New World Exploration

WE will now leave the Spanish discoverers, and turn our attention to others who made voyages to the coasts of North America on similar errands.

Francis the First, one of the most energetic as well as enlightened sovereigns of France down to the sixteenth century, becoming jealous of the glory acquired by his rival of Spain, by discoveries and conquests on this continent, fitted out four ships late in the year 1523 for explorations on the North American coasts. They were placed under the command of John Verazzani, a Florentine, of whose career very little is known. He appears to have been a somewhat eminent navigator, but the narrative of his voyage to our country is so obscure in many parts that it is difficult to discover the truth. The account of that voyage on which historians have most relied, is given in a letter which, it is alleged, the navigator wrote to King Francis after his return, by which it seems he sailed for the Madeiras in December, 1523, and left them on the 27th of January, 1524, proceeding due west. Three of his ships were soon disabled by a tempest that swept over the Atlantic, and put back; and he went on with only one vessel. In that he reached the American coast in north latitude 34 deg, or not far from Cape Fear in southern North Carolina. That was in the month of March. He speaks of the climate as salubrious; of the coast as abounding with lakes and ponds-

the numerous bays and inlets there; of the people as black-skinned, "not much differing from Ethiopians," with thick black hair worn tied back upon the head in the from of a little tail; and going entirely naked excepting at the loins, from which depended from a gridle of braided grass, a marten skin. These people gathered on the beach in considerable numbers, and made many friendly signs. A young sailor, more courageous than the rest, swam toward the shore with little bells, looking-glasses and other trifles as presents for them, and when he was near the beach, he tossed them to the natives, and turned to swim back. The surf was high, and he was thrown by it upon the sands, so much exhausted that he seemed to be dead. But he was sufficiently alive to scream lustily when the natives bore him away from the water, for he expected to be killed and eaten by them. They stripped him, and viewed with astonishment his white skin. Then they made a large fire on which, his companions imagined, they were about to roast him for their dinner, but it was only an act of kindness to restore warmth to his limbs. When he had recovered sufficiently to show, by signs, that he wished to return, they hugged him with great affection, withdrew to a little sand-hill, and watched him until he was safely in the boat from which he swam.

Verazzani then went further up the coast, probably as far as the vicinity of Albemarle Sound, where he landed, with twenty men. A short distance from the sea, the land was covered with large trees, among which were noble cypresses. From these forest trees trailed luxuriant vines which were clustered with delicious grapes, the natives said, in early autumn. The people fled in fear to the woods. They were fairer than those further south, and were covered with a light drapery made of "certain plants which hung down from the branches"--Spanish moss?--tied by threads of wild hemp. Their heads were uncovered. They lived in huts made of saplings and shrubbery, and navigated canoes dug out of a single log without any iron instrument whatever. In the tall reedy grass, the mariners found concealed "a very old woman and a young girl eighteen or twenty years of age. The old woman carried two infants on her shoulders, and behind her neck a little boy eight years of age." The women shrieked and made signs to the men, who had fled, to come to their rescue. "We took the little boy from the old woman," says the Florentine, "to carry with us to France, and would have taken the girl, who was very beautiful and very tall, but it was impossible because of the loud shrieks she uttered as we attempted to lead her away; so we determined to leave her, and take the boy only." The story of this kidnapping was soon spread over all that region, and planted the seeds of intense hatred of the white man in the bosoms of the natives. Their products were the bane of Raleigh's settlement on Roanoke Island on that coast, sixty years later.

Verazzani coasted further northward, and it is evident, from his topographical description, that he entered the harbor of New York and discovered the mouth of the Hudson River. He made a very brief tarriance there. The land seemed full of people, who received the mariners kindly. They did not differ much in appearance from the inhabitants further south, and were dressed in cloaks made of the beautiful plumage of birds. Weighing anchor after a very brief intercourse with these people, he sailed eastward, as the coast lay, discovered Block Island, off the Connecticut shore, and came to a beautiful hilly country in latitude forty-one degrees and forty minutes. He was then, evidently, in Narragansett Bay, and beheld the shores of Rhode Island, where the Northmen had settled more than five hundred years before. There he found the "finest looking tribe and the handsomest in their costume" of any he had seen on the voyage; larger in persons than the average European. "Among them," Verazzani said, "were two kings more beautiful in form and stature than can possibly be described;" the oldest, about forty years of age, wearing "a deer's skin around his body, artificially wrought in damask figures; his head without covering; his hair tied back in various knots, and around his neck he wore a large chain ornamented with many stones of different colors. "Their women," he said, "are of the same form and beauty, very graceful, of fine countenances and pleasing appearance in manners and modesty; wearing no clothing except a deer-skin, ornamented like those worn by the men; some wear very rich lynx skins upon their arms, and various ornaments on their heads composed of braids of hair which also hang down upon their breasts on each side. Others wear different ornaments, such as the women of Egypt and Syria use."

The inhabitants were kind, but shy. The men could never be persuaded to take their wives on board the ship of the Florentine. "One of the two kings," he said, "often came with his queen and many attendants to see the vessel," but the women were kept at a distance. The country seemed to be very fertile, and abounded in their season with apples, plums, filberts and other kinds of fruit and nuts; and in the forests were great numbers of deers, lynxes and other wild animals. The dwellings of the people were generally circular in form, and built of split logs; and sometimes they were large enough to accommodate a family of twenty-five or thirty persons.

From Narragansett Bay, Verazzani sailed eastward early in May, passing among the numerous islands off the coast of Massachusetts, and touching somewhere, probably, on the coast of Maine. There he found the people coarser in appearance, less friendly, and more fierce and warlike. They were clad in the skins of the bear, the lynx, the deer and the seal. No signs of cultivation appeared, and the inhabitants seemed to live almost wholly on the products of the forest and the waters. The hills were covered with vast woods; and far in the interior he saw lofty mountains. The voyagers had very little intercourse with these Indians, and sailing eastward and northward, came to Newfoundland. Thence they turned their prow toward Europe and sailed to France. Verazzani had traversed the borders of the North American continent, as his ship sailed, about two thousand miles, and he named the vast country New France.

Verazzani's object was to find Cathay, in the extreme eastern limit of Asia, hoping there to discover a passage into the Indian Ocean, for which Columbus and Cabot had sought. What became of him after this marvelous voyage is not certainly known. He appears to have left the service of the French king, who was then warring desperately with Charles the Fifth of Spain and Germany. Early in 1525, Francis was defeated before Pavia, wounded, made a prisoner and carried captive to Madrid, where he was detained almost a year. His projects for foreign discoveries were, of course, abandoned for a time, and it was several years before they were resumed. Meanwhile, Verazzani, it seems probable, made two other voyages to America, but not as a commander. He appears to have had some communication with Henry the Eighth of England, and possibly was in his service, for an old chronicler says that he presented to that monarch a map of America, after he had made three voyages to this continent. It is certain that Henry sent out two exploring ships in 1527--the Samson and the Mary of Guilford--and it is asserted that Verazzani sailed in the first mentioned vessel. We have a record of another expedition having been sent to America by Henry, in 1536, for discovery or settlement.

Return to Our Country, Vol. I