Footprints on the Past
Tracking the First English-American Shoemakers
by D. A. Saguto
Author and shoemaker D. A. Saguto poses on the Jamestown shore wearing shoes he copied from a circa-1606 pair made in Watford, England.
When the first Virginia Company colonist set foot on the Jamestown shore, he left in the sand the impression of a shoe. At a glance, the fact looks too pedestrian to be worth putting down, but look again. When civilization gains fresh ground, it goes about the business shod, and shoeprints are the marks it makes on the landscapes of discovery. We speak of exploration in such phrases as "the first to set foot on," "the first to step on," " the first to walk on." From the banks of the James to the mares of the moon, the impressions of men's small steps are of the tread of their shoes on new soil.
The one at Jamestown was, most likely, of a hand-sewn leather example of English-made footgear. It was as high-tech for 1607, perhaps, as Neil Armstrong's machine-stitched, rubber and Teflon-coated nylon boot was for 1969. No one in Virginia that May 14 recorded for posterity the first colonist's footfall, or his name, or what he said, but he probably wore a pair of black low-cut, well tanned shoes, studded perhaps with hobnails. Those shoes and the pairs on the feet of the other 104 settlers were essential to set on foot such an enterprise as a trading colony.
Captain John Smith wrote that 24 tradesmen and others arrived with him that spring. He didn't say whether among them there were shoemakers, but shoemakers were needed, and sooner rather than later.
We can be almost certain shoemakers arrived as early as 1610. Maybe earlier. In any event, shoemakers invested money in the Jamestown venture at least as early as 1609, as did their guild, and shoemaking was among the industries the Virginia Company of London worked to establish before the firm collapsed in 1624.
Organized much like a 17th-century army unit, the expedition had a hierarchy of ranks. Like Smith, some of the settlers had fought in the Low Countries. Centuries later, an English general was asked what equipment was most important to a soldier. He said, "First, a good, serviceable pair of shoes; second, another good serviceable pair of shoes, and third, a pair of half soles."
The earliest surviving list of recommended apparel for the would-be Virginian was written for servants going to Smyth's Plantation in 1618. On it are three pairs of shoes and repair supplies-soles, thread, awls, pitch, and rosin-worth 1.5 times all other articles of regular clothing combined.
In the 12 months after Jamestown's founding, two ships from England called on the settlement. Among the passengers in the first were jewelers, refiners, goldsmiths, six tailors, a blacksmith, and 120 others. Whether there was a shoemaker in this lot, we can't say. Yet, it is as likely as not, and, if six tailors landed, it is reasonable to think shoemakers could not be far behind. Fourteen more unidentified tradesmen were aboard the second vessel. Still no shoemakers named, but in the Spanish archives is information that, by early 1609, the company was recruiting them.
A letter from the Spanish ambassador in England to his King Philip. enclosed a transcript of an English document circulated to encourage tradesmen to enlist for a Virginia voyage. Shoemaking is among the 15 trades named. According to the ambassador, the Virginia Company offered all a bounty to go.
Among the new shareholders when the king of England rechartered the Virginia Company in 1609 were shoemakers William Brown and Robert Barker. Whether any shoemaker, at the encouragement of such associates, accepted the bounty and traveled to Virginia the record doesn't say. If he did, he likely regretted it.
That October, the Starving Time began. Governor George Percy wrote, "All was fishe that came to Nett to satisfye Crewell hunger as to eeate Bootes shoes or any other leather, some colde Come by." The settlers partook of cats, rats, mice, and two or more human corpses-which makes shoe-leather sound almost palatable.
That June, the new governor, Thomas West, Lord De La Warr, arrived. According to the company, West brought 150 men from nine occupations, including tanners and shoemakers. Thus, we can be sure the first shoemaker reached Jamestown no later June 10, 1610, when De La Warr landed.
Gazing into the river from Jamestown Island, Captain John Smith wears a pair of boots that foppishly contrast with the footwear he probably wore.
That year, and again in 1611, the company also sent over the Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, which reduced Virginia to martial law. The penalty for stealing any commodities from the company store, among them shoes, was death. That provision supports the idea that ready-made footwear was being stocked at Jamestown by then.
In January 1611, the company printed a broadside giving notice "to so many honest and industrious men, as Carpenters, Smiths, Coopers, Fishermen, Tanners, Shoemakers, Shipwrights, Brickmen, Gardeners, Husbandmen, and labouring men of all sorts . . . upon such termes as their qualitie and fitnesse shall deserve" to apply to emigrate to Virginia. A more detailed, but undated list numbers men in 66 trades and professions. Included were two tanners, two last-makers, two shoemakers, and an unspecified number of leather-dressers. Lastmakers carved the wooden forms, or lasts, over which the shoemakers made shoes.
In 1616, settler John Rolfe wrote that "smithes, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, tanners &c. doe worke in their professions for the colony, and mayntayne themselves with food and apparrell."
The first Virginia shoemaker whose name comes down to us was Christopher Nelme of Bristol, England. Nelme had a three-year contract-two years' wages paid in advance-and a bounty of 70 acres of land. He sailed September 15, 1619 in the Margaret with a cargo of shoe thread, hobnails, and another form of long, thin, headless, sole-protecting nails aptly named sparrowbills. Awls for stitching, "clowt" leather for re-soling worn shoes, and 200 pairs of ready-made shoes were on the manifest, too. Nelme did not long survive; the muster roll for colonists sent in the Margaret was annotated by December 1620 when he was marked as dead. His wife, still at home in Bristol, was to be paid his third year's wages.
Other shoemakers, in other colonies, such as Thomas Beard and Isaac Rickman who landed in Massachusetts in 1629, have been given first-American shoemakers' honors. They arrived ten years after Nelme, however, and, for all we know, there may have been shoemakers among the Spanish tradesmen who paraded in 1571 at the Santa Elena settlement, now South Carolina's Parris Island.
In July 1620, the Virginia Company published another plea for shoemakers, tanners, and leather-dressers, among 34 tradesmen to go to Virginia, and ready-made imports seemed to continue strong. But in 1625, after the company charter was recalled, a faction of the firm wrote: "There is most extreme want of hose, shooes, & all apparrell, even to a dangerous empeachement of their healthes." The following year the Virginia General Assembly prohibited shoemakers, among others, from using "their science or trades at home or abroad for any strangers or foreigners without the consent of the Governor and Council." The implication is that their goods were too badly needed at home. The General Court also prohibited Virginians from forestalling the market in such badly needed imported goods as shoes.
Cordwainer is a formal title for shoemaker. It derives from the medieval legal designation for workers in cordwain leather produced at Cordoba, Spain. The term was used by such guilds as the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers in London. The largest consumer of leather in the city, the Worshipful Company controlled all the London leather trades. It was, as well, among the shareholders of the Virginia Company.
When Captain Smith published his Generall Historie of Virginia in 1624, he attempted to list all of the investors, and dedicated 30 copies to London's trades guilds. His list overlooked the cordwainers, but of these 30 books, only its dedicated copy of the Generall Historie survives.
Smith's handwritten inscription says, in part:
Not only in regard to your Courtisie and Love, Butt also of the Continuall use I have had of your Labours. . . . I salute you. . . . for want of Shooes among the Oyster Banks wee tore our hatts and Clothes and those being worne, wee tied the Barkes of trees about our Feete to keepe them from being Cutt by the shelles amongst which we must goe or starve, yett how many thousand of Shooes hath been transported to these plantations, how many soldiers, Marriners and Saylers have bin and are likely to be encased thereby, what vent your Commodities have had and still have, and how many Shipps and men of all Faculties have bin and are yearlie imployed I leave to your own Judgements, and yett by reason of ill manadging, the Returns have neither answered the generall Expectations, nor my desire."
A 17th-century engraving depicting the capture of Captain John Smith by the Virginia Indians in 1607. The open-sided shoes resemble archaeological finds on the Jamestown site.
These do not read like the words of a member of the cordwainers' company. But outside of St. Mary-le-Bow church, Cheapside-the shoemaking district of medieval London-stands a bronze statue of Smith erected in 1960 by the Jamestown Foundation to mark the 350th anniversary of his return from the New World. It is a version of the statue that stands on the shoreline of Jamestown Island in which Smith, rather doubtfully complete in swaggering boots, gazes out over the James River. The London copy is inscribed: "Captain John Smith, Citizen and Cordwainer, 1580-1631." Nearly obscured by trees and pigeons in an out-of-the-way corner of the bustling city, the statue stands at the top of what was the old Cordwanestrate, or Cordwainer Street.
When archaeologist John L. Cotter investigated Jamestown Island in the 1950s, he recovered about 75 shoe and leather fragments from three abandoned wells. They suggest the kind of shoes Smith more likely wore-as well as his fellow colonists-the kind he sports in 17th-century engravings.
Some of the well shafts were lined with barrels to support their soft walls, and all were used as 17th-century trash pits. Two of them are about 50 yards from the James River beach. The other was on the island's eastern end.
Most of the fragments were of men's shoes, reflecting the predominantly male population of early Jamestown. The styles dated solidly to the first half of the 17th century. The oldest, or first things discarded down one well, were 49 shoe and leather fragments preserved in the waterlogged bottom layers of soil. This well also produced such newer artifacts as broken clay t obacco pipes, a liquor bottle, some local and some English pottery, all 1620 to 1650. Identified as Well 20, it is about 100 feet to the east of a structure Cotter provisionally dubbed The First State House. It was, in any case, as good a neighborhood as Jamestown offered at the time, and some of the shoes were high-fashion. They incorporated a relatively new fad, heels, stylish in England since about 1590.
In barrel-lined Well 21, about 400 feet east, Cotter found the remains of a man's shoe bottom with a wooden-heel inside a leather heel-cover. The shaft yielded ten more shoe fragments, as well as a sword hilt, a halberd-the iron head of an axe-like polearm-a delft jar, and more clay pipe fragments. The shoe with the covered wooden heel was the sort of footwear proper to a gentlemen, of which, Smith said, the colony had an over-plus.
An example of the style can be seen in a 1618 portrait of a member of England's Sackville family-a clan that, coincidentally, invested in the Virginia Company. It was an open-sided tie shoe. The ties were concealed beneath decorative, frilly shoe roses, and there were large rounded holes in either side of the uppers.
Similar shoes with these holes in the sides, some larger, some smaller, were worn universally. Depending on the wearer, the design might be less elegant, the leather might be less costly.
All shoes found at Jamestown were, where style could be deduced, open-sided. In any case, the open-side fashion was generally abandoned later in the 1600s. The holes allowed sand, water, mud, and muck to accumulate inside.
Among the archaeological artifacts recovered at Martin's Hundred, downriver from Jamestown, was a small, rusted, master shoemaker's knife of late-medieval form. At the same site, in the 1970s, archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume led a team of Colonial Williamsburg archaeologists. From a 1622 grave, they recovered a clod of earth containing the remains of a human foot and its shoe. Two shoe experts consulted about the shoe with Ivor and Audrey Noël Hume in May 1987. Initial X-rays, the recovery of the nails in the laboratory, scrutiny, correspondence, and research revealed the remains of a leather shoe that had been reinforced with hobnails. Shorter-shanked nails had their points properly clinched so as not to gouge the wearer's foot, and multiple rows of slightly longer-shanked hobnails reinforced the outside edge of the heel from wear. In the ship with Nelme were 2,000 sparrow bills and 1,000 three-penny hobnails.
The National Park Service, which operates Jamestown Island, began in 1987 to reassess, re-catalogue, and earmark thousands of the island's 17th-century artifacts, including shoes, for further conservation. Local archaeologists, specialists, and scholars from other institutions participated.
The newest shoe, or less likely a man's boot, may date to between the late 1660s and 1680. It had a three-inch high tapering leather heel built-up from dozens of thin layers, or lifts of scrap leather called jumps, into what might be the style the English called the Polony, or Polish style, heel. This example was roughly octagonal in cross-section and crudely reinforced with two rose-head carpentry nails about three and three-eighths inches long. They were driven all the way through the heel from inside the boot or shoe, exposing the nail heads under the wearer's heel.
The sole had a fashionable square toe of the Restoration period, nearly three-inches broad, which had come loose in places and been hastily tacked back on with a few hobnails, small nails usually with a prominent head used off and on in thicker-soled utilitarian footwear since the days of Imperial Rome. They, too, were hammered in from the inside, rather than from the outside as usual, which possibly made the shoes unwearable. The wrong nails used for the wrong job, the wrong way, implies that the wearer himself, not a shoemaker, might have tried to mend the sole. Hobnails were added to the bottoms to protect leather soles from wear and tear and enhance traction on slippery ground.
The thick leather upper had a high, blocked, toe shape that over-hung the sole at the corners, and probably dragged on the ground.
This shoe or boot, parts from five other shoes, and pieces of unidentifiable leather were recovered from another well near the Travis Graveyard, a few miles from Jamestown proper. Most of the Jamestown shoes identified belong to the first 20 years of the colony's existence, and come from the New Towne area just east of the 1607 fort site.
In the summer of 1987, eight 17th-century well shafts-some reinforced by wooden boxes sunk into the sand, others barrel-lined like the ones at Jamestown-were excavated on Virginia's Eastern Shore. The site, named Church Neck Wells, is on Nassawadox Creek in Northampton County. The wells were on a parcel of land patented in 1638 by Stephen Carleton.
The artifacts dated to between 1670 and 1700. Eight to ten shoes were recovered, including a complete child's shoe-so far the best preserved, complete English shoe of its style excavated in North America. It had been altered with a slit down the front to accommodate a growing foot.
Also found was a well-worn woman's shoe with a wooden heel covered in leather. By this date, these covered, shaped, wooden heels were predominantly for women's shoes. Men preferred straighter-sided, layered leather heels. The toe of this shoe was forked, a style known in England from 1612 or so. The sole ended in two pointed horn-like shapes that flared out to either side at the corners of what would otherwise be a square toe.
Among other shoe fragments recovered were three probably made by one Virginia artisan. They were roughly sewn and showed tool-marks made by the same square-hole punch. Besides the shoes and shoe fragments, there were scraps and trimmings of leather, attesting to shoemaking or repair nearby.
Before 1649, Captain Samuel Matthews, a planter for more than 30 years, had set up an industrial estate on his Warwick County plantation, Matthews Manor, near what is now Denbigh at Newport News. He employed eight shoemakers to manufacture shoes from leather produced in his tannery.
After 1650, as population expanded and a more stable society developed, shoemakers, tanners, and other tradespeople began to emerge as important elements in Virginia society as well as the colonial economy. In 1660, the General Assembly enacted laws to control Virginia's budding shoe trade. One ordered each of Virginia's 17 counties either to erect or to designate existing operations to operate at county expense as "one or more tanhouses, and . . . provide tanners, curryers and shoemakers, to tanne, curry, and make the hides of the country into leather and shoes." Between 1653 and 1658, licenses in England were granted to export more than 45,600 pairs of shoes to Virginia, setting up a competitive economic environment between locally produced and imported goods that vexed the colonies until the Revolution.
By the 1770s, the shoemaking business, represented by Shoemakers Shop on Williamsburg's Duke of Gloucester Street, had become one of the two or three largest shopkeeping occupations in Virginia. Despite a halting start, step by step, it became one of the leading industries in the United States.
D. A. Saguto is Colonial Williamsburg's master boot and shoemaker.