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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Contact, Resource Menu
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Contact
Text 1. First Impressions
Text 2. Europe's Literary Response
Text 3. Illustrating the New World (Pt. I)
Text 4. Atlantic Coast
Text 5. Pacific Coast
Text 6. Indians' Accounts
Text 7. Spanish Conquest

Reading Guide
An Aleut in his baidarka, ca. 1744
An Aleut in his baidarka,
ca. 1744
Pacific Coast
- English: Account of Drake's landing in California in 1579, excerpts (PDF)
- Russian: Account of Bering's landing in Alaska in 1741, excerpts (PDF)
- Maps (zoomable):

Drake voyage: Vera totius expeditionis nauticæ, ca. 1595
Bering voyage: The Russian discoveries, 1775

Not until the 1700s does the west coast of North America appear with any accuracy on a European map—with Baja California as a peninsula and not an island, with Asia and America as separate continents, and with no depiction of a straight water route in the far north. Europeans had given up on the west coast. The earliest Spanish expeditions returned with discouraging reports: no gold, no riches, no suitable sites for colonies = no value to the empire. Francis Drake delivered the same news to England after his coastal visit in 1579, and his voyage rated a ho-hum response from Spain at the time for, after all, the land was useless.

What spurred the Spanish to hightail it north again was Russia's expansion into western Asia and voyages to the far northwest of North America. Explorer Mikhail Gwosdev sailed east from Kamchatka in 1732 and sighted a "bolshya zemlya" ("new land"). Soon Vitus Bering was sent to explore this land, and, although he did not set foot on North America himself and died of scurvy with many of his crewmen on the return voyage, his expedition claimed the region for Russia whose fur-traders and missionaries defined the European presence there through the 1800s. Although the Russian arrival in North America places us beyond the chronological span of this Toolbox, we are reminded by historian Alan Taylor, when explaining his inclusion of Russian America in his American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001) that "process, as much as place, defines the subject" of North American settlement (italics in original). It would be useful to keep this distinction in mind as you work your way through this Toolbox.

So think process as you read these two accounts of European-Native American encounters that are remarkably similar despite their separation of 162 years.
  • FRANCES DRAKE led the second circumnavigation of the world (1577-1580), financed by wealthy Englishmen who profited mightily from his success. After sailing around South America through the Straits of Magellan, Drake headed up the west coast, plundering Spanish sites along the way and reaching the California coast in spring 1579. He searched fruitlessly for the long-sought "Strait of Anian"—a waterway east through the northern part of the continent back to the Atlantic. The most famous account of the voyage, The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, was compiled almost fifty years later by Drake's nephew from the journals of the ship's chaplain and others. (Drake's own journal disappeared after he presented it to Queen Elizabeth I.)
    In this selection we read of Drake's six-week stop in northern California, perhaps near San Francisco Bay, to resupply and repair his ship before sailing west across the Pacific. The men trade and communicate with the friendly Miwok Indians who assume they are gods and become upset when the newcomers refuse their sacrifices and claim only human status. Before departing, Drake claims the land for England as Nova Albion ("New England" in Latin) and records the Miwoks' "free giving up of the province and kingdom . . . into her Majesty's hands."
    [Francis Drake, nephew of Sir Francis Drake, The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake, 1628]

  • VITUS BERING, a Danish sailor, led Russia's "Great Northern Expedition" to northwest North America in 1741, primarily to determine if Asia and America were joined by land. Bering was unable to resolve the question on this journey, but he sailed along the Alaskan coast and landed men on several of the inhabited Aleutian islands. In this account from the journal of the ship's German physician and natural scientist, George Wilhelm Steller, the Russians meet the Aleuts of Bird Island and exchange gifts and welcoming words, but soon terrify them with cannon fire aimed high to stop them from pulling the Russians' small boat toward the rocky shore. After a few interchanges over two days, the Russians request one of the Aleuts' hats as an ethnographic artifact and leave the island.
    [Georg Wilhelm Steller, Second Kamchatka Expedition undertaken upon His Imperial Majesty’s Command, or Description of the Voyage of the late Captain-Commander Bering for the exploration of the lands northeast of Kamchatka . . . , 1743]
The two maps were drawn to record these specific expeditions: (1) the 1581 French map of Drake's voyage, the first to use dotted lines to trace a route (note "Nova Albio" on both maps), and (2) the 1775 American map based on the earlier Russian map of Bering's very jagged route, with intriguing notations in English (be sure to explore the California coast on this map as well as the areas explored by Bering). Both maps reward detailed inspection. (10 pages, excluding the maps.)

Discussion questions
  1. How did the Miwok and Aleut Indians respond to the European arrivals? How did each group try to befriend and inquire about the other? What led to mutual fear or antagonism? How did each encounter end?
  2. Compare the initial European-Indian encounters in this section's readings from those of the east and west coasts and the interior. What are the commonalities? What factors most determine the differences? How important is geographic setting? leadership? nationality? the final success or failure of the expedition?
  3. How does the authorship of each account affect its reporting and implications? How does a captain's account differ from one written by a sailor/artist, scientist, chaplain, missionary, or Indian?
  4. How do the accounts discourage west coast exploration despite the welcoming inhabitants and apparent natural resources? What do they reveal of the explorers' motivations and perspectives?
  5. Would you invest in a colonization venture in Europe in 1600? Would you accompany the first voyage to the intended colony?
  6. What characterizes the Europeans who chose to tempt fate and head west to the New World?
  7. Assess historian Alan Taylor's assertion that "process as much as place" defines the settlement of North America.

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Europeans interpret the "newe fonde londe" upon their first contacts?
  •  How did Indians respond to the Europeans?
  •  How did these initial encounters frame future Indian-European relationships?
  •  What did the "New World" signify to Europe in 1500? in 1550?

Drake (California):  6
Bering (Alaska):  4
10 pages, excluding the maps
Supplemental Sites
Drake, The World Encompassed, full text and background notes at American Journeys: Eyewitness Accounts of American Exploration and Settlement (Wisconsin Historical Society)

Drake's landing in California, overview from the National Park Service

Bering expeditions, overview from North Pacific Ocean Theme Page (NOAA)

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Texts: National Humanities Center
Maps: Library of Congress

Image: "An Aleut in his baidarka," from a drawing by Sven Waxel and Sofron Khitrov on the chart of the voyage of the St. Peter on Vitus Bering's expedition of 1741-1742, Archives of the Hydrographic Section of the Ministry of Marine, St. Petersburg, Russia. Digital image reproduced by permission of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Contact | Exploration | Settlement | Permanence | Power

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