John and Sarah arrived in Jamestown in 1619 on the ship George, settled in Floradew Hundred, and survived the horrific Indian massacre on Good Friday, 1622. We know these things from a census of survivors taken in January, 1624.
I am descended from them through their older son, Robert (1634-1707); his son, also named Robert Woodson (1660-1729); and the second Robert’s daughter Elizabeth (1689-1784), who married the second of the four John Knights in my family tree. I evidently have a nice chunk of their DNA code, because there are at least three distant cousins of mine, as determined by autosomal DNA testing, who claim descent from the elder Robert Woodson, the younger Robert Woodson, and Elizabeth Woodson Knight, respectively. (The two Robert Woodsons were Quakers; Elizabeth married out of the faith in 1728. I’ll post about the Quakers later. )
There is a large amount of material about John and Sarah Woodson on the internet—some of which is vehemently questioned and disputed—stemming largely, as far as I can tell, from family histories written by descendents in 1785 and 1888. To summarize the major issues:
Why did the Woodsons Move to America?
Some sources claim that John was the younger son of an aristocratic family that, naturally, worshipped in the Angican Church, while Sarah was a religious dissenter of some kind, and that John had to give up his inheritance to marry her. That might be true.
Was Robert Woodson really a son of John and Sarah Woodson?
One ancestor has suggested that it’s odd that the Woodsons married in 1619 but didn’t start having children until 1634. I mention the point for what it’s worth. They may have had some earlier children who died. Lots of people died in the early years in Jamestown.
A Physician or a Surgeon?
There seems to be general agreement that John Woodson was a medical man. Some sources claim that he was a ship’s surgeon on the ship George. Others say that he was a physician, who attended St. John’s College and trained to be a physician. (Of those adherint to the latter position, some say it was St. John’s College, Cambridge, and some say Oxford. Either might be true, because each university has a St. John’s College.)
John probably was not both a physician and a surgeon. In those days physicians were college men, trained in theoretical medicine—though much of the theory was wrong—as well as Latin and Greek, while surgeons were considered skilled tradesmen, members of the guild of barbers and surgeons. The physicians liked to bleed patients with leeches, while the surgeons performed operations. The latter were more likely actually to do some good.
I think the claim that he was a ship’s surgeon is more plausible than the claim that he was a surgeon. (1) It seems no one can find any records of the alleged college education. Sixteenth and seventeenth century evidence of his alleged aristocratic origin has also proved to be elusive. (2) Records show one or two physicians in Jamestown in those early days, and John was not one of them. (3) The 1624 census records John and Sarah’s possessions, and they were not plentiful—more the sort of thing that a tradesman than a a gentleman would have. To wit: four bushels of corn, one sword, one “piece fixed” (that is, a firearm in working order), three pounds of lead, and one pound of gunpowder. The census takers also inquired about a number of food and other items—fish, beans, boats, houses, suits of armor, helmets, etc.; the Woodson family had none of those.
Was John Woodson One of the First Slave Owners?
A number of internet sources—relying, I think, on the eighteenth and nineteenth century family histories—claim that John Woodson owned six Africans. That may be, but there is no evidence that he owned them in 1624; the Africans where he was living at that time belonged to someone else.
John Woodson’s Death, Sarah’s Heroic Fight, and “Potato Hole Woodson’s” Survival
The story of John Woodson’s death on April 18, 1644, has the air of an oft-told tale that has benefited greatly in the retelling. It has many versions. Here is the most lurid I have found:
The Woodson’s, like all settlers, owned several guns. The doctor always carried a gun with him on his medical calls and frequently brought home game in his medical saddle bags. The gun that hung over the Woodson log cabin mantelpiece was seven feet six inches long, and had a bore large enough to admit a man’s thumb. How anyone could lift it, much less fire it to kill, Sarah had no idea. But she was one day to learn!
The Woodson boys were eight and ten years old on that fateful April 18, 1644. And the boys might have been out in the tobacco fields working that morning, except for the visit of an itinerant shoemaker named Ligon, who was there for his yearly visit to measure the entire household for their year’s supply of shoes. Sarah hoped that the doctor would return from his medical call before Ligon the shoemaker had to leave, for the doctor needed a new pair of riding boots.
The spring planting had taken the slaves into the fields so that Sarah and Ligon and the two boys were alone in the cabin when the Indians attacked.
The blood-curdling war whoops rang out and Sarah froze as she looked through the cabin window and saw the feather headdresses come pouring out of the woods. Automatically, Sarah dropped the heavy cross-bar on the cabin door. Ligon lifted the seven-foot gun down from the mantelpiece.
An arrow hit a window ledge. Sara bolted the inside shutters on the windows. At the half-story window above in the sleeping loft Ligon poised the giant gun on the window ledge, ready. A powder horn and extra balls lay within hand’s reach, ready.
She must hide the boys, Sarah thought. But where? The potato bin hole beneath the cabin floor! It was half-empty and tar-kettle dark! It ought to be safe! She lifted the trap door and told one frightened boy to jump, and not to utter a sound.
There was an empty wash tub in the corner of the built-in shed. Eight-year-old Robert might be able to squeeze inside it. He wasn’t very big. Sarah told him to squat on the floor. She upturned the wash tub over the boy and then hurried to the hearth to build up the fire under the cooking kettle hanging from the fireplace crane. The kettle held the family’s supper soup. She added water to fill it to the top and pushed it over the hottest coals. If one of the demon Indians tried to come down the chimney she had a scalding bath ready.
Looking through a chink in the window shutter Sarah counted nine savages in the howling mob about the cabin. Suddenly her husband appeared, riding out of the forest with his gun ready to fire. Sarah saw him before the Indians did. She let out a cry and then held her breath as she watched.
Before the doctor could shoot, one of the Indians turned and saw him. He aimed and shot his arrow. It struck the doctor and his gunfire went astray. He fell from his horse and several of the Indians rushed at him waving their battle axes. Sarah covered her eyes.
Ligon’s rifle kept cracking. He had gotten three Indians. Sarah watched them fall. Ligon killed five Indians before Sarah heard the noise in the chimney.
They had killed her husband. She was ready to die defending the lives of her sons!
Sarah stood to one side of the hearth with her hand on the kettle. The water scalding, the coals red hot. the Indian came down feet first. Sarah tipped the kettle and gave it to him in full force. He screeched in agony and lay writhing on the floor.
There was more noise up the chimney. Another one was coming down. Sarah grabbed the heavy iron roasting spit. She raised it above her head, holding it with both hands.
As the second Indian stooped to come out of the chimney, Sarah brought her weapon down on his head. It sounded like a pumpkin splitting. He fell heavily to the floor, killed instantly.
She looked up from the bloody bodies to see Ligon unbolting the cabin door. “‘I’m going to fetch the doctor’s body,'” he told her. ‘The red devils are finished.’
Sarah counted seven dead Indians in the clearing. The heavy Woodson rifle had served them well.
Although John Woodson had been killed by the Indians, his sons lived to carry on the Woodson name. today, some 300 years later, it is a proud family tradition among the Woodson descendants to be known as either the potato hole Woodsons or the wash tub Woodsons.
The Woodson Musket
The Virginia Historical Society displays a musket, some part of which is said to date to the events of 1644.
After the unfortunate events of 1644, Sarah remarried, evidently twice, the second time to a man named Johnson. She died in 1660, leaving this will:
A true and just account of the estate of Sarah Johnson widdow deceased….
Imprimis two cowes One two yearlinge hifer
One Cowe calf One chest
One fether bed with its furniture
One Pott One pewter dish
One pewter… One wooden dish
One spitt A Taylos… Iron and shayres
One… wascott with a sarge peticote… with other clothes
This disposed of a little before her death and by her order as followeth….
To Deborah Woodson one Cowe the fether bed with its furniture & what tobackoes was left her debts first satisfyed exceptinge onelye a debt form Robert Woodson & this to be towardes her mainenance
The other Cowe to John Woodson to be killed att his plasure beinge an ould Cowe, but as longe as he shall thinke fitt to lett her live what Cowe calves shall from the sd Cowe be raised to be for use of Deborah Woodson
To Elizabeth Dunwell ye hifer & the Cowe calfe above mentione (with) ye …waiscott and sarge peticott,
To Robert Woodson what tobackoes he owed her a spitt, pott and pweter dish
The calf be given to Elizabeth Dunwell to remayn in ye handes of John Woodson till ye sd Elizabeth come of age. ffins
 I believe the error arose in a 1915 familyhistory, http://books.google.com/books?id=GuhfAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA23&lpg=PA23&dq=piersey%27s+hundred&source=bl&ots=Uetv5WcbRT&sig=JJW2g_U8FLM_m9pGZlJJ97RHgLo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=9wgwUaS9H8Tz2QWthYHADA&ved=0CE8Q6AEwBzgK#v=onepage&q&f=false, that misread an earlier source.