Letter from Cuttyhunk: Monument to Gosnold

Who was Bartholomew Gosnold?

Photo by Nancy Dunn

Gosnold confidently steered his bark Concord toward North Virginia in the spring of 1602, accompanied by 32 adventurous people, among them 20 settlers hoping to become a new colony and set up a trading post. Landing first on the southern coast of Maine, then at Provincetown, he eventually sailed on to what he named “Elizabeth’s Isle,” known today as the island of Cuttyhunk. Bartholomew Gosnold, born into the English upper class in 1571 during the reign of Elizabeth I, traveled in high circles. He practiced law with colleagues Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Walter Drake, and enjoyed after-dinner entertainment by Shakespeare. As a lawyer at the Middle Temple, some believe, Gosnold may have had ties to the Knights Templar (of The Da Vinci Code) and might have been trying to find da Verrazano’s Knights Templar settlement on Narragansett Bay to place a trading post there. The wealthy third Earl of Southampton funded Gosnold’s first voyage. It wasn’t just fame, gold, and furs that the two men were after; it was a lucrative deciduous tree, sassafras.

Why sassafras? In a word, syphilis. The theory is that sailors on Columbus’ voyages contracted the disease and brought it back to Spain from the New World, as it had never been found in Europe. Known by the names of “great pox” and “the Neapolitan/French disease,” the scourge was said to be cured by a plant with healing powers found only in the New World, the indigenous sassafras. There was a belief during the years following the Middle Ages that God created signs that would lead us to recognize the correct plant to cure a disease. The phallic shape of the trilobed sassafras leaf was thought to be an indicator that it could cure venereal diseases. Gosnold saw this as a perfect opportunity to initiate a profitable export trade from the New World to Europe. He smartly brought along an herbalist, Robert Meriton, to identify the unusual plant, which contains three distinctly shaped leaves, single-lobed, bilobed, and trilobed on the same branch. If you see a deciduous tree with a leaf that looks like a mitten, alongside a leaf that resembles a ghost, right next to an oval leaf, you have found the sassafras tree.

Although not a cure for syphilis, sassafras has many documented healing properties. Native Americans used the bark and roots for curing colds, fevers, and heart ailments. The Pilgrims used it for nausea, fever, and rheumatism. “From 1820 to 1926, sassafras tea was used as a ‘spring tonic’ that would cleanse the body and promote physical and mental well being. It was also thought to balance body hormones, stimulate the liver in its removal of toxins from the blood, and therefore ameliorate skin diseases such as psoriasis and eczema” (Hiker’s Notebook). The root of the plant smells like root beer, and was used in its production for many years.

Gosnold harvested one ton of sassafras, to be later sold in England for 20 shillings a pound, along with cedar timbers and furs. The native Wampanoag people were welcoming to this small group, but the settlers became nervous about resupply, whether Gosnold would return from an extended excursion to neighboring Penikese Island, and whether they would get their fair share of the profits. After three weeks, the Cuttyhunk settlement thought to have been established at Cuttyhunk’s West End Pond was disbanded, and the group sailed back to England. Writer John Brereton, along with the herbalist, kept detailed notes of the expedition, making it one of the best-documented early settlements.

Gosnold is credited with naming Cape Cod for the abundance of cod in its waters. He also named Martha’s Vineyard for his deceased infant daughter and his wife’s grandmother, Martha Golding, as well as the wild grapes growing there. He is thought to have introduced the use of the wheelbarrow to the New World, and planted the seeds of entrepreneurship among the earliest settlements. Some believe that Shakespeare was inspired to write his play The Tempest based on the Cuttyhunk documentation kept by Gosnold’s companions. Five years later in 1607, Gosnold was instrumental in setting up the first permanent English colony at Jamestown, but died shortly after its inception from dysentery and malnutrition.

In 1902 on Cuttyhunk, a 70-foot stone tower was built as a tercentenary tribute to Bartholomew Gosnold at what is believed to be the site of the island settlement. At the dedication of the monument on Sept. 1, 1903, there were over 100 prominent citizens present on Cuttyhunk to celebrate this historic occasion.

(“CHS Monograph Bartholomew Gosnold”: L.G. Bachler and A. Thurston, 2007)


The sights and sounds of early summer fill the air on Cuttyhunk this month. Local businesses are bustling every which way to ready themselves for island visitors. There are important meetings to attend, weddings taking place, old friends catching up, daily mail; the museum is opening, the ferry is in full swing, and the kids are out of school! Here are all of the details for Cuttyhunkers …

For Cuttyhunkers:

At Cuttyhunk Historical Society, Museum Director Kathryn Balistrieri is busy setting up the interesting new exhibit for the 2015 season, From Your Attic to Ours: Gifts We Treasure. Showcasing some of the generous donations CHS has received since the late 1970s, this exhibit offers an opportunity to view items that may not have been displayed in years. The museum opens for the season Friday, June 26, from 2 to 4 pm. There will also be a full schedule of workshops and speakers, so check the website for all the details: cuttyhunkhistoricalsociety.org.

Wedding news: Brittany Doran married Joshua Brown on Saturday, June 13, at Wesley United Methodist Church in Wareham. The newlyweds honeymooned in New Hampshire. Congratulations!

Police Chief George Isabel will be holding a community meeting on Wednesday, July 1, at 10 am at Town Hall. Please make every effort to attend.

School News: Superintendent Russell Latham will be retiring after 27 dedicated years of service to the children of Gosnold. He received a special retirement luncheon on June 9th at Town Hall. Open House was held on June 9th at the schoolhouse, and the children presented their science, writing, and technology projects to the community. The students enjoyed beautiful weather for their island-wide annual Field Day activities on June 10; thank you to all in the community who helped out in some way to make this a successful day. School ended on June 12 with a wonderful band and vocal performance for the community held at Town Hall.

The MV Cuttyhunk has started its summer schedule, departing New Bedford State Pier seven days a week at 9 am, with additional departures on Fridays at 7 pm, Saturdays at 1 pm, and Sundays at 2:30pm. She departs Cuttyhunk six days a week at 4 pm, with a Sunday departure at 5 pm. Additional departures are on Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 11 am, and Sundays at noon.