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Dr. William Wroten

Delmarva Heritage Series

 * Verrazano's 1524 Letter Describes Early Eastern Shore Exploration

Salisbury Times - July 13, 1960

Edward Channing, one of America's foremost historians, claims that probably no single event in our history has aroused sharper controversy than the voyage of Giovanni da Verrazano to the New World. Channing wrote that the debaters argued the case so learnedly and so lengthily as thoroughly to befog the points at issue. 


George Bancroft, an earlier American historian and for whom Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy is named, was so convinced by arguments that Verrazano did not come to America that he left out all mention of him in the revised edition of History Of The United States.

One of the chief opponents of Verrazano, Henry C, Murphy, sought to discredit the explorer because no original manuscript of the "Verrazano Letter" is in existence. Channing had a good answer to this argument: "In reply it might be said that if we were to follow him (Murphy) in this, we should throw out the voyages of Columbus and Magellan, of Cartier and Drake, to say nothing of the plays of Shakespeare and Jonson, and of all that went before them. We may safely accept the Verrazano voyage in its broad outlines and leave the settlement of the details to posterity."

MORE RECENT scholarship supports the facts that Verrazano did make a voyage to the New World and that the famous "VerrazanoLetter" is most true. The "Verrazano Letter", upon which all the arguments center, is know to exist in two or three copies, but no original.

These are copies of a letter which Verrazano wrote to King Francis I of France, dated July 8, 1524, and copies of which he sent to various friends. One copy was printed in 1556, a second found and published in 1841 and the third was first published in 1909.

To give added support to the Verrazano voyage, there exists the "Verrazano Map." The map was made by the navigator's brother, Hieronimo, about 1529. The map traces the coast line between Florida and Labrador and bears an inscription stating that this land was discovered by Giovanni di Verrazano, of Florence, by the order and command of the Most Christian King of France.

Although this map is not very accurately traced, the most interesting feature is the Sea of Verrazano, a great bay of the Pacific, which almost reaches the Atlantic coast in the vicinity of Chesapeake and Delaware bays.

Leaving the settlement of details to posterity here is the story of Verrazano and his connection with the history of the Delmarva Peninsula.

AFTER THE discovery of the New World by Columbus and the follow-up voyages by other explorers, nations such as England and France soon were looking to the west. Francis I of France, who liked to be in the swim of things, engaged Giovanni Verrazano, a Florentine, to find for him a water route to China. Verrazano was the first corsair and explorer to sail under the French flag in American waters.

Verrazano was born in Florence about 10 years before Columbus discovered America. He appears in history for the first time in 1521 as a French corsair, preying upon Spanish commerce between the New World and Europe. Probably through this work he gained the attention of Francis. Late in 1523 he commanded the first French expedition to America sent out under royal auspices. Keep in mind that this voyage was 10 years before Cartier was to make a more famous one for France in 1534.

The brief story of his voyage to America and his adventure along the coast from the Carolinas to Newfoundland are told in the famous letter already mentioned. On Jan. 17, 1524, Verrazano with 50 men and provisions sufficient for eight months, arms and naval stores, set sail in the "Dauphine" from the Fortunate Islands - object to reach Cathay (China) by a westward route.

After sailing westward for about 49 days (March 1524), Verrazano and his crew reached the American coast, probably not far from Cape Fear or present day Wilmington, N.C. He thus became the first European to explore this part of the American coast. He exclaimed, "A newe land never before seen by any man, either auncient (sic) or moderne."

AFTER MAKING a brief landing on the Carolina coast, the "Dauphine" proceeded northward, ever looking for a water route to China. As the voyage continued northward to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, Verrazano from time to time and place to place would send men ashore to look over the countryside and the natives.

It is believed that one such stopping place was somewhere along the Delmarva Peninsula. Because the exact location of the landing is not known, claims may be presented for the Eastern Shore of Virginia, Worcester County, Maryland, or even the lower part of Delaware. Jennings C. Wise, the historian of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, says the landing was about 10 miles north of Cape Charles; while several Maryland historians claim the landing was in present day Worcester County. Riding at anchor along the coast, the "Dauphine" remained in the vicinity for three days, but as the men could not find a harbor they departed to the northeast before stopping again 100 leagues farther on.

THE FOLLOWING IS what Verrazano wrote about the region of Delmarva where he stopped - it is taken from a translation of his letter.

 

"Departing hence, and always following the shore, which stretched to the north, we came, in the space of 50 leagues, to another land, approached it, and going ashore with 20 men we went back from the coast about two leagues, and found that the people had fled and hid themselves in the woods for fear. By searching around we discovered in the grass a very old woman and a young girl of about 18 or 20, who had concealed themselves for reason; the old woman carried two infants on her shoulders and behind her neck a little boy of eight years of age; when we came up to them they began to shriek and make signs to the men who had fled to the woods. We gave them a part of our provisions, which they accepted with delight, but the girl would not touch any; every thing we offered to her being thrown down in great anger. We took the little boy from the old woman to carry with us to France, and would have taken the girl also, who was very beautiful and very tall, but it was impossible because of the loud shrieks she uttered as we attempted to lead her away; having to pass some woods and being far from the ship, we determined to leave her and take the boy only. We found them fairer than the others, and wearing a covering made of certain plants, which hung down from the branches of the trees, tying them together with threads of wild hemp; their heads are without covering and the same shape as the others. Their food is a kind of pulse which there abounds, different in colour and size from ours, and of a very delicious flavour. Besides they take birds and fish for food, using snares and bows made of hard wood, with reeds for arrows, in the ends of which they put the bones of fish and other animals. The animals in these regions are wilder than in Europe from being continually molested by the hunters. We saw many of their boats made of one tree 20 feet long and four feet broad, without the aid of stone or iron or other kinds of metal. In the whole country for the space of 200 leagues, which we visited, we saw no stone of any sort. To hollow out their boats they burn out as much of a log as is requisite, and also from the prow and stern to make them float well on the sea. The land, in situation, fertility and beauty, is like the other, abounding also in forests filled with various kinds of trees, but not of such fragrance, as it is more northern and colder.

We saw in this country man vines growing naturally, which entwine about the trees, run up upon them as they do in the plains of Lambardy. These vines would doubtless produce excellent wine if they were properly cultivated and attended to, as we have often seen grapes which they produce very sweet and pleasant, and not unlike our own. They must be held in estimation by them, as they carefully remove the shrubbery from around them, wherever they grow, to allow the fruit to ripen better. We found also wild roses, violets, lilies and many sorts of plants and fragrant flowers different from our own.

WE CAN NOT describe their habitation, as they are in the interior of the country, but from various indications we conclude they must be formed of trees and shrubs. We saw also many grounds for conjecturing that they often sleep in the open air, without any covering but the sky. Of their other usages we know nothing; we believe, however, that all the people we were among live in the same way."

After Verrazano had sailed as far north as Newfoundland, he set sail for France, reaching Dieepe early in July, 1524. It was from here that he wrote his famous letter which is the earliest description known to exist of the shores of the United States.

What happened to Verrazano after his voyage of 1524? That is one of the unsolved mysteries of history. It has been suggested that he went to England where he offered his services to Henry VIII, and there are contemporary hints to support the suggestion. One book advances the opinion that Verrazano was the Piedmontese pilot who was killed and eaten by savages in 1527, which would harmonize with another author's statement that he made a second voyage to America and lost his life there. But this is extremely doubtful.


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