On the Water

Ship Model, Susan Constant

On April 26, 1607, three passenger ships reached the shores of modern-day Virginia. The largest, named the Susan Constant, carried 54 members of a 105-man colonization mission. Arriving thirteen years before the Pilgrims landed at what is now Plymouth, Mass., this group of Englishmen came in search of gold and glory in the New World under the direction of the Virginia Company. Their founding of Jamestown began a long and checkered chapter in American colonial history.

Built in 1605 near London, and leased from Dapper, Wheatley, Colthurst and Partners, the Susan Constant was barely a year old when the Jamestown passengers spotted land near Cape Henry at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Under the command of Captain Christopher Newport, the journey from London to Virginia took approximately four and a half months. Following its departure on December 20, 1606, the Susan Constant spent six weeks floating idly in the English Channel, waiting for the right winds to carry the passengers to their new lives. Unlike the colonists, the Susan Constant did not stay in Virginia, but sailed back to England filled with timber.

In the past, there has been some confusion over whether the ship’s name was Susan or Sarah Constant. According to a 1625 manuscript transcribed by Rev. Samuel Purchas, when discussing the journey of the Jamestown settlers, His Majesty King James I’s Council on Virginia referred to a ship named Sarah Constant. However, multiple accounts given by the original colonists, as well as the leasing companies, indentify the ship as Susan Constant or, more simply, Susan. No record of a Sarah Constant has ever been found in sources from the time period, and historians have since chalked the confusion up to a clerical error on the part of the Council.

In 1991, the Commonwealth of Virginia financed a $2.14 million life-sized reproduction of the Susan Constant. The ship took a short tour of the Chesapeake Bay area in 2007 as part of Jamestown’s 400th Anniversary Celebration, and can now be seen in the Jamestown Settlement National Park.

This model of the Susan Constant was given to the Smithsonian in 1998 as a gift from its builder, John W. Chapman.

ID Number:
Chapman, John W.
15 x 14 1/2 x 6 in.; 38.1 x 36.83 x 15.24 cm
Gift of John W. Chapman

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