Whom Did Verrazzano Visit?
By Robert A. Geake
In writing “Keepers Of The Bay”, I realized that one of the first points of inquiry would have to be early European encounters, including Verrazzano’s visit to Narragansett Bay in 1524. As many of you know, the evidence that the explorer even visited the new world, based upon a letter he wrote to France’s James I. was a point of contention among early scholars. Although the original has not been found, the explorer also sent copies of the letter to friends after his voyage. Three copies of this letter have been found. The first was published in 1556 by Ramusio in his collection of Voyages. This version of the letter was reprinted by Hakluyt in his Divers Voyages of 1582. Another copy of the letter was found in the Strozzi Library at Florence, and this version, containing a cosmographical appendix which did not appear in the Ramusio version, was printed in 1841 by the New York Historical Society with an introduction and notes by Dr. J.G. Cogswell. A third copy was found and printed in 1909.
Historian George Bancroft seems never to have been convinced of the authenticity of these letters, or at least their content. He withheld the explorers name from his History of the United States (1834-1874), contending that the explorer had never visited the Americas, and that the letters were simply written in France to enhance that nation and King’s prestige during this competitive age of exploration.
The contents of this much debated letter give an account of his journey to the coast of North America and exploration from 30° to 50° N. latitude. It has been described as the first post-Columbian description of the North Atlantic coast, and gives the first description of New York Bay and harbor and the present Hudson River.
From there Verrazzano sailed along Long Island Sound to Block Island and Newport, of which he makes mention. From this notebook of the voyage his brother Hieronimo drew in 1529 a map of the North Atlantic coast, which is now in the museum of the Propaganda at Rome, and testifies to the accuracy of Verrazzano’s observations along the coast as far as a point in present-day Maine, after which he returned to France, arriving at Dieppe in July, 1524. His brother’s map marks as “New France”.
Of his entrance to Narragansett Bay, Verrazzano wrote:
“We reached another land 15 leagues from the island, where we found an excellent harbor before entering it, we saw about boats full of people who came around the ship uttering various cries of wonderment. They did not come nearer than fifty paces but stopped to look at the structure of our ship, our persons, and our clothes; then all together they raised a loud cry which meant that they were joyful. We reassured them somewhat by imitating their gestures, and they came near enough for us to throw them a few little bells and mirrors and many trinkets, which they took and looked at, laughing, and then they confidently came on board ship. Among them were two kings, who were as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe. The first was about 40 years old, the other a young man of 24, and they were dressed thus: the older man had on his naked body a stag skin, skillfully worked like damask with various embroideries; the head was bare, the hair tied back with various bands, and around the neck hung a wide chain decorated with many different-colored stones. The young man was dressed in almost the same way. These people are the most beautiful and have the most civil customs that we have found on this voyage. They are taller than we are; they are a bronze color, some tending more toward whiteness, others to a tawny color; the face is clear-cut; the hair is long and black, and they take great pains to decorate it; the eyes are black and alert, and their manner is sweet and gentle, very like the manner of the ancients I shall not speak to Your Majesty of the other parts of the body, since they have all the proportions belonging to any well-built man.” (from the NYHS edition of Verrazzano’s Voyages)
Verrazzano lingered in Narragansett Bay for two weeks and in historian George Washington Greene’s retelling, the explorer “continued his observations upon the country and it’s inhabitants…he made several excursions up Narragansett Bay, and examined it with considerable attention. To those who have traced the windings of it’s lovely shores, his rapturous description will hardly seem exaggerated”.
But just who were these Native Americans that the explorer described?
When I was examining the early lives of the Narragansett, I was told emphatically by Preservation Officer John Brown that the “two kings” written of, by the explorer, were Tashtasik and Canonicus. Knowing that most modern histories claim that these descriptions depict the Wampanoag, I delved further into the known histories.
Greene, in his essay on the Life and Voyages of Verrazzano does not venture a guess as to the tribal identity of those “wondering savages” who sat in their canoes “gazing in admiration at the strange objects”. Greene does observe however, the detail with which the voyager described these
“native Rhode Islanders…Their complexion was remarkably clear; their features regular; their hair long and dressed with no ordinary degree of care; their eyes black and lively; their whole aspect pleasing…”
Based upon the description of these people, I encountered both similarities and some differences in other authors writings of the indigenous people of the area.
William Wood writes in New Englands Prospect (1634) that the “Narragansetts be at the present, the most numerous people in those parts, the most rich also…these men are the most curious minters of their wampeage…from hence they have most of their curious pendants and bracelets…although these be populous, yet I never heard that they were desirous to take in hand any martiall enterprise, or expose themselves to the uncertainty of warre: wherefore the Pequots call them women like men.”
( Part II, Chapter III, p. 61
John Josselyn, in the second part of his Account of Two Voyages made to New England, writes a similar description of the Wampanoag with some curious delineations:
“Their Apparel before the English came amongst them, was the skins of wild beasts with the hair on them, Buskins of deer skin, or Moose drest and drawn with lines into several works, the lines being colored with yellow, blew, or red, Pumps too they have, made with rough skin without soles…under their belly they wear a square piece of leather and the like upon their posteriors, both fastened to a string tyed about them to hide their secrets, on their heads they ware nothing: But since they have had to do with the English they purchase of them a sort of cloth called trading cloth of which they make Mantles, Coats with short sleeves, and caps for their heads which the women use, but the men continue their old fashioned going bare-headed, excepting for some old men amongst them. They are very proud as appeareth by their setting themselves out with white and blew beads of their own making, and painting of their faces with the above mentioned colors…”
Compare this description with Nathaniel Philbrick’s modern retelling of the Pakonoket (Wampanoag)party which set out to greet the English in Plymouth:
“Massasoit stood on the hill, his face painted dark red, his entire head glistening with bear grease.Draped around his neck was a wide necklace made of white shell beads and a long knife suspended from a string. His men’s faces were also painted, ‘some black, some red, some yellow, and some white, some with crosses and other antic works’. Some of them had furs draped over their shoulders, others were naked. But every one of them possessed a stout bow and a quiver of arrows.”
It will be noticed that nowhere in his description does Giovanni di Verrazzano mention his Native American hosts as having their faces painted in such a manner. Indeed he describes at some length the differences in skin tone among them. While the description of the stag skin worn and the bare-headedness comes closest to the explorers observation, the face painting and bear grease mentioned by Philbrick brings another matter to the surface.
The Wampanoags, with encampments at Montop and Sawoms, were more a river people than people of the Bay. The Narrows river empties out into Narragansett Bay just above Montop (Mount Hope) and the Titcut (Taunton) River flows from the east, with Sowams located on a small inland cove that lies at a nearly equal distance between the two tributaries. Living on, and near the rivers; face paint and bear grease would have been everyday protection from flies and “muskeetoes” that those living by the breezes borne in from the Bay would not have had to contend with. Some scholars may contend that the time of year of Massasoit’s visit to Plymouth (in mid-March) would warrant such protection from the cold, and while that may be so, it does not explain Josselyn’s account of faces painted during fair weather.
Thomas Bicknell in his History of Barrington (1898), heads Chapter III with the title “Verrazzano visits the Wampanoags“, though without naming sources or any explanation for why he believes those were the people the explorer met, and wrote about in his letter.
In Samuel Eliot Morison’s book of the Great Explorers, we read another description of the explorer’s discovery of an island “about the bignesse of the Islande of Rhodes,…full of hilles, covered with trees.”
The maritime historian writes:
“ The natives who flocked around La Dauphine in canoes as she anchored a few miles outside Narragansett Bay on a hard, boulder strewn bottom were so friendly that Verrazzano (doubtless to the joy of his crew) decided to make an exception to his practice of mooring in the open. Piloted by an Indian, he sailed La Dauphine into the bay. Leaving the future Point Judith and Beaver Tail to port, he noted the little rocky islands now called The Dumplings as a suitable place for a coast-defense fort…The native pilots conducted La Dauphine to a completely sheltered anchorage, the present day Newport harbor, behind the highest point of Aquidneck. There he spent a fortnight palavering with the natives…
These Indians were the Wampanoag, whose domain extended over the eastern side of Narragansett Bay and southeastern Massachusetts. They had lately taken Aquidneck from the Narragansett and were apprehensive about a comeback. This in part accounts for their friendliness toward the Frenchman…”
Of course this description leads to more speculation. Would in fact, the Wampanoag have given the explorer such a prolonged and care-free welcome if they anticipated a counter attack by the Narragansett ? Or would the Narragansett, as the wealthiest nation in the region have dismissed the skirmish over an island never viewed as particularly valuable to them, and feted the visitor lavishly in anticipation of procuring an exclusive trading partner?
Indeed at the end of the description, Morrison adds a telling aside: “Verrazanno’s description of the Wampanoag corresponds closely to what Roger Williams later wrote about them…”
Could Samuel Eliot Morrison have been thinking of the Narragansett all along?
One possibility remains, that in encountering tribes nearby those who he first met, the explorer assumed the Native Americans were of the same tribe, though as we know there were several tribes that inhabited the region of the Bay.
Greene, George W. “Life and Voyages of Verrazzano” North American Review Oct. 1837
Josselyn, John “Account of Two Voyages to New England”
Philbrick, Nathaniel “The Mayflower”
Verrazzano, Giovanni de “Voyages”
Williams, Roger “A Key to the Language of America”
Wood, William “New England’s Prospects”
Wroten, William D. “Verrazano’s1524 Letter…” Edward H Nabb Research Ctr.