On August 21st in the year of our Lord 1607, a group of Englishmen began construction on the first vessel built by Europeans in the New World. She would make her maiden voyage on the Kennebec River in what was then Massachusetts Territory and is now the sovereign state of Maine. Her builders would name her Virginia, after Elizabeth I, and her type would be recorded as a pinnace. Exactly what sort of pinnace, for there were several over the course of history, is open to debate. Two possibilities stand out in particular, so let us explore them both.
The first type of pinnace built by Europeans would probably be more recognizable to modern historians as a small galleon. This sturdy, useful vessel was originally built by the Dutch, who called her a pinas. These ships were used mostly for the merchant round from the British Isles, around the Iberian Peninsula into the Mediterranean and back. You can see a modern replica here.
According to the Chatham Dockyard website, the first pinnace of the galleon class built in England was named Sunne and launched in 1586. Shipwrecked evidence leads to the conclusion that the British may have been the first country to use the galleon-built pinnace as a warship. An English pinnace, probably from the early 17th century and carrying 12 matching cannon, was found in 2009.
This type of ship-rigged, three masted vessel was also popular with the buccaneers of the Caribbean during the age of Laurens de Graff and Henry Morgan. Its shallow draft and light construction – the ships were often made of pine, which may be the origin of their name – made them ideal from men who were more interested in plundering on land than sailing on wave.
Another type of pinnace was being built in the same era, and its small frame and ease of design make it a more likely candidate as a descendant of Virginia. These were a sturdy ship that must more properly be called a boat and resembled the illustration at the header. Rowed with eight oars or propelled by sails on one or sometimes two masts, this pinnace would become a staple among large ship’s boats in the Great Age of Sail.
These smaller pinnaces were most often used as a tender by larger ships. They were utilized for provisioning, as mail packets, to run men or messages between ships at sea and to carry parties of men ashore when necessary. They were extremely popular with smugglers in Europe and their construction may in part have influenced the pirogue, built in the American south and used for much the same purpose.
This second type of pinnace, a smaller, lighter, less cumbersome invention, was probably what the Puritans at the mouth of the Kennebec River put together in 1607. It was only a matter of time, however, until larger ships were turned out from dockyards along the Atlantic coast. Still, the small but mighty pinnace continued and is still in use today.
Header: An American Pinnace in Virginia 1584 by Seth Eastman c 1850 via Wikipedia