A corn liquor distilled in central Virginia about 1620 has been cited as the first whiskey ever made in North America and hailed as “a predecessor to modern-day bourbon.” The distiller was George Thorpe, who came to the New World from England with the major objective of converting the indigenous population to Christianity. It cost him his life.
From a wealthy and landed family, George was born in 1576 at Wanswell Court, the family estate in Gloustershire, England, the eldest son of Nicholas and Mary Wilkes Thorpe. He received university training in law and according to some accounts may also have been an ordained priest of the Anglican Church. Later Thorpe served as a justice of the peace and was chosen to represent Portsmouth in a short session of the British parliament, known as “The Addled Parliament.” At the age of 24 in 1600 Thorpe married Margaret Porter, who died childless a decade later. He soon remarried Margaret Harris who birthed five children, at least two of whom lived to maturity.
A “gentleman of the king’s privy chamber,” success in England seemingly meant little to Thorpe. Instead he had his mind and heart fixed on events across the Atlantic. Says one biographer: “He was related both in blood and marriage with some of the distinguished men of the Jamestown colony….He was a man of strong religious feeling and became greatly interested in the problem of the savages with which his countrymen were newly coming into contact in the new world.” Selling his English lands and investing in a Virginia settlement, Thorpe arrived in The New World in March 1620.
Upon Thorpe’s coming his contacts and reputation earned him immediate recognition at the Berkeley Hundred, a settlement on the north bank of the James River founded in 1619 on land allotted by the king. He was made a co-leader of the Berkeley Plantation and named to the Governor’s Council of Virginia. Thorpe also was given another post that would prove problematic. Enthusiasm ran high in England for bringing advanced learning to the colonies through a “college” and for providing “Christianizing” education for American Indians. King James had authorized English bishops and clergy to raise significant amounts of money to be used for that purpose. Given Thorpe’s passion for converting the native population, he was put in charge of the project.
More immediately, however, the newly arrived Englishman put his efforts toward making Berkeley function agriculturally. Thorpe threw his energies into farming, at one point planting a large vineyard that failed to prosper. The colonists having been introduced to corn by the Indians, he looked to make that crop potable. Because safe drinking water was at a premium, the colonists, both adults and children, drank beer, cider and a form of strong drink known as “aqua vitae.” Fifteen gallons of such spirits that had accompanied Thorpe from England soon was exhausted, but colonists providently also had brought a copper still. The Englishman set about to turn corn into alcohol. In December 1620 Thorpe wrote a friend: “Wee have found a waie to make soe good drink of Indian corn I have divers times refused to drink good stronge English beare and chose to drinke that.” Those spirits would have been clear in color and more akin to “moonshine” or “white lightening” than contemporary whiskey.
Providing strong drink to his fellow colonists probably was secondary to Thorpe. He had been charged with creating the educational campus, including an Indian school, adjacent to the settlement. Highly motivated to befriend Native Americans and convert them to Christianity, Thorpe gave this objective his utmost attention. In letters he regretted that his fellow colonists had treated the Indians so shabbily “they beinge (espetiallye the better sort of them) of a peaceful and vertuous disposition.”
Thorpe seemed to score an early success when one of the leaders of the Powhatan tribe named Opechancanough (meaning “Soul of White”) agreed to meet with him. The Indian chief seemed welcoming and open to being converted to Christianity. Encouraged, Thorpe with his own money arranged to have the colonists build him “a faire house after the English fashion.” Opechanacough accepted the gift and Thorpe left believing that significant progress had been made in establishing a cooperative relationship. The chief is shown below as he was depicted then and again more recently.
Opechancanough, far from conversion, was the a rabid tribal leader for expelling white men from Indian territory. He is shown above as imagined by artists in both the 17th and 21st Centuries. Thorpe may have further exacerbated the situation by explaining his intention to remove Indian children for education and conversion at the proposed school, a plan that may have inflamed the chief’s personal animosity toward the Englishman. Even as they spoke, Opechancanough was planning to wipe out the colonists at the Berkeley Hundred and elsewhere in Virginia.
On the night of March 22, 1622, the Indians struck in a coordinated attack against English settlements along the James River. As shown above, they breached stockade fences surrounding the settlements, setting the buildings on fire, or arrived by water in war canoes to surprise a completely unprepared populace. As the inhabitants ran for safety they were cut down by tribesmen bearing axes and other weapons. The attacks killed some 347 men, women, and children, including 27 at the Berkeley Hundred. Among them was George Thorpe, apparently the object of particular fury, his mutilated body parts found strewn widely over the bloody ground.
When word of the massacre was received back in England, it generated a flurry of imagined depictions, as above, stirring hatred against the indigenous population. In a report to the king, Thorpe’s good intentions toward the Indians were emphasized: “He thought nothing too deare for them…All was little regarded after by this Viperous brood.” Thorpe emerged a Christian hero betrayed by a treacherous people. Unsuccessful in his efforts to drive the English out, Opechancanough was captured in 1846 and shot in the back by a soldier as he was being paraded as a prisoner through Jamestown.
Anointing Thorpe as America’s first distiller seems reasonable, since he apparently was the first to write about it. Whether his product is to be considered the forerunner of modern day whiskey requires examination. Author Patrick Evans-Hylton makes the case that Thorpe’s “corn beer” was a predecessor of bourbon. He cites an 1634 inventory of Thorpe’s estate in which a copper still with three small barrels of liquor were found, opened and drunk. At that point the contents had aged at least 12 years and likely had achieved some color from the wood. No longer just “moonshine,” Thorpe’s spirits might have resembled bourbon even if the taste did not.
Notes: This post was occasioned by an interesting new book by Evans-Hylton, entitled “Virginia Distilled: Four Hundred Years of Drinking in the Old Dominion,” The History Press, Charleston S.C., 2021. It spurred me to research a number of Internet and printed sources on Thorpe’s life and death, a story previously unknown to me, despite my being a resident of Virginia since 1964.