1584 - 1585 Ralegh Sends Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to Scout America

In 1584, a year after Sir Humphrey Gilbert sank to the bottom of the Northern Sea, his patent for settling the New World came up for renewal. His half-brother Walter Ralegh immediately wrote to Queen Elizabeth I requesting a new patent. He was applying under his name, that of his half-brother Adrian Gilbert, and a cousin through the Champernowne family, John Davis (1550-1605).

John Davis, an experienced and brilliant navigator, was two or four years older than Ralegh. He was also a Devon man. Later he will sail with Thomas Cavendish during the second attempt to circumnavigate the world; discover the straight between Baffin Island and Greenland now called ‘Davis Strait’; and at the encouragement of Sebastián Cabot, develop the practice of writing ship logs to help others return to the location of their discoveries. Davis’ logs will become textbook examples for future sea captains. But for now, John Davis was just an eager cousin of Walter Ralegh’s.

Ralegh commissioned his friend Richard Hakluyt to back up the request for a patent by writing a discourse. Hakluyt was living in Paris at the time, but he journeyed to England to help the cause he was most passionate about. The paper was titled, “A Particuler Discourse Concerninge the Greate Necessitie and Manifolde Commodyties That Are Like to Growe to This Realme of Englande by the Westerne Discoueries Lately Attempted: A discussion of the needs of and benefits to England by discoveries in the west.” That very long title does not point out that Ralegh and Hakluyt’s major objective was to promote the “planting of the English race” in the unsettled parts of North America.

On March 14, 1584, Elizabeth accepted Ralegh’s proposal. The new patent was called, “The College of the Fellowship for the Discovery of the North West Passage.” The grant was as extensive as John Cabot’s and Humphrey Gilbert’s had been. Ralegh and his partners “could retain, build on, and or fortify, at the discretion of the said Walter Ralegh, any lands he might find not hitherto occupied by any Christian power.” [Western monarchs clearly did not recognize Chinese Buddhists or Muslims as legitimate claimants.]

William Sanderson (c1548-1638), a wealthy merchant and friend of the Ralegh and Gilbert families, gathered support from London investors. Ralegh’s step-cousin Sir Richard Grenville (1542-1591)(1) recruited ships from friends in Ireland and the West Country. By that time, the Grenvilles, the Gilberts, and the St. Leger’s [Grenville’s in-laws] were working together to build the ex-patriot communities in Cork, Ireland, near Ralegh’s Yougal castle in Imokilly.

Richard Grenville, who was eight or ten years older than Walter Ralegh, sat on the committee in Parliament with Francis Drake and Sir Henry Sidney that reviewed and approved Ralegh’s patent. It was Grenville’s last act in Parliament before turning back to a life as an adventurer. It had been ten years since he submitted his own proposal to Queen Elizabeth.

Ralegh’s home at Durham Place became an adventurers’ headquarters, similar to Henry the Navigator’s center on the Sagres peninsula in Portugal. All the best navigational minds in England collected to plan the new expedition. Twenty-five-year-old Thomas Harriot (c1560-1621), a protégé of Richard Hakluyt (1543-1616) from Oxford, was given rooms to use as an office for gathering charts; astronomical and navigational instruments; and rutters [seaman’s guides that indicated directions to ports and descriptions of the land(2)]. On the roof of Durham House, Harriot erected a round, twelve-foot-wide instrument called a radius astronomicus for taking astronomical observations. He conducted classes from this rooftop laboratory using his textbook Arcticon, named after the pole star. The book discussed the usefulness of the cross staff, astrolabe, sea ring, compass, and sounding lead. Harriot used this knowledge to oversee the manufacture of new navigation instruments. Ralegh would have only the best and the latest for his captains.

Within a month of when the patent was granted, Ralegh’s reconnaissance expedition was ready to depart for America. The mission was to collect data, not plant a colony, so the ships did not carry provisions for living a long period of time in a foreign country. Ralegh placed nineteen-year-old Philip Amadas(3) in command of the flagship that was probably the Bark Royal. Amadas was from Plymouth and connected with the Hawkins family.

Ralegh chose Simon Fernandez, his former partner-in-privateering on the Falcon, to pilot for Amadas. Arthur Barlowe, Ralegh’s former lieutenant in the Irish wars, would command the second ship, a pinnace that was probably Ralegh’s Dorothy.

John White (c1540-c1593), the limmer who painted the water colors of the Inuit Indians who Martin Frobisher brought home from Baffin Island, will join the expedition to chronicle the journey through his illustrations. [Some of those illustrations are in the British Museum today.] It was customary in the days before the invention of photography, for explorers to take along illustrators to record what was seen. White was twelve or fourteen years older than Ralegh. He had been a protégé and friend of Jacques le Moyne, who had met and drawn the Indians in Florida. White illustrated for scholars, such as Richard Hakluyt and Thomas Harriot, and drew maps inspired by Ortelius and Mercator. Historians believe he helped in County Cork, Ireland, to survey estates for the land commissioners during the colonial effort.(4) White will accompany a total of four more voyages to the New World.

We will experience this voyage through the voice of Captain Arthur Barlowe, whose letter to Walter Ralegh has survived to this day.

Our two vessels left England in April of 1584, laden with men and a year’s provisions. We followed the wind and water currents of the southern route discovered by the Spaniards.

After stopping for wood and water at the Canaries, and passing the Cape Verde islands off Africa, we crossed the Ocean Sea towards the West Indies, where we chose a safe island to rest and restock wood and water. We found the air in those parts unwholesome and our men grew ill disposed in it. We proceeded north past Florida and [today’s Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina]. As we approached the land [Virginia], it smelled sweet, as if we were amidst a delicate garden, abounding with all kinds of odoriferous flowers. We made land on Wokokon Isle [probably Ocrocoke](5) shortly after, on July 4.

We coasted some 120 miles looking for a proper harbour. We stopped along the banks protecting a large body of water [Pamlico Sound]. With Giovanni Verrazzano’s chart to guide us, we thought the water might be the Eastern Sea he sited. The banks form a thin strip of land where the savages [Algonquian Indians] of the Hattaras tribe live. After landing, we raised the standard [flag] of our Queen and took possession of the place.

[Hurricane season was not due for a month or two.] Our party enjoyed the tranquil seas and lush forests. In all the world the like abundance is not to be found in such a land. We feasted on succulent grapes.

On the third day, native Indians appeared in a boat. One of them allowed himself to be rowed over to the ships, never making any show of fear or doubt. We gave him a shirt and hat, and let him taste our wine and our meat, which he liked very well. The next day there came several boats bringing some forty or fifty men. They were very handsome and goodly people. In their behaviour, they were as mannerly and civil as any in Europe. We exchanged our tin dish for twenty animal skins worth twenty crowns, a copper kettle for fifty skins worth fifty crowns.

[The explorers did not meet King Pemisapan of the Wyngan Dacona tribe, who had recently been wounded in a battle with some neighbors and was some “six days’ journey off.”(6)] The king’s brother, Granganimeo, was our particular friend and well respected in the tribe. He wore a piece of red copper on his head as a sign of nobility. [The Indians valued copper over gold. The English misunderstood that copper was mined nearby, even though the Indians bartered a copper kettle from them.] Granganimeo brought his wife and children to see the ships. His wife was very well favoured, of mean stature and very bashful. In her ears she had bracelets of pearls the size of good peas hanging down to the middle of her ears.

Each day, the king’s brother sent us fat bucks, coneys [rabbits], hares, fish the best of the world, and divers [a variety of] fruits, melons, walnuts, cucumbers, gourds, peas, divers roots, and their country corn which is very white, fair and tasted well. The soil is the most plentiful, sweet, fruitful and wholesome of all the world.

Some of the Wyngina braves accompanied our ships as we explored the area, whereupon we found a large island centered in the body of water enclosed by the barrier reefs. The island was about eight miles long and two miles wide [Roanoke].

The savages invited us to a banquet hosted by the wife of the father of Pemisapan. The savages were gentle, loving and faithful, void of all guile and treason, and such as live after the manner of the golden age [referring to ancient times]. Their vessels are earthen pots, very large, white, and sweet; their dishes are wooden platters of sweet timber. They used iron hardware as tools, which, we soon learned, they had salvaged from a Spanish shipwreck twenty years earlier. Within the place where they feed was their lodging, and within that their Idol, which they worship, and of which they speak incredible things.

Concerned about the Spanish ships that meander up the coast from Florida, we were satisfied a colony on the island would be protected from Spanish eyes by the ring of reefs. The island also met with our patron’s second criteria. It was close enough to Florida and the Spanish dominions for our English ships to use as a base for our privateering operations.

After six weeks of surveying the area, we returned to England. We arrived in September with glowing reports, a string of the pea-sized pearls for the Queen, and two Indian princes of the place, Manteo and Wanchese(7) [Wanchese was a sachem [chief or leader] of the Roanoke Indians. Manteo was a sachem of the Croatoan Indians.] The savages, dressed in their own elaborate costumes, entranced our Queen, and were the center of attention in her court circles with their dignified and quiet manner. [Manteo and Wanchese eventually learned to speak English and popularized America more than ever.]

The savages call the land we claimed Wingandacoa. But Queen Elizabeth named it Virginia after herself, the Virgin Queen. Then she granted Walter Ralegh a knighthood. Henceforth he was Sir Walter, Lord and Governor of Virginia.

Next article: 1585 Richard Grenville Plants the First Colony on Roanoke


  1. Noted in previous footnotes: According to Burke’s Landed Gentry, Sir Richard Grenville was the cousin of Ralegh’s half-brother, Humphrey Gilbert. Grenville’s great-great-grandfather Otho Gilbert (1417-1494), was Humphrey Gilbert’s great-grandfather. (Elizabeth Gilbert and Sir Thomas Grenville married). Less authentic sources state that Walter Ralegh’s grandparents were Wimond Ralegh and Jane Grenville. This Jane Grenville could be the woman of that name who was the daughter of Jane [last name unknown], who was Thomas Grenville’s second wife after Elizabeth Gilbert. That would make Ralegh’s grandmother Jane Grenville a step-cousin several times removed from Richard Grenville [Burke, C.B. LL.D., Sir Bernard. Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry of Great Britain & Ireland, Harrison, Pall Mall, Bookseller to The Queen and HRH the Prince of Wales, London, 1879] Family chart shown in previous articles.
  2. Rutter comes from the same Latin base word as route.
  3. Sometimes spelled Amidas.
  4. Sloan, Kim. A New World: England’s First View of America, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2007.
  5. Ocrocoke Island is between Portsmouth and Hattaras Islands. See the map above.
  6. The ‘Wyngan Dacona’/Wygina/Wingina tribe of Algonquian Indians lived on Roanoke Island. We got the name of the Indian chief from Philip McMullan, Jr, in his article “Beechland and the Lost Colony.” “King Wingina’s real name was Chief Pemisapan.” McMullan has published his article in paperback available on Amazon.com Beechland the Lost Colony, Philip S. Macmillan Jr., CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014]
  7. One record claims there was a third native captive, Towayo. After being brought to London, the natives probably went to live with Walter Ralegh or Richard Hakluyt.