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[Research Article]


New England Before 1620 - Part 1
by Scott Andrew Bartley

[From Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America:
The Northern Voyages A.D. 500-1600 (New York, 1971), p. 144,
The H.M.S. Lyon, 1545]

For genealogists, life often begins in New England in 1620. We forget the many visitors who came here before the Pilgrims. Most of them, probably fisherman, were never recorded as being here. This is a short, unauthoritative history of the explorations and settlements in and around New England.

Many have now read the bestselling book by Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower (New York, 2006). He tells of the Pilgrims being greeted by an English-speaking Indian named Samoset. That is our introduction to this whole other world that time forgot. This is not a story about the many Native People who inhabited this land before the Pilgrims, but of the visitations of other Europeans before the Mayflower passengers settled in the abandoned Native village of Patuxet.

You probably thought I would start with the Norse-men of Viking fame, but I will mention in passing a story handed down from Viking sagas. The Irish first colonized Iceland by 825 as they fled from the reach of Rome and the pillaging of the Vikings on the British Isles. The Irish stayed on Iceland until the Vikings started their own settlement of the island in 870. The sagas suggest that the Irish who left in their wake headed westward to Vinland – a name coined by Leif Eiriksson that first appeared in print in 1075. Some scholars disagree, but it may refer to New England and its native grapes.

The Vikings were the next to arrive in the area around 1000. One settlement, likely by Leif Eiriksson, was L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From here it was thought that they explored the northeast coast. Some have agreed that the name of America is a derivation of the Norse word “omme-rike,” roughly translated as the remotest land. There is no actual proof for this or other theories except where the word first appeared in print.

There were allegedly ten voyages to North America before Columbus, but none, though seen in print, have been proven. Columbus brought the New World three things: disease, domesticated animals (notably horses), and metal tools / weapons. The most enduring thing he brought back from his first voyage is the term “Indians” for the Native People of the place as he believed he had successfully reached the “Indies.” Though Columbus landed in the southern part of the continent, this was an event that would ultimately reshape the entire continent.

John Cabot was the next man to come to America. Precious little is known about him, except his voyages (there were two), and his demise. He was made a Venetian citizen in 1476. He tried to sail for Spain, then Portugal, but it was England who supported him. Cabot left Bristol in his navicula Mathew in 1497 and arrived at Newfoundland. Cabot sailed back the following year and never returned.

João Fernandes was sent from Bristol in 1500 and it was he who named Labrador (the husbandman), though maps suggest this was present-day Greenland. Gaspar and Miguel Corte Real, Portuguese gentlemen, sailed and “discovered” Terra Verde – undoubtedly Newfoundland the same year. By 1504, English and French fishermen were plying their trade in the rich banks off Newfoundland.

The French supported Florentine master mariner Giovanni da Verrazano’s voyage west in 1524. Verrazano sailed up the east coast from present-day North Carolina to Nova Scotia looking for the northwest passage to Asia. He thought the water on the west side of the Outer Banks of North Carolina was the Pacific Ocean.

[From Morison, p. 466, "Norumbega," 1569]

The Spanish sent the Portuguese mariner Estévan Gomez to discover the passage to the Philippines in 1524, late in the year after Verrazano’s return. Gomez explored Nova Scotia and headed south likely as far as Rhode Island where he kidnapped a group of Natives and brought them back to Spain at the scorn of all. The Spaniards tried one last time to discover a northern route. This time they sent Luís Vasquez de Allón from Hispaniola in 1525 sailing north with settlers in tow. His settlements failed, he died on the voyage, and the ships never made it up to Gomez’s area. This ended Spanish interest in lands north of Florida.

The French again sent Jacques Cartier to explore the northern realm in 1534. He explored Labrador, Newfoundland, the Gaspé, and Prince Edward Island in great detail. Cartier’s second voyage in 1535 and 1536 explored the St. Lawrence River as far in as Montréal. His third voyage was in 1541 for the land they called the Kingdom of Saguenay. Settlers were gathered to make the journey. This time Cartier was not met by friendly Huron Natives. The settlement was attacked several times and the whole attempted failed.

In 1545 is published a story about the city and kingdom of Norumbega. Though some maps show it just north of Florida, its coordinates place this great place on the Penobscot River. That is a logical place as it is an Algonquin name meaning “quiet place between two rapids.” Many sailed in search of this mythical place for decades until Samuel de Champlain sailed up the Penobscot to present-day Bangor and reported back that there was no such place in 1604.

The major naval countries were at war during this time, so little expansive exploration for settlement was undertaken. That did not stop business, however. Cod fishing off Newfoundland was a good, but risky venture. The British reported capturing hundreds of Spanish fishermen off the coast in 1585 alone. This was not an unfamiliar place to seasoned sailors, and they often left domesticated animals behind on islands to help feed them on their return.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, many voyages were made to discover the northwest passage to India. From 1575 to 1600, these voyages were all failures. The most notable among them are Humfry Gilbert, Martin Frobisher, Richard Hakluyt, and John Davis. This is when you find an interesting map by Emery Molyneux drawn about 1586 that shows the northeast with “Virginia” printed for New England – an obvious cartography error. This announces a change from exploration through to settlement of the “New World.”

The gallant Walter Raleigh was 36 when his half-brother Sir Humfry Gilbert (above) died at sea in 1583. He was poised to become the founder of Virginia that was earlier “discovered” by Verrazzano. Gilbert’s patent for the New World was due to expire in 1584. Raleigh, courting great favor of the Queen, easily obtained a new patent for himself of his half-brother’s rights. Raleigh had control over the settlement and two hundred leagues (roughly 600 miles) up and down the coast.

Raleigh sailed that first year (1584) to survey the area in two barks. Raleigh and his men arrived likely in Puerto Rico, but eventually explored northward. They first encountered a Native people at Roanoke Island (now in North Carolina) and had a positive meeting. Two of this Algonquin tribe volunteered to return to England with Raleigh’s men. The Queen honored Raleigh by knighting him and called the land Virginia.

Raleigh readied a flotilla to settle Virginia in 1585. He was kept in England by the Queen, so he asked his kinsman Sir Richard Grenville to head the voyage. Raleigh named Ralph Lane as governor of the colony; scientist Thomas Hariot, who wrote Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588) on his return that was the main source for information on North America; and artist John White to help map the area and draw the flora and fauna. The company totaled 108. In that group was Manteo, one of the Native people who went to England that the company returned to his home on Croatoan Island. Grenville left behind the settlers and headed back to England at the end of the summer.

The colonists, dealing badly with the local population, all left the settlement when a supply ship arrived in the summer of 1586. A second supply ship with Grenville arrived to find the island abandoned. He left behind only eighteen men to guard the place.

Raleigh mounted a second wave of settlement in 1587. This time he included some women and children. They were settled under the governorship of John White (above). Though the plan was to settle along Chesapeake Bay, the party landed back on Roanoke Island. The men left behind were gone, but they started rebuilding the city of Raleigh. The settlers decided they needed an agent in London to help the colony. Gov. White was sent back leaving his daughter and newborn granddaughter behind. This is the story that many might recall. White was delayed by being pressed into service for the war with Spain and not able to return until 1590. The colonists were all gone leaving only the word Croatoan carved in a post at the fort. The speculation is that the group settled with the Croatoan Natives and became part of their tribe. The true ending is still a mystery.

[From Morison, p. 642, Pomeiooc vilage, 1585]

Following only the British activity, Capt. Gosnold sailed to the New World and landed in southeastern Massachusetts in 1602. The Elizabeth Islands are named for his daughter and the town that includes them bears the name of Gosnold. He named the great cape for the abundant fish there as Cape Cod.

Martin Pring and William Browne sailed up the Maine coast in 1603. They explored the many rivers here down to the Piscataqua. They also landed on Cape Cod and spent two months at Pamet River where they erected a stockade below now-called Cornhill that was seen by the Pilgrims in 1620.

George Weymouth explored the Maine coast in 1605. An account was published by James Rosier who accompanied Weymouth. He captured several Native people and brought them back to England. One was Tisquantum, the one called Squanto of Mayflower fame.

I will end this part with the chartering of the Virginia Company on 10 April 1606. This refers to two joint stock companies called the Virginia Company of London (settling between the 34 th to 41 st parallel) and the Virginia Company of Plymouth (settling between the 38 th to 45 th parallel). The overlapping area had the requirement that neither could settle within 100 miles of each other.

There are many sources for information regarding the above history. I utilized mostly:

Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York, 2005)

Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages A.D. 500-1600 (New York, 1971)

Charles Ripley Damon, The American Dictionary of Dates 458-1920 (Morristown, Tenn., 1921)


[This article was published in The Compact, v. 30. iss. 2 [Summer 2009]: 1, 4-5.]


Researched and created by Scott Andrew Bartley
© Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants, Braintree, Mass., 2000-2010

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Page updated 22 July 2010