2017-04-20 / Opinions

My family’s old stories of frontier life go back to a year before the Pilgrims

news editor

This week, there’s a Burke family anniversary worth observing, and although I’ve mentioned it before, it’s a story worth telling again.

On April 19, 1644, over 370 years ago, my first immigrant ancestor to these shores was killed as his wife and sons looked on from their cabin near Jamestown in the Virginia colony.

The story is documented in the history books and was oft retold by my mother, of my 10-times great-grandmother, Sarah Winston Woodson, an English girl who accompanied her husband, Dr. John Woodson, aboard the ship “George” to the new colony of Jamestown in 1619, the year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. History came alive as my mother told of Sarah and Dr. John helping establish Flowerdew Hundred on the James River 30 miles above Jamestown, and how their sons, John and Robert, were born there.

Not long after they arrived, the Woodsons survived the 1622 attack of the Powhatan tribe that had taken the lives of a third of the English settlers. The war between the Virginia colonists and the Powhatan Confederacy lasted for 10 years until the Powhatans agreed to a peace treaty in 1632. With the coming of peace, the Woodson family moved out from the protection of their first home and joined the growing number of settlers moving further inland to farm fertile land along the banks of the James River near what is now Richmond.

Tired of fighting, the confedera - cy’s leader, Opechan- canou, had signed a treaty giving land rights in exchange for a share of the annual harvest. Over the years, however, he began to worry that the steady arrival of new white settlers would eventually overwhelm his people. Tensions with the native tribes were far from over.

So in April 1644, Powhatan warriors broke the peace treaty and rose up and attacked white settlements across the Virginia frontier, killing some 300 settlers. As Dr. Woodson was returning from seeing patients, Sarah Woodson saw the warriors kill her husband in sight of his house, then turn to attack their home. A visitor, Col. Thomas Ligon, armed himself with the Woodson’s 7-footlong gun and went upstairs into a firing position and began to fire the .86 caliber scattergun at the attackers, bringing down several.

During the attack, Sarah hid her boys, 12-year-old John, under a large cook pot, and Robert, 9, in the root cellar, the “potato hole.” She herself did not hide, my mother always pointed out. Two warriors got into the cabin down the chimney, and my 10-times-great-grandmother killed one by scalding him with boiling water, and the other she brained with an iron roasting spit to the head, killing them both.

The widow and her sons went on to found a great family of Woodsons with thousands of descendants, including me and my family. Her son, Robert, was the forefather of many great men and women, distinguished landowners and pioneers of the South and West. Among them we include as cousins First Lady Dolly Madison and the Confederate raider and later outlaw, Jesse Woodson James, and I’m proud of both.

When I was stationed at the Pentagon in the mid-90s, archaeologists were excavating the old settlement at Flowerdew Hundred and there was a museum at the site. When my wife and sons went to tour, we mentioned that the boys and I were Woodson descendants, and the curator immediately asked, “Potato Hole or Cook Pot?”

I replied, proudly, that I was descended from Robert “Potato Hole” Woodson, and my boys were pretty impressed. Realizing that their roots reached so deeply into America’s history made that history much more interesting than dry names and dates, and brought alive the early struggles of our ancestors to build a new nation out of a wild frontier.

Thank God for brave, quick-witted Sarah Woodson and that potato hole, without which we wouldn’t be here with our stories to tell.

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