The Coming of the Europeans – Early Exploration of New England

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Extracted from 1632 Map of North America - source Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Extracted from 1632 Map of North America – source Map reproduction courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

This is Part 2 of a series about the founding of New England. For Part 1, the Native Americans, click here.

In the 1400’s, even before Christopher Columbus’s fabled voyage to “discover” America, Basque fisherman commonly fished for cod in the area around what was to be called Newfoundland. In 1497, under the aegis of English King Henry VII, the Genovese explorer Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), while searching for a spice route to Asia, noted a land with a vast, rocky coastline teeming with cod. Cabot called this “New Found Land,” and claimed it for England. By the early 1500’s, it was common for English fishing ships to visit and harvest the cod from this area.

In parallel efforts, in 1501 the Portuguese explorer Gaspar Corte-Real reached what is now the state of Maine and abducted over 50 Native Americans; the Native Americans were sold into slavery. In 1523 the Italian Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into Narragansett Bay, near present-day Providence, RI, and spent over two weeks trading as a guest of the Natives. After leaving Narragansett, he sailed north and encountered the Abnacki on the coast of Maine. In 1534, Frenchman Jacques Cartier “discovered” and explored the mouth of the St. Lawrence river, claiming the area for France. (Cartier was later involved in colonization efforts, but these were abandoned in 1543.)

By the end of the 1500’s, European exploration in North America had become common, but was focused on fishing the plentiful cod. Permanent settlements did not exist and the fisherman-explorers went home as winter approached. Universally, the Europeans noted that North America was thickly settled with natives, generally described as handsome and healthy. And, the area seemed ripe for exploitation. European attention began to shift to the more systematic capitalization of North America. This resulted in the emergence of “trading companies” set up to establish permanent settlements to harvest the riches.

In 1602, English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold established a small post on Cuttyhunk Island (in the Elizabethan Islands near Cape Cod and New Bedford), but had to abandon the outpost as the group had inadequate supplies to last the winter.  During this visit, Gosnold is credited with naming “Cape Cod” and discovering Martha’s Vineyard. (In 1607 Gosnold was involved in the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America.)

In 1605, French explorer Samuel de Champlain, known as the founder of “New France” in North America, helped to found Port-Royal, the first successful French Settlement in North America. In 1605-1606, he visited Cape Cod with plans to establish a French base. This plan was abandoned after skirmishes with the Natives. In 1608, Champlain founded what is now known as Quebec City, on the Saint Lawrence River in Canada.

Englishman Sir Ferdinando Gorges, the “Father of English Colonization in North America”, was planning to develop settlements in Maine – then considered “the Northern Parte of Virginia.”  In 1605, he was part of the sponsoring group for an expedition sent to explore the area of New England under Captain George Waymouth. During his voyage, Waymouth captured  five Native Americans, who he brought back to England. According to some accounts, one of the captured Indians was Squanto – the same Squanto who was to play a key role in helping the Pilgrims survive their first winter in North America.  After 1605, many English voyages carried one or more Native Americans as guides and interpreters.

In 1606, again initiated by Gorges, the Sagadahoc settlement (also known as Popham) at base of Kennebec near modern Portland, Maine became the first English attempt at colonizing New England.  It was abandoned after only one year.

In 1609, sponsored by the Dutch East India Company to seek a northwest spice passage, English explorer Henry Hudson passed by the Atlantic Coast and up the river that was to bear his name. Hudson claimed a good part of the territory between Virginia and New England for the Dutch. Their first settlement, for fur trading, was established near present day Albany, New York, in 1615. Dutch colonization efforts did not start until 1624, with the land that was to become their capitol, New Amsterdam, not purchased from the Native Americans until 1626.

In 1614, the English explorer Captain John Smith was ordered by the future King Charles I to sail to America to assess commercial opportunities. Smith reached land in present-day Maine and made his way south to Cape Cod, making contact with natives and mapping out the coastline. Smith called the region “New England.”

During the mapping, Smith observed the land that was to become Boston. He noted a tri-capped hilly peninsula with an excellent harbor. The harbor was fed by three rivers and connected to the mainland by a narrow neck across a shallow back bay. Called “Shawmut,” it was important to the natives for an excellent freshwater spring.

This all was setting the scene for the first permanent settlement in New England in 1620, the Pilgrim’s voyage to what became Plymouth. But, that is another story.

New England Before Europeans – the Native Americans

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Rough Locations of Primary New England Native American Tribes

Rough Locations of Primary New England Native American Tribes

Map © 2008 DeLorme ( TOPO USA® – Annotations by the Author

By the time white Europeans arrived, New England had been inhabited by Native Americans for over a thousand years. Migrating here after the retreat of the last ice age, by 1500 they had a population likely in excess of 100,000. Originally hunters and gatherers, they had become more agricultural – with extensive fields of corn (maize), beans, and squash.  By this time the tribes were fundamentally stationary, but shifted dwellings several times year based on weather – winter, autumn hunting, and summer.

The New England tribes had a common heritage and belonged to the Algonquian family. Their language was fairly common, and although each tribe had nuances, there was the ability to be understood from Cape Cod to Canada.

Politically, each tribe and sub-tribe had a single primary ruler, called “sachem” or “sagamore”.  These sachem were usually men, but sometimes there were squaw, or female, sachem.  Within the tribal hierarchy, there were sub-sachems for functions such as the military (for war), powwows (medicine), and other functions.

At the time of the white man’s arrival, there were a number of principle tribes, many peaceful, but some warlike and in competition with their neighbors. The names of these tribes have been inherited by many New England towns, rivers and lakes. Those tribes included:

  • The Abnaki, also known as the Tarrantine to other tribes, inhabited western Maine, especially the Kennebec Androscoggin & Saco River valleys, as well as portions of neighboring New Hampshire. As this is the colder and more mountainous portion of New England, the Abnaki tended more to hunting than farming. More warlike than their southern neighbors, many tribes, and particularly the Massachusetts, lived in dread of Tarrantine raids. They had a reputation for cruelty and were accused of cannibalism by the English.
  • The Penacook inhabited southern and central MA, northeastern MA and southeastern ME, with the principle subdivision around Concord, NH. The Penacook had many subordinate tribes including the Nashua, Piscataqua, and the Winnepesaukee.
  • The Massachusett (in Algonquian, “people of the great hills”), from whom the state of Massachusetts got its name, inhabited the eastern area of state, around Boston. Originally one of the more powerful tribes, it was devastated by the plague and wars with the Abnaki. Their population declined from about 3,000 to 500 between 1615 and 1630.
  • The Wampanoag inhabited the areas of southeastern Massachusetts near where the Pilgrims landed in current Plymouth. They were also devastated by the plague. Metacom (King Philip of “King Philip’s War”) was Wampanoag.
  • The Narragansetts were a powerful tribe that lived in present-day Rhode Island.
  • The Niantics were a largely coastal tribe lived on Narragansett Bay, and extended as far west as the Pequot tribe in Connecticut.
  • The Pequots, of eastern Connecticut were originally part of the Mahican (known as Mohegan, a corruption of the Mahigan name) a tribe of the of upper Hudson River valley in New York.  They were warlike and aggressive and the primary protagonist in the Pequot War in 1637-1638.
  • The Nipmucs who inhabited central MA, were a comparatively weak tribe who frequently paid tribute to their neighbors.
  • The Pocumtucks were a loose association of tribes that lived west of the Nipmucks in the areas around Deerfield, MA.
  • South of the Pocumtucks along the Connecticut River Valley lived the “River Indians”, another loose association of tribes.
  • Bordering the River Indians to the west was the Wappinger Confederacy, which extended from the west bank of the Hudson River as far south as Manhattan and north to Poughkeepsie. Tribes of the Wappinger included the Mattabesic, Quinnipiac, Paugusset, and Tunxis.
  • North of the Wappinger Confederacy were the Mahicans, (Mohecan), the parent tribe to the Pequots. They inhabited the western Connecticut and the upper Hudson Valley in New York.
  • The Nausets were a smaller tribe that lived on Cape Cod.
  • The Montauks inhabited eastern Long Island.
  • The Mohawks, who spanned most of eastern New York State, were the easternmost tribe of the Iroquois confederacy, e.g., they were not Algonquin. Extremely warlike, they were formidable and feared by the Algonquin tribes.

Between 1616 and 1619 a plague, or the “Great Dying,” wiped out almost ¾ of the New England Native American population, with the devastation worse in the coastal areas where mortality was as high as 95%. A major effect was that when white settlers began arriving, starting in 1620, they encountered very little of the indigenous population. The Native American’s ability to resist the Europeans was very weak.

For Part 2, the Early Exploration of New England, click here.

Sources and for additional reading:

Bragdon, Kathleen Joan, Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Vaughan, Alden T., New England Frontier Puritans and Indians 1620-1675.  Little Brown and Company Boston, 1965.


Most Romantic Place in North America

No matter what your definition of romance, Old Quebec City is easily the most romantic getaway destination in North America. It has plenty to do for lovers, families and singles.  Just a little north of New England (about a 7 hour drive from Boston, 4.5 from Burlington VT., or 5.5 hours from Portland ME), any trip to New England could easily include it in the itinerary.  Or, it makes for a great long weekend.

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Founded in 1608 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Quebec City is as close to being in France as you can get in North America.  If you speak French, and so desire, you will never need to utter a word in English your entire visit.  Getting by with English, however, is not a problem.

It is full of history, quaint hotels and B&B’s, great restaurants, outdoor Parisian-style cafes, fabulous vistas, and wonderful museums for both art and history lovers.  Easy to tour by foot, it is simply one of the best places to spend a few days and a pleasure any time of year.  Be forewarned, it can be very cold in the winter.

Enjoying a Parisian-Style Cafe in Old Town Quebec

Old Town Quebec consists of Haute-Ville (Upper Town) and Basse-Ville (Lower Town), which also is the location of the old port. I’ll highlight a few of my favorite spots in each.

In Haute-Ville:

The best tour starts by simply walking around. It is small and self contained, beautiful, quaint, there are great places to eat, and is is just a wonderful place to be.  The entire city is surrounded by a stone wall built by both the French and British armies.  In fact it is the only North American city with fortress walls that still exist north of Mexico.  The views overlooking Basse-Ville and the St. Lawrence are excellent.

Château Frontenac & the St. Lawrence from the Citadel

Le Château Frontenac is probably the most photographed hotel in North America.  To stay there can be pricey and the property can feel a little stuffy (if you want high-end, as an alternative you may want to consider some of the more intimate, but superb boutique hotels in Basse-Ville like the Dominion or Aberge Saint-Antoine – and both of these are relative bargains), but a martini in the Frontenac’s bar and a guided hotel tour can make the Quebec experience complete.

Plains of Abraham and Citadel from near Musée National

The Plains of Abraham Battlefield Park is a great walk on a nice day. The Plains are the site of the 1759 battle between the French, under Montcalm, and the English, under Wolfe. (Both Montcalm and Wolfe died as a result of wounds received here.)  The battle was deciding moment in the conflict between France and Britain over the fate of New France, and resulted in the turning over of Quebec to the English. The park features beautiful gardens, historic exhibits and great views of the city and the St. Lawrence.  Be sure to visit the Discovery Pavilion for a great overview of the park and its history.  Check for music and festivals during the summer and bring a frisbee.

Le Musée National des Beaux-arts du Québec is a wonderful art museum in the Plains of Abraham Battlefield Park. Housed in three buildings, one of which was the 19th century city prison, it is a great way for art lovers to spend couple of hours. It is home to impressive permanent collections as well as traveling shows.

The Citadel, built between 1820 and 1850 is the largest British fortress built in North America. It features a museum, tours and has a well known changing of the guard ceremony. A must if traveling with children.

In Basse-Ville:

As with Haute-Ville, simply wandering around is a great way to experience the city.  To go between Haute and Basse-Ville, there is the Funiculaire that can be taken up or down if you do not want to navigate the stairs or winding streets, which are steep.  The 17th century architecture and French flavor sets a tone unequaled in North America. There are many places to shop, which range from high-end furs and art to pure kitsch – at your pleasure.  In nice weather, sit outside in a cafe, close your eyes, and when you open them, you are in a French village (truly). Superb!

Rue Souse-le-Fort just below the Frontenac

Musée de la Civilization is an impressive museum dedicated to the history of the world’s peoples. It houses excellent exhibits focused on the humanities, with a concentration on the Canadian people. It is enjoyable by both adults and children.  If it is inclement, this is the best place to spend the day.  The free tours are well done and very insightful.

Le Marché du Vieux-Port de Québec

Le Marché du Vieux-Port de Québec is a wonderful fresh market near the old port and off most tourist agendas.  It is  great place to wander around and pick up supplies for a picnic or to bring back to your hotel room.  Most everything comes from Quebec and the varous stalls specialize in fruits, vegetables, wine, cider, maple products, cheeses, pastries, breads, deli meats, and more.  This is a great place to find non-traditional souvenirs to bring home.

Place-Royale and the Notre Dame des Victoires church

The Place-Royale is where Samuel de Champlain landed in 1608 and founded the first French settlement in North America.  It is an absolutely beautiful square.  Visit the Centre d’Interpretation de Place-Royal for exhibits describing the challenges of setting up a town in the 17th century.  At the end of the square is the Notre Dame des Victoires church, built in 1688 and subsequently destroyed by the British bombardment of 1759.  It has been restored to it’s original character.


Lobster Sandwich – Best and Biggest in Boston Area

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There are few things as wonderful as a lobster sandwich, and this is one of the best. Full of meat, juicy, succulent, decadent, delicious – it is what summer in New England is all about. Absolutely worth the drive, but if your are in the Portsmouth area during a beautiful day, not to be missed. Make sure to ask for it without lettuce to get the maximum heaven.


The Beach Plum is a ice cream stand, and with commercial ice cream at that. But, their lobster and crab sandwiches make the Beach Plum a culinary destination par excellence. There is a seating area with picnic tables and umbrellas at the side of the stand, but the best place to indulge in your feast is on the sea wall across the street overlooking the ocean.

The foot long (pictured) will set you back about $28 (the regular is $17 as of 2010), but is easily enough to share.  A rock crab roll is only $11. The ice cream may not be homemade, but what a great way to end your feast!

A fantastic end to a fantastic day.

Isles of Shoals

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Visiting the Isles of Shoals makes a wonderful day trip out of Portsmouth harbor. Catch a ferry with the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company at 315 Market Street in downtown Portsmouth for the 9 mile ride out the Islands. The Steamship Company offers various excursions that include guided Portsmouth Harbor tours or stops for exploring the islands.

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The cruise out to the islands is a wonderful way to spend a few hours. The narrated ride passes through Portsmouth Harbor, which is beautiful and features history and sites galore. To port (on the Maine side of the Harbor – left on the way out to the islands), you will pass the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the abandoned Naval prison. Watch for submarine conning towers that may be visible as you pass by.

To starboard you will pass Fort Constitution at the mouth of the harbor. Fort Constitution is built on the site of Fort William and Mary, which was the site of the true first organized action by the Colonials against the British in 1774 – before Lexington and Concord! On December 13, 1774, Paul Revere (remember him from the Midnight Ride) rode 60 miles from Boston to Portsmouth and informed the The Portsmouth Committees of Safety and Correspondence that a British expedition that was in transit by sea to seize control of the powder and armaments stored at the fort. On the following day, a band of 400 New Hampshire militiamen assaulted the fort, which was manned by just 6 British soldiers. The British managed to fire three cannons at the Colonials, but were quickly overwhelmed. A large amount of gunpowder was captured along with some muskets and cannon. There were no serious injuries, but this was truly the first battle of the American Revolutionary War, a full four months before Concord and Lexington.

Site of Fort William and Mary - First Colonial Action Against British

The ferry will stop at Star IslandStar Island to drop off and pick up passengers. At the island, there is a retreat hotel run by the Unitarian Church. They offer day services including meals and it is possible to spend the night between mid-June and mid-September. The organization runs various retreats, workshops and conferences that run from photography to international affairs to family conferences. The facility is beautiful and a real throwback to the 19th century – Nathanial Hawthorne stayed here. Accommodations are pretty basic, but the location is fantastic. A beautiful and quite place to spend a day or a few nights.