To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature  contact us | site guide | search 
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersAmerican Beginnings: 1492-1690
American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Exploration
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Exploration
Text 1. Into the Interior: The Spanish
Text 2. Into the Interior: The French
Text 3. Northwest Passage: The British
Text 4. Illustrating the New World (Pt. II)
Text 5. Catching Up: The British
Text 6. Failed Colonies
Text 7. The Slave Trade

Reading Guide
Quad, Novi Orbis Pars Borealis, 1600
Quad, Novi Orbis Pars Borealis, 1600
Northwest Passage: The English
- Reasons to pursue a Northwest Passage, 1577 (PDF)
- Report on Frobisher's second voyage to the north seas, 1577 (PDF)
- Report on the autopsy of an Inuit man, 1577 (PDF)
- Maps (enlargeable): 1528, 1595, 1597, 1600

Among the most powerful motives driving the English in their earliest attempts to explore the New World was the desire to find a northwest passage to Asia, what Raold Amundsen, who finally navigated it in 1906, called "the most formidable obstacle ever encountered by the inquisitive human spirit." Repeated English attempts from 1497 to 1613 ended in failure. Or did they? Although the explorers found no passage, they did begin to map the coast of North America, and, perhaps more important, they learned how to navigate northern waters. With this latter achievement, they began the process of transforming the Atlantic from a barrier separating England from the New World to a bridge linking the Mother Country to her colonies. Here we offer three selections that explore the meaning of what historian Glyn Williams termed "voyages of delusion."
  • MICHAEL LOK, as a member of one of London's leading merchant families and an underwriter of Martin Frobisher's voyages, had a deep interest in expanding England's international trade. In this excerpt from his account of their project, he offers a concise summary of the reasons why he and his countrymen sought the Northwest Passage. (This text is included with the Settle account below.)
    [Michael Lok, manuscript, 28 October 1577]

  • DIONYSE SETTLE, a gentleman who, in 1577, accompanied Frobisher on his second voyage to Arctic waters, gives us a "true report" of what it was like to search for the Passage. In his account we get a sense of both the optimism and the greed that propelled the early explorers, and we see how heavily they relied upon the skill of their navigators and the courage of their leaders. We also see how desperate Frobisher was to bring back gold, a desire that may have distracted him from his original mission. He had returned from his 1576 voyage with ore samples that yielded uncertain results when assayed for gold. To entice investors in another voyage, perhaps suggesting returns akin to those realized by the Spanish to the south, he embraced the most optimistic assay findings. Now he had to back them up. Thus in 1577 he was under considerable pressure to show his supporters that "the bowels of those Septentrionall [northern] Paralels" will yield "much more large benefite." (This text is included with the Lok text above.)
    [Dionyse Settle, A True Reporte of the Last Voyage into the West and Northwest Regions, &c. 1577. worthily achieved by Captain Frobisher of the said voyage the first finder and general, 1577]

  • AUTOPSY REPORT. Ore samples were not the only things Frobisher brought back to England. In 1576 he returned with an Inuit (Eskimo), whose somewhat Asiatic features helped to persuade the English that Frobisher was on the right track to the Orient. A year later he aroused great interest with three Inuit—a man, a woman, and an infant. (Settle refers to them in his report.) Frobisher thought the man and women were husband and wife, but they were not. All three died shortly after their arrival in England, with Calichoughe, the man, dying first. A physician named Edward Dodding performed an autopsy and concluded that he died when two broken ribs punctured a lung causing an "incurable ulcer." In the post mortem Calichoughe becomes something of a metaphor for the English experience thus far in the New World. Dodding likens the economic resources England sought through the Northwest Passage to "nerves and life-blood," the very things that England lost, quite literally, with the death of Calichoughe. Lamenting the man's death, Dodding vents frustration over England's failure to realize any gain from the "Herculean labour" of Frobisher and other explorers, and he expresses his disgust over the superstitions of the New World inhabitants.
    [Dr. Edward Dodding, Postmortem report on the Thule Inuit brought by Frobisher, 8 November 1577]
Settle's account and Dodding's report may profitably be used with students to explore the growing complexity of European-Native American relations. Also study the four enlargeable maps, including the 1600 Quad map that depicts a straight and clear passage to Asia through the northern seas. (12 pages, excluding the maps.)

Discussion questions
  1. Compare the description of John Cabot's 1497 voyage (Topic 1: CONTACT) to Lok's arguments and to Settle's account of Frobisher's 1577 exploration.
  2. How does Settle interpret the landscape he encounters? How does he turn the obstacles of the northern seas into assets for England?
  3. What is Settle's attitude toward the native inhabitants? Compare it with Dodding's attitude toward Calichoughe and the Inuit woman.
  4. What does Dodding mean when he says that Calichoughe evinced "Anglophobia"?
  5. Why does Dodding take such pains to explain English burial practices to the woman?
  6. Why was the search for a northwest passage a higher priority for England at this time than competing with Spain and France in North America?
  7. Why was the search not a high priority for France and Spain?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What motivated the Europeans' explorations? What were they looking for?
  •  What led them to deem an expedition a failure or success?
  •  How did the Europeans interpret the natural world they encountered?
  •  How did their experience of the New World comport with their expectations?
  •  How did the relationships of Europeans and Native Americans change after their initial encounters?
  •  What did the "New World" signify to Europe in 1550? in 1600?

Lok & Settle:  9
Autopsy report:  3
12 pages, excluding the maps
Supplemental Sites
Inuit and Englishmen: The Nunavut Voyages of Martin Frobisher, from the Canadian Museum of Civilization

Frobisher, biography from Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

Major Northwest Passage Expeditions and Explorers, from Princeton University Library

Of Maps and Men: In Pursuit of a Northwest Passage, from Princeton University Library

Northwest Passage: Voyages of Delusion, from the English Library

Voyages in Search of the North-west Passage, by Richard Hakluyt, full text of English explorers' accounts from the University of Adelaide (Australia) Library

*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: Princeton University Library

Image: Matthias Quad, map of North America entitled Novi Orbis Pars Borealis, America Scilicet, Complectens Floridam, Baccalaon, Canadam . . . , 1600. Reproduced by permission of Princeton University Library.

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

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © 2006 National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: June 2006