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Athena Review,Vol.3, no.2: Peopling of the Americas


The East Coast Explorations of Giovanni Verrazano (1524)


While the Vikings colonized Newfoundland briefly ca. AD 1000, and the Italian mariner John Cabot reached the Great Banks fisheries in the 1490s, Giovanni Verrazano was the first European to sail up the mid-Atlantic coast, passing through and, at some points, describing the region of future early English colonies.

Finding a safer route to China than the treacherous Straits of Magellan was a high priority of 16th century European merchants, who still believed in a “northwest passage” to the Orient. Verrazano, a Tuscan nobleman born in 1485, was commissioned in 1523 by a group of Italian bankers in Lyon, at the heart of France’s silk industry, to lead an expedition seeking such a westward passage to East Asia. With the backing of King Francis I, Verrazano obtained four ships, a crew, and supplies enough for a year abroad.

Misfortune struck almost immediately after Verrazano’s departure in fall, 1523, as a violent storm annihilated two of his ships. Shortly thereafter, a third vessel, La Normande,was sent back to France with booty from Spain. La Dauphine, a 60-foot craft under Verrazano with 50 shipmates, was left to cross the Atlantic alone.

Documentary evidence of Verrazano’s letters to Francis I shows relations between the officers and crew on this voyage were strained. While little is known about the crew from the letters (only Girolamo, Giovanni’s brother and the expedition cartographer, is individually mentioned), they are referred to as la turba marittima - the maritime mob. Living conditions in the diminutive ship no doubt accentuated social strains. The crew ate biscuits, oatmeal, and fat; any available meat was heavily salted for preservation during the long ocean crossing. The nutritional (Vitamin C) void left by lack of fresh fruits and vegetables caused scurvy. Insects and rodents competed for food supplies and fostered illnesses. Tempests at sea, such as one raging in the western Atlantic on 24 Feb. 1524, constantly threatened the lives of all aboard the Dauphine.

After a 44 day voyage, against all odds, on March 1, 1524 La Dauphine reached land at Cape Fear, at the base of the Outer Banks of North Carolina (fig.1). Verrazano initially steered the ship south to seek a protective harbor, but before reaching as far as Charleston Harbor, he turned around to avoid meeting hostile Spaniard ships. A small boat sent ashore at Cape Fear encountered Indians (presumably North Carolina Algonquians), whom Verrazano described very favorably. Soon, La Dauphine sailed north along the Outer Banks, where the leader sighted Pimlico Sound and mistook it for el mare orientale - the Pacific Ocean. It would be nearly 100 years before cartographers stopped depicting North America as a thin, north-south extension of land with Asia just to the west.

[Fig.1: The north Atlantic coastline from Cape Fear to Labrador showing Native American tribal groupings, the approximate route of Verrazano's ship in 1524, and sites of  the first European colonies.]

Continuing north, and passing by Roanoke Island (where an ill-fated English colony was to be founded in 1587-8) Verrazano reached what he called “Arcadia” (probably Kitty Hawk, North Carolina), after tall trees reminiscent of the idyllic Arcady of ancient Greece. There the crew kidnapped a young boy, about whose fate little is known (and even less, presumably, was idyllic). Proceeding northward, the Dauphine avoided shallows of the coastline, which effectively prevented Girolamo from mapping the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. Verrazano, however, eventually reached New York harbor and was the first European mariner to anchor there. Here, he again met and reported enthusiastically on the local indigenous people (a Delaware tribe, also Algonquian-speakers). In letters back to Francis I Verrazano attests to the beauty and productivity of the land, in terms of both plants and animals, and valuable minerals which he claimed (in a promotional vein) to have spied in the hillsides.

Sailing further east, Verrazano and his men then encountered Block Island and Narragansett Bay. The local Wampanoag people (New England Algonquians) were also friendly, welcoming them with food and escorting La Dauphine to the more sheltered Newport Harbor. Here, the ship anchored for two weeks, where the crew traded with the Wampanoag while awaiting better weather.

Venturing still further north, the explorers reached Maine and, in a place not far from the future Popham Colony, encountered the Eastern Abenaki, whom Verrazano describes more negatively than any tribes previously seen. While fretting that they shot arrows at the Dauphine’s crew as they attempted to land, could not communicate with the Europeans, and wore “carnivore pelts,” Verrazano still has words of praise for the countryside’s beauty. Sailing on, the explorers missed the Bay of Fundy and most of Nova Scotia before reaching Newfoundland. They then returned to France from Fogo Island.

Although at least partly motivated to convince King Francis I and his Lyonnaise backers of the value of his explorations, Verrazano’s detailed letters provide valuable first-hand information about the eastern North American coastline and its topography, environments, and potential resources, as well as the first accounts of several Native American cultures.

[Source: Morison, Samuel. 1978. The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America. NY, Oxford Univ. Press]


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