May 15, 1602

Explorer Gosnold Names "Cape Cod"

On this day in 1602, the English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold dropped anchor off the Massachusetts coast. While he and four others went ashore, the rest of the crew pulled in so many cod that they "threw numbers of them overboard again." When Gosnold returned to the ship and saw the abundance of fish, he decided to name the place "Cape Cod." Although half of the 40 men who accompanied Gosnold had planned to stay and establish a trading post, in the end, they all returned to England. The cargo they brought home — sassafras, cedar logs, and furs — and their descriptions of a rich land populated by friendly natives inspired the next English effort at a permanent settlement in the New World — Jamestown.

Gosnold's party were not the first Europeans these Indians had seen; they had already had contact with fishermen, traders, and explorers from the "Old World."

In March of 1602, a small ship named the Concord left Falmouth, England, bound for New England. Forty-nine days later, the ship made landfall on the southern coast of what is now Maine. The men aboard were on an expedition to set up a trading post in the New World. They were led by the explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, who has since come to be known as the "Columbus of New England."

The Concord sailed southward until on May 15th it reached the tip of a peninsula at the mouth of a large bay teeming with cod fish. After only a few hours fishing, they concluded that "there is upon this coast, better fishing, and in as great plentie, as in Newfoundland."

For the next three weeks, the party explored the area they named "Cape Cod," built a fort, traded with local Native Americans, and recorded glowing accounts of the land's abundant natural resources. The goods and descriptions Gosnold's explorers brought home made this part of the New World appear attractive to the English investors and colonists who would follow a few decades later.

"There is upon this coast, better fishing, and in as great plentie, as in Newfoundland."

Born around 1572, Bartholomew Gosnold attended Cambridge University but did not complete a degree. Somewhere along the way he acquired the skills of a navigator. Coming of age in the era of Sir Walter Raleigh's famed expeditions to the Americas, Gosnold used his family connections to outfit a ship that he would take across the Atlantic. The goal of the voyage was to establish a direct route to the "north part of Virginia," as the English then called New England, and establish a trading post for Indian furs and other goods.

Gosnold took with him a skeleton crew of eight sailors and 12 explorers; the other 20 men aboard the Concord had agreed to be "planters," who would remain at a fortified house that the party would build and stock before the ship returned to England.

After exploring the Cape's inner shore as far as Wellfleet, the Concord sailed around the ocean side. On May 21st, Captain Gosnold and a few of his men went ashore on a small chain of islands. "We found it to be 4 English miles in compasse, without house or inhabitant, saving a little old house made of boughes, covered with barke, an old piece of [fish weir] of the Indians to catch fish, and one or two places where they had made fires." The island was covered with the wild fruit of raspberries, gooseberries, and huckleberries. Gosnold named it "Martha's Vineyard," in honor of his daughter.

The "planters" — those who had planned to remain at the trading post—had a change of heart.

A few days later, the party explored a nearby island with "...many plaine places of grasse, abundance of Strawberries & other berries" They called this one "Elizabeth's Island," in honor of their queen. Today it is called Cuttyhunk. Finding the soil fertile, they decided this was the place to establish the trading post. The men built a strategically located fort and stocked it with local food stuffs.

Gosnold and his men regularly bartered and feasted with Indians. The atmosphere was friendly; the Indians were helpful in showing the Englishman where to find food and other resources. The English were impressed with the copper adornments worn by the Indians; the Natives were fascinated with the metal knives the Europeans gave them in trade. At one point, the explorers hosted a feast for a large party of 50 or more Native Americans, led by a young Indian who may have been the future Chief Massasoit.

During their stay, Gosnold and his men collected a quantity of sassafras, cedar logs, and furs to bring back to England. This cargo would be valuable enough to pay for the expense of the voyage. As the time came for the explorers and crew to return, however, the "planters" — those who had planned to remain at the trading post —had a change of heart. When the Concord sailed for England on June 18th, all 40 men were aboard.

"They spoke divers Christian words, and seemed to understand much more than we."

Although Gosnold failed in his goal of establishing a trading post, he succeeded in other ways. The goods and, perhaps more important, the reports he brought back helped fuel the drive to settle the "New World." He was fortunate to have in his party two men, lawyer Gabriel Archer and clergyman John Brereton, whose journals provide rich firsthand accounts of the land and its people.

Archer and Brereton recorded numerous encounters with Native People. Although they referred to the Indians as "savages," the encounters they described were peaceful and friendly. Gosnold's party were not the first Europeans these Indians had seen; they had already had contact with fishermen, traders, and explorers from the "Old World." Archer reported that the first group of natives they encountered made chalk drawing to describe the coast for the explorers. "They spoke divers Christian words, and seemed to understand much more than we." Throughout Gosnold's five-week stay in New England, the Native People were welcoming, helpful, and appeared interested in trading with and learning about the newcomers. In return, Gosnold and men were respectful and generous, and made a concerted effort to pay homage to Indian leaders.

In 1608 Bartholomew Gosnold sailed as second in command on an expedition to establish the first permanent English settlement in Virginia. He died of malaria three months after landing in Jamestown.


This Mass Moment occurred in the Southeast region of Massachusetts.


Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984, by William Simmons (University Press of New England, 1986).

Program of the "Gosnold 400 Quadricentennial, 1602-2002."

Native People of Southern New England, by Kathleen Bragdon (University of Oklahoma Press, 1996).

The Gosnold Discoveries... In the North Part of Virginia, 1602; Now Cape Cod and the Islands, Massachusetts According to the Relations by Gabriel Archer and John Brereton, compiled and ed. by Lincoln A. Dexter (Published by the author, 1982).

Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. IV.

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