The east coast of what is now known of the United States of America was largely unexplored in the early 1520s. The Spanish had discovered Florida, and the English and Portuguese Newfoundland, which was already visited frequently by fishermen and whalers of various nations, but the area between these two areas was still a white spot on the map. Maybe a route to China could be found there? Perhaps even one that was shorter than the known ones around the Cape of Good Hope or through the Straits of Magellan?
King Francis I of France decided to send out an expedition to investigate the area. As he was a fan of everything Italian, it is no wonder that he chose the Florentine, Giovanni da Verrazzano, to lead the expedition. The expedition was also backed by wealthy Italian bankers and merchants living in Lyons. Strangely, the year is given in books on the subject sometimes at 1524, sometimes as 1525. I have no idea which one is correct.
Although we do not know this for sure, it is generally assumed that Verrazzano was born in or around 1485, on his family's castle, Castello Verrazzano, near Val di Greve, thirty miles south of Florence. Upon reaching majority (around 1506-7) he moved to Dieppe, France, to pursue a maritime career. He made several voyages to the Eastern Mediterranean, and probably also visited Newfoundland.
Verrazzano had been provided with four ships, but two of them shipwrecked shortly after departure, while a third one was sent home carrying the prizes from privateering on the Spanish coast, so only the flagship, La Dauphine, actually made the crossing of the Atlantic. The ship measured 100 tons and had a fifty-man crew. Of these, the only one who is known apart from Verrazzano himself was his brother Girolamo da Verrazzano, who was a mapmaker. His 1529 world map was one of the two first maps to show Verrazzano's discoveries (the other was Vesconte de Maggiolo's 1527 map of the western hemisphere).
He set out for his crossing from Madeira, on January 17, and touched land on or around March 1, at Cape Fear. From here he first sailed south, but he returned at some unknown point (yet north of Charleston), being afraid to run into the Spanish, and anchored not far from his original landfall. Unlike other explorers of the day, he preferred to anchor well out at sea. He did, however, send a boat, to the shore, and had a pleasant meeting with the natives, whom he describes thus:
"These people go altogether naked except only that they
cover their privy parts with certain skins of beasts like unto
martens, which they fasten onto a narrow girdle made of grass,
very artfully wrought, hanged about with tails of diverse other
beasts, which round about their bodies hang dangling down to
their knees. Some of them wear garlands of birds' feathers. The
people are of a color russet, and not much unlike the Saracens;
their hair black, thick, and not very long, which they tie together
in a knot behind, and wear it like a tail. They are well-featured
in their limbs, of average stature, and commonly somewhat bigger
than we; broad breasted, strong arms, their legs and other parts
of their bodies well fashioned, and they are disfigured in nothing,
saving that they have somewhat broad visages, and yet not all
of them; for we saw many of them well favoured, having black
and great eyes, with a cheerful and steady look, not strong of
body, yet sharp-witted, nimble and great runners, as far as we
could learn by experience."
Further north he came to a beautiful place which he therefore called Arcadia. This was probably Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Here he kidnapped a young child, and failed to kidnap a young woman. Sailing further north, he missed the entrances to Chesapeake and Delaware bays, because until New Jersey he kept quite far from the coast.
Verrazzano next discovered New York Harbor, and anchored in the Narrows, later named after him and now spanned by the Verrazzano Narrows bridge. He describes the bay and its people as follows:
"The people are almost like unto the others, and clad with feather of fowls of diverse colors. They came towards us very cheerfully, making great shouts of admiration, showing us where we might come to land most safely with our boat. We entered up the said river into the land about half a league, where it made a most pleasant lake [the Upper bay] about 3 leagues in compass; on the which they rowed from the one side to the other, to the number of 30 in their small boats, wherein were many people, which passed from one shore to the other to come and see us. And behold, upon the sudden (as it is wont to fall out in sailing) a contrary flow of wind coming from the sea, we were enforced to return to our ship, leaving this land, to our great discontentment for the great commodity and pleasantness thereof, which we suppose is not without some riches, all the hills showing mineral matters in them."
He continued his voyage east, discovering Block Island, and reaching Narragansett Bay. Because the natives were very friendly, for once he decided to break his habit and anchor near the coast. These Wampanoags showed him an even better sheltered harbour, present day Newport, and Verrazzano stayed there for two weeks, waiting for better weather conditions. His men traded with the Wampanoags. Verrazzano described the Wampanoags very positively.
Much less positive he was about the Abnaki of Maine, whom he describes as "...of such crudity and evil manners, so barbarous, that despite all the signs we could make, we could never converse with them. They are clothed in peltry of bear, lynx, 'sea wolves' and other beasts. Their food, as far as we could perceive, often entering their dwellings, we suppose to be obtained by hunting and fishing, and of certain fruits, a kind of wild root."
The Abnaki shot arrows at the French when they tried to land, but they could still conduct some meager trade through baskets, let down on a line from cliffs at the shore by the Indians. What displeased the French even more were the Abnaki's disdainful manners when the Europeans left, "such as exhibiting their bare behinds and laughing inmoderately".
The country itself he described as immensely beautiful. Missing Bay of Fundy and most of Nova Scotia, he reached Newfoundland. As this was already known, he returned to France, and after a fast Atlantic crossing, reached Dieppe on July 8.
Verrazzano made two more voyages. In 1527 his men mutinied and ordered him to return to France, but Verrazzano, using their incompetence in navigation, nonetheless reached Brazil, cut logwood (a red dye wood then named Brazilwood, this is the origin of the name Brazil) and his backers made good profit from it.
In 1528 he again crossed the Atlantic (exploration and the cutting of logwood being the joint goals of the expedition), landing in Florida, then following the chain of the lesser Antilles. On one of the islands (probably Guadeloupe) his habit of anchoring away from the shore became fatal. Giovanni was going ashore in a boat to greet the natives, wading the last part while the boat, with his brother, remained at sea. Unfortunately, the natives were not a friendly tribe that wanted to trade, but cannibalistic Caribs. They expertly killed Giovanni and ate him while still fresh, under the eyes of his brother. The ship was too far away to give gunfire support.
Giovanni da Verrazzano (also spelled Verrazano) was born in Tuscany, Italy in 1485 and died in 1528 in the Lesser Antilles. He was a Florentine explorer sailing under the French flag. He was the first European to sight New York and Narragansett bays.
While growing up in Florence, Verrazzano received an excellent education. Later he moved to Dieppe in France and entered the French maritime service. He traveled several times to the Levant. In 1523, Francis I agreed to provide Verrazzano with two ships to set sail and discover the westward passage to Asia. In January of 1524, Verrazzano set sail, his vessel being named La Dauphine (a term traditionally used to refer to the eldest son of the king - the individual immediately in line to the throne).
In early March he arrived at Cape Fear in North Carolina. He then continued northward, exploring the eastern seaboard of North America as far as Nova Scotia. He made several discoveries including New York Bay, Block Island, and Narragansett Bay. He was also the first European explorer to name newly discovered North American sites after persons and places in the Old World.
Without question, Verrazzano was the first European to enter New York bay in 1524. It was another 85 years, in 1609, that Henry Hudson, sailing on behalf of the Dutch East India Company and the individual usually associated with the discovery, would again sail a European vessel into the area.
Virtually unknown, Verrazzano was raised from obscurity by the efforts of John N. LaCorte, founder of the Italian Historical Society of America, who was instrumental in having the bridge spanning the entrance to New York Harbor at the narrows and joining Staten Island and Brooklyn named.