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Document Number: AJ-039
Author: Brereton, John, 1572-ca. 1619
Title: Briefe and True Relation of the Discoverie of the North Part of Virginia in 1602
Source: Burrage, Henry S. (editor). Early English and French Voyages, Chiefly from Hakluyt, 1534-1608. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906). Pages 327-240.
Pages/Illustrations: 16 / 0
Citable URL: www.americanjourneys.org/aj-039/

Author Note

John Brereton (1572-1619?) was born in Norwich, England, the third son in a prosperous, merchant family. He attended Cambridge University at age seventeen, earning his bachelor’s degree in 1592-93 and his Masters in 1596. That same year he was also ordained in the Church of England. The young deacon entered the priesthood at Norwich in 1598, accepting a curacy in Lawshall, Suffolk. The Lawshall parish membership included cousins of the Suffolk explorer Bartholomew Gosnold, captain of the 1602 expedition to America recounted by the text presented here. This relationship provides one possible explanation of how John Brereton came to serve as the navigator on that voyage.

Captains Bartholomew Gosnold, Bartholomew Gilbert, and Gabriel Archer, with the patronage of the earl of Southampton and other notables, sought to exploit the natural resources of America and establish a permanent trading post on the coast between the areas visited by the French explorers in the north and those explored by Sir Walter Raleigh’s expeditions in the south. Raleigh did not discover this infringement of his patent rights until he invstigated the reasons for a sudden drop in London market prices for sassafras in the summer of 1602. As part of the settlement, Raleigh consented to the insertion of a statement at the beginning of Brereton’s text suggesting that the expedition had operated with his permission. Upon returning from America, a friend persuaded John Brereton to draw up the voyage account presented here. By 1604, Brereton had resumed his position as curate in Lawshall, Suffolk. Church records indicate that by 1619 he had risen to the position of rector at Brightwell, Suffolk, but his later life is obscure.

Gosnold’s 1602 Expedition to New England

On March 26, 1602, Brereton left Falmouth, England, on the Concord, commanded by Bartholomew Gosnold. On reaching the southern coast of present-day Maine, they sailed south to the great harbor of Massachusetts Bay. It was these Englishmen that named the headland Cape Cod. Sailing further south Gosnold named the islands found there, Martha’s Vinyard and Elizabeth Islands (now Cuttyhunk Island). Establishing a small fort here, Brereton describes early European-Native American trade. His account also describes the immense schools of mackeral, cod, herring, and other fish, staples of Elizabethan diet. Once on shore at Martha’s Vineyard, Brereton describes the variety of berries growing wild, groves of beech and cedar trees, and the variety of shorebirds from cranes, bitterns, and geese, to many species of ducks. The island shore revealed skeletal remains of whales. The Native Americans there produced good quality tobacco that Brereton enjoyed, and the English traded trinkets with the Indians for fur. His early experiments growing grain succeeded and the soils were similar to those found in England. Brereton describes the range of seafood available and the wildlife in abundance. The expedition returned to England on July 23, 1602.

John Brereton’s Relation was the first English book to describe the New England coast, including present-day Massachusetts Bay, Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Cuttyhunk Island. The text is important as a piece of early seventeenth-century promotional literature that encouraged English merchants and settlers to colonize North America. Considering that the Earl of Southampton was patron to both Bartholomew Gosnold and William Shakespeare, some scholars have suggested that this expedition account may have inspired Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest (1611).

Document Note

A friend persuaded John Brereton to draw up and publish his Relation. George Bishop, the London stationer who published Hakluyt’s Principall Navigations, first printed the pamphlet in 1602. It appeared in two editions, one twenty-four pages in length and the other containing forty-eight. A first edition of the former, owned by the John Carter Brown Library, Providence, Rhode Island, was reprinted in facsimile in 1903 by L. S. Livingston.

Other Internet and Reference Sources

The text of a letter from Bartholomew Gosnold to his father is provided by the “Virtual Jamestown” site at:
http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/jamestown-browse?id=J1006

Biographical information of Bartholomew Gosnold and and an essay on his career is located on a private Gosnold genealogical website:
http://www.home.earthlink.net/~chrisgosnell/geneal/gosnold3.html

Axtell, James. Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial America. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) and Baker, Emerson, et. al., eds. American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994) are the standard modern treatments of Gosnold’s expedition.

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