Three colonial Virginia hurricanes, including one that inspired Shakespeare’s Tempest

August 4, 1609 (The Tempest):

Sir Thomas Gates, future governor of Virginia was on his way from England to Jamestown when between Cuba and the Bahamas a “most terrible and vehement storm” (now believed to be a hurricane) pummeled them for 44 hours.

The flagship, known as Sea Venture, disappeared and was presumed lost, but the Admiral of the Virginia Company, Sir George Somers, had deliberately sent the ship onto some rocks to prevent its foundering. The rocks turned out to be the reef line of an uninhabited archipelago now known as Bermuda.

The other ships went on to Jamestown, not knowing the fate of the Sea Venture. The Spaniards, though shipwrecked on Bermuda many times, had failed to colonize it so the British claimed it. Then in May 1610, Somers successfully sailed for Jamestown.

This near catastrophe allegedly provided the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, which published later that same year.

Jamestown Sept. 6, 1667:

On September 6, 1667, the first recorded storm using the term “hurricane” struck colonial Virginia. The storm was first recorded off the Lesser Antilles on September 1, then on September 6 moved through the Outer Banks of North Carolina into southeastern Virginia. The wind turned from the northeast to south and finally to the west, which suggested a track similar to the August 1933 hurricane. The storm proceeded to make landfall just to the northeast of Jamestown, pounding the settlement for 24 hours with violent winds, torrential rains and a 12-ft storm surge.

In a letter from the colonial secretary Thomas Ludwell to Virginia Governor Lord William Berkeley, approximately 10,000 houses were destroyed. The colonists’ tobacco and corn crops were lost, their cattle drowned in the surge, and their ships were greatly damaged. The foundations of the fort at Point Comfort and the bodies and markers in the graveyard of the First Lynnhaven parish church all were swept into the raging river. Twelve days of rain followed this storm across Virginia, and this is blamed for the widening of the Lynnhaven River.

Secretary Ludwell described the night of the hurricane as “the most dismal time I ever knew or heard of, for the wind and rain raised so confused a noise, mixed with the continued cracks of failing houses…” He then stated that in the aftermath of the hurricane everything was reduced “to a very miserable condition.”

After clobbering Jamestown the storm likely passed inland into northern Virginia. A severe storm in Manhattan on September 8 was most likely a continuation of this same storm, as it curved northeast. Another hurricane may have passed very close to the Virginia coastline on September 10, since the “dreadful hurricane of 1667” was accompanied by twelve straight days and nights of rain.

Williamsburg, Sept. 14 1769 (as reported verbatim by the Virginia Gazette newspaper):

“Last Friday morning, about one o’clock, came on at northeast a most dreadful hurricane, attended with rain, which came down in torrents. It blew most violently from that quarter until between ten and eleven o’clock and then … to the north west where the storm increased, and continued, without any abatement, until about dinner time. The damage done in the country must be inconceivable, for the corn is laid level with the ground, and much of it destroyed; the fodder is entirely gone. What tobacco was in the fields is quite spoiled, and that in houses, by their filling, and the deluges of rain which poured into them, greatly damaged, which may likewise be said of the wheat

There was not a dry house in town that day. Many old houses were blown down, and a number of trees. The woods are entirely covered with fallen trees, many of the largest bulk, which has blocked up the roads, so that there is no traveling with the carriages. The farther up the country the fiercer the storm was, and most of the mills were destroyed; upwards of fifty, we hear, between this and Newcastle.

From Hampton we hear that all the small craft there is driven ashore; and Captain Fegren, for London, lying in the road, was obliged to cut away his mainmast, but rode out the gale.

All the shipping and small vessels at Norfolk are aground, many of them dismantled; some of the wharves are gone, and others much damaged.

The shipping etc, at York, have suffered greatly … A vessel from Norfolk, laden with coal for the city, was driven up to Jamestown and stove to pieces…”

[Remainder of coverage is illegible]


Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 11 books. More at

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store