1603 - The Great Sassafras Hunts

Sassafras tree
April 10, 1603 - captain Martin Pring sets sails from Milford Haven for an exploratory expedition along the Maine coast. The mission aims to bring back sassafras roots, particularly valued for their medicinal virtues. The backers of the project got for it Sir Walter Raleigh's agreement whom Queen Elizabeth granted rights to exploit the resources of North America.

Two ships were equipped for what were called the " Great Sassafras Hunts "  - the Speedwell, a 60-ton vessel captained by Pring himself with 30 crewmen and the Discoverer, a 26-ton vessel captained by William Browne and Robert Salterne, carrying 13 men.

The presence of Robert Salterne was not the result of chance, for he had accompanied Bartholomew Gosnold a year before and had already visited the area. He thus knew the places where grew sassafrases. It was planned, on the other hand, to get contacts with the Indians and the boats have been loaded with various supplies intended as bargaining chip, such as clothing and tools.

Martin Pring
Martin Pring (Bristol (Devon) on 1580 - Bristol 1626) - Nothing is known of his origins but he was undoubtedly a confirmed sailor to be chosen at 23 by Richard Hakluyt and a group of Bristol merchants to command an expedition in North Virginia (present-day Maine). His backers were mostly interested in looking for sassafras but had taken care to get on with Sir Walter Raleigh to avoid the same woes as Gosnold after his return from America the previous year.

Richard Hakluyt

Richard Hakluyt (Hereford, 1552 - London, 1616) - Both diplomat, historian, writer, and geographer, he was issued from an old Welsh family established in Herefordshire since the 13th century. He studied in London then to the Christ Church in Oxford before accessing to priesthood in 1578. He started his career as chaplain in the service of Sir Edward Stafford, ambassador to the Court of France, where he published the English translation of the Second Voyage of Jacques Cartier. This work drew quite particularly the attention of Secretary of State Sir Francis Walsingham who suggested to Hakluyt collecting all the possible information about the French and Spanish explorations. Impressed by the narratives of journeys in America and by the profits that could represent the fur trade, he emphasized the importance of founding English colonies in North America. His report was presented to Sir Walter Raleigh before being sent to Queen Elizabeth who granted him in exchange a chaplain's pulpit in Bristol cathedral. Hakluyt did not however stop showing his interest in geography and sought the friendship of great sailors such as Sir Francis Drake or Sir Humphrey Gilbert. He was also interested in the logbook of René de Laudonnière published in 1586 which told the failed story of the first French colonization in Carolina. He had a time renounced his plans due to the English-Spanish war but published, further to these various experiments, a collection tinged sometimes with imagination entitled The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation which was nothing but a vibrant plea for the colonization of Virginia. This work devoted to all the aspects of the adventure and discovery would stimulate explorers vocations among those willing to set out for America. Hakluyt found constantly involved in the search of the mythical Northwest passage to India and married even in 1589, Dugless, a cousin of Thomas Cavendish, the third English navigator to have carried out a circumnavigation of the world. He happened quite naturally committed to most settlement projects such as the East India Company in 1602 and three years later, the Virginia Company of London, of which he became a major shareholder.

 Sir Walter Raleigh had introduced sassafras in 1587 next to a first attempt of colonization. Its roots were then regarded as a miracle cure against smallpox and syphilis, two reasons why they were traded at a high price (approximately 336 £ a ton). Indians drank them as a tea-like decoction of orangy color and particularly appreciated. The craze of the Europeans for this plant dried up however quickly when they realized that it did not keep well and presented in the long run some toxicity.

Sir Walter Raleigh
 May 1, 1603 - Sir Walter Raleigh sends from London two ships to South Virginia in order to find any survivors of the Roanoke colony. These are respectively placed under the command of Bartholomew Gilbert and Samuel Mace.

Samuel Mace had already made the trip to the area a year earlier. He had walked the dunes and discovered there sassafrases in quantity but could not linger beyond July due to the arrival of the hurricane season. He had found in any case no track of the colony. The fact, however, to organize a new journey could suggest that Raleigh had some credible information. 

June, 1603 Martin Pring enters Penobscot Bay and sails up the river on a few miles. He explores Saco Bay and reaches the mouth of the Piscataqua River where he meets Abenakis.

There was apparently no sassafras in this area and Pring decided to sail further south towards Cape Cod.

June, 1603 - Captain Martin Pring drops anchor at the mouth of the Pamet River near Cape Cod. Sassafras grow abundantly and he makes erect, the time of harvest, a small fence not far from the present-day city of Truro. 

Martin Pring meets Abenakis
The Indians who lived in the coast preferred to leave places when they saw the English boats, abandoning behind a canoe on the shore.
The Mayflower Pilgrims will discover the remains of the palisade built by Pring some seventeen years later.

July, 1603 - Sir Walter Raleigh is accused of high treason by new king James 1 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. All his rights and privileges are repealed, including those of Virginia. 
He will be condemned without tangible proof a few months later.

Late July, 1603  Martin Pring sends back the Discoverer to England, loaded with sassafras.
The English had, by that time, established good neighborly relations with the Indians, mixed with the same curiosity. Martin Pring had reached to impress by making fire a barrel or play the mandolin by one of the sailors. He had invited repeatedly the Natives to share the meal with his men and this hospitality eventually attracted towards his camp more and more Indians of the area. Pring did not however hide his pleasure to scare them with his two powerful mastiffs.

July 26, 1603 - Captain Bartholomew Gilbert follows the coast of North Carolina aboard the Elizabeth.
His journey had been organized by Sir Walter Raleigh who always sought to understand what happened to the Roanoke colony established sixteen years earlier. Persistent rumors indeed suggested that the colonists had dispersed westward into the forests located South of Chesapeake Bay and that they were certainly alive.

Gilbert had left London and made stopover in Saint Lucia, Dominica and Nevis before sailing to the North American coast. He tried to reach the access to the Bay but the dreadful weather slowed down his progress and the crew might be short of foods.

July 29, 1603 - Bartholomew Gilbert is killed by Algonquian Indians from his landing on the shore of Chesapeake Bay.

He had just joined the mainland with four crew members, to find water and some food when a party of Indians (probably belonging to the Powhatan Confederacy) had surprised and massacred them without mercy. This event would have been able to end prematurely the expedition but captain Samuel Mace tried to pursue researches and ventured up to the Rappahannock river. They say that he was welcomed by the local tribe but that he killed their leader and captured some Indians to bring them back to England.

Having got no serious evidence about the lost colony, he decided to set off to return with a load of sassafras.
The roughness of the Indians found its only justification in the fact that they were at the time in the grip of attacks from the Spaniards. On the other hand, they knew how to remember the Mace's behavior and showed clearly their hostility to the English during the foundation of Jamestown in 1607.

August 8, 1603 - Captain Pring and his men prefer to abandon their camp against the pressure of the Indians.

These had tried at night to rise on the ship but the crew had been awakened by the barkings of both mastiffs " Fool " and "Gallant" guarding the deck. Impressed by the hounds, the Indians had quickly fled but had after that fired several shots from the shore without it was possible to know the nature of their intentions.

Pring described the Pamet Indians with some admiration. He found them excellent physical qualities and was surprised noticing that they did not present the signs traditionally lent to primitive peoples. They suffered in particular no track of inbreeding and were otherwise well proportionned and strong because of the quality of their diet and their knowledge of plants. The women seemed shy whereas the men, scantily clad, showed ostentatiously their manliness. They were all long-haired but unlike English, they were clean shaven. They showed curious but also very unruly, what was not to facilitate their relations with the explorers.

Late August, 1603 - Captain Samuel Mace is back in London. The results of his expedition is disastrous.

The mystery around the disappearance of the Roanoke colony seemed to thicken. No track, no serious evidence provided the theory of its moving westward. The human toll was another dramatic part, because in addition to the death of Bartholomew Gilbert and four crewmen killed by the Indians, they were only eleven survivors to rally England. When to the sponsor Sir Walter Raleigh, he had been for a month driven to the Tower of London and deprived of all his rights by new King James 1.

October 2, 1603 - The Speedwell is back in England.

The report that captain Martin Pring made of his trip to his sponsor Richard Hakluyt aroused great interest and confirmed the economic potential of the coast of North Virginia dear to Sir Walter Raleigh. It included such highly accurate descriptions of the topography, plants, animals and people of the area. Its narrative included besides many stories about Indians,their customs, their know-how, their songs or still their reaction in front of his two big mastiffs.
Martin Pring had also brought in his luggage the canoe discovered at Cape Cod and three Indian prisoners who were entrusted to the governor of Plymouth Sir Ferdinando Gorges. They were certainly treated well but their capture was felt as a treachery by their tribe, already bearing the germs of troubles to come.

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