DELMARVA ALMANAC

Thomas Savage - American Dreamer

by Dana Kester-McCabe

This is the story of Thomas Savage who was probably the first permanent English settler here on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

I have heard the story of Pocahontas many times but until recently I had not heard about a young man who played an important part in her story before becoming one of the first English settlers on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Thomas Savage was just thirteen when he sailed from England in 1607 for the Jamestown colony with Captain Christopher Newport. Some accounts suggest that Thomas was passed off as the son of
King James I, others represented him as Captain Newport's son. There actually is no record of where Thomas came from or who his parents actually were. In those days children were often indentured by that early age. Young people without any prospects could go to country fairs to look for work and sign service contracts for a year or longer. Those wanting to emigrate to the New Word usually signed up for a seven year stint to work off their passage. Thomas started out his journey expecting be a laborer in the new colony. But the Captain recognized his intelligence and presumably an amiable and thoughtful personality.

Once they arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, Captain Newport joined Captain John Smith on a trade mission with the local native tribes. Thomas Savage was given, along with other gifts, to chief Powhatan who reciprocated with a bushel bag of beans and his own young servant Namontack. Apparently this type of exchange had become a common practice. The boys were to be taught their hosts' language so they could serve as interpreters, and spies. Imagine the conversation that must have taken place when Captain Newport talked Thomas into this job. Maybe he thought it would be a great adventure. Maybe he hoped that it would be easier work than cutting down trees and plowing fields.

Thomas turned out to be well suited to the task before him. Powhatan himself developed great affection for Thomas and took a special interest in him. He became quite adept at his new language and before long was in great demand whenever there were negotiations between the colonists and the local tribes. When the famous princess Pocahontas was ransomed by the English in 1613 it was nineteen year old Thomas Savage who served as interpreter to her brothers. Captain John Smith credited him as indispensible in the talks that brought an end to the First Anglo-Powhatan War and allowed the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe.

Thomas' life was not without its trials. Some of Powhatan's family did not appreciate this interloper. To avoid growing danger Thomas left the tribe to return to Jamestown. Unfortunately, once there, he was never really seen as fully English or fully trustworthy. But his skill as an interpreter kept him busy nonetheless.

Before long Thomas was sent on trade missions throughout the region. One such trip brought him to what is now the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Life for the native peoples here on Delmarva, particularly down on its southernmost tip, was considerably better than that of their counterparts across the Chesapeake in Jamestown. Farming was easier here and there was more than enough small game and fishing even when there was a harsh winter or a dry growing season. Surplus food stores were traded to the Jamestown settlers for metal tools and trinkets. Thomas facilitated several exchanges with Debdeavon the Emperor of the Eastern Shore who was also known as the Laughing King of the Accomacs and the Nussawattocks.

Trade was very profitable for Debdeavon and he like Powhatan became good friends with Thomas Savage as a result. The Laughing King's affection was so great that he gave Thomas a large track of land in Northampton County which is still known as Savage's Neck.

Dedeavon had a reputation for being easy going and for valuing his relationship with the English colonists. In 1622 relationships across the bay, however, were not so good. Powhatan's successor Opechancanough was plotting an attack on Jamestown. He sent word to Debdeavon that he wanted him to send certain poisonous plants that grew here on the Eastern Shore to use against the settlement. Instead Debdeavon warned Thomas who warned the other colonists of an imminent threat. Jamestown Governor Sir Francis Wyatt ignored this and sadly on March 22, 1622, Opechancanough led the slaughter of over three hundred people there, initiating a war that lasted a decade.

Thomas' interpreting services were in even higher demand for military purposes. Soon various English leaders were vying to have Thomas work exclusively for them. When Thomas declined a request made by Virginia Governor George Yeardly's aide Captain William Epps he was convicted of a trumped up charge of slander. His sentence was to work exclusively for Yeardly and Epps for a minimum of five years. Thomas was made the official translator for the Accomac region but was forbidden to even speak with the native peoples there except when following the Governor's instructions. All the work Thomas did for them and even prior to this was done out of his obligation of servitude. He was never paid.

By 1627 Yeardly had died and Epps departed permanently for the West Indies, releasing Thomas from his bonds. Now at the age of 33, he and his wife were free to make a life together on colonial Virginia's Eastern Shore. Four years earlier Thomas had married an English girl named Hannah. She must have been a remarkable young woman. She had come to the colony by herself having paid for her own passage. In those days it was highly unusual for any female to have the resources and autonomy to undertake such an adventure. It is no wonder that two such unique people would find each other. They had one son named John.

Sadly Thomas did not live to see the age of forty. The accounts that I have found do not say what happened to him, just that he was dead by September 1633. It was not unusual at that time for people to live shorter lives with a scarcity of reliable medicine available. He may have simply gotten sick or had an accident. Just the same, he had accomplished a great deal for someone so young. He had served his community with his invaluable translating skills. And, Thomas Savage turned a life of hardship into a prosperous adventure. He is believed to have been the first permanent English settler on Virginia's Eastern Shore and therefore one of Delmarva's first American dreamers.

References:


Ye Kingdome of Accawmacke, Or, The Eastern Shore of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century
By Jennings Cropper Wise

Thomas Savage (ca. 1595–before September 1633)
by Martha McCartney
Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 29 Feb. 2016.

Thomas Savage-Cabin Boy
By R.K.T.Larson
Transcribed from the Virginia Pilot And The Norfolk Landmark for Sunday March 8, 1931.
Boy, Who at 13 Came To Virginia in 1608 Was Adopted As Son By Powhatan and Founded Oldest Family To Be Honored

The Jamestown Project
By Karen Ordahl Kupperman
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press - Cambridge Massachusetts - 2007

We Were There, Too!: Young People in U.S. History
By Phillip Hoose
Melanie Kroupa Books - New York - 2001

Debedeavon
Wikipedia

Visit the historic markers on the Eastern Shore of Virginia:
Home of First Settler
Historic Marker Database

Occohannock Indians
Historic Marker Database

Debdeavon
Historic Marker Database

Hedra Cottage - Occahannock
Historic Marker Database

Gingaskin Indian Reservation
Historic Marker Database

Accomac County / Northampton County
Historic Marker Database