I have long been fascinated by reading the first-hand accounts of those who "discovered" North America. This frigid morning, with the temperature outside being -8 degrees, I found myself wandering the Internet in search of information regarding Giovanni da Verrazano and his 1524 voyage to North America. Many of the references I found alluded to his not having got a fair shake by history. As I proceeded in my search I began to find mention of a letter containing a written account of this voyage. Ultimately, I stumbled upon this link containing a translation of a letter
written by Verrazano to his patron, Francis 1, King of France, July 8th, 1524. The letter was translated by Susan Tarrow of the Cellere Codex in Rome. The authenticiy of the letter was apparently in doubt until fairly recently when a letter written by King Francis 1 was found and made mention of it.
Verrazano's account captivated me as he described his encounters with coastal Native Americans from the present-day Carolinas to Maine. Particularly interesting were his observations regarding the natives' physical appearance. At one point he describes an encounter where the rough surf prevented his men from landing their boat on the beach to present gifts to the natives. One young sailor was asked to swim closer to the beach and throw the trinkets to the natives gathered there. In doing so, he was overcome by the waves and washed-up on the sand. Both the young sailor and his shipmates feared for his safety when he was carried off by the natives. That fear turned to terror when they saw the natives building a fire and thought the plan was to roast him for food. Of course the fire was meant only to warm the young man to the point where he could swim back out to his mates, and he soon did so. The natives' only intention was to help him. Verrazano referred to this act as "a magnificent deed, as Your Majesty will hear."
I was beginning to hold Mr. Verrazano in high regard but only a few paragraphs later, he let me down. His ship had sailed north about 50 leagues from the "magnificent deed" location to a forested area where Verrazano decided to explore inland. He writes "We anchored there, and with 20 men we penetrated about 2 leagues inland, to find that the people had fled in terror into the forests. Searching everywhere, we met with a very old woman and a young girl of 18 or 20 years, who had hidden in the grass in fear. The old woman had two little girls whom she carried on her shoulders, and clinging to her neck a boy --they were all about eight years old. The young woman also had three children, but all girls. When we met them, they began to shout. The old woman made signs to us that the men had fled to the woods. We gave her some of our food to eat, which she accepted with great pleasure; the young woman refused everything and threw it angrily to the ground. We took the boy from the old woman to carry back to France, and we wanted to take the young woman, who was very beautiful and tall, but it was impossible to take her to the sea because of the loud cries she uttered. And as we were a long way from the ship and had to pass through several woods, we decided to leave her behind, and took only the boy."
This is where I have great difficulty in understanding the mindset of many European explorers. One of his men had just been rescued from a vulnerable position by natives who could have taken advantage of the situation. Instead they performed an act of kindness. Now, Verrazano stumbles upon natives in a vulnerable position and he proceeds to kidnap an eight year old boy.
From here the rest of his account provides good reading as he coasts to the north entering present day New York Harbor and, later, Narragansett Bay where he enjoys 15 days of rest and relaxation amongst the native population.
When he reaches the area of present day Maine, he finds the natives to be much less friendly.."We found no courtesy in them, and when we had nothing more to exchange and left them, the men made all the signs of scorn and shame that any brute creature would make [GV footnote: such as showing their buttocks and laughing.]"
I suspect that these natives had already experienced European contact and were very guarded in their dealings with visitors.
Verrazano left this area and coasted further north and east before deciding the welcome mat was nowhere to be found..."We made no contact with the people and we think they were, like the others, devoid of manners and humanity." He then returned to France but would later make 2 other journeys to the Americas. Ironically, it is said that he perished on the last of these journeys when he rowed ashore from his anchored fleet in the Lesser Antilles. While his shipmates, including his brother, watched with horror, he was killed, cooked, and eaten by the native Carib inhabitants. His crew, having remained aboard ship, were unable to help as they were beyond gunshot range and, most likely, outnumbered. I think there's a lesson here.
Nonetheless, some eighty or so years later another voyage of discovery found Europeans behaving badly once again and carrying out very real alien abductions.
The first-hand account of James Rosier
relates the voyage of the Archangell in 1605. I originally came across Rosier's account while on vacation in Maine several years ago. Reading it prompted me to visit some of the mentioned locations and later write about my experience in an article which appeared in Atlantic Coastal Kayaker magazine (March/April 2008). Since getting out on the water today is out of the question, I'll copy and paste the article here:
A Book and a Paddle
by Al Peirce
Did you ever wish you could go back in time and see and feel coastal New England the way the first Europeans did? I sure do. During the summer of 2006, I found myself visiting the Muscongus Bay area for the first time and had a case of “paddler’s block”. I had the right boat, the right gear, and the right charts. What I didn’t have was a destination. Being very aware of my vacation time sliding into the bottom half of the hour glass, I found my salvation on the shelf of a Rockland bookstore. What provided me a very nice paddling destination was a book: The Voyage of the Archangell, James Rosier’s Account of the Waymouth Voyage of 1605, A True Relation, annotated by David C. Morey.
In this book, Morey gives us Rosier’s account of this very early voyage of an English ship to the Maine coast just as it was first published in 1606. Because it is presented just as Rosier wrote it, the different spellings and usage of words takes a little getting used to, but I felt it well worth it for the authenticity it provided. Morey allows the reader to see the actual script and then with his annotations Morey provides his own interpretations. The reader is left to decide if he agrees or disagrees.
It is the story of 29 Englishmen, aboard a 250 ton floating village, that were blown hundreds of miles north after nearly running aground on the Nantucket Shoals. Instead of reaching their intended destination, believed to have been Narragansett Bay, they now found themselves looking at Monhegan Island. After replenishing much needed firewood and fresh water, the ship’s Captain, Waymouth, believing his anchorage near Monhegan was too exposed, decides to seek a more protected harbor. To the north, they could see other islands and mountains further off in the distance. The chief mate, Thomas Cam, guided the ship’s row boat into the area between Burnt Island and Allen Island, sounding the bottom along the way. Arriving at a spot between Little Burnt Island and the northern ends of Allen and Burnt Islands, they declared the area a safe harbor for their ship and proclaimed it “Pentecost Harbor” in reference to their having left England on Easter day. There the Archangell is anchored and moored and the story begins to unfold. From Rosier’s telling, one can get a sense of the typical 15th century Englishmen’s mindset. It helps to explain the roles fear and mistrust would play in their encounters with the Native Americans. It also gives the reader an idea of just how arrogant these guys could be. Little wonder that they did not have anything close to the success the French had in trading with the Natives. Other than occasional forays on shore for assembling their pre-fab ‘pinnesse’ (a shallow draft boat for river exploration), or the gathering of fresh water and wood, these Englishmen preferred the safety and security of their ship or their ‘pinnesse’ referred to by the crew as their “light horseman”.
Ten days after their arrival, Rosier is describing the approach of Native Americans paddling canoes from behind the north end of Allen Island and the awkward attempts at communication and trade between two very disparate peoples commences. At the time of the Indians approach, about half the ship’s men were off exploring in the ‘light horsemen’. Upon their return, they announced the finding of a great river. This is where historians disagree as to what river the voyagers had entered. Some believe it was the St. George which runs up to Thomaston, others say it was the Kennebec. Morey, however, makes a convincing case that it was the Penobscot and that they ultimately journeyed as far as Brewer. Rosier is deliberately vague as to the exact coordinates as the voyages benefactor’s were concerned the information would fall into the hands of either the French or Spanish.
I found Rosier’s account to be fascinating, and enjoyed the insight it provided to the thought process of the English at the time. These were arrogant people with little regard for cultures different from their own. They ultimately decide to kidnap five Indians and bring them against their will to England, and they have absolutely no trouble reasoning this away. They have little success in trading with the Indians mostly because of their inability to trust them. They always seem to ascribe their own dastardly motives to the Indians for no good reason. Oddly enough, Samuel Champlain visited this same area within months of the Archangell and had no problem trading with the Indians.
After finishing the book on a rainy Thursday afternoon, I studied my charts of the area that evening. My destination: Pentecost Harbor.
Friday morning found me launching my kayak during a light rain at Mosquito Cove. Once on the water, I settled on a compass heading and began veering away from the Marshall Point lighthouse. A bald eagle flew over me and I watched it disappear over Hupper Island. Can’t ask for a better omen than that! The light rain stopped as I reached the Georges Islands and I continued paddling until I reached the south end of Allen Island. I sat riding the swells with my kayak pointing out to Monhegan Island which was the last piece of land before the open ocean to Europe. I paddled out a little ways, then turned and looked now at Allen and Burnt Islands and the inviting area between them. The first thing that struck me was how little the view has changed some 401 years later, and it wasn’t too hard to imagine the Archangell following the first mate as he guided them into the narrow passageway. Within the confines of their very small ‘Pentecost Harbor’, the Archangell would have loomed large to the natives that paddled their birch bark canoes out from the North end of Allen Island. Where had the canoes been launched from? How far did they paddle to get here? Were they in awe of the Archangell? Or, had they seen European ships before? If they hadn’t, it may have been like the very powerful opening scene to the movie “The New World”. I guess that is what intrigues me as I sit bobbing in my own little craft. The only thing separating me from those pivotal events is the passage of time. The book mentions that one of the five natives kidnapped and brought to England was a man named Amoret and Morey speculates that this man may later have played a pivotal role in the Plymouth settlement in Massachusetts when he was referred to as Samoset. One only has to read Nathaniel Philbrick’s latest novel Mayflower to find mention of Samoset and also the fact that he was from this area of Maine. How ironic that it should be this same man who confidently strode into the Plymouth settlement and stunned the Pilgrims with the words “Welcome Englishmen”.