German Sawmill Wrights at Jamestown in 1620
by Gary C. Grassl, President The German Heritage Society of Greater Washington, D.C.
The records of the Virginia
Company of London for June and July 1620 show that four unnamed but "very skillful" sawmill wrights came from "Hambur rough" [Hamburg] to London for service in the Jamestown Colony. "Men
skillful for sawmills were procured from Germany and sent to Virginia at the Company's great charge," wrote Alderman Johnson.
By 1620, the Colony had advanced beyond Jamestown, leaving small
settlements up and down the James River. The Company was anxious to establish sawmills in the Colony so that planks and boards could be cut for building houses and constructing ships. However, Captain Thomas Nuce wrote
from Virginia in May 1621 that the Germans were facing great difficulties. Swift streams were required to power the wheels of a sawmill, and the sawmill wrights had difficulty finding any in Tidewater Virginia. The
natives, who were poised for a general uprising, still controlled the upstream areas, which made them dangerous for colonists. In addition, the Germans had great difficulty finding people to help them construct the
sawmills. They even had difficulty obtaining sustenance.
Captain Nuce complained that the Germans couldn't build the sawmills and at the same time "look after their own livelihood." The company
bade Governor Sir Francis Wyatt of Virginia "to take care of the Dutch sent to build sawmills, and seat them at the falls [of the James river], that they may bring their timber by the current of the water."
The Company told the governor in July 1621, "And here we earnestly commend unto your care the Dutchmen sent for erecting of sawing mills, a work most necessary, since the materials for housing and shipping cannot
otherwise without much more trouble, pains and charge be provided."
The Company repeated its entreaty to the Governor and Council of Virginia to aid the German sawmill wrights: "... we commend
unto your care our Saw Mills, a work of such importance as it deserves your special furtherance, and therefore we desire the Dutchmen sent for the fabric of them may be extraordinarily well used, and carefully provided
of apparel out of the new Magazine, which we would have paid for by the Company's tobacco. As for such necessaries as they want, especially beer, which we can now be shipped for want of time and tonnage, we have desired
Sir Francis Wyatt to supply them with, which shall be repaid, and thus supplied we hope they will be encouraged to bring that so much desired work to perfection." In August 1621, the Company reiterated its appeal.
The sawmill wrights from Hamburg faced dauntingly difficult conditions in Virginia. The colonists were barely able to subsist, and many died from diseases against which their bodies had developed no
immunities. As a matter of fact, 4 out of 5 colonists died within a few years of their arrival. "How so many people sent hither of late years have been lost, I cannot conceive unless it be through water and want
...." wrote Captain Nuce.
Alderman Johnson reported that the men "procured from Germany ... spent 7 or 8 months to find out a convenient place to set the mills on, which at last being found, the
poor Dutchmen being disheartened by their unkind entertainment [treatment] in Virginia and almost famished by their mean provisions and being utterly disabled to bring that work to perfection without the help of many
hands which an order of Court [of the Virginia Company] made here [in London] could not help them in Virginia. They oppressed with these and many other difficulties too great for them to overcome fell grievously sick of
the diseases incident to the country...."
We learn from the records of the Virginia Company that "whereas they hired heretofore certain Dutch carpenters of Hamburrough for making of sawmills in
Virginia, whither they being sent, died within a short time after (and only one returned) having effected nothing in that business ...."
The one who returned was the son of one of the mill wrights who
had died in Virginia. He asked to return to Europe when he was the only one of the four left alive. The German widows of the three men who perished in Virginia after a stay of about a year asked for compensation, and
the Virginia Company paid them altogether 27 pounds.