Christopher Columbus, Humphrey Gilbert, and the Importance of Indigenous Peoples Day

Every time Columbus Day arrives or I find myself driving along the Christopher Columbus Highway in Connecticut (I-91), I think about how the deification of Columbus not only hides the basic violence of colonialism and exploration broadly, but the specific violence that took place in New England. The focus on Columbus allows New Englanders, including those who dislike Columbus, to put distance between themselves and that first wave of violence and pestilence that accompanied Spanish conquistadors arriving in the Caribbean. The English exploration and colonization of New England, and the entire English colonial project, contained the same violence. While the bloody history of colonization in New England has been gaining notoriety through important discussions of the Pequot War and King Philip’s War1, I would like to take a moment to focus on the “discovery” of what we now call New England by the English and the ways in which it paralleled Columbus.

A would-be Christopher Columbus of New England

One of the first English expeditions to the Northeast of North America (including New England) was launched in the 1570s by Humphrey Gilbert. Gilbert, perhaps best known for putting the impaled heads of his Irish enemies on the path leading to his tent during his military campaigns in Ireland, received all of North America not already occupied by another “Christian Prince” from Queen Elizabeth. This blood soaked man was a dedicated entrepreneur, and, like Columbus, he began to theorize about the nature of this new land. He collected skilled navigators and intellectuals around him including John Dee, Richard Hakluyt the younger, and Richard Hakluyt the elder. In 1578, Gibert sent Simão Fernandes in a fast barque, Squirrell, to learn about his claims. The voyage of Squirrell was Gilbert’s Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. Fernandes quickly traveled across the Atlantic and gathered information for a later expedition.

In 1583, Gilbert launched a much larger voyage, reminiscent of Columbus’s second voyage.2 Just like Columbus’s second voyage involved far more men then his first, Gilbert scaled up. Hundreds of men on several vessels went to America where Gilbert proudly declared to the world (a group of European fishing vessels in Newfoundland) that he was taking possession of North America. They planned to set up a colony, but eventually everyone decided to sail back to England with plans to try again. On the return voyage, Gilbert’s vessel floundered in a storm and he died.3 In Gilbert’s voyages we do not see the violence that Columbus would become involved with in his later voyages. Why? Gilbert was a man of violence. He had an established track record of slaughtering his non-Protestant enemies. but he died before he could bring that to the Northeast. Those who followed him also signal to the violence inherent in the endeavor of English exploration.

A map made for Humphrey Gilbert

Two groups of explorers are worth mentioning. Bartholemew Gosnold’s expedition in 1602 regularly harassed the indigenous people of New England (Algonquians). The accounts left by Gabriel Archer hint at sexual assault against the Algonquians, noting that the women were unwilling to “Admit of any modest touch.” Archer also describes the expedition stealing canoes.When the English began to build a fort, indicating their plans to stay, they had created enough ill will to provoke a response: around fifty armed indigenous men arrived to stop them. Ambushes plagued the English for the remainder of their time, and they eventually fled.4 Similarly, Martin Pring’s expedition in 1603 regularly invited indigenous people into their camp to trade, then ordered their large dogs to attack the Algonquians as a form of entertainment. Eventually, Algonquians assaulted his encampment and even went as far as to ignite a nearby forest to drive the English away.5

The English who came to New England were militaristic and prepared for violence

Readers may correctly observe that the violence and death associated with these expeditions did not reach the same scale as Columbus. Why? There are two answers. The first is more simple. The violence and death did reach comparable scales. Disease waves swept New England in the aftermath of English exploration. Slaughter and oppression were a regular part of English-indigenous relations in the region during the 1600s. However, we should not ignore the delayed timeline of this overt violence. As such, the role of indigenous people in New England in averting violence cannot be understated. The indigenous people of the Northeast quickly realized the threat that the English posed and stopped it. Certain Algonquian individuals played essential roles. A Wabanaki man named Skicowaros, kidnapped by an English expedition in 1605, accompanied another expedition to New England in 1607. Skicowaros used the English trust in him as a tool. The English allowed him to visit Wabanaki towns. Evidence suggests that while visiting other Wabanaki, he convinced them to withdraw from the English. Without the food and trade from indigenous people, the English expedition eventually returned to England.6

So, as this holiday arrives, I want to emphasize the importance of observing Indigenous Peoples Day. Indigenous Peoples Day leaves room for us to understand the widespread violence of colonialism and exploration across the Americas. It also enables us to recognize the power and heroism of indigenous people like Skicowarros in the face of terrible threats.

  1. For example, in Hartford, the Encounter’s Series brought scholars and interested members of the public together in conversation about the Treaty of Hartford, the treaty that ended the Pequot War and attempted to destroy the Pequots as a discrete people.
  2. For more, see Nate Probasco, “Cartography as  tool of Colonization: Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 Voyage to North America,” in Renaissance Quarterly 67, No. 2 (Summer 2014), 425-472.
  3. For more on the activities of Gilbert, primary sources can be found in New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, Volume 1, Eds. David B. Quinn, Alison M. Quinn, and Susan Hillier (New York: Arno Press, 1979).
  4. Gabriel Archer, The Relation of Captain Gosnold’s Voyage to the North part of Virginia… (1625), in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Series 3 (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1843), 8: 71-81.
  5. Martin Pring, “A Voyage set out from the Citie of Bristoll at the charge of the chiefest Merchants and Inhabitants of the said Citie…,” 1625, in  New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, Eds. David B. Quinn, Alison M. Quinn, and Susan Hillier (New York: Arno Press, 1979), 3:359-361. Original printed by Samuel Purchas.
  6. Skicowaros’s story goes further, with him working to avoid armed conflict with the heavily armed English while still manipulating them. His fellow captive-turned-wabanaki-sachem, Tahaneda also bears mention as an important figure in the downfall of the English ambitions.

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