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New England In The Earliest Days
Before Plymouth Colony there was Sagadahoc, the short-lived settlement for which Sir Ferdinando Gorges had high hopes
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
We owe the name of New England to Captain John Smith. This may be surprising, since his name is so memorably associated with those first years in Virginia. But in 1614 he made a voyage along the coast of New England—the coasts of Maine and Massachusetts, from the towering cliffs of Penobscot, in and out of the islands that form a kind of barrier reef, to the sandy shores of Cape Cod and the Massachusetts coast that reminded him of Devon. The coast of New England in summer conquered him; from that time forward he was its slave and its promoter. Two years later he published his Description of New England, and from that time on the name stuck. Hitherto it had been known, rather clumsily, as the northern parts of Virginia, or North Virginia.
Smith was a sort of journalist-promoter as much as anything else. He published the best map of the New England coast to date, though it was somewhat marred by his habit of conferring his own names everywhere: lor example, Cape Cod, already well-known as such, he called Cape James. That name did not stick. He followed this up with New England’s Trials in 1620, and in 1624 his General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles. Nor was this the end of his publications: as late as 1631 there appeared his Advertisements for the unexperienced Planters of New England, or anywhere. By this time there were in New England many planters with a longer experience than his own. An Elizabethan, born in 1580, John Smith was not daunted by that.
A dozen years or so before was born a West Countryman to whom the actual colonization of New England owed much more—indeed probably owed more than to any other man. This was Sir Ferdinando Gorges. He came of ancient Somerset stock, connected with both the Queen and the Howards and therefore a court family. Being a younger son, he inherited little and went off to the wars in Flanders. In the 1590’s he served under Essex in Normandy, and in after year; used often to tell how Henry of Navarre carried him wounded from some breach or other. Certainly Henry had a high opinion of him and wrote recommending him to the Queen for promotion: “[he] hath gained very great reputation for his valour and conduct in war.” She responded with the command of the fort at Plymouth: he was the first there in the citadel looking out over the Barbican and Cattewater where the ships came and went for America.
Before the Queen’s death, exploratory voyages to the American coast, to both Virginia and North Virginia, were already being made. All this time, all through the war, the West Country fishermen were going regularly, and in increasing numbers, to the Newfoundland fishery. But the New England fishery, several hundred miles farther on, was yet to be discovered. In 1602 Captains Bartholomew Gosnold and Bartholomew Gilbert set sail from Falmouth for the New England coast, with the intention of leaving a plantation there. They were much impressed by the climate—in summer “as healthful a climate as any can be,” and “had not a man sick two days together in all our voyage.” They named Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Elizabeth’s Isle—names that stuck. They nosed up two main rivers that “may haply become good harbours and conduct us to the hopes men so greedily do thirst after,” i.e., a Northwest Passage. A report of the voyage was made to Raleigh, whose rights in regard to American colonization were at this time still in force.
He gave his permission for the voyage the next year inspired by Hakluyt and backed by Bristol merchants, chief among them Robert Aldworth—whose immense monument one used to see in his “own aisle” in St. Peter’s before the destruction of Bristol’s churches. The captain was that excellent navigator, Martin Pring, who made—so Gorges testified later—“the most exact discovery of that coast that ever came to my hands since.” He added that it was this, more than anything, that made him and that other Somerset man, Lord Chief Justice Popham, persevere with their efforts in spite of their initial discouragements. It was Pring who first penetrated into and appreciated the amenities of Massachusetts Bay. They took out with them a couple of excellent mastiffs, Fool and Gallant, “of whom the Indians were more afraid than of twenty of our men.” They took back an Indian canoe, which they thought much like a Thames wherry. Contacts with the Indians were as important as geographical discovery or the commodities of the country.
In 1605 Captain George Weymouth of Torbay, who had intended a fishing voyage on behalf of some Plymouth merchants, went instead on a prospecting voyage to Maine, set forth by the Earl of Southampton. People were becoming aware of the profits the French were making from the fur trade, and at the same time Champlain was exploring these coasts. Weymouth collected some furs and skins, but was chiefly interested in prospecting for settlement and in the Indians. Weymouth gave an interesting account of their habits and of contacts with them; more important, he brought back five, three of whom he handed over to Gorges on his return. Gorges wrote that “this accident must be acknowledged the means under God of putting on foot and giving life to all our plantations.”