History Timeline 1500s

Above: Painting, entitled Discovery of the Mississippi, by William H. Powell, 1847, is located in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Right: Giovanni de Verrazzano, 1889, engraving by F. Allcarini, Tocchi, courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Giovanni da Verrazzano

Pre-Revolution Timeline - The 1500s


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  • Timeline

  • Detail - 1571

    August 21, 1571 - Martin Frobisher is hired by the English crown to explore the northern coast of the Americas for the Northwest Passage. He would head three expeditions through the next decade.

    Martin Frobisher expedition

    It would take five years before the first expedition would head down the Thames to the wave of Queen Elizabeth from her perch in Greenwich Palace in June of 1576. However, the goal, and missions, of Frobisher had been bantied about among the supporters of the crown, Lord Burghley, chief minister and later Lord High Treasurer, first admitted that on the August date of 1571. By 1574, Frobisher was actively pursuing an expedition while working for the government off the coast of Ireland. He was pursuaded to partner with the Muscovy Company, who had made attempts to find the passage while exploring in the opposite direction, north of Russia.

    By 1576, the Muscovy Company granted him a license for the first expedition. On June 7, 1576, with a crew of thirty-five on three ships; the barque of 25-30 tons named Gabriel, another barque of similar size called Michael, and a ten ton unnamed pinnace. Beyond the Queen, a crowd of well wishers lined the Thames to bid a good farewell and successful journey.

    The Shetland Islands were reached by June 26, 1576; the tip of Greenland by July 11. Violent storms caused the loss of the pinnace and the Michael to head back. The Gabriel continued west until it reached Baffin Island, in today's Canadian province of Nunavut, which the crew thought was Labrador. Frobisher continued west past Frobisher Bay, and sighted Burche's Island on August 18. They encountered the Inuit, one agreeing to guide them, but others captured five of the crew. Frobisher attempted to recover the missing men, but was unsuccessful. The Inuit claimed they lived with them of free will after that. Frobisher and the Gabriel returned to England on October 9 to a positive reception from the Queen and his backers. A rock had shown some small positive signs of gold; another expedition was thought good to explore further for the passage and to look for additional mineral resources.

    Excerpts, Account of Christopher Hall, 1576

    "The eighteenth day we sailed north-north-west and anchored again in 23 fathoms, and caught ooze under Bircher's Island, which is from the former island 10 leagues.

    The nineteenth day in the morning, being calm, and no wind, the captain and I took our boat, with eight men in her, to row us ashore, to see if there were there any people, or no, and going to the top of the island, we had sight of seven boats, which came rowing from the east side toward that island; whereupon we returned aboard again. At length we sent our boat, with five men in her, to see whither they rowed, and so with a white cloth brought one of their boats with their men along the shore, rowing after our boat, till such time as they saw our ship, and then they rowed ashore. Then I went on shore myself, and gave every of them a threaden point, and brought one of them aboard of me, where he did eat and drink, and then carried him on shore again. Whereupon all the rest came aboard with their boats, being nineteen persons, and they spake, but we understood them not. They be like to Tartars with long black hair, broad faces, and flat noses, and tawny in colour, wearing seal skins, and so do the women, not differing in the fashion, but the women are marked in the face with blue streaks down the cheeks and round about the eyes. Their boats are made all of seal skins, with a keel of wood within the skin: the proportion of them is like a Spanish shallop, save only they be flat in the bottom and sharp at both ends.

    The twentieth day we weighed, and went to the east side of this island, and I and the captain, with four men more, went on shore, and there we saw their houses, and the people espying us, came rowing towards our boat, whereupon we plied to our boat; and we being in our boat and they ashore, they called to us, and we rowed to them, and one of their company came into our boat, and we carried him aboard, and gave him a bell and a knife; so the captain and I willed five of our men to set him ashore at a rock, and not among the company which they came from, but their wilfulness was such that they would go to them, and so were taken themselves and our boat lost.

    The next day in the morning we stood in near the shore and shot off a fauconet, and sounded our trumpet, but we could hear nothing of our men. This sound we called the Five Men's Sound, and plied out of it, but anchored again in 30 fathoms and ooze ; and riding there all night, in the morning the snow lay a foot thick upon our hatches.

    The two-and-twentieth day in the morning we weighed, and went again to the place where we lost our men and our boat. We had sight of fourteen boats, and some came near to us, but we could learn nothing of our men. Among the rest, we enticed one in a boat to our ship's side with a bell; and in giving him the bell we took him and his boat, and so kept him, and so rowed down to Thomas William's island, and there anchored all night."

    Note: Christoper Hall was master of the ship Gabriel, in the employ of the Muscovy Company. He would sail on all three Frobisher expeditions.

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    Second and Third Expeditions

    The second expedition was larger, with the Queen lending Frobisher the Ayde (Aid) a two hundred ton Navy ship, plus the Gabriel and Michael. Christopher Hall would be the master of the Aid on the second voyage. The arrangement between Frobisher, the Queen, and the Company of Cathay remain ambiguous in terms of profit. They left May 27, 1577 with one hundred men, including mariners and miners, who may be needed per the small positive sign of gold on the first voyage. They arrived at southern Greenland on July 4. Over the next two months, more was accomplished in the goal of the company to discover additional mineral than finding the Northwest Passage. The ships left for England on August 23, 1577, arriving in late September. They made an attempt to find the five lost men from the first voyage, but were unsuccessful. It is said they mined two hundred tons of ore.

    Excerpt, Account of Dionise Settle, 1577

    "The 4th of July we came within the making of Friesland. From this shore, ten or twelve leagues, we met great islands of ice of half a mile, some more, some less in compass, showing above the sea thirty or forty fathoms, and as we supposed fast on ground, where, with our lead, we could scarce sound the bottom for depth.

    Here, in place of odoriferous and fragrant smells of sweet gums and pleasant notes of musical birds, which other countries in more temperate zones do yield, we tasted the most boisterous Boreal blasts, mixed with snow and hail, in the months of June and July, nothing inferior to our untemperate winter: a sudden alteration, and especially in a place of parallel, where the pole is not elevated above 61 degrees, at which height other countries more to the north, yea unto 70 degrees, show themselves more temperate than this doth. All along this coast ice lieth as a continual bulwark, and so defendeth the country, that those which would land there incur great danger. Our general, three days together, attempted with the ship boat to have gone on shore, which, for that without great danger he could not accomplish, he deferred it until a more convenient time. All along the coast lie very high mountains, covered with snow, except in such places where through the steepness of the mountains, of force it must needs fall. Four days coasting along this land we found no sign of habitation. Little birds which we judged to have lost the shore, by reason of thick fogs which that country is much subject unto, came flying to our ships, which causeth us to suppose that the country is both more tolerable and also habitable within than the outward shore maketh show or signification."

    "... The 23rd August, after we had satisfied our minds with freight sufficient for our vessels, though not our covetous desires, with such knowledge of the country, people, and other commodities as are before rehearsed, the 24th thereof we departed there hence: the 17th of September we fell with the Land's End of England, and so to Milford Haven, from whence our general rowed to the court for order to what port or haven to conduct the ship."

    The Third Expedition in 1578 was conducted with fifteen ships, headed again by the Ayde (Aid), with the Michael, Gabriel, Judith, Dennis or Dionyse, Anne Francis, Francis of Foy and Moon of Foy, Bear of Leycester, Thomas of Ipswich, Thomas Allen, Armenall, Soloman of Weymouth, Hopewell, and Emanuel of Bridgwater. There were more than four hundred men on the expedition which left on June 3, 1578. One of the goals on the third expedition was to establish a one hundred man colony. Frobisher sailed the expedition fleet up the Hudson Strait for sixty miles over twenty days, but thought it less likely the entrance to the Northwest Passage than that through Frobisher's Bay. Frobisher sighted the Aurora Borealis, thinking it a warning of meteors, and decided that wintering in the Arctic would not be sound. Dissension caused the idea of a colony to be abandoned. He headed home on August 31, with even more ore, one thousand three hundred tons of it, although most of it ended up worthless, a rock known as hornblende that could only be used for road construction. This led to the Cathay Company, his backer to the tune of 20,000 pounds, to go broke.

    Excerpt, Account of Martin Frobisher, 1578, written by Robert Ellis

    "The 30th day of July we brought our ships into the Countess of Warwick's Sound, and moored them, namely these ships, the Admiral, the Bear-Admiral, the Francis of Foy, the Bear, Armenel, the Salomon, and the Busse of Bridgewater, which being done, our general commanded us all to come ashore upon the Countess Island, where he set his miners to work upon the mine, giving charge with expedition to despatch with their lading.

    Our general himself, accompanied with his gentlemen, divers times made roads into sundry parts of the country, as well to find new mines as also to find out and see the people of the country. He found out one mine, upon an island by Bear's Sound, and named it the Countess of Sussex Island. One other was found in Winter's Fornace, with divers others, to which the ships were sent sunderly to be laden. In the same roads he met with divers of the people of the country at sundry times, as once at a place called David's Sound, who shot at our men, and very desperately gave them the onset, being not above three or four in number, there being of our countrymen above a dozen; but seeing themselves not able to prevail, they took themselves to flight, whom our men pursued, but being not used to such craggy cliffs, they soon lost the sight of them, and so in vain resumed.

    We also saw them at Bear's Sound, both by sea and land, in great companies; but they would at all times keep the water between them and us. And if any of our ships chanced to be in the sound (as they came divers times), because the harbour was not very good, the ship laded, and departed again; then so long as any ships were in sight, the people would not be seen. But when as they perceived the ships to be gone, they would not only show themselves standing upon high cliffs, and call us to come over unto them, but also would come in their boats very near to us, as it were to brag at us; whereof our general, having advertisement, sent for the captain and gentlemen of the ships to accompany and attend upon him, with the captain also of the Anne Francis, who was but the night before come unto us. For they and the fleet-boat, having lost us the 26th day, in the great snow, put into a harbour in the Queen's Foreland, where they found good ore, wherewith they laded themselves, and came to seek the general; so that now we had all our ships, saving one barque, which was lost, and the Thomas of Ipswich who (compelled by what fury I know not) forsook our company, and returned home without lading.

    Image above: Drawing of Frobisher on his expedition to Newfoundland from Frobisher's Historia Navigationis, circa 1850/1920, author unknown. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Martin Frobisher, 1590, Hieronimo Custodis. There is some disagreement that this image is of Frobisher or painted by Custodis. Courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery via Wikipedia Commons. Source info: Frobisher's Historia Navigationis, 1577; Library of Congress; "History of American Exploration from 1575 to 1585," Trivia-Library.com; "Voyages in search of the North-West Passage," 1892, Richard Haklyut; Canadian Museum of History; Wikipedia.

    Martin Frobisher

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