Francis Nelson, mariner

Francis Nelson, captain of the Phoenix, arrived from England at Jamestown on 20 Apr 1608, with part of the first supply of 40 new settlers and supplies. Capt. John Smith described him as a good mariner and an honest man. He said that because Nelson’s ship had encountered a hurricane in the West Indies and had been driven ashore, he was late in reaching Virginia. Smith said that Nelson had refused to have his vessel and crew spend extra time in the colony unless they were compensated. On 20 May 1608, Captain Francis Nelson accompanied Christopher Newport on an exploratory voyage of the James River. On 2 Jun 1608, Smith, his crew, and his vessel accompanied Nelson and Phoenix to present-day Cape Charles and Nelson sailed for England with a cargo of cedar wood. His ship, the Phœnix, made a quick voyage home, reaching London before 7 July 1608.

800px-zuniga mapBefore they parted, Smith gave Nelson a rough sketch-map of the Chesapeake Bay and its river system, as well as a letter “to a worshipfull friend of his in England”. Those parts of Smith’s letter dealing with events in Virginia from 26 April 1607 to 2 June 1608 — including the three-week period during which Smith was held captive by the Powhatan Indians (ca.16 Dec 1607 through 8 Jan 1608) — were printed in London about a month later. Hence we read that on 13 Aug 1608 there was entered at Stationer’s Hall for publication, by “John Tappe, printer and William Welby bookseller at the sign of the Greyhound, in Paules Church-yard. A booke called A True Relatione of such occurrences and accidents of note as have hapened in Virginia synce the first plantinge of that colonye, which is now resident in the South parte of Virginia, till Master Nelson’s comminge Away from them,” etc. It was the first account of the Virginia colony published to the world. For cogent reasons it was not “Published by Authoritie of his Majesties Counsell of Virginia.”

zunigaA copy of part of Smith’s map soon arrived in Spain, sent from London in a diplomatic dispatch in September 1608 by the Spanish ambassador, Don Pedro de Zuñiga. Known as the Zuñiga map, it documents numerous Indian settlements and includes travels to the south and west in search of the Lost Colony of Roanoke.  The dispatch and map constituted one of Zuñiga’s several attempts to interest King Philip III in eliminating the Virginia colony. The map would have made it relatively easy to do so, for the triangular James fort was clearly noted on the north side of the carefully drawn James River. Only a few months after Smith drew his first map, then, it had become an element in an international intrigue that threatened the English settlement’s existence.

buttonIn 1612 Francis Nelson, sailed in a two-ship expedition with Capt. Thomas Button, seen here,  for Hudson's Bay, whence they intended to search for the North-west Passage.

Nelson sailed with Button as the master of the lead ship, the Resoution.  The expedition sailed from London, England about the beginning of May 1612. After clearing Land's End, the ships, though hindered by adverse winds, made all haste across the ocean and passing well south of Greenland and south of Resolution Island entered the passage of Hudson's Strait. Often trapped in thick ice fields after entering the Strait, the ships' progress was delayed but at length they arrived at Digges Island. Here the voyagers had a welcome respite of eight days. They were able to take on fresh water and also vary their diet with deer meat from the animals they killed on the island. Here, too, the general ordered the assembling of a pinnace which he had carried from England in pieces.

On leaving Digges Island, the ships sailed westward and the explorers discovered land, probably on the west side of Southampton Island, one hundred and seventy-four miles from Cape Comfort, which land, the general called Cary's Swans' Nest. The ships, proceeding south-westward, again reached land at about latitude 60° 40'. This was on 13 Aug 1612 almost one hundred days since the expedition had sailed from England. Here, disillusionment overcame Captain Button, and he named this place Hopes Checked. Here, too, the ships had been lashed by a severe storm and the general had need of a harbour in order to repair some losses. Beset by stormy weather, after sailing southward for two days, the general realized that winter had descended. On 15 Aug he decided to put up for the winter in the vicinity of 50° 10'. The haven he chose was a small creek or rill on the north side of a river now called Nelson River. Here Francis Nelson fell ill, died and was buried. Port Nelson, today a ghost town, was named after him.   

On 9 Nov 1612, Francis had made his will. He indicated that he was from St. Katherine’s Precinct in London and identified himself as a mariner. When he made this will he was still owed money on account for two of his Virginia voyages. Nelson named as heirs, his mother Annie Handley of Sadbery (possibly Sudbury) in County York, and identified himself as a mariner. When he made his will he was still owed money on account for two of his Virginia voyages. Nelson named as heirs, his mother Annie Handley of Sadbery (possibly Sudbury) in County York, his sisters Elizabeth Nelson and Anne Sherwood, and his cousin Daniel Nelson. (Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers, 1607-1635 - A Biographical Dictionary by Martha W. McCartney).

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