John Smith: Virginia, June, 1607


John Smith.

Image source: David A. Price, "Britannica Blog. Jamestown at 400, Happy Birthday, America," May 14, 2007.

"Money, saxefras, furs, or love"

A book titled A Map of Virginia, describing the early history of that colony through the eyes of one group of its settlers, was published in Oxford, England, under the editorship of John Smith, with contributions by himself and other evewitnesses.(1)

Chapter two relates that within ten days after June 15, 1607, when the ships which had brought the colonists departed back to England, the remaining settlers were "oppressed" by "extreme weakness and sickness." The "cause" was said to be that while the ships had remained the settlers'

allowance was somewhat bettered, by a daily proportion of biscuit which the sailors would pilfer to sell, give or exchange with us, for money, saxefras, furs, or love. [A printed marginal note identifies this passage as "The sailors' abuses."](2)

After the sailors departed, inadequate food and housing, and "extreme toil," seriously weakened the remaining Virginia settlers.


The above narrative presents a problem of historical interpretation. In one interpretation, the document suggests that "love," seemingly meaning sexual favors, was one of those items which the first American settlers exchanged, along with money, sassafras, and furs, to keep themselves alive. In that interpreation, the term "love" apparently referred to sexual contacts between men. Since there were no women among the Virginia colonists in 1607, the "gratification" of the "animal instinct" cited above would make this the earliest documented instance of carnal relations between Englishmen in the New World.

Is another interpretation plausible? Did "love" simply refer to "affection"? Was it likely that seventeenth-century English sailors would have traded stolen biscuit for the settlers' affection, or given biscuit away because of their affection for the settlers?

The marginal reference to the sailors' "abuses" lends credence to the interpretation that "love" here meant sexual exchanges. "Love" was used at this time to refer to "The animal instinct between the sexes, and its gratification"; the Oxford English Dictionary cites the King James Bible (1611): "Come let us take our fill of love until the morning" (Proverbs vii, 18).

The existence of what may be a casual reference to a sexual exchange between males, in an account published and publicly distributed in England, begins to be explained by its historical context. The Map of Virginia did not, according to its modern editor, "tell the side of the Virginia Company, with which [John] Smith was so often at odds." Smith and his close associates wrote their version of events "against the wishes of the Virginia Company," and together had it printed with the help of a group of sympathetic clergymen.(3)

The subtitle of the book promised that it unfolded the "fundamental causes from whence have sprang so many miseries to the undertakers, and scandals to the businesses." An opening note "To the reader" stressed the narrative's truth, and that the book was written by "those that have lived residents in the land: not sailors, or passengers, nor ... mercenary contemplators." The manuscript "was thought fit to publish" in its "rude" original form, since such an honest, unadorned account would best help to "purge that famous action" of colonization from "infamous scandal." (Does that assertion argue against a sexual interpretation of the word love?) The "discourse," it was said, "is no Judge of men's manners," and was "only a reporter of their actions in Virginia, not [intended] to disgrace any, accuse any, excuse any, nor flatter any." The narrative "can detract from none that intendeth there to adventure their fortunes." To "speak truly of the first planters, howsoever many difficulties obscured their endevours," is said to be a way of showing gratefulness and memorializing them.(4)

The reference to the "love"/"biscuit" exchange appears in chapter two of A Map of Virginia. Chapters one and two, apparently written by Thomas Studley, Robert Fenton, Edward Harrington, and John Smith, were intended to explain why "there was no better speed and success" in the early colonizing of Virginia.(5) The chapters relate a tale of sickness, storms at sea, "discontents," "envy," "dissention," "malice," and political intrigue among the first settlers, as well as assaults by hostile Indians.

Does the casualness of the reference to the exchange of "love" for biscuit suggest that such life and death barters were common knowledge among some seventeenth-century Englishmen?


  1. Adapted from Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac (NY: Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 66-67, which cites John Smith et al., A Map of Virginia. With a Description of the Country, the Commodities, People, Government and Religion (Oxford: Joseph Barnes, 1612), in Philip L. Barbour, ed., The Jamestown Voyages under the First Charter, 1606-1609: Documents Relating to the Foundation of Jamestown and the History of the Jamestown Colony Up To the Departure of Captain John Smith, Last President of the Council in Virginia Under the First Charter, Early in October 1609 (London: published for the Hakluyt Society by Cambridge University Press, 1969), 2 vols., vol. 2, ch. 2, p. 384 (p. 9 in original 1612 ed.). I thank Doug Thompson for informing me of this document. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that "love" was used in the seventeenth century "In reference to illicit relations: A paramour; said of both men and women" (an example dates to 1613). The word "love" also signified "The personification of sexual attraction" (an example dates to 1667). The term "love-boy" (1656) meant a "catamite" (a "boy kept for unnatural purposes"). The reference is classical. TIMELINE ENTRY:
  2. In the old documents spelling and punctuation have usually been modernized and regularized for ease in reading, quotation marks have been added; nothing of substance has been changed. Occasionally, an original spelling or capitalization ("saxefras," for example) has been retained where it seemed to enhance the period "feel" of the text without distracting from its meaning.
  3. Barbour, ed., The Jamestown Voyages, 322.
  4. Barbour, ed., The Jamestown Voyages, 376-77.
  5. Barbour, ed., The Jamestown Voyages, 377.