese, ducks, curlicus, and some of every sort we killed and roasted on sticks, eating all but the feathers. It was the only perquisite belonging to my place of preference to the rest, that the right of carving was annexed to it, wherein, if I was partial to my own interest, it was in cutting the wing as large and full of meat as possible; whereas the rest was measured out as it were with scale and compass.

But as the wind veered to the southward, we had greater warmth and fewer fowl, for they would then be gone to colder climates. In their absence we were confined to the oyster bank, and a sort of weed some four inches long, as thick as houseleek, and the only green (except pines) that the island afforded. It was very insipid on the palate; but being boiled with a little pepper (of which one had brought a pound on shore) and helped with five or six oysters, it became a regale for every one in turn.

In quartering our family we did observe the decency of distinguishing sexes: we made a small hut for the poor weak women to be by themselves; our cabbin for men was of the same fashion, but much more spacious, as our numbers were. One morning, in walking on the shore by the sea side, with a long gun in my hand loaden with small shot, I fired at a great flight of small birds called Oxeyes, and made great slaughter among them, which gave refreshment to all our company.

But this harvest had a short end; and as the weather by its warmth, chased the fowl to the north, our hunger grew sharper upon us. And in fine, all the strength that remained unto us was employed in a heartless struggling to spin out life a little longer; for we still deemed our selves doom’d to die by famine, from whose sharpest and most immediate darts tho’ we seemed to be rescued for a small time, by meeting these contingent helps on shore, yet still we apprehended (and that on too great probability) they only served to reprieve us for a little longer day of execution, with all the dreadful circumstances of a lingering death.

For the south-west winds that had carry’d away the fowl, brought store of rain; which meeting with a spring-tide, our chief magazine, the oyster bank, was overflown; and as they became more inaccessible, our bodies also decayed so sensibly, that we could hardly pull them out of their muddy beds they grew on. And from this time forward we rarely saw the fowl; they now grew shy and kept aloof when they saw us contriving against their lives.

Add to this, our guns most of them unfix’d and out of order, and our powder much decayed, insomuch that nothing did now remain to prolong life, but what is counted rather sauce to whet, than substance to satisfy the appetite; I mean the oysters, which were not easily gotten by our crazy bodies after the quantity was spent that lay most commodious to be reach’d, and which had fed us for the first six days we had been on the island. And thus we wish’d every day to be the last of our lives, (if God had so pleased) so hopeless and desperate was our condition, all expectation of human succour being vanished and gone.

Of the three weak women before mentioned, one had the envied happiness to die about this time; and it was my advice to the survivors, who were following her apace, to endeavour their own preservation by converting her dead carcase into food, as they did to good effect. The same counsel was embrac’d by those of our sex: the living fed upon the dead; four of our company having the happiness to end their miserable lives on Sunday night the ——— day of January. Their chief distemper, ’tis true, was hunger; but it pleased God to hasten their exit by an immoderate access of cold, caused by a most terrible storm of hail and snow at north-west, on the Sunday aforesaid, which did not only dispatch those four to their long homes, but did sorely threaten all that remained alive, to perish by the same fate.

Great was the toil that lay on my hands (as the strongest to labour) to get fuel together sufficient for our preservation. In the first place I divested myself of my great gown, which I spread at large, and extended against the wind in nature of a screen, having first shifted our quarters to the most calm commodious place that could be found to keep us, as much as possible, from the inclemency of that prodigious storm.

Under the shelter of this traverse I took as many of my comrades as could be comprehended in so small a space; whereas those who could not partake of that accommodation, and were enabled to make provision for themselves, were forced to suffer for it. And it was remarkable, that notwithstanding all the provision that could possibly be made against the sharpness of this cold, either by a well-burning fire consisting of two or three loads of wood, or shelter of this great gown to the windward, we could not be warm. That side of our wearing cloaths was singed and burnt which lay towards the flames, whilst the other side that was from the fire, became frozen and congeal’d. Those who lay to the leeward of the flame, could not stay long to enjoy the warmth so necessary to life, but were forced to quit and be gone to avoid suffocation by the smoke and flame.

When the day appeared, and the sun got up to dissipate the clouds, with downcast looks and dejected, the survivors of us entred into a final deliberation of what remained to be done on our parts (besides our prayers to Almighty God) to spin out a little longer time of life, and wait a further providence from heaven for our better relief. There were still some hands that retained vigour, tho’ not in proportion to those difficulties we were to encounter, which humanly did seem insuperable. The unhappy circumstance of our being coop’d up in an island, was that which took from us all probable hopes of escaping this terrible death that did threaten us every hour. Major Morrison, on whose counsel I had reason to rely most, was extremely decayed in his strength, his legs not being able to support him. It was a wonderful mercy that mine remained in competent strength, for our common good, which I resolved, by God’s help, to employ for that end to the last gasp.

In this last resolution we had to make, I could not think on any thing worthy my proposal, but by an attempt to cross the creek, and swim to the main, (which was not above an hundred yards over) and being there to coast along the woods to the south-west (which was the bearing of Virginia) until I should meet Indians, who would either relieve or destroy us. I fancied the former would be our lot when they should see our conditions, and that no hurt was intended to them; or if they should prove inhuman, and of a bloody nature, and would not give us quarter, why even in that case it would be worth this labour of mine to procure a sudden period to all our miseries.

I open’d my thoughts to this purpose to the company, who were sadly surprized at the motion; but being fully convinc’d in their judgment, that this was the only course that could be depended on (humanly speaking) for our relief, they all agreed it must be done.

To fortify me for this expedition, it was necessary that some provision should be made for a daily support to me in this my peregrination. Our choice was small; our only friend the oyster bank was all we had to rely on; which being well stew’d in their own liquor, and put up into bottles, I made no doubt, by God’s blessing, but that two of them well filled, would suffice to prolong my life in moderate strength, until I had obtain’d my end. To accomplish this design, my cousin Cary laboured hard for oysters, hoping to make one in the adventure.