John Smith’s Bill: Then & Now

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The total weight came to 480 ounces exactly. The price for all that food was $41.73, about four-fifths of my allowance, so 1 added one more package of beans ($1.19 for 2 pounds), Budget egg noodles (a pound for $1.05), kielbasa (16 ounces for $2.75), a bottle of K.C. Masterpiece barbecue sauce (original flavor, 19-ounce jar for $1.50), another bottle of ReaLemon juice (more scurvy remedy—$1.33 for 16 fluid ounces), one more pound of Armour bacon ($1), and 2.4 more ounces of raw Trail Mix (45 cents), all of which brought the total to the exact amount required. In weight, however, 1 ballooned to 597 ounces, or about 6¼ pounds of on board provisions per person, a situation I suspect Smith would have permitted. Just how long these would have lasted on the voyage over is questionable, and certainly I would have to rely on my hunting prowess and the Indians for food in America, as did the settlers in Virginia.

In addition, remember that the voyage itself took about five weeks to several months to accomplish. The first expedition of the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery departed London on December 19, 1606, dropped down the Thames to the sea, and spent six weeks there waiting for favorable winds, all the while consuming precious food stocks. Finally the winds changed, and then the ships began the long journey to the Canary Islands, across the Atlantic to the West Indies, and up the coast past Florida to the Chesapeake. They made landfall at the future site of James Town on May 13, 1607, after a trip that took in all about twenty-one weeks. Look again at that food supply and imagine an impecunious landlubber, seasick and terrified, rationing his meager provisions and hoping for a quick end to the ordeal.

Total per man for sugar, spice, and fruit 2s. Id. [$9]

So the full charge after this rate for each person will amount to about the sum of £12 6s. 3d.

The grand total so far amounts to $3,190. Shocking? Many people lived at or below the poverty level in England in 1624, but establishing what that meant in pounds and shillings is not easy. A rough approximation can be made. In 1588 some representative wage rates for skilled workers in the trade companies of London ranged between £3 6s. 8d. and £6 per year, including meat and drink, and while there were modest increases in the actual amount of pay, the years of King James I’s reign, 1603-25, recorded a noticeable drop in the real wages of workers whatever the numbers. At about the time of Smith’s writing, the average daily pay for a skilled workman was about 6 pence a day plus meat; if he labored every day of the year—unlikely in the extreme—the annual pay of this person would come to £9 2s. 6d. An annual wage of around £5 would come nearer the mark. Those engaged in farming might have had even less money as income; they may well have raised little more than enough to eat. Thus the amount set by the captain was much more than, perhaps even twice as much as, an average annual income for most of those thinking about the trip to America. In 1989, however, $3,190 represented less than the $5,469 annual income set by the government of the United States as the poverty threshold for a single individual and less than a third of the $10,989 annual income considered the poverty level for a family of four, probably the more appropriate gauge when we compare the two eras. The conclusion would seem to be that even though we skimped some on food, a situation that today’s traveler would be most likely to remedy, unless there were severe weight limitations, going to another Virginia would be well within the means of at least some “poor” Americans. Put another way, a great many Englishmen had to indenture themselves—to become hired servants for a term of, usually, between five to seven years to the company or the individual who paid the passage to America—in order to make the trip, but Americans of the late twentieth century would probably not have to mortgage a sizable portion of their working years to start a new life. While the impoverished would-be colonist from Smith’s England contemplated a lofty sum twice or more his annual income, an American of today would require somewhat or substantially less than his or her annual income to outfit for the journey.

The total in 1989 terms comes to $6,449. As the amount necessary for surviving in a strange, new, and at times hostile land, it does not really seem like very much at all.

I should also note that Captain Smith left out a few items most of us would think essential: can opener, needles and thread, soap, writing and toilet paper, canteen or thermos, stamps, underwear, family Bible, books, gloves, sweater, scarf, matches, deck of cards, soft drinks, screwdriver and screws, suitcase, mattress, and, of course, countless battery-operated or electric gadgets. Nevertheless, by taking no more than Smith stipulated, a traveler to Virginia would have had enough to set up housekeeping and survive in the New World, provided there were Indians around to show him how to plant corn, fish, and learn the ways of the forest.

The passage of each man is £6.