Grapes & Wines in 17C Colonial America
Early settlers in colonial America recorded abundant wild grape vines along the Atlantic coast of eastern North America. The Pilgrims in New England found the species Vitis labrusca growing profusely in the woods around their settlements. This labrusca, or northern fox grape, is the best known of the native species, because the Concord grape is the base of many American juice & jellies. Before the Pilgrims landed, the gentlemen of the Virginia Company at Jamestown noted a number of native grape species, especially on bottom lands, on river banks, & in swamps, often covering hundreds of square feet.
In 1564 the French Protestant Admiral Gaspard de Coligny sent out a colony of Huguenots to the St. John's River in Florida, & there, at Fort Caroline, pirate Captain John Hawkins found the survivors in 1565 on the verge of starvation. Hawkins noted that though they had failed to grow food for themselves, yet "in the time that the Frenchmen were there, they made 20 hogsheads of wine." Sir John Hawkins (Hawkyns) (1532-1595), an English naval commander & administrator & privateer, was an early promoter of English involvement in the Atlantic trade.
After the French had been driven away from the Florida coast, the Spaniards made a settlement on nearby Santa Elena Island—now Parris Island, South Carolina—and a vineyard was reported as planted there by 1568.
On the low coast of Hatarask (Hatteras) Island, North Carolina, the English found the land was covered with grapes, growing so close to the water's edge that "the very beating & surge of the Sea overflowed them." The journal was written by Capt Philip Amadas (b 1566) & Master Arthur Barlowe (1555-1620), explorers sent by Sir Walter Raleigh(c 1552-1618), who arrived on Roanoke Island on July 13, 1584. Back in England, Barlowe wrote an account of the New World, which Amadas signed. The publication was circulated in December of 1584. The grapes spread beyond the shore, the chronicler & promoter says: "We found such plentie, as well there as in all places else, both on the sand & on the greene soile on the hils, as in the plaines, as well on every little shrubbe, as also climing towards the tops of high Cedars, that I thinke in all the world the like abundance is not to be found: & my selfe having seene those parts of Europe that most abound, find such difference as were incredible to be written."
The settlers of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, the 1st permanent colony, were struck by the rich profusion of grapes that adorned the woods of their colony. Indeed, by this time, they expected to see them, for the ability of the New World to grow grapes "naturally" was one of the details constantly & optimistically noted in the accounts published by Hakluyt & other promoters of exploration & settlement.
On reaching the James River they at saw "great store of Vines in bignesse of a man's thigh, running up to the tops of the Trees in Great abundance." The Virginia settlers apparently quickly tried a little experimental winemaking. A report by an Irish sailor who made the 1st voyage to Jamestown says that he sampled 1 or 2 of the wines produced & found them very similar to the Spanish Alicante. A 1609 statement made by one of the promoters of the Virginia Company, Robert Johnson, who foresaw Virginia as a rival to the Canaries, speculated that "we doubt not but to make there in few years store of good wines, as any from the Canaries."
Captain John Smith (1580-1631) claimed that the colonists of the 1st Virginia Voyage made "near 20 gallons of wine" from "hedge grapes." William Strachey (1572-1621), who spent the year 1610-11 in Jamestown, noted that there he had "drunk often of the rath wine, which Doctor Bohoune & other of our people have made full as good as your French-British wine, 20 gallons at a time have been sometimes made without any other help than by crushing the grape with the hand, which letting to settle 5 or 6 days hath in the drawing forth proved strong & heady." Dr. Laurence Bohune (Bohun or Boone), whose wine Strachey drank, is the 1st winemaker in America whose name is recorded. Bohune (c 1575-1621) was a member of the Virginia Governor's Council known for experimenting with Virginia's indigenous plants. He came out to Jamestown in 1610, & became physician general to the colony, before being killed in a sea battle with the Spanish on a voyage from England back to Virginia.
In his, "True Declaration of the Estate of the Colony in Virginia" (1610), Lord De La Warr (Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr (1577-1618) noted "there are many vines planted in divers places, & do prosper well." Ralph Hamor, who was in the colony from 1610 to 1614, wrote that they had planted wild grapes in "a vineyard near Henrico" of 3 or 4 acres. Henrico was founded in 1611. Captain Ralph Hamor (1589-1626) was one of the original colonists to settle in Virginia, & author of A True Discourse of the Present State of Virginia, which he wrote when he returned to London in 1615.
The Laws Divine, Moral & Martial, the stern Virginian code drawn up in 1611, forbade the settlers to "rob any vineyards or gather up the grapes" on pain of death. The Virginia Company created a law in 1619 requiring "every householder" to "yearly plant & maintain ten vines until they have attained to the art & experience of dressing a vineyard either by their own industry or by the instruction of some vigneron." The instruction was to be provided by the "divers skilfull vignerons" who, the company reported, had been sent out in 1619, "with store also from hence of vineplants of the best sort." This is the earliest record of the effort to transplant the European vine to eastern America.
Apparently 8 vignerons were sent to Virginia in 1619, Frenchmen from Languedoc—Elias La Garde, David Poule, Jacques Bonnall are among the names preserved of this group. They were settled at Kecoughton, Elizabeth City County, near the coast & hopefully relatively secure from Indian attack. This region had been recommended as early as 1611 by Sir Thomas Dale, who observed that the 2 or 3 thousand acres of clear ground there would do for vineyards & that "vines grow naturally there, in great abundance." Sir Thomas Dale (d 1619) was an English naval commander & deputy-governor of the Virginia Colony in 1611 & from 1614 to 1616, who married Pocahontas.
The French vignerons of 1619 must have arrived too late to do any planting that year, as a letter from Virginia as late as January 1620 pleads for both vines & vignerons from Europe. The same letter mentions that vines brought by the governor, Sir George Yeardley (presumably on his return from England in 1619) "do prosper passing well," but his Vigneron-"a fretful old man"-was dead. It was affirmed that the vines planted in the fall bore grapes the following spring, "a thing they suppose not heard of in any other country." Just when the Frenchmen planted their vines is not clear. One source refers to the Frenchmen as having planted their cuttings at "Michaelmas last"—that is, around October 1620.
In 1620 the Virginia Company, announced that it was looking for more vineyardists from France & from Germany, & that it was trying to procure "plants of the best kinds" from France, Germany, & elsewhere. In 1622, at the king's command, the Virginia Company sent to every householder in Virginia a manual on the cultivation of the vine & silk.
George Sandys (1578-1644) was a poet, who took great interest in the earliest English colonization in America. In April 1621, he became colonial treasurer of the Virginia Company & sailed to Virginia with his niece's husband, Sir Francis Wyatt (1588-1644) the new governor. Sandys reported to London in 1623, that though many vines had been planted the year before, they "came to nothing...Wherefore now we have taken an order that every plantation ...shall impale 2 acres of ground, & employ the sole labor of 2 men in that business [planting grape vines] for the term of 7 years, enlarging the same 2 acres more, with a like increase of labor...By this means I hope this work will go really forward." The census made early in 1625 records that Sandys had a vineyard of 2 acres on his plantation on the south bank of the James.
In 1649, it was reported that a Captain William Brocas had made "most excellent wine" from his own Virginia vineyard in Lancaster County along the banks of the Rappahannock. It is also said that Sir William Berkeley, who governed Virginia from 1642 to 1652 & again from 1662 to 1677, successfully planted a vineyard of native grapes: "I have been assured," so the Reverend John Clayton wrote some years after Berkeley's death, "that he cultivated & made the wild sour grapes become pleasant, & large, & thereof made good wine." Robert Beverley, the early historian of Virginia & a pioneer grape-grower, tells a different story of Berkeley's efforts: "To save labour, he planted trees for the vines to run upon. But as he was full of projects, so he was always very fickle, & set them on foot, only to shew us what might be done, & not out of hopes of any gain to himself; so never minded to bring them to perfection."
In 1620 Maine, a speculator named Ambrose Gibbons proposed to found a plantation at the mouth of the Piscataqua River, on what is now the Maine-New Hampshire border, & there, in that bitter northern climate, to "cultivate the vine, discover mines . . . & trade with natives."
In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wine was made from native grapes in the 1st summer of settlement in 1630. The result may have been one of the reasons why the colonists petitioned the Massachusetts Bay Company back in London to have Frenchmen experienced in "planting of vines" sent out to them. In 1632, Governor John Winthrop secured the grant of Conant's Island in Boston Harbor, on condition that he plant a vineyard there. Three years later his rent for the place, then called Governor's Garden, was set at "a hogshead of the best wine that shall grow there to be paid yearly." In 1640 this expected rent was changed to 2 bushels of apples - evidently wine-growing had not succeeded.
The state of winemaking in New England generally was summed up in 1680 by the early historian William Hubbard (1621-1704): "Many places do naturally abound with grapes, which gave great hopes of fruitful vineyards in after time: but as yet either skill is wanting to cultivate & order the roots of those wild vines, & reduce them to a pleasant sweetness, or time is not yet to be spared to look after the culture of such fruits."
In the New Netherland of the Dutch settlers, a vineyard was planted as early as 1642, but was destroyed by the severe winter temperature. Immediately after the English took over the colony from the Dutch in 1669, the new governor granted a monopoly of grape growing on Long Island to one Paul Richards, who also received the privilege of selling his wine tax-free. A Dutch traveler visiting Coney Island in 1679 found abundant grapes growing wild & noted that the settlers had several times planted vineyards without success. "Nevertheless," he added, "they have not abandoned the hope of doing so by & by, for there is always some encouragement, although they have not, as yet, discovered the cause of the failure."
The Swedes along the Delaware in what is now New Jersey & Delaware were just as eager as the English & the Dutch to turn their place in the New World into a commercial wine success. The official instructions given to the Swedish governor, Colonel John Printz, in 1642. included viticulture among the objects of the colony, but it was not long before the Jersey farmers turned to apple growing instead & began to produce the cider.
William Penn carried French vines with him to Pennsylvania in 1682, his 1st trip to the colony he had founded, & in the next year had his French vignerons lay out vineyards. William Penn hoped to make viticulture flourish in his American woods. In 1683, within a year of his arrival in the new colony, Penn recorded that he had drunk a "good claret" made of native grapes by a French Huguenot refugee, Captain Gabriel Rappel. He wondered then whether the future of American winegrowing might not lie with the native varieties of grapes rather than with the European vinifera.
In 1663, the proprietors of Carolina, newly chartered by Charles II, drew up proposals for a colony that would concentrate—despite the experience of Jamestown—on just those "three rich commodities," wine, silk, & oil, that Hakluyt & others had dreamed of producing along the Atlantic coast. In the Carolinas, Sir William Berkeley, one of the proprietors of the Carolina colony was commissioned to appoint a government for Carolina. His instructions included a proviso for setting aside 20,000 acres of land for the proprietors, taking care that some be "on sides of hills that look to the southward which will be best for vineyards." While some commerce in tobacco grew, the Carolina's main success came from the great pine forests & their yield of tar, pitch, turpentine, & lumber of all kinds. Grape growing & winemaking do not seem to have progressed in what is now North Carolina (the separation between the 2 Carolinas did not officially exist until 1712).
Sir Nathaniel Johnson. Johnson, who lived in South Carolina from 1690 until his death in 1713, served as governor of the colony for 6 of those years. He was an energetic experimenter with plants & crops, especially keen on succeeding in the manufacture of silk—he named his plantation on the Cooper River, near Charleston, "Silk Hope." He tried to promote winegrowing, too. According to the Quaker John Archdale's account, Johnson planted a "considerable vineyard." John Lawson, tells us that Johnson had "rejected all exotic vines, & makes his wine from the natural black grape of Carolina." But at the same time, Lawson makes it clear that Johnson's experiments created no general response. On Johnson's 1713 death, his estate went to a daughter, &, according to an 18C writer, "she married; & her husband destroyed the vineyard & orchard to apply the soil to Turky-corn."
The Carolina colonists could not make the European vine grow, nor was it yet worth their while to develop the native vine. John Lawson in North Carolina explained the difficulties from the settler's point of view: "New planted colonies are generally attended with a force & necessity of planting the known & approved staple & product of the country," Lawson wrote.
General James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785) founded Georgia as a place where neither slavery nor strong drink was to be allowed, but where wine growing was to be a basic economic activity. In February 1733, the 1st settlers landed at the site of Savannah & set about laying out the town. General Oglethorpe established the Trustee Garden in Savannah in 1734, 2 years after the founding of the Georgia Trust, the corporate body that governed the colony from 1732 until 1752. Dedicated to botany and agriculture, it reflected the scientific and commercial aspirations of the Trustees and their backers in England. It was established as a public garden, where they could grow & propagate the mulberries, vines, olives, oranges, & other plants. This public garden, or Trustees' Garden, was planted on 10 acres of land between the town site & the river, just to the east of the town. Less than a year after its establishment, one traveler described it as a "beautiful garden ...where are a great many white mulberry trees, vines, & orange trees raised."
The 1st botanist appointed to advance the horticulture of the Georgia colony, Dr. William Houston, died in Jamaica without ever reaching Georgia. Special funds were set aside for botanist William Houstoun in 1732 & after his death in Jamaica, for Robert Millar in 1734. The money was to finance travel across the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea down to the northern coast of Brazil and the collection of specimen for trans-shipment to Georgia. His successor, Robert Millar, while collecting plant specimens in Mexico, was imprisoned by the Spanish on 2 successive voyages, his materials were confiscated, & he returned to England empty-handed & unable to contribute anything directly to Georgia.
The 1st gardener actually to work in the Savannah garden, Joseph Fitzwalter, began enthusiastically, but then fell out with Paul Amatis, who was brought over by the trustees to develop the culture of silk. Amatis & Fitzwalter clashed over who was to be master of the garden. Amatis seems to have been a quarrelsome man, who at one time he grew so angry that he threatened to shoot Fitzwalter should he ever enter the garden again. Early in 1735, Amatis had sent some 2,000 vines to the Savannah garden from the stock accumulated at Charleston. By July, he claimed, Fitzwalter had given some away as presents, to "I know not who," & had let the rest die. Furthermore, the public character of the garden made things difficult: people stole the plants & stripped the fruit, to the despair of the gardener. "Fruits, grapes & whatever else grows is pulled & destroyed before maturity." Amatis finally succeeded in establishing his authority over Fitzwalter, who left the colony for Carolina. Amatis himself died late in 1736.