The first known written description of Rhode Island and its inhabitants.
by Saul Ricklin
This article originally appeared in the Newport Daily News, April 14, 2004, under the title "Rhode Island's charms appealed to long-ago visitor—Verrazzano." It appears here, by permission of the author and the Newport Daily News, with expanded quotes.
The first visitor to write about Rhode Island's beautiful and fertile land and its civilized, gentle, friendly natives was Giovanni da Verrazzano in 1524. Born in Italy about 1480, he was a Florentine navigator in search of the northwest passage to the Orient. Backed by the French, he set sail on La Dauphine on January 17, 1524.
He made landfall around March 1 near Cape Fear, North Carolina. After finding what he thought was the long-sought passage to the Pacific Ocean (Pamlico Sound), he went on to touch a number of shore points on the Atlantic Coast, including New York Harbor. From there, he sailed east about 175 miles, where he discovered an island, triangular in form, about twenty-two miles from the mainland. In his words, it was "in size like the island of Rhodes, full of hills, covered with trees, much populated [judging] by the continuous fires along all the surrounding shore which we saw they made..." Verrazzano decided not to anchor there "on account of the unfavorableness of the weather," but named the island Aloysia after his patron's "most illustrious mother."
In his letter to King Francis I of France, written on July 8, 1524, Verrazzano says, "We came to another land, distant from the island XV leagues [about forty-five miles], where we found a very beautiful port, and before we entered it, we saw about XX barges of the people who came with various cries of wonder round about the ship. Not approaching nearer than fifty paces, they halted, looking at the edifice, our figures and clothes; then all together they uttered a loud shout, signifying that they were glad. Having reassured them somewhat, imitating their gestures, they came so near that we threw them some little bells and mirrors and many trinkets, having taken which, regarding them with laughter, they entered the ship confidently. There were among them two Kings, of as good stature and form as it would be possible to tell; the first of about XXXX years, the other a young man of XXIIII years, the clothing of whom was thus: the older had on his nude body a skin of a stag, artificially adorned like a damask with various embroideries; the head bare, the hair turned back with various bands, at the neck a broad chain ornamented with many stones of diverse colors. The young man was almost in the same style."
Verrazzano wrote that the port was on the same latitude as Rome, "but somewhat colder on account of chance and not on account of nature..." His identification of rocky islands "adapted for the building of any desired engine or bulwark for its protection" fits the description of Jamestown's Colonial Fort Dumpling, later named Fort Wetherill. That and other evidence make it fairly certain that his "Refugio" was Narragansett Bay, that the port was Newport Harbor, and that the people greeting him were the Wampanoag Indians. Triangular Aloysia was certainly Block Island.
He goes on to write about the natives: "This is the most beautiful people and the most civilized in customs that we have found in this navigation. They excel us in size; they are of bronze color, some inclining more to whiteness, others to tawny color; the face sharply cut, the hair long and black, upon which they bestow the greatest study in adorning it; the eyes black and alert, the bearing kind and gentle, imitating much the ancient [manner]. Of the other parts of the body I will not speak to Your Majesty, having all the proportions which belong to every well-built man. Their women are of the same beauty and charm; very graceful; of comely mien and agreeable aspect; of habits and behavior as much according to womanly custom as pertains to human nature; they go nude with only one skin of the stag embroidered like the men, and some wear on the arms very rich skins of the lynx; the head bare, with various arrangements of braids, composed of their own hair, which hang on one side and the other of the breast. Some use other hair-arrangements like the women of Egypt and of Syria use, and these are they who are advanced in age and are joined in wedlock."
He reports that, "They are very liberal, so much so that all which they have they give away. We formed a great friendship with them..."
Verrazzano was so delighted with Narragansett Bay and the Wampanoag natives that he made his only exception to his practice of mooring in the open sea and agreed to drop anchor in protected Newport Harbor. He spent fifteen days in the harbor and had his sailors explore inland, which they found fertile, filled with game and much beauty:
"Many times we were from five to six leagues inland, which we found as pleasing as it can be to narrate, adapted to every kind of cultivation—grain, wine, oil. Because in that place the fields are from XXV to XXX leagues wide, and devoid of every impediment of trees, of such fertility that any seed in them would produce the best crops. Entering then into the woods, all of which are penetrable by any numerous army in any way whatsoever, and whose trees, oaks, cypresses, and others are unknown in our Europe. We found Lucallian apples, plums, and filberts, and many kinds of fruits different from ours. Animals there are in very great number, stags, deer, lynx, and other species..."
On May 6, he left his "Refugio," Narragansett Bay, and sailed on to Maine and as far as Newfoundland before returning home. He said he never found another place to compare with "Refugio."
In The European Discovery of America, Samuel Eliot Morrison speculates that Roger Williams may have read a copy of Verrazzano's letter to the king and interpreted the description of Aloysia ("in size like the island of Rhodes") as being about Aquidneck Island, and thus went on to call the island Rhode Island.
There are theories based on the Dighton Rock inscriptions and other evidence that the Portuguese navigator Miguel Corte Real reached New England and lived with the Wampanoag from 1502 to 1511. It was Verrazzano, however, who left the written record of his visit and the beauty and pleasure of Narragansett Bay and the Wampanoag Indians.
Three copies of Verrazzano's letter to the king exist. One was translated for Richard Hukluyt's Voyages in 1583. The second was published in 1841 by the New York Historical Society, translated by J.G. Cogswell. The third was published in Italy in 1909 and translated by Dr. Edward Hagaman Hall in 1910 for the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society.
Original Editor's Note: In the Northeast, two major bridges have been named in honor of the explorer: The Verrazzano Narrows Bridge between Brooklyn and Staten Island in New York, which opened in November 1964, and the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge connecting Jamestown and North Kingstown in Rhode island, which opened in October 1992.
Saul Ricklin, a retired university professor and business owner, was a freelance travel and history writer based out of Bristol. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 93.