A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia.TOC
Part 1, "Early Settlement & Baronial Battles: 1605-90."TOC
Chapter 3 - "Early European Explorers"

Norwegians -- though there be very little record of it -- visited the most northern parts of eastern North America over a thousand years ago. Indeed, maybe before the Norwegians, the Irish paid a visit; or maybe, in classic times, the Greeks.1 However, what we do know, pretty well for sure, is that the Norsemen first came to Iceland, then as the decades and centuries unfolded they traveled beyond Iceland, to Greenland; then again, beyond Greenland to the shores of Baffin Island and Labrador; then again, swinging south, in their frail vessels, down they came along the upper coast of eastern North America.2 Whatever motivated these northern Europeans to keep extending their northern voyages, and exactly when3 they might have made them, are further matters on which we are obliged to speculate. Was it for timber? Was it new lands for splintered clans? Whatever the extent of their explorations and the timing of them, it is believed that any settlements of the Norsemen were but of a temporary kind and that they made no great impact or contribution to the exploration of North America.

Before we deal with the early explorers such as Cabot and Cartier, we must acknowledge the thousands of seafaring men, who, in the process of making a living, came to the shores of America, especially those that are washed by the waters that flow over the great fishing banks of the northwestern Atlantic. Discovery, like everything else in life, is an evolutionary process and one voyage by one family was built upon the knowledge gained on a previous voyage of another family member; only slowly did the Europeans become aware of their courses and their objectives that lie to the west over the ocean.4

The earliest explorers, as we have seen, were the unknown and unsung fisherman of western Europe who likely came to the shores of North America in an earlier millennium; these brave seafarers continued their family traditions up to and beyond the year 1500. It is with the 1500s, that one can begin to examine our written history. Among those spunky Frenchmen who first wintered over on the forbidding north-eastern shores of America and in particular on the ironbound shores of Nova Scotia, were to be found leaders and local managers who were obliged (and, for this, historians will be forever grateful) to file reports to their backers back home. As we will see, the original European explorers of this country were little supported by their respective governments. It was not in the charter of any government back in those days to go forth and to explore or to bring "the light of civilization" to other persons of the world. There were no fine ideals that were put into group action; nor was there to be until the English colonies revolted, in 1776, a time which extends beyond that under review. Nonetheless, in these early years of exploration, great expense was incurred to outfit long lasting and selfsustaining expeditions. Those who financed these expeditions naturally expected to get their capital back with a profit. The greater the risk (and ocean crossings were very risky) then the greater the expected return. What were these expected returns? It was trade that drove the exploration of the Americas.5

"Bear in mind that there was still no thought of America being a vast continent; no greater conception existed than that it was a chain of islands, and that along this direction there would be found a short cut to Cathay instead of going south, round the coast of Africa. What, in the minds of the financing merchants, was heartily to be desired may be summed up in one brief formula: a secret path to Oriental riches, north-about, obviating any collision with Portuguese or Spaniards."6
At first, and for many years after, it was Oriental trade, or rather the prospect of it, which drove so many marine explorers west over the vast Atlantic. And then, having fetched up on blocking shores, to sniff up and down the seacoasts like expectant mice, frustrated, but sure that there did exist a way to the spiced cheese westward and beyond. The way had to be there, if only it could be found. All land is surrounded by water, any land on the earth was but an island, and the Americas, it was figured, could not be an exception. So sure that a passage was to be had through the islands of America that they already had a name for it, "The Straight of Anian." But who could have imagined such an island stretching, practically speaking, from one end of the earth to the other? Looking back on history, we now know, that while Columbus "discovered" the Americas, the configuration of this half of the world was not to be fully understood for yet another 300 years. It was only with the expeditions of Cook, George Vancouver (c.1758-98) and Sir Alexander Mackenzie (c.1755-1820) was any geographer able to put a fix on America at its thickest part.


The Voyages of John Cabot:

The Matthew

It is June 24th, 1497, a dozen miles or so, east, off the northern part of Cape Breton Island. The alert seaman, while hanging off the shroud of a small sailing vessel, at daybreak, sees something that might well appear to be, to the unobservant, just another line of low lying dark clouds; it lies flat on the western horizon in the reflection of the rising sun; it is of the darkest misty green. For the last few days the seamen aboard the Matthew had observed the tell-tale signs of land: soaring gulls, the poking heads of seal mammals, bits of floating material, and a western horizon which looked different.

The Matthew was one of two small English sailing vessels which had been "wandering fifty-two days" across the vast Atlantic.7 In the captain's cabin of the Matthew, in a long oaken chart chest, fitted against the bulkhead, with its brass fittings, would be found in one of its slender, long and wide drawers -- a Royal declaration, with its lines of black ink swirled upon the dry and whiten sheep skin (slit, smooth and indentured at its edges), with great gobs of red wax with ribbon bound up in it at its bottom; and, too, at its bottom: the Royal Signature, Henry VII of England. The mission of the men aboard these two small English sailing vessels, in 1497: "to subdue, occupy, and possesse ... to be holden and bounden to Henry of all the fruits, profits, gaines, and commodities to pay unto him in wares or money a fifth part of the capital gaine so gotten."8

In anticipation of fresh water and fresh food, the crew begin to douse their sails and lay out their anchors. A new land had been "discovered," which we have come to call Nova Scotia. John Cabot (1425-c.1500),9 his sons and a small band of English sailors came ashore, it is figured, at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain10 on the northeastern tip of Cape Breton Island; there they built and erected a cross and unfurled the British Royal Standard. Shortly thereafter, these explorers gathered up their anchors, set sail, and steered a course for home.

Time passed. Only Spain was to immediately follow up with her discovery and within years Spanish conquistadors hacked their way through the jungle and the people of central and south America. Spain, for most of the 16th century, was to have an exclusive on America. The French and the English at first were blissfully ignorant of the riches to be obtained over the western horizons. In 1522, however, a French corsair off the cape of St. Vincent took a Spanish ship which was sailing home from New Spain. The French captain was amazed at what he found in the holds of the Spanish treasure ship. Soon, the leaders of both France and England were to know of the riches that were to be had in the Americas, to be found either through piracy or exploration.


In 1524, two explorers came to the shores of Acadia: Gomez and Verrazzano. Esteban Gomez (c1483-1538) was a Portuguese sailor. He, together with his 29 crew members, in 1524, in his 75 ton caravel, Anunciada, sailed up the coast and into the Bay of Fundy.11 It is reported he arrived back in Europe and had with him, 58 live natives, captured somewhere on the coasts of either Maine or Nova Scotia.

It was Verrazzano (1485-1528) who named Acadia, "Arcadia."12 Verrazzano, in 1524, sailed under a French flag in his tiny caravel, the Dauphine, together with a Norman crew of 50. He cruised a vast area, from Virginia and then north along a stretch of land that now covers the northeastern part of United States and the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia: New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and, even, the southern parts of Quebec.

After this date, 1524, I should say, European navigators depicted America as far south and as far north as one might go (as opposed to so many islands) -- one huge mass of land, seemingly impenetrable. But hope persisted for many, many years thereafter that there was a way through, to the riches of the orient.


The Voyages of Jacques Cartier: "STUCK IN A FRAME"
-- CLICK HERE --

Jacques Cartier (1491-1557), in 1534 received a royal commission from the French king "to discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold, and other precious things, are to be found."13 Cartier had two ships and 61 men. During the month of June, having crossed the north Atlantic in twenty days, Cartier entered the Strait of Belle Isle from the north;14 by July he was off Prince Edward Island; and by August he and his men were headed home to St. Malo. In the spring of the next year, 1535, Cartier was back, this time sailing up the highway into Canada, the St. Lawrence River, there to visit the sites of present day Quebec and Montreal. In October of 1535, Cartier and his men left their sea going ships behind at Quebec and travelled to Hochelaga (Montreal), there to observe the communal huts of the Iroquois. Cartier and his men were the first organized group of Europeans to spend a winter in Canada. By the spring of the following year, 1536, these intrepid French explorers were making their way down the St. Lawrence; and, by summer, they were back, snug in their home port, St. Malo.

Five years passed before Cartier returned to Canada. He was to spend another winter (1541-2) at Quebec, a hard one for him and his men. In the spring, Cartier returned to France leaving de Roberval, his "co-adventurer," behind to spend the winter (1542-3) at Quebec.

The principal point to be made of Cartier's voyages is that Cartier had claimed the explored lands for the King of France; and, at least around the mouth of the St. Lawrence, this was the same territory which Cabot had ceremoniously claimed for England, 40 odd years earlier. With this fact in mind, it is easy to see why the English always thought the French in their northern settlements were but claim jumpers. However, while it may well have been the English who first stuck a flag pole into the soil, it was the French who first overwintered; and, indeed, established, outside of Florida, the very first permanent settlement in North America, Port Royal; however, I run ahead of my story.


As for the English, we left off in 1497 with Cabot. The next noteworthy voyage of an Englishman was that taken by Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1537-83) in 1583 when he headed west to America under the directions of an English company, the Muscovy Company. Gilbert was an educated and well connected man; he set his sights and turned his mind to the finding of the Northwest Passage. During the month of August, 1583, after bucking head winds for seven weeks, Gilbert landed on the island of Newfoundland. At the expense of his own and his family's fortune, Gilbert had set out with five ships (he was to loose three during his adventure). After a brief period of discovery, Gilbert, and his brave followers, set out later that summer for home in the two ships remaining to him, the Squirrel and the Golden Hind. The Squirrel, during a storm, went down into the Atlantic depths; her occupants, including Gilbert, never to be heard from again. Unfortunately, I am obliged to treat Gilbert but as a side note to my history.15


It was in 1584, if we would have been in one of the anti-chambers of the Elizabethian court, that we would have seen Sir Walter Raleigh giving dispatches to Captain Philip Amidas and Captain Arthur Barlow containing orders to go to America. Sailing from the Thames, on 27th April, 1584, they sighted the Canary Islands on the 10th of May and then the West Indies on the 10th of June; from there they sailed north up the eastern coast of America until they came to Cape Hatteras, and, in behind, to drop anchor in Pamlico Sound. Amidas and Barlow were back safely to England in their two ships by September of 1584. Virginia, named after the virgin queen, and which covered a wide stretch in those days, had been "discovered" by the English.

Next, on 9th April, 1585, we have the expedition commanded by Sir Richard Grenville, a cousin of Raleigh's, and, once again, Captain! ... Oh! Excuse me, -- Admiral Philip Amidas. Sailing from Plymouth after resting over at Porto Rico, the fleet sailed back to the Pamlico Sound region; however, not before Amidas' flag ship was wrecked somewhere along that treacherous shore that has Cape Lookout at one end and Cape Hatteras at the other. Grenville dropped 108 people off on Roanoke Island and left them to their fate; as for himself, -- he went back to the comforts of England. These first English settlers wintered over on the island under the governorship of Ralph Lane. (Incidentally, before 1585, Europeans knew nothing of tobacco. "... its introduction into Europe was entirely owing to this expedition."16) Things did not go well for the Roanoke Island settlers. They had, throughout the winter, fought amongst themselves and with the Indians to such an extent that they were unable to secure food for themselves; by the spring of 1586 they were existing on roots and oysters. Who knows what might have happened to them, if they had not been picked up and brought back to England by none other than Sir Francis Drake, himself. Drake was checking in on them with his 23 ship fleet; he had just completed his main task. In the previous year Drake's fleet had been sent out by Elizabeth to raid the Spaniards in the West Indies. The Roanoke Island settlers begged Drake to bring them back with him to England; he did; and thus the first English settlement on Roanoke Island was left to the Indians.

Another group of 117 settlers arrived at Roanoke Island in May of 1587; at least 17 of them were women. The governor this time was a man by the name of White. He had a daughter named Eleanor who came out to the new world with him, she and her young husband, Ananias Dare. Indeed, the first English child in America was born to Eleanor on 18th August, 1587, a little girl named Virginia Dare. This 1587 party soon came to realize they would not last long without additional supplies, so their leader, White, sailed off to England for supplies. White got back to England alright, but, another historical event delayed him getting back to Virginia: the Spanish Armada. Two years were to pass before White went ashore at Roanoke Island and not a soul could be found. There was no sign of a struggle and no bodies were found. It is supposed they went off as a group to locate better quarters, -- not a word was ever heard from them: "ninety-one men, seventeen women and nine boys."17

The entire eastern coast of America, before 1584, was known as Florida; but, within a few years of having entered into the 17th century (1600), we see that it could be divided up into three geographical districts: Florida, Virginia, and Acadia. No one was capable of defining the western borders of any of these three large geographical areas. Acadia, in the north, "belonged" to the French; Florida, in the south, "belonged" to the Spaniards. The northern borders of Florida were somewhere in the Carolinas; so, Virginia, to which the English laid claim, fitted itself in between Florida and Acadia.18

In 1599, Elizabeth gave to a number of influential persons, a charter which incorporated the East India Company with Sir Thomas Smith to be its first governor. In April of 1601, ships of the East India Company sailed south, south by the Canaries, and south down the long coast of Africa; and then around the cape and across the Indian ocean to Sumatra; there to arrive in June of 1602. By September, the ships had returned to England filled with "cinnamon, pepper and cloves ... a great commerce had been initiated which was to raise England from a poor to a wealthy nation, and eventually establish the British Empire."19

From Falmouth, on the 26th of March, 1602, two ships, the Concord and Dartmouth, with noble men aboard, including Captains Bartholomew Gosnold and Bartholomew Gilbert, set sail for the Americas. Gosnold was to make "an effort to find a short, quick way across the Atlantic and get a hold of this vaguely-conceived territory without going by the 'unneedful' southerly Canaries-West Indies route."20 They went north of Roanoke Island into another part of "Virginia" to a place we now know as Martha's Vineyard. By June, 1602, we can see sailors on the shores of Elizabeth Isle (Cuttyhunk Island) dividing up the remaining victuals between the crew, who were to sail back to England, and those that were to be left behind. When those who were to stay behind surveyed the small pile of supplies that was to be left with them, a discussion broke out and a few days later they all went back to England. Further reference is to be made to the voyage a Captain Martin Pring, who, in a two ship English expedition, the Discovery and the Speedwell, explored the Long Island Sound area during the year of 1603. By October the Discovery and the Speedwell were back at their home port, Bristol. So, still, as of 1602, there was no permanent settlement of Englishmen on the east coast of America. And their experiences in the settlement business was indeed sad.

Though no settlements came about as a result of the voyages of Captain Gosnold and of Captain Pring, regardless of what their intentions might have been, their voyages could be described as positive, in that a shorter route to Virginia had been worked out. Generally, however, England's experiences in America were mostly negative: "One disaster after another; the accumulated toll of missing men and wasted voyages; the struggles against bad weather, hunger, thirst, disease and wretched discomfort; the quarrels and mutinies, the failure to give merchants a tangible reward for the capital risked; the continuous series of disappointments - all these were the preliminaries and conditions before England was to come in active possession of northern America."21 If people are inclined to learn at all from their experiences, they can just as easily, and some times more effectively, learn from their negative experiences: England did. What was needed was a more complete preparation and a greater knowledge. We will see that with its increasing experiences, England would eventually establish a beachhead on the eastern coast of North America.


Next: Chapter 4, The Founding of Port Royal

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