Irish Connections at America ’s Birthplace
By Brian McGinn  

Just how Francis Magnel came to be numbered among Virginia ’s earliest settlers is still something of a mystery. But there is no doubt that the Irish sailor was a crew member of one of the ships—the Discovery, the Godspeed or the Susan Constant—that landed the original colony at the site of Jamestown on May 13th, 1607. And Magnel’s residence and survival in Virginia through the first sweltering summer and hungry winter qualify this hardy Irishman as a true American pioneer—a historically verified founding member of the first permanent English settlement in North America .

Magnel’s Irish roots have not been documented. His relatively rare surname strongly suggests that they lay in Co. Cork, where the Magnels were a family of Norse origin established since the 13th Century. By the 17th Century, the form of the surname was already evolving into its modern version of Magner. This change is reflected in the variant spellings, and misspellings, found in contemporary references to the Irish sailor, and has led some historians to mistakenly conclude that he was a Maguire. Co. Cork placenames associated with the family have undergone a parallel process. The townland of Magnelstown, not far from Kanturk, is nowadays known as Castlemagner.

Lessons from Ulster

Modern visitors to Jamestown can find Francis Magnel’s name among the colony’s identified Earliest Settlers, on a sign listing 262 of the 334 who arrived during the years 1607-1608. One other obviously Irish surname appears there. Dionis Oconor was a tradesman who reached Jamestown in October 1608, six months after Francis Magnel left by ship for England . Nothing further is known of Oconor’s work or fate. But there is a strong possibility that he died at Jamestown during the “Starving Time”, the terrible famine that devastated the colony during the winter of 1609-10. If so, his remains may lie underfoot not far from the sign that honors him as one of America ’s earliest settlers.  

At Jamestown , both Oconor and Magnel would have worked under men who were intimately familiar with Ireland . The colony, organized along military lines, had among its earliest leaders several hardened veterans of England’s protracted campaign—the Nine Years War--to smash the power of the rebellious Gaelic chieftains, Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone and Red Hugh O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell. Edward Maria Wingfield, the first president of Jamestown ’s governing Council, had seen service in Ireland under Elizabeth I, as had his subordinates George Percy, Richard Crofts and Edward Morris. There were also rumors, never confirmed, that Captain John Smith had been in Ireland .  

Not surprisingly, these men carried attitudes towards the Native Americans that were strongly colored by their experience with the native Irish. Both Irish and Indians refused to fight in the open, substituting the hit and run tactics of guerrilla warfare for the massed battle formations favored by English soldiers. It was little wonder that George Percy likened the first Indian trail he saw in Virginia to an Irish “pace” or forest path, from which lightly armed natives might suddenly appear to harry the occupation forces.

 The shape of the original fort at Jamestown has puzzled some historians, who noted that 17th Century English military engineers almost never built triangular defensive works. Again, the answer may lie in the mindset of men schooled in an Irish theater of military operations. The plan of a triangle-like fort that bears an uncanny resemblance to James Fort has been found among the English records of the Nine Years War. The Fort of the Mullin was erected six years earlier on the banks of the River Blackwater in Ulster , as Lord Deputy Mountjoy attempted to encircle the elusive armies of the Earl of Tyrone.

Startling Discoveries

As part of Jamestown ’s preparations to mark the 400th anniversary of its founding, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) is conducting an ambitious archaeological investigation. Begun in 1994, the Jamestown Rediscovery project has already yielded a rich historical harvest. The archaeological outlines of the triangular fort, long thought to have eroded into the James River , were identified in 1996.

 Within the original fort, not far from the surviving 17th Century tower of America ’s first Anglican church, the grave of an original settler was found. The well-preserved remains, combined with the manner of burial, indicate a young gentleman in his early 20s. The skeleton also held evidence of the cause of death: a .60 caliber lead ball embedded in the right leg just below the knee. In addition to breaking bones, the bullet used in this 17th C kneecapping would have severed an artery, leading to death from massive blood loss.

 There is no suggestion that the victim, known to the scientists as JR 102C, was Irish. But the brutality of JR’s death, almost certainly at the hands of a fellow settler, suggests the deadly nature of the intrigues that swirled around Francis Magnel and Dionis Oconor. Apart from attack by Native Americas, the English also feared a surprise raid by Spain ’s still-formidable fleet. And they harbored an intense paranoia about the possibility that Spanish spies might already be in their midst. Magnel later reported that George Kendall, an English officer and a Catholic, was executed at Jamestown on suspicion of espionage.

 Considering the risks involved in any outward profession of a proscribed religion, the nature of some recent Jamestown finds is all the more puzzling. They include a long stemmed lead crucifix with an image of a praying woman—probably Mary—beneath the body of Christ; faceted jet beads characteristic of 17th Century Catholic rosaries; and a copper alloy medallion showing Mary’s crowned head surrounded by seven stars, as found in later images of the Immaculate Conception. Some of these religious icons, which were then generally shunned by the reformed Anglican Church, may have belonged to Francis Magnel, Dionis Oconor or other as yet unidentified co-religionists. 

Irish Coppers

One of the most eye-catching discoveries in the Jamestown Museum is a display of copper coins found scattered throughout the 17th Century Fort. The crowned harps on the pennies and halfpenny, still visible under four centuries of verdigris, clearly identify them as Irish. And their dates—1601 and 1602—mark the end of the Nine Years War and the devastating defeat of Gaelic Irish hopes at the Battle of Kinsale.

At a time when all English coins were still minted in silver, the use of copper in Ireland was revealing. For Matthew Tully, secretary to the Earl of Tyrconnell, the change to a cheaper metal suggested the severe financial burdens imposed by the Nine Years War. In a letter to King Philip III of Spain in 1606, Tully wrote that the English “were brought to such straits that they were forced to coin money in copper instead of silver.”

Although the switch to copper saved the English Treasury in the short run, the debased coins may not have proved popular in Ireland . The scheme was discontinued in 1603, which explains why the dates of only the two prior years appear on the coins recovered at Jamestown . Early Virginia , explains Jamestown curator Beverly Straube, was also something of a dumping ground for surplus and outmoded English goods. By 1607, the practically-worthless Irish coppers still stored at the London mint were perhaps deemed good enough for the New World , where they might still have value as small change among coin-short colonists or as exotic trinkets to trade with the Indians.                                                                                         

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See Also:

Jamestown, Virginia

From the beginning, the venture in Virginia had close associations with Ireland, where England was concurrently engaged in the Plantation of Ulster.

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The Irish in WWII

Irish in Other Wars and Armies