John Phips and Early Jamestown

Nailing down the exact location and orientation of streets and lots in the settlement of James Citty in Virginia, later Jamestown, has been largely dependent on the description of the lot held by John Phips. This is discussed in various sources, one of which is Samuel H. Yonge, The Site of Old “James Towne” 1607-1698 (Richmond: The Hermitage Press, 1907).

Something that has been at issue, and which is discussed in other sources as well, is the exact azimuth of Back Street in “the New Towne.” This would only be very vaguely defined as “eastward” if it wasn’t for a 1656 patent to John Phips, which included the earlier (1624) Pott patent. The “eastward” reference came from the Pott patent, but this was further defined in the Phips patent as E. S. E. 1/4 S.

John Phips received a patent dated 23 February 1656 for 120 acres. That patent included 12 acres which had earlier been granted to Dr. John Pott. The land granted to John Phips was described as being “part thereof in James Citye’s liberties.”

Then a later patent dated 6 May 1665 was to John Knowles for over 133 acres, “part within and part without the liberties of the said city.” This included 120 acres Knowles had bought from John Phips and over 3 acres also bought from him.

This Knowles was presumably the Rev. John Knowles mentioned in a web page listing various early Virginia immigrants. According to that source, he was born in Lincolnshire, England, married in Virginia about 1635, and then appears to have returned to England where he died in London.

Encyclopedia Virginia describes Knowles as a Puritan minister who didn’t arrive in Jamestown until 1643, however. He is also described in that source as a New England minister who came to Jamestown in response to a petition signed by Puritans in Virginia. Knowles’s land in Jamestown is further discussed here.

Just above him in the immigrants page is mentioned Francis Poythress. We’ve discussed the Poythress family, which was closely associated with the Eppes family. We’ve also discussed the Poythress involvement with Jamestown, as well as the fact that later on, in the 1780s, James Phipps of Brunswick County had land dealings with the Poythress family.

We’ve also discussed a 1751 land grant to a John “Phillips” in Prince George County, adjacent to a Poythress, who may have been a “Phipps.” Prince George County was formed in 1703 from part of Charles City County. This was just west of Jamestown.

Back Street in Jamestown, according to the book, is believed to have ceased being called that by 1656, since the patent to John Phips doesn’t refer to it by name. It’s believed that Back Street was called that because it was located behind the town, away from the waterfront.

The New Towne area was established sometime around 1623, and John Phips arrived in 1621 onboard the Tyger. This was east of the first town, the book says, and this settlement reached the lower branch of what was called Pitch and Tarr Swamp.

Today, when people think of a swamp, they think of an extensive area covered with water of generally low depth. In colonial records in Virginia, however, the term was often used to refer to what people today would probably more readily call a creek.

The location of Pitch and Tarr Swamp, today Pitch and Tar Swamp, can be seen by zooming in on the island in the aerial view here.

Photos of the Pitch and Tar Swamp can be seen in the National Park Service website. The name comes from the pine trees which supplied lumber and tar for shipbuilding.

By not arriving until 1621, John Phips missed the infamous “starving time” during the winter of 1609-1610. That was when about 440 out of about 500 settlers died.

What enticed John to come to America just a few short years later?


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