Home Massachusetts Bartholomew Gosnold, the Founding Grandfather of the 13 Colonies (and Namer of Cape Cod)

Bartholomew Gosnold, the Founding Grandfather of the 13 Colonies (and Namer of Cape Cod)


When Bartholomew Gosnold and his small crew came to anchor on the Maine coast in 1602, an Indian wearing imported European shoes and pants greeted them.

'Gosnold at Cuttyhunk, 1602' by Albert Bierstadt, 1858

‘Gosnold at Cuttyhunk, 1602’ by Albert Bierstadt, 1858

The Indian in European garb shouldn’t have surprised the British explorers. Many European visitors preceded them to the northeast coast of North America. Basque, French, Spanish, Portuguese and English fishermen and fur traders had made hundreds, if not thousands, of voyages to Maine and the Canadian Maritimes.

In 1517, 50 European ships were counted along the coast of Newfoundland. French explorer Jacques Cartier estimated he saw 1,000 Basque fishing boats off the Gaspe Peninsula in 1534. The Isles of Shoals were established as seasonal fishing and trading posts at the turn of the 17th century, with hundreds of summer residents.

Gosnold was no unlettered workingman come to spend the warm weather months fishing or fur trading. He was an English lawyer who managed to get backing to found a year-round colony in North America. He would try and fail on Cape Cod in 1602, but his voyage had an impact still felt today.

Some historians argue that Bartholomew Gosnold prevented Spain from settling Atlantic coast, allowing the British to establish colonies instead.  Dana Huntley in British Heritage argues Bartholomew Gosnold perhaps more than any other single individual is responsible for the establishment of British North America.

His history, “ought to have recognized in one sense as at least the Founding Grandfather of these fair colonies,” wrote Huntley.

Bartholomew Gosnold

Gosnold was to the manor born in 1571 in Suffolk, England. He graduated from the University of Cambridge and studied law in London. But instead of following the law, he grew fascinated by the sea and by stories of New World exploration.

John and Sebastian Cabot made landfall in Maine or the Canadian Maritimes in 1497. Giovanni Verrazzano sailed the Maine coast in 1524. Estevan Gomez became the first European tourist in Bangor in 1525.

In 1597, Bartholomew Gosnold joined the Earl of Essex’s expedition to the Azores. For about a year they privateered against the Spanish, and Gosnold made a small fortune.

In March 1602, he set sail from England in a leaky 39-foot bark, The Concord, with 32 men on board. Sailing due west from the Azores, he reached the Maine coast in May. Exactly where he landed isn’t clear, but the Indian’s clothing certainly indicated others had preceded him across the Atlantic.

An English gentleman aboard the Concord, John Brereton, kept a diary of the trip. Brereton observed the Indians they met in Mane – possibly on Cape Elizabeth or at the mouth of the Penobscot River. They had a Basque shallop with an iron grapple and an iron kettle. The Indian with the imported shoes also wore black serge breeches and a European waistcoat. Clearly the Indians had traded with European fishermen.

Gosnold aimed to be the first to explore Cape Cod, though some European fishermen may have already ventured there.

Cape Cod

The Concord skirted the Maine coastline for a few days, anchored in York Harbor, Maine, and then sailed into Provincetown Harbor. He called it Shoal Hope.

Wrote Gosnold, “Near this cape we came to fathom anchor in fifteen fathoms, where we took great store of codfish, for which we altered the name, and called it Cape Cod. Here we saw sculls of herring, mackerel, and other small fish, in great abundance.”

Bartholomew Gosnold sailed around Provincetown, and after a week reached an island he named Martha’s Vineyard, after his daughter who died in infancy. There they spent two days sampling strawberries. The Wampanoags brought them cooked fish, deerskins and tobacco, but Gosnold decided to press on.

Gosnold Monument on Cuttyhunk Island.

They sailed to Gay Head, spent the night in Vineyard Sound and continued to Buzzard’s Bay. They landed on Cuttyhunk, where they found abundant trees, herbs, fruit and, of course, fish. Most intriguing was the sassafras, then commanding a high price because it supposedly cured syphilis.

The men began building a fort, harvesting sassafras and trading with the Indians.

Bartholomew Gosnold left eight men on the island and sailed away for 72 hours – we may never know why. But three days of living off the land and a brief skirmish with Indians dissuaded them from spending the year on Cuttyhunk. Some wanted to return to England; some wanted to stay. They took a vote, and those who favored returning won.

A Short Stay

Breretron, who probably voted to stay, believed they decided to leave because of greed.

“After our bark had taken in so much sassafras, cedar, furs, skins and other commodities as were thought convenient, some of our company that had promised Captain Gosnold to stay, having nothing but a [profitable] voyage in their minds, made our company of inhabitants (which was small enough before) much smaller,” wrote Brereton.

After six weeks on Cuttyhunk, they set sail for England. A regretful Brereton wrote, ‘leaving this island (which he called Elizabeths Island) with as many true sorrowful eyes as were before desirous to see it.’


Nonetheless, Bartholomew Gosnold’s voyage to Cape Cod left a greater legacy than people often realize.

He showed a quicker way to reach New England along his sailing route due west of the Azores.  The Mayflower followed his chart 18 years later. And Brereton’s journal, published in 1602, popularized the idea of colonizing the Northeastern United States.

Back in England, Bartholomew Gosnold went to work finding backing and recruiting colonists, including John Smith, for a permanent settlement in Virginia.  In 1607 he sailed to the colony called Jamestown. But then he died a few months after arriving on August 22, 1607. The colonists buried him inside the fort.

Cross marking what is believed to be Bartholomew Gosnold’s grave.

John Smith acknowledged Bartholomew Gosnold as the founder of Jamestown. He wrote that Gosnold had ‘small assistance’ and worked for many years on the venture.

King James at the time wanted to placate the Spanish, who also wished to exploit the New World. He might have let them colonize North America had Bartholomew Gosnold not prevailed. And you might be reading this in Spanish.

With thanks to The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, by Paul Schneider. This story about Bartholomew Gosnold was updated in 2022.

Images: Gosnold’s grave By Ser Amantio di Nicolao at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26639505. Bartholomew Gosnold monument By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11123218.


Dorothy West Gets Rediscovered by Jacqueline Onassis - New England Historical Society July 14, 2015 - 7:46 am

[…] West was an 88-year-old living quietly in the Martha’s Vineyard village of Oak Bluffs when Jacqueline Onassis encouraged her to finish her second novel, The […]

A Cape Codder Among the Cannibals – Benjamin Bourne’s Fantastic Voyage - New England Historical Society November 22, 2015 - 7:58 am

[…] With dampened enthusiasm for the gold mining scheme, Bourne abandoned the gold rush returned to his Massachusetts home where he would eventually inherit his father’s estate and live out his life […]

St. Croix Island, The Lost French Colony of Maine - New England Historical Society June 24, 2016 - 7:33 am

[…] site for a colony. Champlain and Dupont spent six weeks exploring the coast, venturing as far as Cape Cod. They decided to move to a spot they called Port Royal, which is now Annapolis, Nova Scotia. Under […]

Black Sam Bellamy, the Pirate Who Fought Smart, Harmed Few, Scored Big - New England Historical Society February 20, 2018 - 8:02 am

[…] sailed to Cape Cod in 1714 or early 1715 to seek his fortune, arriving in Eastham where he may have had relatives. […]

Howard Johnson Goes From 1 Restaurant to 1000 and Back - New England Historical Society May 29, 2018 - 11:43 am

[…] new concept. He persuaded a businessman to build a dairy bar/ice cream stand in Orleans, Mass., on Cape Cod. They agreed Howard Johnson would supply the name and the products and his partner would sell […]

John Clarke Guides the Pilgrims to Shore - New England Historical Society November 1, 2018 - 7:32 am

[…] not use any sails at times. It simply drifted with the wind and waves. After arriving at the tip of Cape Cod, the Pilgrims began exploring for a site on which to build their […]

Dorothy West Gets Rediscovered by Jacqueline Onassis - New England Historical Society December 5, 2019 - 7:40 am

[…] West at 88 lived quietly in the Martha’s Vineyard village of Oak Bluffs when Jacqueline Onassis encouraged her to finish her second novel, The […]

Comments are closed.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest artciles from the New England Historical Society

Thanks for Signing Up!

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join Now and Get The Latest Articles. 

It's Free!

You have Successfully Subscribed!