When Bartholomew Gosnold and his small crew came to anchor on the Maine coast in 1602, an Indian wearing imported European shoes and pants greeted them.
The Indian in European garb shouldn’t have surprised the British explorers. Many European visitors preceded them to the northeast coast of North America. Basque, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English fishermen and fur traders had made hundreds, if not thousands, of voyages to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes.
In 1517, 50 European ships were counted along the coast of Newfoundland. French explorer Jacques Cartier estimated he saw 1,000 Basque fishing boats off the Gaspe Peninsula in 1534. The Isles of Shoals were established as seasonal fishing and trading posts at the turn of the 17th century, with hundreds of summer residents.
Gosnold was no unlettered workingman come to spend the warm weather months fishing or fur trading. He was an English lawyer who managed to get backing to found a year-round colony in North America. He would try and fail on Cape Cod in 1602, but his voyage had an impact still felt today.
Some historians argue that Bartholomew Gosnold prevented Spain from settling Atlantic coast, allowing the British to establish colonies instead. Dana Huntley in British Heritage argues Bartholomew Gosnold perhaps more than any other single individual is responsible for the establishment of British North America.
His history, ‘ought to have recognized in one sense as at least the Founding Grandfather of these fair colonies,’ wrote Huntley.
Gosnold was to the manor born in 1571 in Suffolk, England. He graduated from the University of Cambridge and studied law in London. But instead of following the law, he grew fascinated by the sea and by stories of New World exploration.
John and Sebastian Cabot made landfall in Maine or the Canadian Maritimes in 1497. Giovanni Verrazzano sailed the Maine coast in 1524. Estevan Gomez became the first European tourist in Bangor in 1525.
In 1597, Bartholomew Gosnold joined the Earl of Essex’s expedition to the Azores. For about a year they privateered against the Spanish, and Gosnold made a small fortune.
In March 1602, he set sail from England in a leaky 39-foot bark, The Concord, with 32 men on board. Sailing due west from the Azores, he reached the Maine coast in May. Exactly where he landed isn’t clear, but the Indian’s clothing certainly indicated others had preceded him across the Atlantic.
An English gentleman aboard the Concord, John Brereton, kept a diary of the trip. Brereton observed the Indians they met in Mane – possibly on Cape Elizabeth or at the mouth of the Penobscot River. They had a Basque shallop with an iron grapple and an iron kettle. The Indian with the imported shoes also wore black serge breeches and a European waistcoat. Clearly the Indians had traded with European fishermen.
Gosnold aimed to be the first to explore Cape Cod, though some European fishermen may have already ventured there.
Wrote Gosnold, “Near this cape we came to fathom anchor in fifteen fathoms, where we took great store of codfish, for which we altered the name, and called it Cape Cod. Here we saw sculls of herring, mackerel, and other small fish, in great abundance.”
Bartholomew Gosnold sailed around Provincetown, and after a week reached an island he named Martha’s Vineyard, after his daughter who died in infancy. There they spent two days sampling strawberries. The Wampanoags brought them cooked fish, deerskins and tobacco, but Gosnold decided to press on.
They sailed to Gay Head, spent the night in Vineyard Sound and continued to Buzzard’s Bay. They landed on Cuttyhunk, where they found abundant trees, herbs, fruit and, of course, fish. Most intriguing was the sassafras, then commanding a high price because it supposedly cured syphilis.
The men began building a fort, harvesting sassafras and trading with the Indians.
Bartholomew Gosnold left eight men on the island and sailed away for 72 hours – we may never know why. But three days of living off the land and a brief skirmish with Indians dissuaded them from spending the year on Cuttyhunk. Some wanted to return to England; some wanted to stay. They took a vote, and those who favored returning won.
A Short Stay
Breretron, who probably voted to stay, believed they decided to leave because of greed.
“After our bark had taken in so much sassafras, cedar, furs, skins and other commodities as were thought convenient, some of our company that had promised Captain Gosnold to stay, having nothing but a [profitable] voyage in their minds, made our company of inhabitants (which was small enough before) much smaller,” wrote Brereton.
After six weeks on Cuttyhunk, they set sail for England. A regretful Brereton wrote, ‘leaving this island (which he called Elizabeths Island) with as many true sorrowful eyes as were before desirous to see it.’
Nonetheless, Bartholomew Gosnold’s voyage to Cape Cod left a greater legacy than people often realize.
He showed a quicker way to reach New England along his sailing route due west of the Azores. The Mayflower followed his chart 18 years later. And Brereton’s journal, published in 1602, popularized the idea of colonizing the Northeastern United States.
Back in England, Bartholomew Gosnold went to work finding backing and recruiting colonists, including John Smith, for a permanent settlement in Virginia. In 1607 he sailed to the colony called Jamestown. But then he died a few months after arriving on August 22, 1607. The colonists buried him inside the fort.
John Smith acknowledged Bartholomew Gosnold as the founder of Jamestown. He wrote that Gosnold had ‘small assistance’ and worked for many years on the venture.
King James at the time wanted to placate the Spanish, who also wished to exploit the New World. He might have let them colonize North America had Bartholomew Gosnold not prevailed. And you might be reading this in Spanish.
With thanks to The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, by Paul Schneider. This story about Bartholomew Gosnold was updated in 2020.