O Brave New World, That Has Such People In It
Being an Account of The Forgotten Men of Nantucket's Early History
Nantucket is famous for its whaling history, and rightly so -- the exploratory
achievements of that time period are extraordinary, and many of the structures in the Historic District date from that era,
a visible reminder of our first halcyon days. What is often lost in the telling of the tale, however, is the first century-and-a-half
of European contact and settlement; and the paucity of coverage only increases the further back in time one goes. The era
of Tristram Coffin and the Half-Share Men's Revolt receives some attention in the history books, but probably not as much
as it deserves. The pre-European history of the island has traditionally been even more neglected, though that situation has
improved considerably in the last twenty years or so.
But there is one crucial piece of the historical narrative that
never gets more than a passing glance: the origins of European contact with Nantucket. To the extent that it's ever mentioned
at all in island histories, this important part of Nantucket's history is usually summed up like this:
"In 1602 Bartholomew
Gosnold became the first European to discover and chart Nantucket. In 1641 Thomas Mayhew purchased the islands of Martha's
Vineyard and Nantucket from Sir Fernando Gorges and the Earl of Sterling through the earl's agent James Fawcett. In 1659 he
sold Nantucket to Tristram Coffin and his fellow proprietors."
The first statement is almost certainly false; apart
from possible Viking excursions to Nantucket from their base in Newfoundland, Cornish and Basque fisherman had been fishing
the Grand Banks and local waters for decades (at least) before Gosnold arrived. Upon reaching the Maine coast Gosnold's expedition
met eight Micmac Indians who had had previous contact with Europeans; their leader was dressed,
"in a Wastecoate of
blacke worke, a paire of Breeches, cloth Stockings, Shooes, Hat, and Bande.... [W]ith a piece of Chalke [they] described the
Coast thereabouts, and could name Placentia of the New-found-land, they spake divers Christian words and seemed to understand
much more than we, for want of Language could comprehend." (Baker, "Gosnold's Concord and Her Shallop." Quinn, ed., English
New England Voyages, 1602-1608)
The second statement is verified by extant documents, but it sheds very little light
on the matter. Who were Gosnold, the Earl of Sterling and Sir Ferdinando Gorges? If Gosnold was the first "official" European
visitor, how did the other two gentlemen obtain title to the land? Why did Mayhew have to buy the land from both Sterling
and Gorges? Clearly there is more to the story, and its beginning takes us over the Atlantic to England.
The age of
English exploration and settlement began in earnest during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and accelerated during that of
her successor, James I (James VI of Scotland). Latecomers to the colonization game, the English saw their rival Spain rise
to enormous heights of wealth and power due to its New World colonies and a result that they dearly wanted to emulate. At
the forefront of this movement was a group of young courtiers, almost exclusively West Country men from Somerset and Devon,
who had nautical backgrounds and desired fortune and glory above all else. Coming of age during a rare period of peace in
England (Mary, Queen of Scots, who was Elizabeth's rival for the throne, was beheaded in 1587) they were fervent nationalists
who believe utterly in their country and themselves. Elizabeth, who was nearing sixty, in turns encouraged and destroyed these
courtiers who fluttered about her.
This "Elizabethan Rat Pack" consisted of four main players: Walter Ralegh, Ralegh's
half-brother, Humphrey Gilbert, Ferdinando Gorges and his cousin Arthur Gorges (actually, all of these men were related by
blood or marriage). Ferdinando Gorges was born in Somerset, England in 1565 and appears to have done everything he could to
get away from there as fast as he could. He and cousin Arthur ran away to sea and joined the Royal Navy, where they both saw
action against the Spanish Armada. Ferdinando was captured and held briefly as a prisoner in Spain before being released and
repatriated to England.
Walter Ralegh and Humphrey Gilbert were less interested in glory than treasure. Gilbert, in
many ways the more promising of the two brothers, was tragically lost at sea returning home from an expedition to Newfoundland
in 1583. Undaunted, in 1584 Walter Ralegh, Queen Elizabeth's current boy toy, obtained a Royal Patent to explore and colonize
the southeast coast of North America. The following year he sent an expedition to the New World to found a colony. Ill-prepared,
they returned to England with Sir Francis Drake in 1586. One of the men on that aborted adventure was Bartholomew Gosnold.
Little is known about Bartholomew Gosnold's early life. The eldest son of local gentry, Gosnold attended Cambridge
University and studied law at Middle Temple where there is a record of him in 1592. He married and settled in Bury St. Edmunds
in the late 1590s. This life did not excite him apparently, and he didn't stay there for long. A close friend of Richard Hakluyt,
the famous geographer-cartographer, Hakluyt encouraged Bartholomew Gosnold to try his hand again at colonizing America. One
wonders how Mrs. Gosnold felt about this.
Meanwhile in 1587 Ralegh had outfitted a second expedition, one including
women and children, with John White (of Pocahontas fame) as its governor. They chose Roanoke Island as the site for their
new settlement. Again the attempt at colonization failed, only this time more notoriously.
While all this exploring
and disappearing was going on in the New World, back in the Elizabethan court Ralegh was being eclipsed. The queen had a new
favorite named Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Essex saw the commoner Ralegh as an upstart; Ralegh found Essex arrogant and
overbearing. Sensible to his change in fortunes Ralegh left the court in 1589, only to return soon after when the tides had
turned yet again. In 1590 Essex married Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster.
Essex had fallen out with the queen over the earl's marriage; Essex left the court and Ralegh returned to prominence.
this time Ferdinando Gorges was commanding troops in France, fighting for the French king Henry IV, and was knighted for his
service in 1591. In 1596 he was made commander of the castle at Plymouth, England but resigned when his request for needed
funds went unanswered. A year later he accompanied the Earl of Essex on an expedition to the Azores; in 1599 Essex, with Gorges'
assistance, sailed for Ireland and attempted to suppress a rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone. After expending much treasure,
not to mention blood, Essex made a separate peace with Tyrone and sailed for England. Elizabeth, furious at his failure, banished
Essex from court and he was later stripped of his offices; Gorges apparently was not also censured, for he was re-appointed
as commander of the castle at Plymouth. Seeking a new political patron, Essex wrote to James VI of Scotland (the future king
of England) warning him of a plot by Ralegh to replace Elizabeth on the throne with a Spanish cousin, to the exclusion of
James, Elizabeth's presumed heir (although this went nowhere at the time, the effects would be felt later when James came
Essex remained a focus of discontent with the Queen and her ministers, including Ralegh. Seeking assistance
from his old friend Gorges, Essex wrote to him, saying:
"For I have 120 Earls, Barons, and Gentlemen that participate
in my discontented humour and will join with me; and I desire your help and counsel therein. One especial friend I have in
the Court, whereby I have intelligence from time to time. And I hold ourselves indifferently affected by the citizens of London
and hope to have a good party in Wales."
According to his later deposition, Gorges met with Essex to discuss what
to do about the alleged threat to Essex from his rival, Walter Ralegh. When Essex revealed his plans to either seize control
of the Court or perhaps the Tower of London, Gorges reputedly exclaimed, "Alas, My Lord! What is so small a number of men
able to do in so worthy an action?" and begged Essex to throw himself upon the mercy of the queen, and seek her protection.
His pleas fell on deaf ears.
At a meeting of Essex and his good friend the Earl of Southampton (see below), the plotters
resolved to attempt to seize control by rousing the residents of the City of London, whom they were certain would rally to
the call of the popular Essex. The day before the coup was to begin, however, a last-ditch meeting was held between Walter
Ralegh, representing the current government, and his cousin, Ferdinando Gorges, who represented the Essex faction; the parley
was held in mid-Thames, with each gentleman in his own rowboat. Gorges informed Ralegh of "my Lord of Essex's making his house
into a Guard, and putting his friends into arms", but before a truce could be arranged the meeting ended abruptly when shots
were fired from the Essex camp. Nothing further remained to halt the coup attempt, and Essex supporters poured into the streets
of London trying to rouse the populace. When no additional support materialized Essex was arrested along with his now much
reduced band of followers. He was convicted of treason, and executed at the Tower of London on February 25, 1601. Ferdinando
Gorges testified against Essex at his trial.
Meanwhile, early in 1602, Bartholomew Gosnold and an associate named
John Brereton began an effort to start a colony far to the north of Ralegh's first aborted expedition, in what later became
known as New England. It was bankrolled by Sir Walter Raleigh and Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, a college chum
of Gosnold, yet another favorite of Queen Elizabeth, close friend of the Earl of Essex, and patron to William Shakespeare
(Southampton has also been named as the "fair youth" referred to in many of Shakespeare's sonnets). He was deeply involved
in the Essex rebellion, on the eve of which he persuaded players at the Globe Theatre to revive Richard II -- the plot deals
with the deposition of a king -- in order to stir up the populace. He had been tried for treason along with Essex, resulting
in the forfeit of his titles and a death sentence; however, the latter was eventually commuted to life imprisonment. Upon
the accession of James I, Elizabeth's successor, Southampton resumed his place at court.
Meanwhile, Gosnold and Brereton
departed from Falmouth, England on the bark Concord with a total of twenty colonists and twelve sailors. On reaching the southern
coast of present-day Maine, they sailed south. These Englishmen named the large headland that they encountered Cape Cod, due
to the abundance of that fish in the area. Sailing further south Gosnold named a chain of islands the Elizabeth Islands after
his queen, and Martha's Vineyard after his daughter, who had died as an infant and was buried in the churchyard at Bury St
Edmunds. Establishing a small fort on a bit of land still called Gosnold's Island on Cuttyhunk, the English traded trinkets
with the Indians for fur. Brereton kept a detailed of journal of everything they found. His early experiments growing grain
succeeded and the soils were similar to those found in England. Brereton describes the range of seafood available and the
wildlife in abundance. However, the group became disillusioned by the hostility of the Indians and a scarcity of ready provisions;
they stocked up the ship with cargo of "sassafras, cedar, furs, skins, and other commodities as were thought convenient" and
returned to England, arriving in Exmouth on July 23, 1602.
John Brereton's "Relation", based on his journal, was the
first English book to describe the New England coast, including present-day Massachusetts Bay, Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha's
Vineyard, and the Elizabeth Islands. It encouraged English merchants and settlers to colonize North America, and some scholars
have even suggested, considering that the Earl of Southampton was patron to both Bartholomew Gosnold and William Shakespeare,
that this account may have inspired Shakespeare's final play, The Tempest.
In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died and James
I, James the VI of Scotland, assumed the throne. Ferdinando Gorges was reconfirmed as governor of the forts at Plymouth and
remained in that post until 1629 when, his garrison having been without pay for three and a half years, his fort a ruin, and
his further pleas for assistance ignored, he again resigned. Walter Ralegh's fortunes, however, which had ebbed in the political
tempest over Essex's treason and death, plummeted. James was convinced by Ralegh's enemies (and Essex's earlier letter) that
Ralegh had opposed James' succession to the throne. Ralegh was found guilty of participation in a plot to kill the king on
scant evidence and was imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he eventually had his head separated from his body in a most
definitive fashion. Ferdinando Gorges again appears to have escaped unscathed.
This was a time of great change in
England; James I's arrival in London had upset the established order. He brought with him his own entourage of courtiers who
jockeyed for position -- and plum titles -- near the new ruler. One of them was an accomplished author named William Alexander,
whose talents as a poet and playwright brought favor from the king. Alexander was tutor to James' son Prince Henry, a prime
position near the heir apparent. Alexander's star continued to rise in the court, and he was eventually ennobled as the Earl
In 1605 Ferdinando Gorges helped sponsor another expedition, led by George Weymouth, to the mouth of
the Kennebec River. When Weymouth returned he brought five Indians with him; Gorges took three of them -- Manida, Sketwarroes
and Tafquantum -- into his home, taught them English, and pumped them for information about their homeland. Armed with this
insider knowledge, Gorges was determined that this time he would make his fortune in the New World.
Gorges was one
of eight grantees who received Letters Patent from King James I in 1606, along with Ralegh Gilbert, son of Humphrey Gilbert
and nephew of Walter Ralegh. This grant provided for two joint stock companies — the London Company and the Plymouth
Company. A joint stock company is kind of partnership. The company had a common capital called the stock and the partners
in the company were called shareholders, since they received shares for their contributions to the stock. A share represented
how much of the profit each shareholder received -- it also represented how much of any loss each shareholder was liable for.
The patentees were authorized to maintain the government for twenty-one years, with permission to impose taxes, coin money,
and exercise all the power of a well-organized society.
In 1606 the London Company's expedition sailed from London
-- one of the principles aboard the ship was Bartholomew Gosnold, who was accompanying his cousin Edward Wingfield, the chief
financier and first President of the future settlement. They reached the Chesapeake Bay in the spring 1607 and there they
founded Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in the New World. The colonists had not prepared well and depended largely
on corn obtained by trade with the Indians. This supply dwindled prior to the next corn harvest, and, combined with the swampy
nature of island the colonists had settled on, led to a deadly epidemic in the colony. Of the 105 colonists fifty died by
the end of the first summer, among whom was Gosnold, who died on August 22, 1607. At his burial all the ordinance in the fort
was fired in honor of this man whose strength had helped the struggling colony survive (in 2003 a grave was discovered at
Jamestown that is believed to be Gosnold's -- researchers have located the graves of family members back in England and have
received permission to do DNA tests on the remains to see if they do indeed belong to the intrepid explorer).
point Ferdinando Gorges' life crosses paths with that of an Indian known to every schoolchild: Squanto, or Tisquantum. Kidnapped
off Cape Cod in 1614 by followers of John Smith (of Jamestown and Pocahontas fame), Squanto was almost sold as a slave in
Spain before eventually making his way to London in 1617. There yet another cohort of John Smith named Thomas Dermer introduced
Squanto to Gorges, who was always seeking more information about the New World. Persuaded by Squanto's knowledge of the region,
Gorges decided to invest in yet another colonization scheme. Squanto finally sailed for home -- and into legend -- in the
spring of 1619 under the auspices of the revived Plymouth Company, now called the Council for the Affaires of New England.
This corporation consisted of forty patentees, most of whom were "persons of distinction", one being the indefatigable
Ralegh Gilbert. In the new 1620 charter granted by James I the Council was given rights of settlement in the area now designated
as New England, which consisted of the land previously part of the Virginia Colony between the 40th and 48th parallels (which
includes present-day Maine, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia). The first settlement in the area owned by the council was the
Plimoth colony in present day Plymouth, Massachusetts. Unfortunately the colony had been patented under the London Company,
and had mistakenly been established within the bounds of the New England Council grant. In 1621 it received a patent from
the Council, but the second chartered colony was not so lucky; Gorges carried out a long struggle against the Massachusetts
Bay colony in Boston, claiming that its patent was irregular.
In 1622 Gorges, along with a gentleman named John Mason,
received a land patent from the New England Council for the Province of Maine, the original boundaries of which were between
the Merrimack and Kennebec rivers. In 1629 Gorges and Mason divided the colony, and Mason's portion south of the Piscataqua
River becoming the Province of New Hampshire. This time Gorges colony survived, and he and his nephew went on to establish
Maine's first court system.
Meanwhile William Alexander, the Earl of Sterling, continued to reap royal favor: he was
granted a charter for Nova Scotia in 1621 and was later appointed Viscount of Canada, Secretary of State for Scotland, and
dubbed the Earl of Sterling in 1633 by James' successor, Charles I. In 1635 King Charles urged the Council to convey land
grants of present-day New York, including the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, to the Earl of Stirling. They did
so, and on April 20, 1637, the earl gave power of attorney to James Farret, or Fawcett, to dispose of said lands.
Council for the Affaires of New England then surrendered its charter to the crown and ceased to exist as a corporate entity.
Charles also granted a charter to Sir Fernando Gorges on April 3, 1639, providing him undoubted sovereign rights over Martha's
Vineyard and Nantucket, although Lord Stirling continued to assert that he held a proprietary interest in the islands. The
new plan for New England was to divide it among the eight lords of the council, who were to hold it under new patents, with
Gorges as governor-general of a united colony; however, the increasing friction between Charles I and Parliament (eventually
ending in Charles losing his head) soon eclipsed these plans and they came to nothing. Regardless, Gorges' new charter, which
made him lord-proprietor of the province of Maine with extraordinary governmental powers, allowed him to transfer any and
all property and powers to his heirs and assigns -- namely, one Thomas Mayhew.
Upon the death of Lord Stirling in
1640 his heir relinquished most of the earl's grant to the king, and James Farret arranged to sell the few piddling islands
that were left. Now the reason for Mayhew's double purchase becomes plain: given the ambiguity of the competing claims, naturally
Thomas Mayhew's first act was to obtain clear title for his new properties. In 1641 he secured a deed to Nantucket, Tuckernuck
and Muskeget from James Farret, followed shortly thereafter by a deed for Martha's Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands. Thomas
Mayhew also sought, and obtained, confirmation from Gorges of his right to settle the islands. The rest of the story is far
better known: Mayhew, a minor power broker in his own right, went on to establish a manorial-style plantation on Martha's
Vineyard and sold most of the rights to Nantucket and the adjacent islands to Tristram Coffin's joint-stock company, retaining
only a small portion for himself.
By this time most of the characters in our story -- Humphrey Gilbert, Walter Ralegh,
Bartholomew Gosnold, Ralegh Gilbert and the Earl of Sterling -- were dead. The sole remaining player, the indomitable war
horse and adventurer Ferdinando Gorges, died penniless in 1647. A sad end for a forgotten man, whose zeal for discovery and
adventure fueled both the colonization of America and that of Nantucket Island as well.
James Everett Grieder, a native Nantucketer, is the author of a number
of articles about Nantucket's history, many of which are true, and is a regular contributor to Yesterday's Island
magazine. He lives in the family homestead with his wife Katharine and his heir apparent, William Lewis Grieder. Oh, and cats,