Anchors Aw eigh

From Art Railton’s Just a Thought, May 20, 1994:

It’s time to honor him, maybe to name a holiday for him. He should not be forgotten. The man I’m talking about is Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, the first Englishman to set foot on Martha’s Vineyard. It was May 22, 1602. He, with three or four other men, rowed ashore at Cape Pogue, walked along the beach, picked some berries, saw no Indians, and left, describing the Island as “a most pleasant place.” So impressed was Gosnold that he named it for his daughter, Martha.

A few days earlier he had named the long sandy hook to our north, Cape Cod, because his men had caught so many fish there. Now, anchored off Cape Pogue, they also caught a “great store of Codfish, but much better” than those caught earlier. What if they had not gone fishing on the Cape? Would our Island now be Cod Island?

We owe him a lot for our mellifluous name. It’s time to repay our debt. He not only named the Vineyard and Cape Cod, he also named the Elizabeth Islands. All in a week. Strangely he seems not to have even noticed Nantucket. Sorry about that, neighbors.

Yet, he’s been ignored. Unless you think it’s enough that the town of Gosnold, the Elizabeth Islands, carries his name. Gosnold includes the village of Cuttyhunk, where he and his 32 men made the first New England settlement in 1602. Today, it has about 50 permanent inhabitants, only a handful more than it did nearly 400 years ago. Captain Gosnold deserves more recognition than that.

But if you don’t agree that he deserves recognition for what he did, surely you’ll change your mind when you learn how much we owe him for what he didn’t do. His loss was our gain. Had his venture been a success, American history would be different.

Captain Gosnold was the leader of a group of “adventurers.” These were risk takers, speculators. Entrepreneurs we would call them today. They had put up money to join Gosnold’s “adventure,” hoping to get rich. Of the 40 aboard Gosnold’s ship, the Concord, 32 were adventurers, the other eight were sailors, keeping the ship on course.

Their goal was to set up a trading station close to friendly Indians who were willing to swap furs and other valuables for trinkets. Explorer Giovanni de Verrazano, who had sailed these waters 75 years before, had described a place near Narragansett Bay that Gosnold was looking for.

He came ashore on the Vineyard twice. The first was at Cape Pogue which he described as “disinhabited.” He did find an abandoned wigwam, some whale bones and an old fish weir. Wild fruit was abundant and delicious, the strawberries being “much bigger than ours in England.” He also went ashore near Lambert’s Cove, where he met 13 natives, “tall, big-boned men, all naked saving they cover their privy parts with a black leather skin, much like a Blacksmith’s apron.” The Indians were friendly, giving the visitors dried fish and tobacco, which they smoked in pipes made of clay, “whereof this Island has a great store, both red and white.”

But Gosnold sailed to Cuttyhunk and anchored, taking a small boat to explore Buzzards Bay, “one of the stateliest sounds that I was ever in.” Many native Americans appeared on the shore, so he decided Cuttyhunk was the place, safely separated from the mainland, but close enough for trading. The adventurers began to build a fort.

After about six weeks, the building was finished. It was time to put up the “Open for Business” sign. And time for the Concord to sail back for England, so it could return before winter, bringing fresh supplies and more trinkets. Then it would pick up the furs and take them back to England to sell. Dividends would be declared. The adventurers would be rich.

Gosnold called the men together, asking those who would stay with him at the trading post to raise their hands. Not a hand went up. The men were convinced that the supplies were too few to last until the Concord returned. Gosnold was disgusted. He ordered the whole company to pack up and get aboard ship. They sailed away, stopping briefly at Martha’s Vineyard to bag a mess of waterfowl and pick some berries. He wanted to be sure he ate well on the voyage home.

Thus the first English settlement in New England ended, nearly 20 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Imagine what might have happened had Gosnold’s adventurers been braver. The trading post would have prospered, more English would have arrived, anxious to share in the riches. The settlement would have spread, lining the shores of Buzzards Bay. The country would have been born right here, just across the Sound. And what a different beginning. Instead of straight-laced Pilgrims seeking religious freedom, the Founding Fathers would be salesmen, glad-handing the Indians. Think how different the nation’s image would be. No Plymouth Rock, no Thanksgiving turkey. Instead of the birthplace of religious freedom, New England would be the shrine of the entrepreneur. Coins would carry the motto, “Buy low, sell high,” not “In God We Trust.”

What a change. But how much more accurate.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner