Business and Labor

In 1603 Martin Pring Escapes New England with His Tail between His Legs

Much of what the early European explorers learned of the New England coast they owe to Martin Pring. And Martin Pring owes his life to the two dogs that he brought on his explorations.

martin pringAn Englishman, Pring explored the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. In April of 1603, he led his most famous expedition to the region — searching for sassafras.

Pring was also a careful mapmaker and a diarist, and his writings, like those of John Smith, would help promote interest in exploring the New England region.

Martin Pring Arrives

After arriving in June, Pring first searched Great Bay in New Hampshire, but found nothing of value. Pring then took his two ships — the 26-ton Discoverer and the 50-ton Speedwell — south to Cape Cod. There they found the sassafras they sought. Sassafras, they believed, possessed medicinal qualities.

“As for trees,” Pring wrote in his diary, “the country yieldeth Sassafras, a plant of sovereign virtue for the French Pox, and as some of late have learnedly written, good against the Plague and many other maladies.”

Pring loaded the Discoverer with all the sassafras it could carry and sent it back to England in July to satisfy his backers. He wanted to convince them they’d receive a return on their investment, or, as he put it, “to give some specific contentment to the adventurers.”

With their mission largely accomplished, Pring’s crew continued cutting sassafras to maximize their profits.

Close Encounters

During their stay, the Pring expedition had several encounters with local American Indians, the Wampanoag.

The nature of these encounters varied. Some were friendly and others confrontational. In some cases, Pring reported, as many as 60 Wampanoag would visit his encampment and his company gave them different kinds of food to eat. In one instance, Pring reported a member of his crew entertained the crowd by playing a Gitterne, sort of a guitar.

“We had a youth in our company that could play upon a Gitterne, in whose homely music they took great delight, and would give him many things, such as tobacco; tobacco pipes; snake skins of six foot long, which they used for girdles; fawn skins and such like — and danced 20 in a ring, and the Gitterne in the midst of them, using many savage gestures, singing lo, la, lo, la, la, lo.”

However, relations were not universally cordial. Pring reported that the Wampanoag were frightened of the two mastiffs that accompanied the voyage. When the crew felt threatened they would release the dogs to clear the area. The Wampanoag, Pring reported, were more afraid of the two dogs than they were of 20 men.

Relations finally came to a head, Pring reported. The men of the expedition were in the forest cutting sassafras around Truro on Cape Cod. They were napping in the sun taking an afternoon break, which was their custom on the warm days.

Worn-out Welcome

“There came down about seven score savages armed with their bows and arrows and environed our house, or barricade,” wrote Pring.  “Wherein were four of our men alone with their muskets to keep sentinel, whom they sought to have come down to them, which they utterly refused and stood upon their guard.”

“Our master likewise being very careful and circumspect having not past two with him in the ship put the same in the best defense he could, lest they should have invaded the same, and caused a piece of great ordinance to be shot off, to give terror to the Indians and warning our men which were asleep in the woods.”

After hearing the alarm, the men returned to the ship with the two mastiffs leading the way to keep the wary Wampanoag at bay. The Wampanoag succeeded in driving the Speedwell away, however. They set fire to an area of forest a mile wide and came up to the Speedwell in boats.

Pring didn’t record what he or his crew had done to wear out their welcome.  But he quickly set the Speedwell on a return course to England, arriving in October.

This story was updated in 2021.

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