How Do We Know These Stories?

Countless manuscripts, books, movies, letters, documentaries, museums, and websites were employed to research this web book. When possible, we let the explorers and their crews who left first hand accounts, ship logs, and journals, tell their own adventures [edited where needed for readability]. But we must pay special tribute to two diligent historians who, during the end of the 1500s and early 1600s, collected and preserved a good number of these tales and published them in large anthologies: Richard Hakluyt (1552/3-1616) and Samuel Purchas (c1577-1626).

Richard Hakluyt depicted in a stained glass window in Bristol Cathedral.(1)

Richard Hakluyt’s Voyages and Discoveries

Richard Hakluyt was a scholar, theologian, adventurer, and chronicler of adventurers. He was born in 1552 or 1553, about the same time as the more famous Sir Walter Ralegh, whom he knew well. Hakluyt’s father helped finance the first joint stock trading company, the Muscovy Company, in 1555. The Muscovy Company opened a new trade route between England and the Far East by sailing from England over Scandinavia and into Russia through Port Angel. Hakluyt, himself, would buy stock in the East India Company and the companies that first explored New England.

As a member of the prestigious lawyers’ guild, the Middle Temple, Richard Hakluyt came to know all the important explorers of his time. He himself stated that in the Middle Temple he became “acquainted with the chiefest captains at sea and the best mariners of the nation.”

Hakluyt attended Oxford College. During his life, he mastered six foreign languages. He “devoured every narrative he could find” about the world and navigation. When he was the secretary to England’s French ambassador, Sir Edward Stafford, Hakluyt had the opportunity to “collect records of Spanish and French attempts at North American exploration.” Had he not published them, they would probably have been thrown out, lost, or forgotten forever.

Hakluyt became a master of geography. When he returned to England, he collected hundreds of documents that would otherwise have been left unpublished about exploration from the time of the Vikings [around 1000 CE], to his own time [500 years later]. In turn he published many of his own books about the same. He wrote countless discourses on his opinions and research. We will quote from his compilation of stories of other men’s adventures titled, The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics and Discoveries of the English Nation, often shortened to Voyages and Discoveries, or The Principal Navigations.

Richard Hakluyt was the Elizabethan version of Henry the Navigator. He collected data on navigation and researched the latest maritime technology. Wanting to share his knowledge, he taught classes at the Middle Temple, and at his alma mater, Oxford, on astronomy, nautical instruments, charts, and other innovations. But though he often crossed the English Channel to visit Paris, he never went to America himself.

Samuel Purchas’ Purchas his Pilgrimes

An engraving of Samuel Purchas at age forty-eight. Title page of Purchas His Pilgrimes printed by William Stansby at London in 1625.(2)

Samuel Purchas (c1577-1626) was another significant historian and compiler of stories. Born sometime around 1577, he was a generation younger than Hakluyt. Purchas recorded narratives shared by sailors after they returned from their adventures. In some cases, Purchas took off from where Hakluyt left off, publishing manuscripts that Hakluyt left behind when he died in 1616.

Samuel Purchas was a cleric from Essex County and a graduate of St. Johns College, Cambridge. Like Hakluyt, he never traveled farther than 200 miles from home. He compiled several books. The first has the long title of, Purchas His Pilgrimage; or Relations of the World and the Religions observed in all Ages and Places discovered, from the Creation unto this Present. The anthology went through four editions between 1613 and Purchas’ death in 1626. In 1625, he published Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes. Today, copies of the five massive volumes are available for reading in such libraries as the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts. Volume III and IV are the most applicable to this book. They include stories about adventures to Tartary [the land of the Mongolians](3), Russia, China, America, and the West Indies. Some accounts say Purchas’ writing bankrupted him, and that he died in debtor’s prison.

Title page of Purchase His Pilgrimes.

Between the small cameos of characters, including Noah, Abraham, Constantine, Christopher Columbus, Thomas Cavendish, and Sebastian Cabot, is written:

“Hakluyt Posthumous or Purchas His Pilgrimes, containing a history of the world in sea voyages and land travels by Englishmen & others. Wherein God wonders in nature & providence, the acts, arts, varieties & vanities of men, with a world of the world’s rarities, are by a world of eye-witness authors related to the world. Some left written by Mr. Hakluyt at his death. More since added. His also perused & perfected. All examined, abbreviated, illustrated with notes, enlarged with discourses, adorned with pictures and expressed in maps. In fewer parts, each containing five books. By Samuel Purchase B.D.”

Bradford and Winthrop

We must also thank the governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony for leaving behind journals, which we will quote in the final sections of this web book.

Governor William Bradford recorded the history of New England’s first permanent settlement in Of Plimouth Plantation. He started the account in 1630, recording memories from his departure from England, temporary settlement in Leyden, Holland in 1609, and his voyage on the Mayflower in 1620. He ended the book in 1651 with a list of the Mayflower passengers and descriptions of what happened to them.

The manuscript has a dramatic history. For the first hundred years Of Plimouth Plantation was kept by the Bradford family. It then went to Reverend Thomas Prince, who, in 1736, referenced it in his own Chronological History. After Prince died, it was kept in Boston’s Old South Meeting House. But during the Revolutionary War, when the Brits took possession of the Meeting House, the manuscript disappeared. A hundred years later, it was found in the Bishop of London’s library at Fulham Palace. The book was then published in print in 1856 and has gone through several more iterations, including a contemporary version by Mayflower historian Caleb Johnson(4).

Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony wrote up his personal experience of the colonization of Greater Boston in a manuscript simply referred to as Winthrop’s Journal: History of New England 1630-1649.

Both of these books are available in free digital versions on line.

Next article: Charting the Northwest Passage


  1. Richard Hakluyt pictured in a stained glass window in the West Window of the South Transept of Bristol Cathedral by Charles Eamer Kempe. Wikimedia:
  2. Portrait of Samuel Purchas, age 48, from title page of Purchas His Pilgrimes printed by William Stansby at London 1625. Courtesy of the Monroe Wakeman and Holman Loan Collection of the Pequot Library Association, on deposit in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Wikimedia:
  3. During the Middle Ages, the name Tartary referred to the land of the Tartars and the land of Ghengus Khan mentioned by Marco Polo in his book on his travels. The name phased out of use as Europeans learned more about geography. Tartary roughly incorporated the Pontic-Caspian steppe, Volga-Urals, Caucasus, Siberia, Turkestan, Mongolia, and Manchuria.
  4. Caleb Johnson’s version of Bradford’s journal is available at: You might also refer to this extensive web site for additional Mayflower history.