Bartholomew Gosnold: First European to “smell the earth” at Maine’s southern coast. (Or was he?)
Bartholomew Gosnold was born in 1572 with a silver spoon in his mouth and a passion for adventure in his heart. His parents, Anthony and Dorothy (Bacon) Gosnold, were both of notable families in England during the reign of the “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth I. Anthony Gosnold had a royal descent from King Edward III of England. Bartholomew’s mother was of the same gene pool that produced Lord Francis Bacon. In fact, the branches of the Bacon and Gosnold trees crossed more than once.
Young Bartholomew was trained as a lawyer, attending Cambridge University and Middle Temple. While at school he was inspired by a lecture given by the Geographer of the day, Richard Hakluyt, whose The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation was published in 1600. Gosnold was so inspired, in fact, that he lost all interest in practicing law. When Sir Walter Raleigh invited him on a voyage to the new world, he eagerly agreed. The voyage failed to meet its mission but there was no turning back for Batholomew. He continued to sail as a privateer chasing Spaniards and dreams of glory across the Atlantic.
Gentlemen explorers like Raleigh and Gosnold did not venture forth to uncharted territory to escape religious persecution. Nor were they wholly altruistic in their efforts on behalf of England. They were interested in money, power and immortality; real people with still familiar, human motivations.
In 1602, Raleigh was falling out of favor in England. His failure with the lost colony of Roanoke had offended many of his supporters and the Queen. Queen Elizabeth encouraged adventurers to search for a Northwest Passage. This presented a loophole to Raleigh’s 1584 patent to colonize North America. Bartholomew Gosnold, at just 30 years of age, seized this entrepreneurial opportunity to sail stealthily through that loophole.
Plans for a voyage were hastily made. It would be financed by William Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southhampton. The mission was meant to discover a route to America on a more northerly tract as allowed by the Queen’s decree but there was a secondary mission. Gosnold intended to establish a small colony in the “North part of Virginia”.
The barque Concord departed from Falmouth, England on March 26, 1602 with a crew of 8 and 23 “Gentleman Discoverers”, some of whom intended to remain in the new world. The Concord was in poor condition and dangerously small for such a voyage but in spite of some contrary winds, she made the trip in a record breaking 49 days. Gosnold and his crew could “smell the land” at Cape Porpoise by May 14.
Two of the gentlemen along for the voyage, Gabriel Archer and John Brereton, journaled their impressions of the trip to the “North part of Virginia”. These firsthand accounts have been invaluable historical research sources ever since. Both diarists described an encounter with Native Americans at “Savage Rock”, calculated by scholars to be near Cape Neddick. A Basque Shallop, with sails and oars, carrying 8 natives, boldly approached the Concord. Archer writes of the encounter,
“One that seemed to be their commander wore a waistcoat of a black wool, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band, one or two more had also a few things made by some Christians; these with a piece of chalk described the coast thereabouts, and could name Placentia of Newfoundland; they spoke divers Christian words, and seemed to understand much more than we, for want of language could comprehend.”
Gosnold’s company proceeded southward with confidence relying on the chalk map for navigation. They established a temporary settlement at what is now known as the Island of Cuttyhunk. Gosnold called it Elizabeth Island in honor of Queen Elizabeth whose edict had made his voyage legal. Marthas Vinyard was named after Gosnold’s recently deceased infant daughter. He named Cape Cod for the abundance of fish that virtually “pestered” the Ship. The naming of the area seems at first glance to be sentimental but it was probably more territorial than sentimental. Gosnold was naming territory that was part of Sir Walter Raleigh’s patent. Meanwhile, Raleigh was back in England worrying about his lost colony of Roanoke and totally ignorant of Gosnold’s voyage.
Gosnold traded with the Natives in Raleigh’s patent for sassafras and supplies. Sassafras was considered the new wonder drug in Europe. Profits from a good sized cargo would be considerable as the Americas were the only available source of the plant. When the Concord’s hold was full the “Gentlemen Adventurers” could not agree upon a fair division of profits or of supplies between the colonists and those returning to England. In fear of being unfairly compensated or worse, of suffering the same fate as the lost Roanoke colonists, all those who had intended to remain at Cuttyhunk could not be persuaded to stay. The entire company returned to England with the undivided provisions.
The return trip to England was accomplished in only 37 days with the help of prevailing winds and the fact that they had cut their Shallop loose to lighten the load on the Concord. This was a common practice and may explain how the Native Americans at Cape Neddick came to be in possession of such a boat.
Once Bartholomew Gosnold returned to England, damage control with Sir Walter Raleigh commenced. Raleigh discovered the patent infringement as soon as the sassafras market was flooded by Gosnold’s cargo. He wrote a letter to the Queen’s Principal Secretary demanding that Gosnold’s portion of the cargo be seized and given to him. Brereton’s account of the trip was then “edited” to include a glowing dedication to Raleigh. This account was published and at once became a bestseller. Archer’s account would not be published until 1625.
Bartholomew Gosnold had not established the first permanent English settlement in New England as was his intention but his bold ambitions had changed the course of our history. Had his voyage in 1602 not inspired Martin Pring to make a proper discovery of the Kennebunk River in 1603, French explorer Samuel de Champlain would be credited for discovering our coast in 1604.
Read Gabriel Archer’s account of the 1602 voyage here.
Read John Brereton’s account of the 1602 voyage here.