18 From A Description of New England (1616) By John Smith

John Smith


John Smith (1580-1631) made one voyage to the coast of Massachusetts and Maine in 1614, and attempted a second one the following year, only to be captured by French pirates and detained for several months near the Azores before escaping and making his way back to England. This book is the story of these two voyages.

Smith went the coast of America north of Virginia to explore the opportunities for fisheries, fur trading, and settlement. Smith was a veteran soldier, sailor, traveller, explorer, cartographer, and colonist: he had fought the Spanish in France and Italy, the Turks in Hungary and Transylvania, and the Algonkians in Virginia; he had sailed the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and the Caribbean; he had been a prisoner of the Ottomans and a slave in Constantinople, had journeyed through Russia, Europe, and North Africa; he had been both a president and a prisoner in the Jamestown colony, and had explored the Potomac River and mapped the Chesapeake Bay.

His Description of New England describes the fishing, soils, inhabitants, fauna, flora, and climate of the coastal region from Cape Cod to Penobscot. This work is the first to apply the term “New England” to that portion of the North America from Long Island Sound to Newfoundland. At that time it held a few trading and fishing stations, and French traders from the north and Dutch from the south carried on commerce in furs with the natives. There was a prosperous fishery to the north, where cod were taken by ships from Portugal, Holland, and Spain. To Smith, these were evidence of the richness of commodities to be had, and signs of the strategic importance to England of securing permanent settlements in the region. Smith had departed Virginia in 1609 under a cloud of accusations and had quarrelled with the leaders of the privately-held Virginia Company. Seeking a new arena for colonial opportunities in the new world, Smith saw New England as a place where English life could be transplanted to America, and this work is an extended advertisement and prospectus for investors and settlers, with Smith to provide the expertise and leadership.

This text below is based on the London edition of 1616, and preserves the spelling and punctuation of that original.

A note on the orthography: In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, English printers and typesetters used the “u” and “v” interchangeably to represent either sound (thus, “Beuer” for “beaver,” “vse” for “use,” “seauen” for “seven,” etc.), and the “i” was used both for “i” and “j”. Vowels were occasionally printed with either a macron (¯ ) or a tilde (∼) to indicate a following (implied) nasal “n” or “m” (thus “co¯stancy” for “constancy” or “the˜” for “them”). These features of John Smith’s original edition are preserved in this electronic text.

Virginia is no Ile (as many doe imagine) but part of the Continent adioyning to Florida; whose bounds may be stretched to the magnitude thereof without offence to any Christian inhabitant. For from the degrees of 30. to 45. his Maiestie hath granted his Letters patents, the Coast extending South-west and North-east aboute 1500 miles; but to follow it aboard, the shore may well be 2000. at the least: of which, 20. miles is the most giues entrance into the Bay of Chisapeak, where is the London plantation: within which is a Country (as you may perceiue by the description in a Booke and Map printed in my name of that little I there discouered) may well suffice 300000 people to inhabit. And Southward adioyneth that part discouered at the charge of Sir Walter Rawley, by Sir Ralph Lane, and that learned Mathematician Mr. Thomas Heryot. Northward six or seauen degrees is the Riuer Sagadahock, where was planted the Westerne Colony, by that Honourable Patrone of vertue Sir Iohn Poppham Lord chief Iustice of England. Ther is also a relation printed by Captaine Bartholomew Gosnould, of Elizabeths Iles: and an other by Captaine moth, of Pemmaquid. From all these diligent obseruers, posterity may be bettered by the fruits of their labours.

But for diuers others that long before and since haue ranged those parts, within a kenning sometimes of the shore, some touching in one place some in another, I must entreat them pardon me for omitting them; or if I offend in saying that their true descriptions are concealed, or neuer well obserued, or died with the Authors: so that the Coast is yet still but euen as a Coast vnknowne and vndiscouered. I haue had six or seauen seuerall plots of those Northren parts, so vnlike each to other, and most so differing from any true proportion, or resemblance of the Countrey, as they did mee no more good, then so much waste paper, though they cost me more. It may be it was not my chance to see the best; but least others may be deceiued as I was, or through dangerous ignorance hazard themselues as I did, I haue drawen a Map from Point to Point, Ile to Ile, and Harbour to Harbour, with the Soundings, Sands, Rocks, & Land-marks as I passed close aboard the Shore in a little Boat; although there be many things to bee obserued which the haste of other affaires did cause me omit: for, being sent more to get present commodities, then knowledge by discoueries for any future good, I had not power to search as I would: yet it will serue to direct any shall goe that waies, to safe Harbours and the Saluages habitations: What marchandize and commodities for their labour they may finde, this following discourse shall plainely demonstrate.

Thus you may see, of this 2000. miles more then halfe is yet vnknowne to any purpose: no not so much as the borders of the Sea are yet certainly discouered. As for the goodnes and true substances of the Land, wee are for most part yet altogether ignorant of them, vnlesse it bee those parts about the Bay of Chisapeack and Sagadahock: but onely here and there wee touched or haue seene a little the edges of those large dominions, which doe stretch themselues into the Maine, God doth know how many thousand miles; whereof we can yet no more iudge, then a stranger that saileth betwixt England and France can describe the Harbors and dangers by landing here or there in some Riuer or Bay, tell thereby the goodnesse and substances of Spaine, Italy, Germany, Bohemia, Hungaria & the rest. By this you may perceiue how much they erre, that think euery one wch hath bin at Virginia vnderstandeth or knowes what Virginia is: Or that the Spaniards know one halfe quarter of those Territories they possesse; no, not so much as the true circumference of Terra Incognita, whose large dominions may equalize the greatnesse and goodnes of America, for any thing yet known. It is strange with what small power hee hath raigned in the East Indes; and few will vnderstand the truth of his strength in America: where he hauing so much to keepe with such a pampered force, they neede not greatly feare his furie, in the Bermudas, Virginia, New France, or New England; beyond whose bounds America doth stretch many thousand miles: into the frozen partes whereof one Master Hutson an English Mariner did make the greatest discouerie of any Christian I knowe of, where he vnfortunately died. For Affrica, had not the industrious Portugales ranged her vnknowne parts, who would haue sought for wealth among those fryed Regions of blacke brutish Negers, where notwithstanding all the wealth and admirable aduentures & endeauours more then 140 yeares, they knowe not one third of those blacke habitations.

But it is not a worke for euery one, to manage such an affaire as makes a discouerie, and plants a Colony: It requires all the best parts of Art, Iudgement, Courage, Honesty, Co~stancy, Diligence and Industrie, to doe but neere well. Some are more proper for one thing then another; and therein are to be imployed: and nothing breedes more confusion then misplacing and misimploying men in their vndertakings. Columbus, Cortez, Pitzara, Soto, Magellanes, and the rest serued more then a prentiship to learne how to begin their most memorable attempts in the West Indes: which to the wonder of all ages succesfully they effected, when many hundreds of others farre aboue them in the worlds opinion, beeing instructed but by relation, came to shame and confusion in actions of small moment, who  doubtlesse in other matters, were both wise, discreet, generous, and couragious. I say not this to detract any thing from their incomparable merits, but to answer those questionlesse questions that keep vs back from imitating the worthinesse of their braue spirits that aduanced themselues from poore Souldiers to great Captaines, their posterity to great Lords, their King to be one of the greatest Potentates on earth, and the fruites of their labours, his greatest glory, power and renowne.

That part wee call New England is betwixt the degrees of 41. and 45: but that parte this discourse  speaketh of, stretcheth but from Pennobscot to Cape Cod, some 75 leagues by a right line distant each from other: within which bounds I haue seene at least 40. seuerall habitations vpon the Sea Coast, and sounded about 25 excellent good Harbours; In many whereof there is ancorage for 500. sayle of ships of any burthen; in some of them for 5000: And more then 200 Iles ouergrowne with good timber, of diuers sorts of wood, which doe make so many harbours as requireth a longer time then I had, to be well discouered.

The principall habitation Northward we were at, was Pennobscot : Southward along the Coast and vp the Riuers we found Mecadacut, Segocket, Pemmaquid, Nusconcus, Kenebeck, Sagadahock, and Aumoughcawgen; And to those Countries belong the people of Segotago, Paghhuntanuck, Pocopassum, Taughtanakagnet, Warbigganus, Nassaque, Masherosqueck, Wawrigweck, Moshoquen, Wakcogo, Passharanack, &c. To these are allied the Countries of Aucocisco, Accominticus, Passataquack,  ggawom, & Naemkeck: all these, I could perceiue, differ little in language, fashion, or gouernment: though most be Lords of themselues, yet they hold the Bashabes of Pennobscot, the chiefe and greatest amongst them.

The next I can rem˜eber by name are Mattahunts; two pleasant Iles of groues, gardens and corne fields a league in the Sea from the Mayne. Then Totant, Massachuset, Pocapawmet, Quonahassit, Sagoquas, Nahapassumkeck, Topeent, Seccasaw, Totheet, Nasnocomacack, Accomack, Chawum; Then Cape Cod by which is Pawmet and the Ile Nawset, of the language, & alliance of them of Chawum: The others are called Massachusets; of another language, humor and condition: For their trade and marchandize; to each of their habitations they haue diuerse Townes and people belonging; and by their relations and descriptions, more then 20 seuerall Habitations and Riuers that stretch themselues farre vp into the Countrey, euen to the borders of diuerse great Lakes, where they kill and take most of their Beuers and Otters. From Pennobscot to Sagadahock this Coast is all Mountainous and Iles of huge Rocks, but ouergrowen with all sorts of excellent good woodes for building houses, boats, barks or shippes; with an incredible abundance of most sorts of fish, much fowle, and sundry sorts of good fruites for mans vse.

Betwixt Sagadahock and Sowocatuck there is but two or three sandy Bayes, but betwixt that and Cape  Cod very many: especialy the Coast of the Massachusets is so indifferently mixed with high clayie or sandy cliffes in one place, & then tracts of large long ledges of diuers sorts, and quarries of stones in other places so strangely diuided with tinctured veines of diuers colours: as, Free stone for building, Slate for tiling, smooth stone to make Fornaces and Forges for glasse or iron, and iron ore sufficient, conueniently to melt in them: but the most part so resembleth the Coast of Deuonshire, I thinke most of the cliffes would make such lime-stone: If they be not of these qualities, they are so like, they may deceiue a better iudgement then mine; all which are so neere adioyning to those other aduantages I obserued in these parts, that if the Ore proue as good iron & steele in those parts, as I know it is within the bounds of the Countrey, I dare engage my head (hauing but men skilfull to worke the simples there growing) to haue all things belonging to the building and the rigging of shippes of any proportion, and good marchandize for the fraught, within a square of 10 or 14 leagues: and were it for a good rewarde, I would not feare to prooue it in a lesse limitation.

And surely by reason of those sandy cliffes and cliffs of rocks, both which we saw so planted with Gardens and Corne fields, and so well inhabited with a goodly, strong and well proportioned people, besides the greatnesse of the Timber growing on them, the greatnesse of the fish and the moderate temper of the ayre (for of twentie fiue, not any was sicke, but two that were many yeares diseased before they went, notwithstanding our bad lodging and accidentall diet) who can but approoue this a most excellent place, both for health & fertility?

And of all the foure parts of the world that I haue yet seene not inhabited, could I haue but meanes to transport a Colonie, I would rather liue here then any where: and if it did not maintaine it selfe, were wee but once indifferently well fitted, let vs starue. The maine Staple, from hence to bee extracted for the present to produce the rest, is fish; which howeuer it may seeme a mean and a base commoditie: yet who will but truely take the pains and consider the sequell, I thinke will allow it well worth the labour. It is strange to see what great aduentures the hopes of setting forth men of war to rob the industrious innocent, would procure; or such massie promises in grosse: though more are choked then well fedde with such hastie hopes.

. . . .

If these I say can gaine, and the Saylers liue going for shares, lesse then the third part of their labours, and yet spend as much time in going and comming, as in staying there, so short is the season of fishing; why should wee more doubt, then Holland, Portugale, Spaniard, French, or other, but to doe much better then they, where there is victuall to feede vs, wood of all sorts, to build Boats, Ships, or Barks; the fish at our doores, pitch, tarre, masts, yards, and most of other necessaries onely for making ? And here are no hard Landlords to racke vs with high rents, or extorted fines to consume vs, no tedious pleas in law to consume vs with their many years disputations for Iustice: no multitudes to occasion such impediments to good orders, as in popular States. So freely hath God & his Maiesty bestowed those blessings on the~ that will attempt to obtaine them, as here euery man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land; or the greatest part in a small time. If hee haue nothing but his hands, he may set vp this trade; and by industrie quickly grow rich; spending but halfe that time wel, wch in England we abuse in idlenes, worse or as ill. Here is ground also as good as any lyeth in the height of forty one, forty two, forty three, &c. which is as temperate and as fruitfull as any other paralell in the world. As for example, on this side the line West of it in the South Sea, is Noua Albion, discouered as is said, by Sir Francis Drake. East from it, is the most temperate part of Portugale, the ancient kingdomes of Galazia, Biskey, Nauarre, Arragon, Which is fifteen hundred thousand pound. Examples of the altitude comparatiuely. 28 The de¢cription of New England, by Captaine Iohn Smith. 29 Catalonia, Castilia the olde, and the most moderatest of Castilia the new, and Valentia, which is the greatest part of Spain: which if the Spanish Histories bee true, in the Romanes time abounded no lesse with golde and siluer Mines, then now the West Indies; The Romanes then vsing the Spaniards to work in those Mines, as now the Spaniard doth the Indians.

. . . .

First, the ground is so fertill, that questionless it is capable of producing any Grain, Fruits, or Seeds you will sow or plant, growing in the Regions afore named: But it may be, not euery kinde to that perfection of delicacy; or some tender plants may miscarie, because the The particular staple commodities that may be  had. The nature of ground approoued.

Summer is not so hot, and the winter is more colde in those parts wee haue yet tryed neere the Sea side, then we finde in the same height in Europe or Asia; Yet I made a Garden vpon the top of a Rockie Ile in 43. 1 — 2 , 4 leagues from the Main, in May, that grew so well, as it serued vs for sallets in Iune and Iuly. All sorts of cattell may here be bred and fed in the Iles, or Peninsulaes, securely for nothing. In the Interim till they encrease if need be (obseruing the seasons) I durst vndertake to haue corne enough from the Saluages for 300 men, for a few trifles; and if they should bee vntoward (as it is most certaine they are) thirty or forty good men will be sufficient to bring them all in subiection, and make this prouision; if they vnderstand what they doe: 200 whereof may nine monethes in the yeare be imployed in making marchandable fish, till the rest prouide other necessaries, fit to furnish vs with other commodities.

In March, Aprill, May, and halfe Iune, here is Cod in abundance; in May, Iune, Iuly, and August Mullet and Sturgion; whose roes doe make Cauiare and Puttargo. Herring, if any desire them, I haue taken many out of the bellies of Cods, some in nets; but the Saluages compare their store in the Sea, to the haires of their heads: and surely there are an incredible abundance vpon this Coast. In the end of August, September, October, and Nouember, you haue Cod againe, to make Cor fish, or Poore Iohn: and each hundred is as good as two or three hundred in the New-found Land. So that halfe the labour in hooking, splitting, and turning, is saued: and you may haue your fish at what Market you will, before

they can haue any in New-found Land; where their fishing is chiefly but in Iune and Iuly: whereas it is heere in March, Aprill, May, September, October, and Nouember, as is said. So that by reason of this plantation, the Marchants may haue fraught both out and home: which yeelds an aduantage worth consideration.

Your Cor-fish you may in like manner transport as you see cause, to serue the Ports in Portugale (as Lisbon, Auera, Porta port, and diuers others, or what market you please) before your Ilanders returne: They being tyed to the season in the open Sea; you hauing a double season, and fishing before your doors, may euery night sleep quietly a shore with good cheare and what fires you will, or when you please with your wiues and familie: they onely, their ships in the maine Ocean.

The Mullets heere are in that abundance, you may take them with nets, sometimes by hundreds, where at Cape blank they hooke them; yet those but one foot and a halfe in length; these two, three, or foure, as oft I haue measured: much Salmon some haue found vp the Riuers, as they haue passed: and heer the ayre is so temperate, as all these at any time may well be preserued.

Now, young boyes and girles Saluages, or any other, be they neuer such idlers, may turne, carry, and return fish, without either shame, or any great paine: hee is very idle that is past twelue yeares of age and cannot doe so much: and she is very olde, that cannot spin a thred to make engines to catch them. For their transportation, the ships that go there to fish may transport the first: who for their passage will spare the charge of double manning their ships, which they must doe in the New-found Land, to get their fraught; but one third part of that companie are onely but proper to serue a stage, carry a barrow, and turne Poor Iohn: notwithstanding, they must haue meate, drinke, clothes, & passage, as well as the rest. Now all I desire, is but this; That those that voluntarily will send shipping, should make here the best choise they can, or accept such as are presented them, to serue them at that rate: and their ships returning leaue such with me, with the value of that they should receiue comming home, in such prouisions and necessarie tooles, armes, bedding and apparell, salt, hookes, nets, lines, and such like as they spare of the remainings; who till the next returne may keepe their boates and doe them many other profitable offices: prouided I haue men of ability to teach them their functions, and a company fit for Souldiers to be ready vpon an occasion; because of the abuses which haue beene offered the poore Saluages, and the liberty both French, or any that will, hath to deale with them as they please: whose disorders will be hard to reforme; and the longer the worse. Now such order with facilitie might be taken, with euery port Towne or Citie, to obserue but this order, With free power to conuert the benefits of their fraughts to what aduantage they please, and increase their numbers as they see occasion; who euer as they are able to subsist of themselues, may beginne the new Townes in New England in memory of their olde: which freedome being confined but to the necessity of the generall good, the euent (with Gods helpe) might produce an honest, a noble, and a profitable emulation.


A Description of New England (1616): An Online Electronic Text Edition, Paul Royster, ed., Text is Public Domain, Source Note is CC-BY