Home Business and Labor The Wreck of the Little James, Plymouth Colony’s Snakebit Ship

The Wreck of the Little James, Plymouth Colony’s Snakebit Ship

It caused nothing but trouble from the start

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A young British aristocrat, Capt. Emmanual Altham, lost his ship and nearly lost his life off the coast of Maine in the early 17th century. But this wasn’t the first crisis for the 44-ton Little James, nor would it be the last.

A few years after the Mayflower’s arrival, the Plymouth Colony still relied on support from English ships, and the spring of 1623 the Merchant Adventurers company sent two: the Little James and the Anne. 

Arms of the Merchant Adventurers.

The Little James‘ crew agreed to spend six years in Plymouth Colony. They expected a share of profit from fishing and trading.


Little James

The Little James, though small compared to the 140-ton Anne, carried supplies, livestock and 90 fresh immigrants for the struggling settlement. Many were wives or children of the colonists, desperate to see their loved ones, yet apprehensive about what awaited them on the other side of the ocean.

Commanded by Emmanuel Altham, the James operated under the practical control of shipmaster John Bridges. Though the Anne and the James left at the same time, the James languished in the fog for a week on England’s Isle of Wight.

After restocking their supplies during the delay, they soon faced shortages as their supplies spoiled. The blame fell on passenger John Jenney, a barrel maker apparently in charge of the food stores. One sailor explained Jenney’s pregnant wife distracted him from his ship duties. In fact, Sarah Jenney had a child on board a month short of their arrival in Plymouth.

Tensions among crewmembers simmered further when the captain refused to plunder a nearby French vessel. For Altham, conflicts between European nations did not justify piracy, but apparently it did for the crew.

The Little James Arrives

Though the Anne arrived at Plymouth on July 10, the lagging Little James didn’t pull into shore until August 5, spending  over 14 weeks crossing the Atlantic. It took five more weeks than the Mayflower, which was blown off course and beaten by a storm.


The Mayflower

Shortly after unloading the Little James, crewmembers began protesting their contract. They claimed they were tricked into accepting work arrangements. They refused to cooperate with the shipmasters and they demanded advance payment.

Plymouth’s governor, William Bradford, stepped in to keep the peace, promising them their pay.

The harsh living conditions in Plymouth caused anguish among the passengers, many of whom belonged to the Pilgrims’ community in Holland. Bradford wrote, “some wished themselves in England again.” They “pitied the distress they saw their friends had been long in,” wrote Bradford.

More Trouble

While on coastal trading missions, the crew had to disassemble the mast of the Little James and replace it. In early April, Captain Altham took the ship and crew to Maine on a fishing assignment. After experiencing a New England winter, the hungry and disgruntled crew was even more unmanageable. Just off the shore of Bristol, Maine, far from any Plymouth leaders, the crew mutinied, They threatened to destroy both the ship and its captain. Then they reconsidered. The frustrated mutineers forced Captain Altham onto a small boat, demanding he bring back food from Plymouth.

On April 10, 1624, as Altham and Edward Winslow sailed north with food, a severe storm slammed into the James. The gale blew the vessel against the coast, battering it against boulders. It smashed holes in the ship so big that “a horse and carte might have gone in.” John Bridges, the ship’s pilot, drowned. Two crewmembers were killed when the sails and their wooden booms were blown off the ship.


Edward Winslow

Those crewmen who managed to escape to shore merely watched the Little James sink. They did nothing to spare the ship or its cargo. The crew’s negligence had caused the total loss of the James, along with the small fishing boats used for trading on the coast. Plymouth also lost trade goods and a load of fish. Captain Altham lost his books and most of his personal belongings on board.

Altham and Plymouth leaders pooled their meager funds to hire local mariners to salvage the ship. It was eventually towed to shore, and repairs took six weeks. But by then, the ship had eaten so much of the colony’s financial resources the leaders thought it best to send the ship home for whatever they could make from it once it returned.

After the long and costly repairs, the James sailed back safely, and the two chief mutineers went quickly to court to sue the Plymouth Colony and their investors for unpaid wages. That was just a portion of the litigation, finger-pointing, and court hearings that occurred in the aftermath.

Still More Trouble

But the drama of the Little James still didn’t end. Surprisingly it sailed more missions back and forth across the Atlantic. In 1627, it returned to England towed by the ship White Angel, and filled with a profitable cargo of fish and beaver skin. When they reached the English Channel near Plymouth of Devonshire, the James’ towline was cut free from the White Angel. However, it was then immediately overtaken by a Turkish warship. Pirates sold off the cargo of fish and beaver skin, and the shipmaster and men were sold into slavery.


William Bradford

Nothing is heard of the Little James after that. Looking back on the story of the James, William Bradford wrote, “I fear the Adventurers did over-pride themselves in her, for she had ill success.”

Donald W. White is an Oregon writer, artist and minister, with graduate degrees from Pepperdine and Abilene Christian Universities. His book A Plymouth Pilgrim is a fully modernized version of William Bradford’s personal account of the roots of Plymouth Colony, and he is currently at work on A Pilgrim Almanac.

Images: Map of New England By http://maps.bpl.org – A mapp of New England /, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27807455. Merchant Adventurers arms By (Lobsterthermidor (talk) 23:58, 12 April 2016 (UTC)) – Own work using lion element from commons File:Blason ville fr Andernos-les-Bains (Gironde).svg by User:Henrysalome; rose element from commons Blason_famille_fr_de_Cacqueray by User:Tretinville, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48159571

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