America was Founded by Runaways & Renegades, with Joseph Kelly, Part 1

Professor Joseph Kelly tells us the forgotten story of Stephen Hopkins and how the Virginia Company lacked real leadership & direction. 

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Professor Joseph Kelly joins us today to talk about his book Marooned and how much of our understanding about the beginning of the New World is simply names of people and approximately when they died. Stephen Hopkins, a passenger on the Sea Venture which shipwrecked in Bermuda in 1609, is an exception to that trend.

Who is America’s real founding father? What did the Virginia Company do in 1608-1609? Was Jamestown a utopia or a dystopia? Did the Virginia Company have any leadership to guide it? Did they have any real power? What was the difference between colonial Virginia and colonial Bermuda? What is a doctrine of mutual consent?

Further Reading:

Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and a New History of America’s Origin, written by Joseph Kelly

The Thanksgiving Story You’ve Probably Never Heard, written by Joseph Kelly

Related Content:

“Virginia is Horrible; Send Cheese”: An Indentured Servant Writes Home, written by Richard Frethorne

The Roots of Modern Libertarian Ideas, written by Brian Doherty

The Horrifying Lives of Early Virginians, Liberty Chronicles Podcast


00:03 Anthony Comegna: Today, we travel back in time quite a bit from our recent stories. We’re going back to an incredible story covered briefly in our episodes about Colonial Virginia. Thanks go out, by the way, to Reason Magazine’s Jesse Walker for letting me know about the most amazing new book on early Virginia, the wreck of the sea venture in Bermuda, and the man who perhaps should be better known as the real true founding father of America, a humble minister’s clerk named Stephen Hopkins. Professor Joseph Kelly joins me now to talk about his book, “Marooned: Jamestown, Shipwreck, and A New History of America’s Origin”.


00:46 Anthony Comegna: Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of I’m Anthony Comegna. So I’d like to approach this interview sort of as the story of Stephen Hopkins, the guy that I now at least like to think of as America’s real true founding father. Tell us about Stephen Hopkins.

01:08 Joseph Kelly: Well, Stephen Hopkins is, as you mentioned, kind of an unlikely hero. He’s not a university-educated person, certainly did not go to the Inns of Court and that kind of thing. We don’t know a ton about him, just as we don’t know a ton about anyone who is really a commoner in England at the time. The records that we have, of course, are the kind of things that remain are gonna be birth records, death certificates, inheritance things. Anytime he comes into contact with court, we get a little bit of information about him, and then there’s the narratives. So there’s just a little bit in the… About 600 words really directly about Stephen Hopkins in the “True Reportory” by William Strachey, but within that 600 words is just… Has a powerhouse of information about him there. So, we don’t know a whole lot about his personal life. He grew up near Winchester. His dad was a yeoman farmer. He probably got a little bit of education. He might have been the reader of the Psalter in the Church of England, you know local parish.

02:21 Joseph Kelly: So he might have been a very level church official, which may be one of the reasons that contributed to him to going to Jamestown in the first place. He might have been aiding Reverend Hunt, who is the official minister that went along with the third supply in 1609. But even that’s kinda speculation. There’s one biography that was written about him by a guy named Caleb Johnson, who has pretty much made Stephen Hopkins his life study, and that book is a wealth… He weaves together a pretty good story out of these little bits of information that we have about Stephen, but a lot of that book is sort of filling in, this is what life was like in this village in the late 16th century and that kind of thing.

03:16 Joseph Kelly: So ultimately, there’s just not a whole lot of information. I made the comparison, we know about as much about him as we know about Shakespeare, which is to say not a whole lot. So, it’s been pieced together, but remarkably, he’s been neglected. What we should have is a lot of people studying the little bit of information we have about Stephen Hopkins, and hopefully this book will help trigger people to do that, ‘cause they haven’t done it in the past, and I certainly think he’s one of the most important neglected figures in American history.

03:51 Anthony Comegna: Now, can you tell us, how would somebody like Hopkins have gotten caught up with something like the Virginia Company? And how did this guy find himself in Bermuda?

04:02 Joseph Kelly: Well the Virginia Company after… You know, the first two years of Jamestown were something of a disaster, and the Virginia Company knew this, and they’re getting regular reports from Captain Newport who has been back and forth several times when he’s in Jamestown, he’s pretty much in charge, but when he leaves Jamestown there’s always a power struggle. The last time he came back to England, he carried with him a letter from John Smith, who’s just excoriated company policy and company officers over there in Virginia. So they knew things were going poorly and what they did in the fall and the early spring, fall of 1608, and early spring of 1609, was completely re-conceived how they were gonna do things. They were gonna ramp things up considerably. They really hoped to send 800 to 1,000 settlers in the third resupply of Jamestown. It didn’t end up being that much, but it was still a pretty significant increase, about 500 settlers probably were among a fleet of seven to nine ships depending on how big a ship needs to be to be counted as a ship, nine vessels went.

05:19 Joseph Kelly: But for that effort, there was a gigantic propaganda effort beginning in spring of 1609 to recruit people, and also to recruit dollars. They sent out circulars all across England, all throughout London, all the various tradesmen guilds had meetings about how much money that they were going to pool together to buy shares in the company. So it was just an amazing media blitz. The equivalent today would be the savviest kind of social media/TV advertisement, of course, that kinda… Nothing equivalent to that kind of media existed, but it was still just a tremendous effort through pamphlets, through sermons in churches, through these guilds as I said, to get the word out. So you would’ve had to been pretty checked out of things, especially if you’re living in the south of England, which is kind of where the maritime activity was taking place, to not be aware of what was going on. Now, with that said, I think it still took quite a bit of courage for those 500 people to get on the ships and go. It was still basically going into terra incognita, but the media blitz, the propaganda certainly would have reached somebody like Stephen Hopkins and given the hard-sell, if you will, for what was going on in Virginia.

06:53 Anthony Comegna: Can we talk for a minute about the different types of consent that you mentioned throughout the…

06:58 Joseph Kelly: Yeah.

07:00 Anthony Comegna: There are all these different people signing up from different social strata, essentially agreeing to different types of colonization, and it doesn’t always work out.

07:12 Joseph Kelly: Yeah, and this is… One of those things is the information about this has been out there forever and has been strangely neglected by historians. So, in the third supply, to take a look at that one in particular, so the Virginia Company re-wrote the charter, the original charters, which actually are several different documents, some by the King, some by the Virginia Company itself, and then other ordinances that are established by the local colonial council in Jamestown. But they recognized that this method of government wasn’t really working, it was a council with a president, so they were going to establish a new form of government where you had a Governor that basically had dictatorial powers. So they put together this charter, but they were still writing it and did not even have the King’s approval for it as they were recruiting people. So it’s kind of an odd situation in which people are signing on to go on this adventure without even having the document that was gonna be the constitution governing them in place yet. Now, even with that said, they had a good idea, the Virginia Company, the council had a very good idea of what was going to be in that document, they certainly expected it to get approved.

08:29 Joseph Kelly: So as they are signing people on, they knew what their recruits were signing on to. The recruits themselves didn’t have a great idea, but here’s the particular thing that is really remarkable about the Virginia Company, so it’s based on the other overseas trading companies, the East India Company, the Muscovy Company, the Levant Company that are groups of merchants who each buy shares in this joint stock company, and they pool their resources and also then pool the risk. What’s different about this particular, about the Virginia Company is that people can buy shares with their body. So you did not need to have money to buy a share in the company. Now just in those other merchant companies, owning a share meant that, theoretically at least, you had a vote in the council, and this is what even the second charter said this. So, theoretically, each of the people who went on the ships to Jamestown in 1609, should have had, at least to some degree, a democratic voice in the governance of the company. Now in practice, that didn’t work out because this of course is something that the company officials were careful to do.

09:48 Joseph Kelly: I don’t know if the King knew this or not, we don’t have any evidence on whether he did or not, but it seems to be the case of what they wrote into their own provisions that you had to own two shares in the company, in order to have a vote on who is going to be a Councillor. So essentially, what was in the second charter itself, setting up as a democracy, was right from the beginning, getting undermined by the executives of the Virginia Company itself. ‘Cause the only people who could have two shares in the company are people who are gonna have the money to buy a share, and that was 10 pounds, 12 shillings, and most of the settlers, the common settlers are not going to have, be able to buy those shares. Now the gentlemen who went on the ships, which is roughly 40%, 50% of the people who were going to settle Virginia, are able to buy shares. So right from the beginning you have two classes of people who are heading to Virginia; you have the gentlemen who have a share because their physical body is going and they also were able to buy one or more shares themselves. And in the company documents, we can see that they are given special status.

11:01 Joseph Kelly: It’s unlikely, and again, we don’t know, but it seems very unlikely from the circumstantial evidence, it’s unlikely that the common laborer who is going to Virginia recognized when they were signing on that there were two classes of people who were going, they knew gentlemen were going, but they didn’t know that the gentlemen were gonna be a completely different class of people. And this is gonna have really great consequences after the shipwreck that ends up depositing Stephen Hopkins in Bermuda, and also, it’s already had consequences for two years for people in Jamestown as well.

11:37 Anthony Comegna: Now, let’s also talk about the obedience regime that comes along with being a member of these different classes. I mean you mentioned that people with military experience, especially in a place like Ireland, they’re well used to the kind of work regime and military discipline that they were going to find in Virginia. So of course, they were sort of consenting to this, they were well used to it, but not somebody like Stephen Hopkins.

12:04 Joseph Kelly: Right. And again, this is… We’re speculating from circumstantial evidence, but our best guess is that people like Stephen Hopkins, or any trades person or any of the people who didn’t have any trade skill, and were just going as a common laborer, they probably expected to encounter something similar to the plantations of Ireland, not the garrisons that were in hostile territory in Ireland, but plantations in Ireland where entire sections of the country had been depopulated of the native Irish and were getting planted by English. So, and in those cases, essentially, what would happen is an entire town would get established, or a cluster of farms, and there would be… You know what would be established from the very get-go would be something that resembled typical town life or village life in England.

13:01 Joseph Kelly: So that’s probably what they expected. They did not expect to be essentially foot soldiers in a garrison, But that’s the governing model that was obtaining in Jamestown already, and that’s certainly the governing model that was enshrined in the second charter that was written in the spring of 1609. So when they stepped foot on the ships in London or in Plymouth, the settlers knew that they were putting themselves under the jurisdiction of the Virginia Company, but they did not really understand what that meant. They didn’t understand, for instance, that to talk ill of the company could mean a death sentence if the Governor thought it was warranted. And yet, that’s what it was, that’s the circumstances that they found themselves in. So they felt that they were giving consent as they signed into this contract; what they were giving consent to they certainly didn’t know. And I think it’s really… We can pretty well conclude from the evidence that we have that the Virginia Company purposely kept them in the dark about that.

14:15 Anthony Comegna: Now, Hopkins goes aboard the ship, the Sea Venture, along with the leader of the fleet and the leader of the colony who’s supposed to take over when he gets there. They’re sort of struggling for power and authority on the ship, at the same time, they’re making the trek across the Atlantic, then what happens?

14:38 Joseph Kelly: Okay, so the Sea Venture is the flagship in this fleet. They leave England with crowds cheering, banners flying. This is the biggest overseas plantation that England has ever mounted. And this is England… The English recognize this as there attempt to get into the empire game that Spain and Portugal and even France have already been playing. So this is a big deal, and this is the flagship and the flagship is containing not only the second charter and all copies, ironically… This is just hard to believe that every single copy of the second charter is on the flagship, as well as the new Governor, Thomas Gates, as well as the Admiral of the fleet, Admiral Summers. Now, the fleet sails into a hurricane. You couldn’t make these things up, right? This is truth stranger than fiction. All of the ships survived the hurricane except for the Sea Venture, and the other ships eventually limp into Jamestown and tell John Smith, who’s running the show in Jamestown that he’s basically been deposed, but they don’t have the documents and they don’t have the Governor to prove it. So what immediately happens in Jamestown is a struggle for power.

15:54 Joseph Kelly: Now, what happens to the Sea Venture… Everybody in Jamestown thinks the Sea Venture is lost at sea; they think it sunk. And it basically would have been, it was filling up with water slowly they’re struggling for three days and three nights, and this really difficult struggle against the storm and at the last minute when they decide to close up the hatches and consign themselves to the deep, they’re all gonna drown and they’re just kind of giving up, they sight land, which seems miraculous in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, they sight land, and they managed to ram the ship on a reef about a half mile to a mile off-shore, and this is the Bermuda islands, which at the time were reputed to be devil’s islands, completely uninhabited, and incredibly dangerous to mariners because of the submerged reefs that are surrounding it. So it’s a place that is generally avoided by sailors.

16:52 Joseph Kelly: But everybody gets ashore, there’s 153 people onboard, and all of them make it ashore; as the waves are pounding, the Sea Venture stuck on this reef. Immediately, there’s two Native Americans among them, Muchomps and Montauk who are emissaries of Wahunsenacawh known as, we know him as Powhatan really in popular American culture. They were emissaries to King James’s court coming back, and when they get ashore, they immediately run off into the wilderness and are not seen again until nine, 10 months later, at least, we don’t have a record of them. Everybody else watches them disappear, and they struggle ashore, get up to the high ground, make some huts, and immediately are confronted then with, what do you do next, which any shipwreck, anyone who suffers a shipwreck has to go through, right?

17:50 Joseph Kelly: You go through the immense struggle of the shipwreck and getting ashore, and then you’re standing on the sand, blinking at the sun, looking around at everybody, look at who else has survived, you look at the debris that survived, the material debris that’s coming up on shore. And the next order of business is, how do you survive? What happened in Bermuda is really remarkable. It’s more compelling than any of the Survivor TV shows or the fictional tales of shipwreck you can imagine. Almost immediately, the rebellions start taking place. There’s power struggles in Bermuda just as there are in Jamestown.

18:34 Joseph Kelly: The first fissure happens between the Governor and the Admiral, and it doesn’t take long pretty much, once they realize that they’re not going to get rescued, the sailors and the Admiral completely leave the camp, go to their own island, and set up their own camp. So we have rival camps within a couple of months. The people, the settlers who remained in the Governor’s camp, watched the sailors go disappear just as they watched the two Native Americans disappear into the wilderness. And almost immediately, the disgruntlement among those settlers sets in as well. So the Governor, Governor Gates, he is intent, fiercely intent, on getting to Jamestown, because this is his big chance. This is his chance to make it big, to make a lot of money, to make a big splash. He’s got to get to Jamestown to be Governor, and he’s really got a small window to be Governor because he knows the fourth resupply is gonna bring another Governor.

19:43 Joseph Kelly: So if he’s gonna get anything done for his personal ambitions, he’s gonna have to get to Virginia as quickly as possible. So he immediately sets about building a ship. They have a shipwright who came with them, and from the salvage of the Sea Venture and from the cedars of Bermuda trees that they sawed down and started hewing into lumber. He sets about building a ship that’s going to bring them to Virginia. But he knows the ship is not gonna be big enough, so he gathers everybody together and says, “Okay, some of you are gonna be able to come with me. Some of you are not gonna be able to come with me. But everybody, let’s work on this ship together.” Essentially, what he does is he enters into a new contract with the settlers. The settlers themselves have been hearing stories now. You know they signed on with all that propaganda back in England, right? They thought Virginia’s gonna be a wonderful place to get to, but as they’re sailing, before they got into the hurricane even, the sailors who have been to Jamestown are telling what’s really going on in Jamestown.

20:44 Joseph Kelly: And what’s really going on is the first summer, half the people died. So Jamestown is a dystopia, it’s not a utopia. And the settlers become disillusioned with their contract. So they begin to rethink the whole situation that they signed onto. They begin to realize what in fact the Virginia Company thinks their contract says, and it doesn’t line up with what they think the contract said. So this is where people like Stephen Hopkins come to the fore. And what’s remarkable about Hopkins is we have, we actually have his words because all the narratives are told to us through the executives of the Virginia Company. John Smith is an executive of the Virginia Company. The tale that we have of the shipwreck and what happens in Bermuda for 10 months as these people are cast away there, that comes to us through the words of William Strachey who becomes the secretary of the Governor. So he’s an executive of the company as well.

21:44 Joseph Kelly: All of our narratives come from the official company line, but… So people like Stephen Hopkins are gonna be the villains within these tales, but William Strachey telling the tale of Stephen Hopkins actually records some of his arguments. And so that’s what makes Stephen Hopkins so exciting to us today, I think, is that we have actually his own words, the kind of argument that he was making. So in Bermuda, as people are beginning to realize that what they’re in for in Virginia, is basically a slave labor camp. And most of them are probably gonna die under the incompetent backbiting leadership of the Virginia Company. What Stephen Hopkins begins to come to a realization where, the argument he begins to make is that the Virginia Company contracted to bring them to Virginia, and they didn’t fulfill their part of the bargain. And the language he says is the very fact that the shipwreck has ended their contract with the Virginia Company, it’s as if the salt water that they encounter in the shipwreck dissolved the contract itself.

22:54 Joseph Kelly: So what that made the settlers in Bermuda is essentially made them political free agents. And he doesn’t use that term, of course, but this is exactly what Stephen Hopkins is arguing. “We here in Bermuda have the ability to or have the right to decide for ourselves what we are going to do. We can… We are bound to the governance of no man,” is what he says. And basically what he’s saying is we don’t have to do what the Governor, what Governor Gates is telling us to do. We don’t have to build this ship and get on it and go to Virginia if we don’t want to. So he starts, and actually he’s the second version of this. There’s four separate mutinies or conspiracies. And what each of these conspiracies are are merely to absent themselves from the Virginia Company’s jurisdiction, to have settlers go off to their own island in Bermuda and begin their own village.

23:55 Joseph Kelly: The reason they wanna do this is because Bermuda is basically a paradise. Now there’s fish, fowl, fruit, swine enough to eat barbecue for the rest of their lives. There’s no reason for them to leave Bermuda. Bermuda is just a spectacular place, and they know what waits for them in Virginia. So they wanna go off to their own island, start their own village, start their own community, and enter into a new contract of mutual consent. Now, that term “mutual consent” from the Virginia Company is a bad word. They just invoke it saying, “This is how evil Stephen Hopkins is. He’s promoting this doctrine of mutual consent.” But of course, that’s why we ought to be revering Stephen Hopkins. He’s the villain of the tales from the point of view of the Virginia Company, but from the point of view of us today, he’s the first one who is voicing the very principles of democracy that are gonna end up underpinning the Declaration of Independence.

24:58 Anthony Comegna: And one Hopkinsite even tells the Governor to, “Kiss my arse.”

25:03 Joseph Kelly: Yes, that’s… [chuckle]

25:04 Anthony Comegna: Tell us that story about that uncommon revolution.

25:06 Joseph Kelly: Yeah. Yeah, this is Henry Paine. And this is what… I guess to get to that story, I ought to tell the story of Steven Hopkins’ rebellion. So I said there’s four separate ones. The first one, the Governor gets wind of very quickly, and he discovers that people want to, what they think of as “marooning themselves,” they wanna escape into the woods the way slaves under in Spanish possessions in the New World would escape into the hinterland, into the swamps, into the mountains, and establish their own government. But the Governor gets wind of it and he finds out who the six ringleaders are, and he actually maroons them and humiliates them. They’re basically suffering a death penalty sentence because they’re sent into the wilderness with no tools or anything.

25:56 Joseph Kelly: So he foils that first one. And then Stephen Hopkins is the second revolution, if you will, and it gets discovered of course. More than half the people were part of the Stephen Hopkins revolution. He was gonna lead more than half of the 151 remaining settlers. Well, I guess I forgot to take the sailors out of that. So about 120 were remaining, and he was gonna take more than half of them out to the wilderness. But he gets discovered and he gets hauled in chains before the entire community gathered by the Governor. And the Governor tries him, convicts him, sentences him to death, and Steven Hopkins talks his way out of the death penalty. But basically, he’s humiliated as well and discredited. And yet the idea that he’s articulating continues on, and the disgruntlement increases as the ship gets closer and closer to its completion, as people know they’re gonna be transported to Virginia.

27:01 Joseph Kelly: So the “kiss my arse” revolution is started accidentally by Henry Paine, who is actually, he’s a gentleman. A couple of the gentlemen, we don’t know how many, but at least some of the gentlemen, had been persuaded by Stephen Hopkins’ arguments and were part of this cabal. So even after Stephen Hopkins got humiliated, the idea did not die. It continued to live. And the new conspiracy was actually going to be much more dramatic. They were going to seize the store of arms and tools and run off into the wilderness, but they were gonna have the means of their own defense. If the Governor wanted to come and try to take them back, they were gonna fight their way to prevent it. So this was even a more serious rebellion than Steven Hopkins had suggested. And as it was approaching, but before it was ready to hatch, this guy, Henry Paine, just had enough. The Governor caught wind of it, but what he did is he doubled the guard on the storehouse and the gentlemen who were a part of his loyal corps de garde were doing double duty for days and days on end.

28:21 Joseph Kelly: And this guy, Henry Paine, was one of those. But he himself was also a co-conspirator, and he got to the point where he was just so frustrated and couldn’t put up with it. He basically broke is what, you know, psychologically broke under the pressure. And his captain gave him some order to report for guard duty and he just blew up at him and said he was no longer gonna take orders. And then his captain said, “Well, you’d better do it or I’m gonna tell the Governor,” and Henry Paine said, “The Governor can kiss my arse.” And that, those words, were potent enough that everybody, people heard it, and they looked to see what happened. And he actually even struck this captain.

29:09 Joseph Kelly: So everyone is watching the development to see what’s gonna happen. And everything seems pretty quiet overnight. Eventually, the Governor hears that he has been cursed out by Henry Paine and he knows that he has to do something. But he has to be very careful about it because he knows most of the people are actually in sympathy with Henry Paine rather than in sympathy with himself. So he handles it pretty delicately, but he ends up arresting Henry Paine, and again, trying him publicly, condemning him to death. And Paine goes to the scaffold expecting to be rescued, expecting everyone to rise up, and they don’t. They don’t have the courage to rise up, and he ends up getting executed. So this, for the rest of the settlers, the “kiss my arse” revolution is kind of the death blow to their hopes of establishing a government of mutual consent in Bermuda. And eventually the ship is finished. They launch it. They rig it, and basically at gunpoint, they, that the settlers are made to get on the ship and sail off to Virginia.

30:30 Joseph Kelly: So in essence the “kiss my arse” revolution is the, I would guess, the one act of open defiance that took place in Bermuda that ends up in an execution and really proving to everybody the lethal power that the Virginia Company held over everyone. So it was the crucial, the crucial revolution and the Democrats, the people who wanted to establish a government that we would describe as democracy unfortunately were defeated.


31:08 Anthony Comegna: Today was just part one of our interview with Professor Kelly. So be sure to check back in next week for the exciting conclusion to the saga of Stephen Hopkins. Liberty Chronicles is a project of It is produced by Tess Terrible. If you’ve enjoyed this episode of Liberty Chronicles, please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes. For more information on Liberty Chronicles, visit