Friday, May 15, 2015

Today is Cape Cod's 413th Birthday, sort of

English Explorer Bartholomew Gosnold gave this spit of sand a name on the morning of May 15th, 1602, but by the afternoon, he had changed his mind. Here's the story

An artist's conception of the ship sailed by Thorwald Ericsson,
who was likely exploring Cape Cod waters around the year 1004.
Explorers from foreign lands began sailing the waters surrounding Provincetown at least 1,000 years ago, giving the land we call Cape Cod today many names over the years.
The Vikings were among the early adventurers in these waters, with Thorwald, the younger brother of Leif Ericsson, damaging the keel of his ship in a serious storm off the shoreline of what has been presumed by many to be Cape Cod, based on Thorwald's description of the land and the huge bay he found on that journey, around the year 1004.
The Vikings didn’t begin to record their history in writing until about 200 years later, but stories of their adventures, passed down orally to later generations, included details of these voyages. Historians presume that Thorwald’s ship struck a sandbar, whereupon he and his crew came ashore to make repairs, calling the land Keel Cape, named for the damage to his ship.
Later, exploring nearer to the area we call Boston today, Thorwald and his men fell into a skirmish with a native tribe. As he lay dying from the wound of a poisoned arrow, Thorwald asked his men to return his body to the place where they had stopped to repair the ship, and to bury him there with a cross at his head and a cross at his feet, and to then call that land the Cape of Crosses. So Thorwald had twice changed the name of Cape Cod himself, and others also changed it over the years.
By 1475, the Basque fishermen had made several excursions on the Atlantic Ocean, reportedly to an island location they never disclosed, carrying back great shiploads of cod, and keeping their destination in the Atlantic a secret. By the 1500s the Portuguese had discovered the tremendous stocks of cod and other fish to be found in these waters, and began sailing across the Atlantic to easily fill their boats with fish. In 1525, Portuguese explorer Estêvão Gomes had sailed this way under the Spanish flag, returning with a report on all the fish he had found near the land he had named Cabo de la Arenas. All of the early explorers mentioned those huge schools of fish.
This reconstruction of Gosnold is in the collection
of the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.
That leads us to Gosnold, who gave the Cape the name that would finally stick. 
Nascent British explorer Bartholomew Gosnold was born into a rather well to do family, and had studied law at Cambridge University, but at the same time he had become enchanted with the sea.
On the 26th of March, 1602, sponsored by members of the British aristocracy, Gosnold took command of a small ship called the Concord, weighing anchor in the port of Falmouth, England, and setting out on a grand adventure seeking a new route between Europe and the “New World,” which we know today as the continent of North America.
Rather than sailing along the established southern route through the Canary Islands and the West Indies, he was in search of a shorter route, a northwest passage, to Virginia. At that time the entire North American shoreline from Florida to Canada was called Virginia, named for Elizabeth II, the Virgin Queen of England, by Sir Walter Raleigh, who had introduced Gosnold to life on the high seas.
Besides establishing a new, shorter route across the Atlantic, Gosnold was also on a mission to establish a British colony in northern Virginia, and had set a course to the west, running fairly straight across the ocean from England. Due to bad weather, an inadequate ship, a crew that was only fair at best, and perhaps his own uncertainty, Gosnold soon found himself in the Azores, far off course from the route he had planned. But that turned out to be a stroke of luck.
Setting out once again for the New World, Gosnold sailed almost directly west from the Azores, and within a record breaking forty-nine days the ship and its 32 passengers came within sight of the rocky shoreline and beaches of Maine.
Artist's sketch of Gosnold's leaky little bark
'Concord' by James W. Mayor, Jr.
The Concord was a leaky, 39-foot, 30-ton Dartmouth bark carrying roughly 22 would-be settlers and a crew of perhaps ten men. There are a number of accounts of this adventure, each written by a man who was on the voyage, but none could concur on all the details, though the majority agreed that the total of men onboard was thirty-two. Upon arrival on this continent, they anchored overnight off the shoreline of Maine.
The following day they continued their journey, sailing southwest and following the coastline, staying some distance off the shore and measuring the depth of the unfamiliar waters as they traveled. They found a large, curling peninsula encircling a huge bay, the entire area teaming with cod, mackerel and herring, and Gosnold named the place Shoal Hope. Here, he and four other men went ashore in a small shallop, and are presumed to have been the first Englishmen to have set foot on this sandy hook of land.
Meanwhile, that afternoon the men remaining aboard the Concord caught so many fish that they soon began throwing some of them back into the sea to make more room on the ship’s overcrowded deck, piled deep in fish, most of them being cod. Upon his return to the ship, Gosnold was amazed at the catch the men had made over the course of a single day. Of course, he then changed the name of this long, curving spit of sand to Cape Cod, naming it for its abundance of the codfish. One of his crew was reported to have remarked that a man could practically “walk across the bay on the backs of ye cod fishes.”
The name stuck as other explorers came this way, like Captain John Smith, who noted Cape Cod on his map in 1614, and the Pilgrims knew that they had found Cape Cod when they landed here, also through navigating errors, on November 11th, 1620.
Next month I’ll bring you another chapter in the saga of Bartholomew Gosnold, who failed in his attempt to build an English settlement on a tiny island off the shores of the Cape on that trip, but that’s a story for another day. Today, let’s just celebrate May 15th, Cape Cod’s birthday (sort of,) when it finally got its name, 413 years ago today.

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