Thomas Harriot began his professional life working for Sir Walter Raleigh (1552– 1618) as ship designer, navigational instructor, and accountant. In 1585, he extended his professional activities from England to America, where he served as cartographer and surveyor for Raleigh’s second expeition to Virginia which was based at the ill‑fated Roanoke, site of the infamous Lost Colony. Named after the English sovereign Queen Elizabeth I, Virginia and Roanoke is now modern day North Carolina. Harriot also served as the expedition’s historian, keeping a remarkably‑detailed account he later published as A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia. In it, he offered a firsthand account written by an Englishman for an English audience. He detailed crops and building materials both as commodities and as means to support colonists. He also offered some details of the culture and lives of the Native Americans he encountered.
Figure 1. Portrait Believed to Be of Thomas Harriot
His last stint with Raleigh was as manager of Raleigh’s estates in Waterford, Ireland. Harriot then worked for Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland (1564–1632). From Percy, Harriot received extensive lands and a substantial pension. He devoted the remainder of his life working for himself, so to speak, conducting experiments with the refraction of light and the trajectory of projectiles. His astronomical drawings recorded what later become known as Halley’s Comet, and his invention of the perspective trunk led to the invention of the telescope. Harriot’s scientific objectivity, observational powers, and notice of concrete particulars contribute to the valuable record of his A Briefe and True Report. This work had an impact not only in England but also the Continent.
Figure 2. Tiltle Page of A Briefe and True Report of the Newfound Land of Virginia
Becoming America, Wendy Kurant, ed., CC-BY-SA
Figure 1. “Portrait Believed to Be of Thomas Harriot,” unknown, Wikimedia, Public Domain.
Figure 2. “Tiltle Page of A Briefe and True Report of the Newfound Land of Virginia,” Livinncary, Wikimedia, Public Domain.