Skip to content

Big Chief Elizabeth: The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America

in stock, ready to be shipped
Save 0% Save 0%
Original price $18.00
Original price $18.00 - Original price $18.00
Original price $18.00
Current price $17.99
$17.99 - $17.99
Current price $17.99
From Giles Milton, the highly acclaimed author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Big Chief Elizabeth is a riveting historical mystery of colonial America.

In April 1586, Queen Elizabeth I acquired a new and exotic title. A tribe of Native Americans had made her their weroanza—a word that meant "big chief". The news was received with great joy, both by the Queen and her favorite, Sir Walter Raleigh. His first American expedition had brought back a captive, Manteo, who caused a sensation in Elizabethan London. In 1587, Manteo was returned to his homeland as Lord and Governor, with more than one hundred English men, women, and children. In 1590, a supply ship arrived at the colony to discover that the settlers had vanished.

For almost twenty years the fate of Raleigh's colonists was to remain a mystery. When a new wave of settlers sailed to America to found Jamestown, their efforts to locate the lost colony were frustrated by the mighty chieftain, Powhatan, who vowed to drive the English out of America. Only when it was too late did the settlers discover the incredible news that Raleigh's colonists had survived in the forests for almost two decades before being slaughtered in cold blood by henchmen.

While Sir Walter Raleigh's "savage" had played a pivotal role in establishing the first English settlement in America, he had also unwittingly contributed to one of the earliest chapters in the decimation of the Native American population. The mystery of what happened to these colonists who seemed to vanish without a trace lies at the heart of this well-researched work of narrative history.

ISBN-13: 9781250778246

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: Picador

Publication Date: 03-23-2021

Pages: 368

Product Dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

Giles Milton is the internationally bestselling author of over ten works of narrative history published in twenty-five languages, including The Riddle and the Knight; Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare; and Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, serialized by the BBC. He lives in London and Burgundy.

Read an Excerpt

Big Chief Elizabeth

The Adventures and Fate of the First English Colonists in America

By Giles Milton

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2000 Giles Milton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70603-6


Savages Among the Icebergs

The half-timbered mansion disappeared long ago, and the paved thoroughfare lies buried beneath the dust of centuries. The Great Fire tore the heart out of this corner of Elizabethan London, devouring books, buildings, and streets. One of the few things to survive is a small, insignificant-looking map—crinkled, faded, but still bearing the proud mark of its owner.

This was once the treasured possession of Sir Humfrey Gilbert, a flamboyant adventurer, who suffered such adversity in the aftermath of his disastrous 1578 expedition to North America that even Queen Elizabeth I noted drily that he was a man "of not good hap." But in the summer of 1582, after four years of virtual bankruptcy, Gilbert's misfortunes appeared to be over. As he unrolled his newly acquired map, he allowed himself a rare and self-satisfied smile. It provided the most detailed record to date of America's wild, barbarous shores, and contained a treasure trove of priceless and hitherto unknown information. Such was Sir Humfrey's pride in adding it to his collection that he reached for his quill and inscribed it with the words "Humfray Gylbert, knight, his charte."

This circular sheet of parchment depicted the entirety of North America as if viewed from high above the mid-Atlantic, and its inky squiggles confirmed what Gilbert had believed all along: that America was cut in two by a wide channel, and that the interior of the continent was not land at all, but a vast inland sea.

More discerning observers might have expressed concern that the map's provenance was uncertain and that it contained glaring errors. One of the few parts of America that was well charted, the triangular island of Newfoundland, was shown as four separate lumps of rock, while the eastern seaboard appeared to be little more than a topographical flight of fancy. But to Sir Humfrey, any such objection would have been a mere trifle. This map was to be the key to the crowning achievement of his life: a voyage to America, with the audacious goal of founding the first English colony on the shores of this mighty continent.

Gilbert had not been the first Englishman to be fascinated by the North American continent. After its discovery by John Cabot in 1497—just five years after Christopher Columbus had made his historic landfall in the Bahamas—England claimed possession of the whole of North America by virtue of the fact that her flag was the first to be planted on American soil. Ever since, a handful of dreamers and adventurers had toyed with the idea of visiting those distant shores across the ocean. A few of Bristol's more enterprising merchants had quickly launched expeditions in the wake of Cabot's voyage, hoping to make their fortunes in trade with the "savages." John Thomas, Hugh Elyot, and Thomas Assehurst all sailed into the sunset with high hopes, only to return in bitter disappointment. The scantily clad Indians had showed no interest in English woollens and broadcloths—the country's most important export—and even less desire to truss themselves up in slashed doublets and taffeta bonnets. Nor did they have anything of substance to offer the merchants. Their bows and arrows fetched a reasonable price as collectors' items; hawks were in some demand among Tudor courtiers, and "cattes of the montaign"—lynx—made fanciful pets for their noble lordships. But a trade based solely on exotica was never going to be profitable; after five or six years of failure, the Bristol merchants abandoned their enterprise.

In 1517 there had been a brief flurry of enthusiasm when a London bookseller named John Rastell startled his customers by announcing his intention of founding a colony in America. It was an eccentric idea, even by his own standards, yet he was so confident of success that he refused to allow anyone to deflect him from heading off into the sunset. He gathered "thirty or forty soldiers" and bought "tools for masons and carpenters," but his dream of building a dwelling in America was not to be. The mission ended in farce when two captains refused to set sail and Rastell's expedition got no further than Falmouth harbour. He ended his days lamenting his failure in verse:

O what a thynge had be than
Yf they that be Englysshe men
Myght have be the furst of all
That there shulde have take possessyon
And made furst buyldynge and habytacion
A memory perpetuall.

Most of these early expeditions had suffered from poor leadership, and all had been jeopardised by a lack of resources. But in 1536—exactly forty years before Sir Humfrey first began toying with his colonial project—an expedition to America got under way that seemed to overcome both of these hurdles. It was the brainchild of Richard Hore, a wealthy London leather seller who had grown weary of his endless trading voyages to and from the Canary Islands. To his friends he was "a man of goodly stature and of great courage, and given to the studie of cosmographie," but his business contacts knew a less savoury side to his character. Hore wanted to be rich and was forever dreaming up schemes which combined money making with adventure.

In 1535 he had been struck by an idea of such sparkling originality that he knew it could not fail to make him wealthy. In that year, the Plymouth adventurer William Hawkins had successfully returned from his voyage to South America, carrying with him "one of the savage kings of the countrey of Brasill." This unfortunate captive caused a sensation in Tudor London, especially when he was ushered into the commanding presence of King Henry VIII. At the sight of him, "the king and all the nobilitie did not a little marveile, and not without cause: for in his cheekes were holes made accordinge to their savage manner, and therein small bones were planted, standing an inche out from the said holes, which in his own countrey was reputed for a great braverie." As the king and courtiers prodded the chieftain, they discovered that "he had also another hole in his nether lippe, wherein was set a precious stone about the bignesse of a pease: all his apparell, behaviour and gesture were very strange to the beholders."

The sight of this savage astonished the court and was a cause of such excitement in the capital that Hore realised it presented a fine opportunity to make money. He decided to launch an expedition to North America with the intention of capturing one of King Henry VIII's more primitive subjects. He could then be paraded around the capital and displayed—for a fee, of course—to curious Londoners.

The dangers of such a voyage were considerable. Tudor vessels, not built to withstand the powerful Atlantic swells, were fearsomely top-heavy, and there was a very real danger of them foundering in the vastness of the ocean. Only a few English ships had ever crossed the Atlantic, and the land on the far side was as mysterious and barbarous as the fabled Orient. But Hore remained optimistic about the chances of success; a brilliant self-publicist, he realised that hunting for savages was certain to excite London's gentlemen adventurers.

No sooner had word of his expedition been leaked to the court than dozens of courtiers began to approach him, begging that they might have a place on his voyage. When news reached the ears of King Henry, who was still enthralled by his South American captive, he thought it such a splendid project that he gave it his unconditional blessing and support. Hore was "assisted by the king's favour and good countenance," and began to sign up men for the greatest adventure of their lives. "His perswasions tooke such effect that within a short space, many gentlemen of the Innes of Court, and of the Chancerie, and divers others of good worship, desirous to see the strange things of the world, very willingly entred into the action with him." Thirty "gentlemen" signed up for the voyage, many of them from rich and distinguished families. Armigil Wade was a close acquaintance of the king; Thomas Buts was a son of the wealthy Sir William Buts; William Wade was Clerk of the Counsel, and Master Weekes was "a gentleman of the West Countrey of five hundred markes by the yeere." All of these men, the cream of Tudor society, were delighted to be taking part in such an historical adventure. Reckless, fearless, and foolhardy, they eschewed the comfort of their gabled manors for a place on a unique expedition whose purpose was as swashbuckling as it was daring: to capture one of the "savages" of North America. They willingly poured money into the venture; by February 1536, Richard Hore had raised enough capital to begin negotiations to hire two small ships, the William and the Trinity.

If Hore had given as much attention to the voyage as he had to publicising the venture, he might have realised that he was placing himself and his companions in the gravest danger. He did not think to carry out even a cursory check on the seaworthiness of the vessels, nor did he have the foresight to calculate the quantity of dried victuals needed to feed 120 sailors for an expedition that was certain to last three months and possibly many more. Relying on the trusty formula of good wind and good luck, he took his men to receive the sacrament in Gravesend Church and, with the breezes urging them to get under way, "they embarked themselves in the ende of Aprill, 1536."

The two vessels made a splendid sight as they cruised majestically down the Thames estuary, their foremasts decked with bunting and their mainmasts flying the George. The adventurers were dressed in such finery that onlookers could have been forgiven for supposing them to be en route to a royal wedding: some wore silk-brimmed hats adorned with ostrich plumes, gaudy popinjay waistcoats, and square-toed shoes slashed with velvet. But scarcely had the men entered the turbulent waters of the English Channel than they realised that their cosseted backgrounds had done little to prepare them for the hardships of life at sea.

"From the time of their setting out from Gravesend, they were very long at sea ... above two moneths, and never touched any land." So reads the account of Thomas Buts, one of the two men who would later tell their stories to Richard Hakluyt, author of The Principall Navigations. Both accounts are full of inconsistencies, for by the time the men were quizzed about their suffering their minds were addled with old age. But they allow a partial reconstruction of an audacious voyage that would later inspire the champion of American colonisation, Sir Walter Raleghs.

The men caught their first glimpse of land in the first week of July, by which time food supplies were perilously low. Believing themselves to have reached Cape Breton, the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia, they steered their ship north to "the Island of Penguin"—the outlying Funk Island—which was a landmark for the few mariners who fished these lonely waters. It was "full of great foules, white and grey, as big as geese, and they saw infinite numbers of their egges." This strange bird was the flightless great auk, which was unafraid of man and proved easy to catch. "They drave a great number of the foules into their boates upon their sayles," and began to pluck them, a tiresome business, for "their skinnes were very like honycombes [and] full of holes." The men were so hungry that they declared them "very good and nourishing meat."

After resting up at Penguin Island, the two ships went their separate ways. The William, manned by seadogs and fisherfolk, headed to the Newfoundland Banks, where cod was plentiful. The Trinity, meanwhile, was to carry the gentlemen adventurers into unknown and uncharted waters in the hope of capturing a savage. The men were poorly equipped for such latitudes and totally unprepared for the rigours of exploration. "They were so farre northwards that they sawe mighty islands of yce in the sommer season, on which were haukes and other foules to rest themselves, being weary of flying over farre from the maine." They shot at polar bears that had drifted south on icebergs and caught brown bears on the mainland; in this way they supplemented their meagre diet.

It was as they coasted the remote and bleak shores of Labrador that they first sighted the "savages." One of the adventurers, Master Oliver Dawbeny, was standing on the foredeck of the William when he noticed a strange object far off in the water. He strained his eyes in staring at the horizon and realised with a start that he had certainly not been deceived. It was "a boat with savages of those partes, rowing downe the bay toward them, to gaze upon the ship and our people."

He called to the mariners below decks and "willed them to come up if they would see the natural people of the countrey that they had so long and so much desired to see." The men on deck "tooke viewe of the savages rowing toward them and their shipp, and upon the viewe they manned out a shipp boat to meet them and to take them." There was not a moment to be lost, for they might never be presented with this opportunity again. They pushed off their boat and set out in hot pursuit.

The "savages," dressed from top to toe in skins and carrying spears, were paddling a hollowed-out tree trunk. The Tudor gentlemen were determined to capture one of these primitive and exotic creatures and carry him back to London. But scarcely had the English boat set off in pursuit than the "savages" spun their canoe around and headed in the opposite direction, handling their bluntnosed craft with considerable dexterity. "Spying our ship-boat making towards them, [they] returned with maine force and fled into an island that lay up in the bay or river there; and our men pursued them into the island and the savages fledde and escaped." Despite a lengthy search, the English party could find no sign of their quarry. All they saw was "a fire, and the side of a beare on a wooden spit, left at the same by the savages that were fled." In normal circumstances they would have at least taken the bear, but a mixture of disappointment and aching bellies caused them to leave even this. Their only consolation was a strange souvenir that was certain to have curiosity value in England. "They found a boote of leather garnished on the outward side of the calfe with certaine brave trailes, as it were rawe silke, and also found a certaine great warme mitten. And these caryed with them, they returned to their shippe, not finding the savages." It was a bitter disappointment.

When the men prepared to set sail, they realised their ship had been fatally weakened by storms and ice and needed substantial repairs before it could rejoin the William. When Hore delved into the hold of his vessel, he discovered to his horror that all the barrels and casks were empty and that all of their fishing equipment had been transferred onto the other vessel. "[The men] grew into great want of victuals ... [and] found small relief." They did have one stroke of good fortune. An osprey made its nest in a nearby tree and "brought hourely to her yong great plentie of divers sorts of fishes"—fish that the men eagerly took from the fledglings. But when the osprey grew wise to their tricks, it moved the nest and the men began to starve.

"Such was the famine," Dawbeny later recalled, "that they were forced to seeke to relieve themselves of raw herbes and rootes that they sought on the maine." He now found himself longing for polar bear or roasted auk, but the Labrador wilderness proved to be almost devoid of life. Small parties of men were sent into the forest to search for food, but they returned empty-handed. As each day passed the men grew weaker and weaker. It was not long before they grew so crazed from hunger that the dark lust for food affected their reason.

"[With] the famine increasing, and the reliefe of herbes being to little purpose to satisfie their insatiable hunger ... [a] fellowe killed his mate while he stooped to take up a roote for his reliefe." He hauled the body into the forest and, "cutting out pieces of his bodie whom he had murthered, broyled the same on the coles and greedily devoured them." It soon transpired that he was not the only one to turn in desperation to cannibalism. A head count revealed that several men had gone missing, and Hore began to grow suspicious. He had at first assumed that they had been "devoured with wilde beastes" or "destroyed with savages," but he soon learned that there was a far more sinister explanation. "It fortuned that one of the company, driven with hunger to seeke abroade for reliefe, found out in the fieldes the savour of broyled flesh." The man went to investigate the smell and spotted one of his shipmates grilling juicy gobbets of what looked like human flesh over a fire. A heated conversation ensued, and tempers flared into "cruell speaches" until the culprit confessed. "If thou wouldest needes know," he said, "the broyled meate that I had was a piece of such a man's buttocke."


Excerpted from Big Chief Elizabeth by Giles Milton. Copyright © 2000 Giles Milton. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents

Acknowledgements vii

1 Savages among the Icebergs 5

2 Sir Humfrey and the Cannibals 16

3 The Jolly Tribesman 37

4 Harriot's Devils 62

5 Storms, Sprites, and Goblins 74

6 Governor Lane's Sandcastle 100

7 Enter Sir Francis 120

8 Smoke into Gold 152

9 The Unfortunate Master Coffin 173

10 Arise, Lord Manteo 198

11 Sounding a Trumpet 219

12 One Bess for Another 238

13 A Miracle among Savages 250

14 The King's Dearest Daughter 273

15 Mr. and Mrs. Rolfe Go to England 300

Epilogue 331

Bibliography 345

Index 351