Sarah Thorowgood

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When going for a walk, I must decide to turn right or left at end of the driveway. Right usually wins, as that leads to the beach, which is one of my favorite haunts and always pleases the Chesapeake Bay Retriever at my side. But some days something weighs heavy on my mind, and the only thing for it is some time away from my own problems. On those days, I turn left and follow in the footprints of Sarah Thorowgood.

In 1621, the Virginia Beach renown Englishman, Captain Thorowgood, arrived to these shores, worked off his indenture, and returned to his hometown in England – Grimston-King’s Lynn. He married Sarah Offley, whose father was a successful business man, returning a married man to Virginia in 1628. The young couple first lived in Hampton, then known as Kiqutan, where they started their family having three girls in three years.  While Sarah was having babies, her husband was establishing himself in the area. He was successful, being noted for enabling 105 English citizens to leave for Virginia as indentured servants as he himself had done as a younger man. For this he was given a patent for 5350 acres of land – what is now northern Virginia Beach.

Adam, Sarah and their three daughters – and a son (Adam) who was born when they left Kiquotan – lived in a wooden house, the  Grand Manor House, which was comprised of six rooms, a passage, a kitchen, and a cellar. It was here that the he and his wife raised their son and three daughters. When their son grew and  married, that young couple moved to a location which is about a twenty minute walk away from his parent’s homesite. This couple’s home is what we now know as the Adam Thoroughgood House.

When my brick and wooden  house was being built in 1955, the grading of the road bank revealed broken Indian and European artifacts. Floyd Painter, the area’s resident archeologist, heard about this and started snooping around as he was known to do. He recognized that many of the European objects were identical to those related to the earliest phase at Jamestown. The archeologist received some financial backing from the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences and started a salvage excavation of the site. With the help of two or three of his buddies, they recovered weapons, armor, tools, household hardware, both window and bottle glass, and Indian and European tobacco pipes; in short, all the necessities of life. The remains of the post-hole foundation and brick chimney, designated by Painter as the cellar of Captain Thorowgood’s Grand Manor House, measured 22 feet by about 9 feet wide. Floyd Painter’s excavation determined that Sarah and Adam had raised their family on the same plot of land where my husband and I, about 300 years later, raised ours.

Now, the Captain’s name is heard a lot in Virginia Beach, but being a navy wife myself, I am moreinterested I in Sarah. In fact, Captain Thorowgood died in 1640, leaving Sarah to marry in 1641 the guy next door – a Captain John Gookin  – who owned pretty much all of what we now call Norfolk.  At the time widows were not widows for very long, as, for several good reasons, settlers were encouraged to have large families. But Captain Gookin died within a year after their marriage, the story being he got into some trouble with some native Americans around the Nansemond River. This time, Sarah did not remarry immediately: for four years she carried on, completing the brick house her first husband started   and running a tavern in the wooden house where she had raised her family.

You can read of Sarah’s activities in the Court Records from the time period  as her name is featured frequently.  Once she appeared in court because a man had been found dead in the pig pen behind her  house, and it had to be determined that he died of natural causes – which it was. The arrangements she made to have the brick house completed are also detailed in court records and serve to shed light on the two brick techniques used to complete the brick house.

But the most telling story  – in my humble opinion- about Sarah involved  Old Donation Church. Adam and Sarah served as  founders of the Old Donation Episcopal Church: the first service of this church was held on May 17th  1637 in the Thorowgood’s wooden home. This group of settlers went on to build a brick church, which was completed in 1639.  Fifteen years later, 1654, in spite of much resistance from the parish members, Sarah allowed 45 Indians into the church to witness the baptism of the chief’s son. Sarah died three years later in August 1657. She would have been 48 years old. The baptismal font used for the chief’s son still stands in Old Donation Church today.

But back to my walk. As I make my way from my house – which stands where Sarah’s wooden house once stood,  to the brick house – I think about her life. I feel certain she walked the same terrain quite often as I am also certain her son and his wife settled in the brick house and Sarah stayed put – to run the tavern but, moreso, this place was where her roots were. This is what I would have done, for I know the meaning of roots – most especially when you leave home and set life up somewhere else, as Sarah did, and so many navy wives do.  And in my thoughts about Sarah, I know that when her son married and moved to his own place a twenty minute walk away, this displaced Englishwoman finally had family to go and visit – on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps. There is no doubt in my mind but that she would walk  over there to see how things were going for the young couple. She must have worried a lot about them because it could not have been very easy to keep a house going back then. She, of all people, would know about that.

So when I need to get away from my own problems, I retrace the path that I imagine she took to her son’s place, and I try to figure out what one of the first mothers in Virginia Beach worried about. Indians? A harvest that would be good enough? A very pregnant daughter-in-law? A seriously ill husband? No doctor? The weather? There is a saying in this area that if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes and it will change. Can you imagine trying to figure out the weather around here without The Weather Channel?

I imagine that Sarah would get to her son’s place and have a cup of tea, a chat with her son and daughter-in-law, and then make her way home again. She probably felt better for the walk, and her worries were not so large as when she left the Grand Manor House. Somehow, they’d all manage, as I, too, feel better able to manage my own problems when I arrive back to my  house after a walk.

Floyd Painter wrote a detailed article about his excavation of the Grand Manor House, which was printed in the Quarterly Bulletin of the Archeological Society of Virginia in March of 1959. Painter ends his scholarly article asking that this small spot of land, that has been a home site by his estimation since the last great Ice Age, would “always remain a home site, where men of the future may rest in security and comfort, amid family and friends.” There is no historical marker for Captain Thorowgood’s home site on my front lawn, nor will there be as long as I have a pulse. There have always been, however, the markers of a home site. From big wheels to bicycles, skateboards to surfboards – all have been strewn across the front lawn and driveway, while from the shed in the back yard came the pounding beats of a young boy teaching himself to play the drums. The man of the house these days, a Captain Boland, putters away in the garage in his never-ending task of keeping the old place ship-shape. The Chessie stands guard over it all from the shade of the Crape Myrtle. The artifacts I come across each fall as I put my pansies in are  not only fragments of Sarah’s dishes and teacups but also the forgotten toys of two little boys- dirt-encrusted water pistols, GI Joes, a magic wand from a Christmas long ago, and the plastic wrapper of a whoopee cushion found in the furthest corner of the yard under a soggy pile of leaves.

Mr. Painter would be happy to walk around this ancient homesite now, for he would see that his wish has come true. House after house, street after street, he would see places just like mine, where folks continue to rest in security and comfort, amid family and friends. Sarah, I believe, would be astonished – and pleased – to see what became of what she and Adam started here in Virginia Beach.

I want to thank Old Donation Church,  and specifically Bob Perrine, for the extensive collection of  information they have researched and published on their website at http://1bob9.blogspot.com.  I f you want to read more about  Adam and Sarah, I suggest you check this website out.

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