The earliest description of the People of the First Light was by Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian mariner-for-hire commissioned by the king of France in 1523 to discover whether one could reach Asia by rounding the Americas to the north. Sailing north from the Carolinas, he observed that the coastline everywhere was “densely populated,” smoky with Indian bonfires; he could sometimes smell the burning hundreds of miles away. The ship anchored in wide Narragansett Bay, near what is now Providence, Rhode Island. Verrazzano was one of the first Europeans the natives had seen, perhaps even the first, but the Narragansett were not intimidated. Almost instantly, twenty long canoes surrounded the visitors. Cocksure and graceful, the Narragansett sachem leapt aboard: a tall, long-haired man of about forty with multicolored jewelry dangling about his neck and ears, “as beautiful of stature and build as I can possibly describe,” Verrazzano wrote.
For fifteen days Verrazzano and his crew were the Narragansett’s honored guests—though the Indians, Verrazzano admitted, kept their women out of sight after hearing the sailors’ “irksome clamor” when females came into view. Much of the time was spent in friendly barter. To the Europeans’ confusion, steel and cloth did not interest the Narragansett, who wanted to swap only for “little bells, blue crystals, and other trinkets to put in the ear or around the neck.” On Verrazzano’s next stop, the Maine coast, the Abenaki did want steel and cloth—demanded them, in fact. But up north the friendly welcome had vanished. The Indians denied the visitors permission to land; refusing even to touch the Europeans, they passed goods back and forth on a rope over the water. As soon as the crew members sent over the last items, the locals began “showing their buttocks and laughing.” Mooned by the Indians! Verrazzano was baffled by this “barbarous” behavior, but the reason for it seems clear: unlike the Narragansett, the Abenaki had long experience with Europeans.
During the century after Verrazzano Europeans were regular visitors to the Dawnland, usually fishing, sometimes trading, occasionally kidnapping natives as souvenirs. (Verrazzano had grabbed one himself, a boy of about eight.) By 1610 Britain alone had about two hundred vessels operating off Newfoundland and New England; hundreds more came from France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. With striking uniformity, these travelers reported that New England was thickly settled and well defended. In 1605 and 1606 Samuel de Champlain, the famous explorer, visited Cape Cod, hoping to establish a French base. He abandoned the idea. Too many people already lived there. A year later Sir Ferdinando Gorges—British, despite the name—tried to found a community in Maine. It began with more people than the Pilgrims’ later venture in Plymouth and was better organized and supplied. Nonetheless, the local Indians, numerous and well armed, killed eleven colonists and drove the rest back home within months.