An Italian explorer gave us what might be the earliest written account of the place that would become known as North Carolina.
King Francis I of France sent Giovanni da Verrazzano (1485 - 1528) to investigate the uncharted coastline between Spanish Florida and Portuguese Newfoundland. Despite terrible storms on their voyage across the Atlantic, his party reached approached North America in the spring of 1524. Upon the completion of his trip, Verrazzano described his findings in a July 8 letter to the King. When he had reached North America, Verrazzano had sailed up and down the coastline without finding a suitable harbor and resorted to Plan B near the Cape Fear (not far from present-day Wilmington, NC).
At length, being in despair to find any port, we cast anchor upon the coast, and sent our boat to shore, where we saw great store of people which came to the sea side; and seeing us approach they fled away, and sometimes would stand still and look back, beholding us with great admiration; but afterwards being animated and assured with signs that we made them, some of them came hard to the sea side, seeming to rejoice very much at the sight of us, and marveling greatly at our apparel, shape and whiteness, shewed us by sundry signs, where we might most commodiously come aland with our boat, offering us also of their victuals to eat….
These people go altogether naked, except only that they cover their private parts with certain skins of beasts, like unto martens, which they fasten unto a narrow girdle made of grass very, artificially 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 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 little tail. They are well featured in their limbs, of middling stature, and commonly somewhat bigger than we, broad breasted, strong armed, 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-favored, having black and great eyes, with a cheerful and steady look, not strong of body, yet sharp witted, nimble and exceeding great runners, as far as we could learn by experience, and in those two last qualities they are like to the people of the east parts of the world, and especially to them of the uttermost parts of China.
We could not learn of this people their manner of living, nor their particular customs, by reason of the short abode we made on the shore, our company being but small, and our ship riding far off in the sea. And not far from these we found another people whose living we think to be like unto theirs (as hereafter I will declare unto your Majesty) showing at this present the situation and nature of the foresaid land. The shore is all covered with small sand, and so ascendeth upwards for the space of 15 foot, rising in form of little hills, about 50 paces broad. And sailing forwards, we found certain small rivers and arms of the sea, that fall down by certain creeks, washing the shore on both sides as the coast lieth.
And beyond this we saw the open country rising in height above the sandy shore, with many fair fields and plains, full of mighty great woods, some very thick, and some thin, replenished with diverse sorts of trees as pleasant and delectable to behold as is possible to imagine…palm trees, bay trees, and high cypress trees, and many other sorts of trees unknown in Europe, which yield most sweet savors….
And the land is full of many beasts, as stags, deer and hares, and likewise of lakes and pools of fresh water, with great plenty of fowls, convenient for all kind of pleasant game. This land is latitude 34 degrees, with good and wholesome air, temperate between hot and cold; no vehement winds do blow in those regions… the sky clear and fair with very little rain; and if at any time the air be cloudy and misty, with the southern wind, immediately it is dissolved and wareth clear and fair again…
And so Verrazzano sailed away from the Cape Fear region, up the coast toward Hatteras:
We departed from this place still running along the coast which we found to trend toward the east, and we saw everywhere very great fires, by reason of the multitude of the inhabitants…. We saw … many people which came onto the shore making diverse signs of friendship, and shewing that they were content we should come aland, and by trial we found them to be very courteous and gentle….
To the intent we might send them of our things, which the Indians commonly desire and esteem, as sheets of paper, glasses, bells, and such like trifles, we sent a young man one of our mariners ashore, who swimming towards them, and being within 3 or 4 yards of the shore, not trusting them, cast the things upon the shore; but seeking afterwards to return, he was with such violence of the waves beaten upon the shore, that he was so bruised, that he lay there almost dead; which the Indians perceiving, ran to catch him, and drawing him out they carried him a little way off from the sea. The young man perceiving they caried him, being at the first dismayed, began then greatly to fear and cried out piteously: likewise did the Indians which did accompany him, going about to cheer him and to give him courage, and then settling him on the ground at the foot of a little hill against the sun, they began to behold him with great admiration, marveling at the whiteness of his flesh: and putting off his clothes, they made him warm at a great fire, not without our great fear which remained in the boat, that they would have roasted him at that fire, and have eaten him. The young man having recovered his strength, and having stayed a while with them, shewed them by signs that he was desirous to return to the ship, and they with great love clapping him fast about, with many embracings, accompanying him into the sea, and to put him in more assurance, leaving him alone, went unto a high ground and stood there, beholding him until he was entered into the boat. This young man observed as we did also, that these are of color inclining to black as the others were, with their flesh very shining, of middling stature, handsome visage, and delicate limbs, and of very little strength, but of prompt wit, farther we observed not…. He saw nothing else.
Verrazzano continued along the Outer Banks, hoping to find a passage to the Orient. And he thought he found it when he looked west beyond the narrow barrier islands and saw a vast body of water (which we now recognize as the Pamlico Sound):
We left this place. We called it "Annunciata" from the day of arrival, and found there an isthmus one mile wide and about two hundred miles long, in which we could see the eastern sea from the ship, halfway between west and north. This is doubtless the one which goes around the tip of India, China, and Cathay. We sailed along this isthmus, hoping all the time to find some strait or real promontory where the land might end to the north, and we could reach those blessed shores of Cathay. This ishtmus was named…“Varazanio," just as all the land we found was called "Francesca," after our Francis.
Soon after his discovery became known in Europe, cartographers included the “Sea of Verrazzano” on their maps of the New World. The vast continent of North America was depicted as narrowing down to a sliver of an isthmus (the Outer Banks), beyond which, the Sea of Verrazzano connected to the Pacific Ocean.
This feature was included on world maps for a whole century after Verrazzano’s life and death. After leaving this “Pacific passage” the mariners continued on toward the mid-Atlantic coast:
Departing from hence following the shore which trended somewhat toward the north in 50 leagues space we came to another land which shewed much more faire and full of woods, being very great, where we rode at anchor; and that we might have some knowledge thereof, we sent 20 men aland, which entered into the country about 2 leagues, and they found that the people were fled to the woods for fear. They saw only one old woman, with a young maid of 18 or 20 years old which seeing our company hid themselves in the grass for fear; the old woman carried two infants on her shoulders, and behind her neck a child of 8 years old. The young woman was laden likewise with as many, but when our men came unto them, the women cried out, the old woman made signs that the men were fled unto the woods.
As soon as they saw us to quiet them and to win their favor, our men gave them such victuals as they had with them, to eat, which the old woman received thankfully, but the young woman disdained them all, and threw them disdainfully on the ground. They took a child from the old woman to bring into France, and going about to take the young woman which was very beautiful and of tall stature, they could not possibly, for the great outcries that she made, bring her to the sea; and especially having great woods to pass through and being far from the ship, we purposed to leave her behind, bearing away the child only. We found those folks to be more white than those that we found before, being clad with certain leaves that hang on boughs of trees, which they sew together with threads of wild hemp; their heads were trussed up after the same manner as the former were, their ordinary food is of pulse, whereof they have great store, differing in color and taste from ours, of good and pleasant taste.
Moreover they live by fishing and fowling, which they take with ginnies, and bows made of hard wood, the arrows of canes, being headed with the bones of fishes and other beasts. The beasts in those parts are much wilder than in our Europe by reason they are continually chased and hunted. We saw many of their boats, made of one tree 20 foot long and 4 foot broad, which are not made with iron or stone or any other kind of metal (because that in all this country for the space of 200 leagues which we ran, we never saw one stone of any sort) they help themselves with fire, burning so much of the tree as is sufficient for the hollowness of the boat. The like they do in making the stern and the fore part, until it be fit to sail upon the sea. The land is in situation, goodness and fairness like the other; it hath woods like the other, thine and full of diverse sorts of trees but not so sweet, because the country is more northerly and cold.
We saw in this country many vines growing naturally, which growing up, took hold of the trees as they do in Lombardy, which if by husbandmen they were dressed in good order, without all doubt they would yield excellent wines, for having oftentimes seen the fruit thereof dried, which was sweet and pleasant, and not differing from ours, we think that they do esteem the same, because that in every place where they grow, they take away the under branches growing round about that the fruit thereof may ripen the better.
We found also roses, violets, lilies and many sorts of herbs and sweet and odoriferous flowers different from ours. We knew not their dwellings because they were far up in the land, and we judge by many signs that we saw that they are of wood and of trees framed together. We do believe also by many conjectures and signs that many of them sleeping in the fields have no other cover than the open sky. Farther knowledge have we not of them; we think that all the rest whose countries we passed, live all after one manner. Having made our abode three days in this country, and riding on the coast for want of harbors, we concluded to depart from thence….