Martin Pring

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Martin Pring (1580–1626) was an English explorer from Bristol, England who in 1603 at the age of 23 was captain of an expedition to North America to assess commercial potential; he explored areas of present-day Maine, New Hampshire, and Cape Cod in Massachusetts. In the process, he named what is now Plymouth Harbor 'Whitson Bay' and a nearby hill 'Mount Aldworth' after the two Bristol merchants who provided him with ships and supplies. The harbour was later renamed by the Pilgrim fathers.

Pring and his crew were the first known Europeans to ascend the Piscataqua River. It is thought that Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano explored this part of the New England coast in 1524-25 looking for a route to the Far East, but he did not make landfall until he reached the St. Lawrence River further north.

In 1606 Pring returned to America and mapped the Maine coast. Later he became a ship's master, sailing for the East India Company (EIC) and exploring in East Asia. He also prevented other nations from trading in the area. By 1619 he commanded all the Company's naval forces.

Returning to England in 1621, Pring was made a member of the Virginia Company and granted land in the Chesapeake Bay area. After leaving the EIC in 1623, Pring served as a privateer for England, capturing several French and Spanish ships as prizes.

Early life and education[edit]

Martin Pring was born and raised in Feniton, Devonshire. The parish registers record his baptism in the church on 23 Apr 1580, son of John PRINGE of Thorne, (b. 1540bfr. – bur. 6 Feb 1630 Feniton) who married (30 Jun 1561 Feniton) Mary Clarke. Historians have not discovered details about his early life, but he apparently learned early about sailing out of Bristol. He started working on ships.


In 1603, under patronage of the mayor, aldermen and merchants of Bristol, including Richard Hakluyt, Pring at the age of 23 was appointed as captain to command a ship and bark to explore the northern parts of the territory known as Virginia in North America and assess its commercial potential, financing it against a return cargo of sassafras.[1] His flagship, the Speedwell, was of 60 tons and 30 men. (A different Speedwell was one of those used by members of the Plymouth Colony 17 years later for their 1620 trip to America.) It was escorted by a barque, the Explorer (also known as Discoverer[1]), of 26 tons and 13 men. The expedition was licensed by Sir Walter Raleigh and departed 10 April 1603.[2]

The two ships first made landfall about two months later at the entrance of Penobscot Bay in what is now the state of Maine. Heading west, they visited the mouths of the Saco, Kennebunk and York rivers, all of which Pring found "to pierce not far into the land."[3] In June, they arrived at the Piscataqua River, a tidal estuary, which he described as the westernmost and best river. Pring explored 10–12 miles into the interior by means of the Piscataqua, the center of which now forms part of the border between Maine and New Hampshire. He and his crew are the first Europeans known to have done so.

Anchoring the Speedwell at the lower harbour, Pring boarded the smaller Explorer and, aided by oarsmen, ascended the Piscataqua. They sounded its depth, which they found impressive, and explored its banks. Pring admired the area's "goodly groves and woods."[4] They encountered the native Abenaki people. Pring's description of them provides significant details of pre-colonial Native American life.[1] At that time of year, the Abenaki would likely have been upriver at the Piscataqua's tributaries, where fish and game were plentiful around the numerous falls. Pring must have been anticipating hostile (or unwanted) Native activity because his party brought with them on the Piscataqua "two excellent Mastives [sic]", one of which "would carrie a halfe-Pike in his mouth". Of the use of these dogs Pring wrote: "when we would be rid of the Savages company wee would let loose the Mastives, and suddenly without cry they would flee away."[5]

The Explorer sailed into Great Bay, where the crew sought the sassafras (or "ague tree"), then considered an elixir of life with great medicinal value in treating fevers. Finding none, they returned to meet the Speedwell, together continuing down the coast.

They found sassafras in sufficient quantity in a bay,[a] and immediately built a barricade for defense against the Native inhabitants.[9]

Pring insisted that they were constantly visited by groups of Natives as large as "one hundred and twentie at once".[10] He does not explain, however, how relations with the locals deteriorated from harmony[b] to the day when the settlers fired their cannon and set the mastiffs on 140 of them.[11] Salisbury suggests that it likely had to do with the abrupt conduct of the English, insensitivity to local customs (which they used only when convenient), and their brutal use of the dogs against the indigenous peoples.[12]

Engraved illustration of Pring's barricade in 1706 Dutch translation of the account in Purchas.

The expedition spent two months ashore at the mouth of the Pamet River on Cape Cod, in what is now Truro, Massachusetts. The explorers erected a small stockade below Cornhill, which would be noted by the Pilgrims on their subsequent journey to the New World. Subsisting on a variety of fish and game, Captain Pring's men harvested sassafras trees for export to England.

The Explorer departed first with a load of sassafras. Pring's ship Speedwell was attacked by a large force of Wampanoag, but the ship's two mastiffs had woken the guard and held off the warriors. As the ship departed, warriors burned the woods on shore and more than 200 shouted at the sailors. The natives had earlier fled the area where the expedition camped. Pring's men had found one of their birch bark canoes, which he carried on board his ship to England. He departed 8 or 9 August, and reached England on 2 October.[1]

Later career[edit]

Pring continued to participate in commercial expeditions that created important trade networks and laid the base for colonisation: in 1606 he returned to Maine and mapped the coast. He started to work for the East India Company, where by 1613 he served as ship's master. He helped exclude the Spanish and Portuguese from East Indies markets. By 1619, he commanded all of the naval forces for the Company.[1]

In 1618; sailing with the 1000-tonne flagship Royal James' (launched 1617) and the fleet of the Royal Anne, the Gift, and the Bull and the Bee; Pring travelled to Sumatra for the EIC. He reached Jakarta in September 1618 to confront the Dutch, after they had attacked English merchants in the Moluccas. Pring was joined by Thomas Dale with another fleet of six English ships to fight the Dutch in Banten Bay. Pring captured a wealthy Dutch merchant ship having left Japan, then sailing to Coromandel Coast for repairs.

Pring took over command of the fleet in August 1619 when Dale died in Machilipatnam. In the Sunda Strait near to the Sumatra coastline, he met three more English ships of another fleet, which had been pursued by the Dutch from Java after having set anchor there. Pring decided to send 3 ships north and to proceed to Japan himself to gain needed repair and provisions for the fleet. With another 2 English ships, the Elizabeth and the Bull, he sailed to Japan on 23 July 1620, docking at Hirado Island, the only trading access allowed to foreigners. He made contact with the factor Richard Cocks and departed Japan carrying the will of the recently bereaved EIC employee, William Adams on 26 December 1620.[13][14]

In 1621 Pring returned to England, where he was made a freeman of the Virginia Company. He was granted 200 acres. Although he resigned from the Dutch East Indies Company in 1623, he soon returned to sea, serving as a privateer for England. He took many prizes in French and Spanish trading ships.[1]

Pring's short account of his first expedition to America was published in 1625 and is included in the fourth volume of Samuel Purchas's Pilgrimes. It provides valuable material about the lives of the pre-colonial Abenaki and Wampanoag, as well as Pring's descriptions of geography, plants and animals.[1] The explorer died in 1626 at the age of 46 and was buried in Bristol.



  1. ^ The exact spot is a matter of conjecture. Bancroft believed that it was at Old Town Harbor in Martha's Vineyard, which would be consistent with Pring's statement that it was in "the latitude of 41. degrees and odd minutes".[6] Burrage wrote that it was at Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the Mayflower settlers would later settle.[7] Salisbury thinks that it was in Provincetown Harbor.[8]
  2. ^ Pring tells the story of locals charmed by the playing of the zither ("gitterne") by a sailor, who the Natives paid tobacco, pipes and snakes skins to play, while they "danced twentie in a Ring … singing Io Ia Io Ia Ia Io …"[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Martin Pring, "The Voyage of Martin Pring, 1603", Summary of his life and expeditions at American Journeys website, 2012, Wisconsin Historical Society
  2. ^ Brace, Keith (1996). Portrait of Bristol. London: Robert Hale. ISBN 0-7091-5435-6.
  3. ^ Martin Pring, "The Voyage of Martin Pring, 1603", in Burrage, Henry S. (editor). Early English and French Voyages, Chiefly from Hakluyt, 1534–1608, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906, pp. 343–352, text online at American Journeys website, 2012, Wisconsin Historical Society
  4. ^ Pring (1906), The Voyage
  5. ^ Purchas 1625, p. IV:1655 reprinted in Burrage 1906, p. 348 and Levermore 1912, pp. I:63–64
  6. ^ Bancroft 1862, p. 114.
  7. ^ Burrage 1906, pp. 346–47 n.4.
  8. ^ Salisbury 1982, p. 89.
  9. ^ Purchas 1625, pp. IV:1654–55 reprinted in Burrage 1906, pp. 346–47 and Levermore 1912, pp. I:63–63.
  10. ^ a b Purchas 1625, p. 1655 reprinted in Burrage 1906, p. 347 and Levermore 1912, p. I:63.
  11. ^ Purchas 1625, p. 1656 reprinted in Burrage 1906, pp. 350–51 and Levermore 1912, pp. I:66–67.
  12. ^ Salisbury 1982, p. 90.
  13. ^ "East Indies, China and Japan: December 1620 | British History Online".
  14. ^ Japan as it was and is, Richard Hildreth, 1855, pp. 182 - 185


Further reading[edit]

  • Axtell, James. Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial America, New York: Oxford University Press, 1992
  • Baker, Emerson W., et al., eds. American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega, Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1994
  • Brewster, Charles W. Rambles About Portsmouth (1873)
  • Whalen, Richard F. Truro: The Story of a Cape Cod Town (2002)

External links[edit]