Friday, July 18, 2014

Ancestor Spotlight - Dr. John Woodson

     Dr. John Woodson was my 10th great-grandfather. He was born in 1586 in Devonshire, England.  He matriculated at St. John's College at Oxford on March 1, 1604.  He lived in Dorsetshire until 1619, when he and his wife Sarah decided to join an expedition to the new colony of Jamestown.

The Jamestown Colony

A view of Jamestown, circa 1620
    On January 29th, 1619, the ship George sailed from England and landed the following April at Jamestown, Virginia.  The ship carried Sir George Yeardley and a company of his men to the Virginia colony, where Sir George had been appointed the new governor.  Among the passengers on the George was Dr. John Woodson, attached to Sir George's company as surgeon. His wife Sarah accompanied him, and was one of only a handful of women to voyage to the colony before 1620.

   At the time of their arrival the Jamestown colony was just over a dozen years old and numbered no more than 600 residents. Drought, disease, starvation, and war with the local tribe of Powhatan Indians meant that only about half the colonists who arrived between 1607 and 1624 survived. 

   Dr. John Woodson settled on Governor Yeardley's plantation, known as Flowerdew Hundred, which was about 15 miles up the James river from Jamestown.  Dr. Woodson lived in a small, fortified compound on the plantation with about 10 other families. 

  Dr. Woodson and his wife arrived at the start of the second major wave of colonists to Jamestown.  Between 1619 and 1622, the number of colonists grew to about 1000 in the New World colony.  This tide of newcomers upset Chief Opechancanough of the Powhatan Confederacy of Indian tribes, who saw the influx as proof that the English planned to expand in to Powhatan lands. 

The Massacre of 1622
    On March 22, 1621/22, Chief Opechancanough launched a series of coordinated attacks on all the English plantations and towns developing around Jamestown.  Powhatan Confederacy braves entered each settlement with trade goods, looking as if they wished to barter.  When the colonists approached them, the braves grabbed any weapons or tools that were at hand and attacked the unprepared colonists.  347 people were killed, a quarter of the colony's total population.  Only the most fortified positions survived.  The fotifications at Flowerdew Hundred held and the Woodson family survived the attack.

    The settlement at Flowerdew Hundred plantation was one of the few that was allowed to remain outside the walls of Jamestown after the 1622 attack.  The next ten years involved attacks of retribution by the colonists. The time passed relatively peacefully for the Woodsons.  Two sons were born to them, John in 1632 and Robert in 1634.

    In 1634 the colonists built a pallisade defense wall across a six-mile wide strip of land between the James River and York River estuaries.  This structure may have lulled the colonists in to a false sense of security.  The Powhatan tribes were in no state to attack, having been nearly wiped out by English reprisal attacks. Emboldened, the colonists started building plantations outside the pallisade around 1640.  Chief Opechancanough was once again outraged by the English encroachment on his lands.  Gathering his forces, on April 18, 1644 he made a second surprise attack on the colony.

The Indian Massacre of 1644

    An account of the Woodson family's ordeal during this attack was handed down through the Woodson family and first printed by a Woodson family genealogist in the early 19th century.

    On the morning of April 18, 1644, Thomas Ligon, a soldier in the Governor's employ, stopped by the Woodson's house seeking Dr. Woodson's services.  Sarah Woodson informed him that her husband was out on his rounds through the nearby plantations, and Ligon elected to wait for the doctor to return.  When Ligon saw the Indians approaching, he raised an alarm and told Sarah to hide inside with her two sons.  Ligon grabbed his eight-foot muzzle-loaded rifle, and bracing his gun in the fork of a tree, fired on the approaching Indians.

   Meanwhile, Sarah gathered her boys together and desperately searched for a place to hid her 10 and 12 year old sons.  She spied the root cellar where the family kept potatoes during the winter.  She put Robert in the pit and covered it.  Then she upturned a washtub and had John hide beneath it.  With the boys hidden, she grabbed her husband rifle and proceeded to load and fire upon the Indian's from the window of the cabin.

   Before she could get off a second shot, the Indians had made their way around the back of the cabin and out of her sight.  Then she heard sounds on the side of the cabin and on the roof.  The Indians climbed atop the cabin an two of them attempted to come down the chimney.  The fire had gone out, but she still had a pot of hot water sitting in the hearth.  Thinking quickly, she upended the pot in to the fireplace just as the first Indian descended in to view, scalding his face.  His companion then climbed out over his wounded fellow and came towards her.  Sarah grabbed an iron roasting spit hanging next to the hearth and swung it at her attacker, knocking him senseless.

    Sarah grabbed her children from their hiding places and fled the house.  She ran towards Ligon, who was still firing upon the Indians, who were now in retreat.  Ligon struck another Indian as they fled.  In total, he and Sarah killed seven of their attackers. As she watched the Indians flee back in to the woods, Sarah noticed a familiar horse wandering riderless through the field from which the Indians had attacked.  It was her husband's horse.  Running to it, she found her husband lying beside the road to their house, an arrow in his chest.  He had evidently returned just as the Indians attacked, and having forgot his musket at home, was defenseless against them.

The Woodson Musket

    Dr. John Woodson was one of 500 colonists who died that fateful day in 1644.  Although the number was even greater than that killed in the 1622 attack, it represented less than 10% of the colony's population in 1644.  Nevertheless, the retribution by the colonists was severe.  A counterattack on all the nearby Powhatan-allied tribes nearly wiped them out.  In 1646 Chief Opechancanough was captured and brought to Jamestown.  He was nearly 100 years old at the time.  While being held at the stockade awaiting trial, he was killed by one of his guards in revenge for a family member killed in the 1644 attack.  After the death of their leader, the Powhatan Confederacy fell apart, and the individual tribes were either confined to reservations or left the area.

    Sarah Woodson remarried twice and outlived all her husbands.  She died in 1660.  Her sons both married and had large families.  Their descendants passed on the story of Sarah saving her sons from the Indian massacre, and referred to themselves as being either "potato hole" or "washtub" Woodsons. The Woodson musktet was also passed down from generation to generation, until in 1925 it was donated to the Virginia Historical Society, where it is on display in Richmond.

The First Slaveholders

The first Africans arrive at Jamestown
    The romantic and heroic story of John and Sarah Woodson as related through to her descendants frequently omits one of the most significant known facts about this early colonial family.  Dr. Woodson and Sarah were also one of the first recorded slaveholders in Colonial America.  In 1619 a Dutch privateer ship called The White Lion, and an English privateer called the Treasurer, captured a Portuguese slave ship São João Bautista in the Caribbean.  The privateers took the slaves aboard their ships and set sail for Jamestown to sell them to the colonists.

    The ships arrived at Point Comfort, on the James River, late in August 1619, with "20 and odd" Africans aboard the White Lion and at least a few more aboard the Treasurer.   Dr. Woodson bought some of these Africans.  In 1623 a census of the colony listed 23 Africans, six of whom appear in Dr. Woodson's household. Notably, Dr. Woodson's six African servants are the most of any colonist, and one of only two households that did not give names for their African servants on the 1623 census.  The fact that all the other Africans listed in the census were named could be interpreted as them having been indentured at the time of the census, while Dr. Woodson's servants were slaves.  This is similar to how slaves were counted but not named on future census.  If so, then the record of Dr. Woodson's servants on this census could be considered the first recorded mention of African slaves in Colonial America.

    It should be noted that in the early stages of Colonial America, Africans, though imported against their will, were not necessarily considered slaves as we understand it today.  Instead, they were considered indentured servants, similar to poorer English who agreed to work off their passage to the colonies under the headright system.  Several Africans were able to gain their freedom and become planters with headright contracts of their own.  Anthony Johnson was one such man, transported prior to 1622.  By 1651 he was a free man with 250 acres and five indentured servants of his own.  But Anthony Johnson is the exception.  By 1650 there was already some distinction made between indentured servants based on race.  The records of the early colony in Virginia show a number of African indentured servants having "life terms" of servitude, while their white counterparts only served a limited seven-year term.  This was the first step towards the racial, hereditary institution of slavery in America.

    It is not clear what happened to Dr. Woodson's servants.  There is no further record of them in his household (it is possible they were killed in the Indian attack of 1644).  When Sarah died in 1660, her will did not mention any servants. Around 1670 the first laws defining slaves were enacted in the colony.  When their son John Jr. wrote his will in 1699, he bequeathed several slaves to his children. The idea that one man could be another man's property was fully accepted by 1700 in Colonial Virginia.

Selected sources:

"Virginia's First Africans" from the Encyclopedia Virginia.
Archaeological Excavation of Flowerdew Hundred, by University of Virginia
J.C. Schreiber, "The Woodson Family"
Paul E. Pennebaker, "Dr. John Woodson"


Karen Woodson said...

Very cool! Thank you for adding the part about which son was in which hiding place, since most Woodsons never remember or don't even know lol!
~Karen Woodson
-Descended from Robert Woodson, the second son-

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Elaine Hatfield Powell said...

Thank you Steven for your most informative website! I am also a 10th great grandchild of John & Sarah Woodson. I put a link to your website from my JAMES family website at My James family are descendants of the Woodsons and they lived in Martin's Hundred which is on the Carter's Grove Plantation property, not far from Flowerdew. I descend from Robert & Elizabeth (Ferris) Woodson through their daughter Sarah Woodson.

Anonymous said...

Hello Elaine, My name is Sandy and my mother was a Woodson. We are from Richmond, Va. John and Sara are my grandparents 13 generations back and I am a Tater Hole. All of which I have just recently found out. I have just been to the VHS and seen the gun with my cousin from Florida. We find this fascinating and would like to find out how we are connected. If interested my email is

Anonymous said...

Hello Karen, My name is Sandy and I am a Tater Hole descendant from Richmond. If you are interested in seeing how we may be connected email at