John Smith’s Bill: Then & Now


A telephone call to International Tours of Pittsburg elicited the information that the Queen Elizabeth II was the only regularly scheduled ocean liner still plying the seas between England and the United States. Departing Southampton, not London, bound for New York, not Jamestown in Virginia, that vessel provides her cheapest cabin for about $1,330 per person for two persons one way and $3,657.50 for the same berth as a single. But the QE2 has a standby fare of $999, and reasoning that English ship captains would fill in with passengers after they’d loaded their vessels with goods bound for Virginia, I concluded that going standby would have suited Smith perfectly. With this lower figure, that makes a 1624 penny equal to about 70 cents today ($999 divided by 1,440), a moderate rate compared with other exchange values found in this survey. Instead of the five weeks and more of the earlier century’s passage, the modern luxury liner takes just five days. [$999]


The fraught of these provisions for a man, will be about half a ton, which is £1 10s.

According to the North American Van Lines agent, shipping a half-ton of personal effects from the James River area to London would cost $226 per 100 pounds of weight, or $2,260. This included packing and labor charges by the agent to pick up, pack, and crate, as well as surface transportation, for door-to-door delivery. Though I could save money by delivering these goods already crated, I decided to go with the full-service rate. [$2,260]

So the whole charge will amount to about £20.

The total in 1989 terms comes to $6,449. For each 1624 penny the modern voyager would have to spend about $1.36 ($6,449 divided by 4,800 pence), a sizable amount perhaps, but probably less than one might expect after nearly four hundred years. As the amount necessary for surviving in a strange, new, and at times hostile land, $6,449 does not really seem like very much at all.

Now if the number be great, [not only] nets, hooks and lines, but cheese, bacon, kine and goats must be added.

This surely seems a good idea even if no one else were to be joining our expedition, but since Smith gave no value, I can omit this from the computation.

And this is the usual proportion the Virginia Company doe[s] bestow upon their tenants they send.

If the U.S. government were to outfit an expedition to a new colony, say one on Mars or in a satellite in fixed orbit around the Earth or Moon, I doubt if the expenditure for provisions would average only $6,449 per person. Perhaps $64,000. Of course, the Virginia Company did send additional supplies during those early years. Yet for this modest fare the company received the services of the planter and established a colony that was to prove of significant benefit to England, if not to the company itself. Many of those sent to America would die, but still they came. By the time of the Revolution, Virginia was not only the oldest of the British colonial settlements in North America but also the most populous and the wealthiest. Capt. John Smith would have been proud.

NOTE: For those interested in how prices have changed over time, the present survey follows a similar one done in 1985. According to the U.S. government’s calculations, over the 1985-88 period (1989 figures are not yet in, of course) the consumer price index rose 14.4 percent. Four years ago the total came to $5,259, or $1,190 less than the current total cost, an increase of 22.7 percent, not too far from the official rate of increase.