Thomas Harriot

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Harriot, Thomas

A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia

Reprinted in Major Problems in American Colonial History

Published in 1999

Edited by Karen Ordahl Kupperman

"...some people could not tell whether to think us gods or men..."

English exploration of North America began with the voyages of Italian-born navigator John Cabot (c.1450–c.1499), who reached the region that eventually became known as New England in 1497. By 1502 fishermen were sending cod (a type of fish used for food) from Labrador, Canada, and New England to the port of Bristol, England. As early as 1508–1509 Cabot's son Sebastian (c. 1476–1557) had explored the Atlantic coast, but the English did not establish a permanent presence on the continent for another hundred years. Although Bartholomew Gosnold (d. 1607) briefly attempted to colonize New England in 1602, the English settlers were not prepared for life in the New World. Nevertheless published reports of Gosnold's venture described North America as "the goodliest continent that ever we saw, promising more by farre than we any way did expect." Eager investors formed business ventures in the hopes of exploiting the bountiful resources in the wilderness.

English explorers were also trying to find a northwest passage, a natural waterway between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, which would provide more direct access to Asia. In 1576 Martin Frobisher (c.1535–1594) undertook a series of voyages to Greenland to search for a water route, but each time his ships were stopped by ice in the Canadian Arctic. In 1578 English navigator Humphrey Gilbert (c.1539–1583) was given a patent (contract granting specific rights) by Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) to explore and colonize North America. On his second expedition, in 1585, he reached Newfoundland and claimed the region for England. Discovering some fishermen living on the site of present-day St. John's, Gilbert appointed himself governor of the settlement. According to a few scholars, Gilbert established the first English colony in the New World, although most historians give that distinction to Jamestown, Virginia (see "The Founding of Jamestown").

During the return trip to England, Gilbert was lost at sea. The North America patent was then transferred to his half brother, Walter Raleigh (1554–1618), who secured the support of influential noblemen and navigators for another attempt to establish a settlement. In 1584 Raleigh appointed Philip Amadas (1550–1618) and Arthur Barlowe to head an expedition to explore the mid-Atlantic coast of North America. Reaching the outer banks of present-day North Carolina, the expedition party came in contact with the Roanokes, Native Americans who inhabited Roanoke Island and the surrounding region. After a brief stay the Englishmen took two Native Americans, Manteo and Wachese, back to England. Amadas and Barlowe gave enthusiastic reports about Roanoke, claiming the island offered favorable trading prospects and an excellent location for a military fort. Impressed by the success of the mission, Elizabeth I knighted Raleigh and named the region Virginia in honor of herself (she was called the "Virgin Queen" because she refused to marry).

Raleigh immediately organized a venture to establish a permanent colony at Roanoke. He assembled five ships and two boats, which he placed under the command of English navigator Richard Grenville (1542–1591). Among the party of 108 men—mainly soldiers and servants—was Thomas Harriot (1560–1621), a mathematician and Raleigh's tutor, who was given the task of surveying Virginia. (Surveying is a branch of mathematics that involves determining the area of any portion of the Earth's surface, the lengths and directions of bounding lines, and the contour of the surface.) Manteo and Wachese were to serve as interpreters, and artist John White (?–1593) planned to make drawings of animal and plant life in North America. Upon arriving at Roanoke in July 1585, the expedition got off to a bad start. First, Grenville determined that the island was not appropriate for a permanent military base. Then he ordered the burning of a Native American village when he discovered a silver cup was missing.

Later the next month Grenville departed Roanoke for the Caribbean. Before leaving he placed colonist Ralph Lane (1530–1603) in charge of one hundred men. He then ordered the men to find a better site for the settlement and construct a fort and other buildings. In spite of Grenville's earlier aggression toward the Native Americans, the Englishmen had a good relationship with the Roanoke (also called Wiroan) people and their chief, Wingina. Lane freely explored the area, White sketched plants and animals, and Harriot conducted a detailed survey of the land. Harriot also recorded his observations of Native American life, language, and customs. As spring approached, the colonists ran out of food, so Lane took the drastic step of demanding corn from Wingina. Although the chief offered some land and seeds, Lane over-looked his generosity and concluded that the Native Americans were planning an attack. Lane therefore decided to strike first, and in the conflict Wingina and several of his people were killed.

The murder of Wingina and other Roanokes only made the food shortage at Roanoke worse because neighboring Native American groups avoided contact with the Europeans. The struggling colony was in desperate straits by June 1586, when English seaman Francis Drake (1540?–1596) paid a surprise visit on his way back from the Caribbean. Anxious to go home, all but three of the settlers boarded Drake's ship and set sail for England. About a year after their return Harriot published A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia.

Things to Remember While Reading A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia:

  • Harriot published A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia primarily to encourage English colonization in North America. Many consider it to be the first description of Native Americans to be written in English. In the report Harriot also included a survey of the geographic features of Roanoke, nearby islands, and portions of the mainland. It is one of the earliest known statistical land surveys.
  • When the English initially organized the Roanoke expeditions they were motivated by the prospect of making profits on precious metals and trade in North America. Nevertheless, like the Spanish and French, they were also intent on converting Native American "savages" to Christianity (see "New Mexico Indians Eager for Conversion" and "Jolliet and Marquette Explore the Mississippi"). Note Harriot's statement that "Some religion they [Native Americans] have already, which although it be far from the truth, yet being as it is, there is hope it may be the easier and sooner reformed." Later he observed that the Native Americans kept no written records. This was because they had a rich oral tradition, whereby master storytellers passed myths and legends down from generation to generation (see "The Coming of the First White Man").
  • Harriot commented that "some of the people [the Wiroans] could not tell whether to think us gods or men." Compare the Wiroans' confusion to the reactions of the Tlingits of Southeast Alaska (see "The Coming of the First White Man") and the Tainos in the Caribbean (see "Christopher Columbus Reports to Ferdinand and Isabella") upon meeting Europeans for the first time.
  • Historians maintain that Harriot showed unusual insight into problems that would eventually develop between Native Americans and European colonists. For instance, he wrote that native peoples "are not to be feared, but that they shall have cause both to fear and love us, that shall inhabit with them." Later he observed, "If there fall out any wars between us & them," the English would have "advantages against them in so many manner of ways."
  • Harriot described the friendly relations the English enjoyed with Wingina and the Wiroans. Although the situation changed drastically after Lane initiated the attack that resulted in the deaths of the chief and several other Wiroans.
  • The Wiroans died in great numbers after the Englishmen visited their towns, a "marvelous accident" that puzzled both Harriot and the Wiroans. Since none of the Englishmen were stricken, the deaths were undoubtedly caused by diseases they had carried with them from Europe. Disease was a major factor in the near-extermination of the Native American population during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
  • Keep in mind that Harriot wrote A Brief and True Report for a sixteenth-century audience. Since his language and writing style are unfamiliar to twentieth-century readers, explanatory notes are included in the following excerpts from the document.

A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia

Harriot opened his report with a detailed description of the appearance and customs of Native Americans, whom he called "natural inhabitants." He remarked that native peoples did not have sophisticated tools, nor did they have any weapons except bows and arrows for fighting against the English settlers ("to offend us withal"):

It resteth I [I pause to] speak a word or two of the natural inhabitants, their natures and manners, . . as that you know, how that they in respect of troubling our inhabiting and planting, are not to be feared, [they pose no threat to our settlement] but that they shall have cause both to fear and love us, that shall inhabit with them.

They are a people clothed with loosemantles made of Deer skins, & aprons of the same round about their middles; all else naked; . . having no edge tools or weapons of iron or steel to offend us withal, neither know they how to make any: those weapons that they have,


Mantles: Cloaks

are only bows made ofWitch hazel, & arrows of reeds, flat edgedtruncheons also of wood about a yard long, neither have they anything to defend themselves but targets made of barks, and somearmours made of stickswickered together with thread. . . .

Harriot observed that the Native Americans admired English customs ("our manner of knowledges and crafts"), which they found superior to their own. Consequently they wanted to please and cooperate with the English ("and have greater respect for pleasing and obeying us"). He went on to describe Native Americans' wars with one another, observing that battle strategy ("set battles") was rare, except when there happened to be ("it fall out") fighting in the forest. At this point Harriot made his prediction about the Native Americans' lack of preparation for wars with Europeans. Since they could not defend themselves against superior battle plans and weaponry, they could be expected to run away from confrontation. Yet he praised their "excellence of wit," and he predicted that the English could eventually civilize them and convert them to Christianity (the "true religion"):

Their manner of wars amongst themselves is either by sudden surprising one another most commonly about the dawning of the day, or moonlight, or else byambushes, or some subtle devices [secretive methods]. Set battles are very rare, except it fall out where there are many trees, where either part may have some hope of defence, after the delivery of every arrow, in leaping behind some [tree] or other.

If there fall out any wars between us & them, what their fight is likely to be, we having advantages against them so many manner of ways, as by our discipline, our strange weapons and devices else [other devices], especially byordinance great and small, it may be easily imagined; by the experience we have had in some places, the turning up of their heels against us in running away was their best defence. In respect of us they are a people poor, and for want of skill and judgment in the knowledge and use of our things, do esteem ourtrifles before things of greater value: Notwithstanding in their proper manner considering the want of such means as we have [in spite of not having our advantages], they seem veryingenious; For although they have no such tools, nor any such crafts, sciences and arts as we. . . they should desire our friendships & love, and have the greater respect for pleasing and obeying us. Whereby may be hoped if means of good government be used, [if we govern them properly] that they may in short time be brought to civility and embracing of true religion.

Witch hazel

Witch hazel: Shrub or tree with slender-petaled yellow flowers borne in late fall or early spring


Truncheons: Clubs


Armours: Hand-held weapons


Wickered: Woven


Ambushes: Surprise attacks


Ordinance: Weapons and ammunition


Trifles: Things of little value


Ingenious: Clever, resourceful

Harriot reported that the Native Americans believed in an eternal god who created other gods. Nevertheless he dismissed their views as simply "some religion" that was "far from the truth" and would make the task of conversion easier for the English. Notice that Native Americans, like Christians, believed in immortality, heaven, and hell:

Some religion they have already, which although it be far from the truth, yet being as it is, there is hope it may be the easier and sooner reformed.

They believe that there are many Gods which they call Montóac, but of different sorts and degrees; one only chief and great God, which hath been from all eternity. Who as they affirm when he purposed to make the world, made first other gods of a principal order to be as means and instruments to be used in the creation and government to follow; and after the Sun, Moon, and Stars as petty gods. . . . First they say were made waters, out of which by the gods was made all diversity of creatures that are visible or invisible.

For mankind they say a woman was made first, which by the working of one of the gods, conceived and brought forth children: And in such sort [in this manner] they say they had their beginning. But how many years or ages have passed since, they say they can make no relation, having no letters nor other such means as we to keep records of the particularities of times past, but only tradition from father to son. . . .

They believe also theimmortality of the soul, that after this life as soon as the soul is departed from the body, according to the works it hath done, it is either carried to heaven thehabitacle of gods, there to enjoy perpetual bliss and happiness, or else to a great pit or hole, which they think to be in the furthest parts of their part of the world toward the sunset, there to burn continually: the place they call Popogusso. . . .


Immortality: The state of being free from death


Habitacle: Dwelling place

In this final excerpt Harriot described the Wiroans' reactions to Christianity. They accepted the Englishmen's faith, eventually rejecting their own. They grew to fear the Christian God. For instance, the Wiroans blamed illness or crop failure on the wrath of the Englishmen's god. In fact, whenever the Englishmen encountered hostility or resentment in Native American villages, the inhabitants began dying within a few days after they left. Both Harriot and the Wiroans seemed to make a connection between the mysterious deaths and offenses toward the Englishmen. The Wiroans therefore concluded that the Englishmen were gods, especially since they had no women with them. (The earliest Virginia expeditions were comprised only of men.) The true reason for the illnesses, however, was that the Native Americans were not immune to the diseases that the Europeans often carried.

Wiroans with whom we dwelt called Wingina, and many of his people would be glad many times to be with us at our prayers, and many times call upon us both in his own town, as also in others whither he sometimes accompanied us, to pray and singPsalms; hoping thereby to be partaker of the same effects which we by that means also expected [hoping to gain the same benefits from our religion].

Twice this Wiroans [Wingina] was sogrievously sick that he was like to die, and as he laylanguishing, doubting of any help by his own priests, and thinking he was in such danger for offending [because he had offended] us and thereby our god, sent for some of us to pray and be a means [connection] to our God that it would please him either that he [Wingina] might live, or after death dwell with him [God] in bliss, so likewise were the requests of many others in the like case.

On a time also when their corn began to wither by reason of adrought which happened extraordinarily, fearing [they feared] that it had come to pass by reason that in something they had displeased us, many would come to us & desire us to pray to our God of England, that he would preserve their corn, promising that when it was ripe we also should be partakers of the fruit.

There could at no time happen any strange sickness, losses, hurts, or any other cross [misfortune] unto them, but that they wouldimpute to us the cause or means thereof for offending or not pleasing us. . . .


Psalms: A book in the Old Testament containing sacred songs and poems


Grievously: Terribly


Languishing: Suffering


Drought: A period of prolonged dryness that causes extensive damage to crops or prevents their successful growth


Impute: Attribute

There was no town where we had any subtle device practiced against us [the inhabitants showed hostility], we leaving it unpunished or not revenged (because we sought by all means possible to win them by gentleness) but that within a few days after our departure from every such town, the people began to die very fast, and many in short space; in some towns about twenty, in some forty, in some sixty, & in one six score [one hundred twenty], which in truth was very many in respect of their numbers. This happened in no place that we could learn but where we had been where they used some practice against us, and after such time; The disease also was sostrange, that they neither knew what it was, nor how to cure it; the like by report of the oldest men in the country never happened before, time out of mind. A thing specially observed by us, as also by the natural inhabitants themselves. . . .

This marvelous accident in all the country wrought so strange opinions of us, that some people could not tell whether to think us gods or men . . . because . . . there was no man of ours known to die, or that was especially sick: they noted also that we had no women among us, neither that we did care for any of theirs.

Some therefore were of opinion that we were not born of women, and therefore notmortal, but that we were men of an old generation many years past then risen again to immortality.


Mortal: Human

What happened next . . .

Soon after the departure of the colonists Grenville returned to Roanoke with a new load of supplies and six hundred additional men. He found the colony deserted—no one knows what happened to the three men who had remained on the island. Eventually Grenville decided to return to England and recruit more settlers. He left fifteen men at Roanoke to plant crops and build dwellings in preparation for the new colonists. By that time, however, Raleigh had lost interest in colonizing Virginia. John White, the artist who accompanied Grenville in 1585, therefore took over the project and acquired the backing of several investors for another expedition.

White's plan was to start a new colony called the City of Raleigh, which would be located north of Roanoke in the Chesapeake Bay area. White would be the governor of the new colony. Since this settlement would be devoted to families and farming instead of military defense, the party included seventeen women, nine children, and ninety-four men. When the ships reached North America in late 1587, the pilot refused to go any farther than Roanoke. Forced to remain at the old settlement, the colonists discovered that the fifteen men left by Grenville were gone, possibly driven out by Native Americans. Consequently crops had not been planted and there was no suitable housing. The only solution was for White to go back to England for more supplies and additional men. Before departing he told the colonists to move to another location if they had any problems and to leave a message telling him where to find them.

The "lost" colony

After a three-year absence John White returned from England in 1591, only to find Roanoke deserted. The fate of the inhabitants of the "lost colony" remains a mystery. These excerpts from White's journal describe what he found at the site.

August 17 . . . we espied [spied] toward the north end of the island the light of a great fire through the woods, to which we presently rode. When we came right over against it, we let fall our grapnel [anchor] near the shore and sounded with a trumpet a call, and afterwards many familiar English tunes of songs, and called to them friendly. But we had no answer. We therefore landed at daybreak, and coming to the fire, we found the grass and sundry [numerous] rotten trees burned about the place....

In all this way we saw in the sand the print of the savages' feet of two or three sorts trodden the night, and as we entered up the sandy bank, upon a tree, in the very brow thereof, were curiously carved these fair Roman letters CRO; which letters presently we knew to signify the place where I should find the planters seated, according to a secret token agreed upon between them and me at my last departure from them, which was that they should not fail to write or carve on the tree or posts of the doors the name of the place where they should be seated; for at my coming away they were prepared to remove from Roanoke 50 miles in the main.

Therefore at my departure from them in 1587 I willed them that if they should happen to be distressed in any of those places, that then they should carve over the letters or name a cross; but we found no such sign of distress. And having well considered of this, we passed towards the place where they were left in sundry houses, but we found the houses taken down, and the place very strongly enclosed with a high palisade [fence] of great trees . . . and one of the chief trees or posts at the right side of the entrance had the bark taken off, and five foot from the ground in fair capital letters was graven [carved] CROATOAN without any cross or sign of distress. . . .

This could be no other but the deed of the savages our enemies.

Reprinted in: Colbert, David, ed. Eyewitness to America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1997, pp. 11–12.

In the meantime, war had been brewing between England and Spain. When the conflict erupted in 1588—as White was about to sail from England back to North America—contact between England and Roanoke was cut off. In 1591, after the English defeated the Spanish Armada, White was finally able to return to Roanoke. By that time the settlers had all vanished without a trace, and White found only two clues to their whereabouts: the word "Croatan" carved on a fence post and the letters "Cro" etched into a tree trunk. The English suspected that the colonists' disappearance was somehow linked with the Croatoans, a friendly Native American tribe who lived on Croatoan Island about fifty miles south of Roanoke.

The Roanoke settlers were never found, and the fate of the "lost colony" remains a mystery. Numerous theories about their disappearance have evolved over the centuries. They could have died as the result of a natural disaster such as disease, starvation, hurricane, flood, or tornado. They could have tried to return to England and their ship sank at sea. More outlandish explanations include pirates coming ashore and kidnapping all the inhabitants. The most reassuring conclusion is that the colonists joined a nearby Native American tribe, with whom they intermarried and prospered.

After the dismal failure of the Roanoke colony the English made no other attempts to colonize North America for nearly twenty years. They realized they had neither the skills nor the money to establish permanent settlements in a strange and hostile land. One modern historian has noted that venturing into the wilderness of North America in the sixteenth century was similar to landing on the moon in the twentieth century. Moreover, the English, like the Spanish, were primarily interested in conquering Native American empires that would yield instant wealth with such treasures as precious metals and jewelry. Yet by the late 1590s Europeans had seized most of the available riches in the New World.

Did you know . . .

  • A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia was immensely popular among Englishmen who entertained visions of an exciting and prosperous life in the New World. By 1610 the book had been reprinted seventeen times.
  • Harriot may have performed some of the earliest scientific experiments in North America. In addition to conducting a survey of Virginia, he helped another member of the 1585 expedition, German scientist Joachim Ganz, search for copper and other precious metals. Archaeologists excavating the Roanoke site have found equipment that Harriot and Ganz probably used to test metals and ores.
  • John White was the grandfather of Virginia Dare (1587–?), the first European reported to be born in America. Nine days before White's departure from Roanoke, Virginia was born to his daughter Eleanor and his son-in-law Ananais Dare. All three Dares disappeared with the other Roanoke colonists, and White died without ever knowing what happened to his family.
  • Evidence discovered in 1998 has led historians to speculate that the Roanoke colonists may have been driven out by a drought (a period of prolonged dryness that causes damage to crops). Scientists studying the rings of a bald cypress in southeastern Virginia found that a seven-year drought was occurring at the same time the second group of settlers arrived at Roanoke in 1587. In fact, it was the most severe period of dryness in more than eight hundred years. Thus a food shortage could have forced the colonists to seek another location for their community.

For more information

"The Cabot Dilemma: John Cabot's 1497 Voyage & the Limits of Historiography" in Documents Relevant to the United States Before 1700. Available September 30, 1999.

Campbell, Elizabeth A. The Carving in the Tree. New York: Little, Brown, 1968.

Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 12–15.

Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History, 1585–1776. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996, pp. 9–12.

Quinn, David Beers. Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 1584–1606.

Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Steven, William K. "Drought May Have Doomed the Lost Colony." TheNew York Times. April 14, 1998, pp. A1, A14.

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Thomas Harriot

A contemporary of Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, Johannes Kepler, and Galilei Galileo, Thomas Harriot (1560-1621) was an English scientist and mathematician. His principal biographer, J. W. Shirley, was quoted in the website "Thomas Harriot's manuscripts," saying that in his time he was "England's most profound mathematician, most imaginative and methodical experimental scientist, and first of all Englishmen to make a telescope and turn it on the heavens." He was also an early English explorer of North America. He published very little in his life time, and the extensive scientific papers he left at his death suffered loss and then neglect until the twentieth century.

Educated at Oxford

Harriot was born in Oxfordshire, England, in 1560. Nothing is known about his parents except that his father was recorded as a plebeian when Harriot entered the University of Oxford on December 20, 1577. Of Harriot's early school years a boyhood friend, Tom Buckner, one day wrote, as quoted in Thomas Harriot: Science Pioneer, "Tom Harriot had a far greater gift for language than I had. He enjoyed reading the writings of the ancient Romans, sharpening his language abilities through disputation and debate, and writing poetry in Latin." Harriot was a good student. At Oxford he attended St. Mary's Hall with other students from the plebeian class. He became friends with two of his teachers, Richard Hakluyt, a geographer, and Thomas Allen, who had an interest in astronomy and was a suspicious figure to some because of the unusual instruments in his rooms. Harriot continued to do well in his studies and was one of only three in his class to receive a bachelor's degree in July 1580.

Sponsored by Raleigh

While Harriot was enrolled in St. Mary's Hall, Walter Raleigh had attended Oxford's Oriel College, the preserve of the gentry and nobility. Raleigh was already involved in exploration in North America when Harriot graduated. Raleigh and his half brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert had sailed with 11 ships to the Cape Verde Islands in 1578, and the ships had become badly scattered en route. Raleigh wanted someone to teach reliable navigation techniques to his ship captains. The principal at St. Mary's recommended Harriot, and Raleigh became Harriot's first patron. Harriot moved to Raleigh's London residence, Durham House.

Harriot made several investigations to prepare a course for English navigators. He interviewed ships' captains at the docks along the Thames River. His friends Allen and Hakluyt from Oxford helped him. He also read John Dee's translation of Martin Cortes' Arte de navigation. The result was a textbook he named Arcticon. Only the names of its chapters have survived; some of them were "Some Remembrances of taking the altitude of the Sonne by Astrolabe and Sea Ring," "How to find the declination of the Sonne for any time of the yeare & any place; by a speciall table called the Sonnes Regiment newly made according to late observations," and "Effect of longitude on declination."

Traveled to Virginia

When Raleigh received permission to sail to North America in 1584, Harriot may have accompanied him, but there are no records to confirm it. He is known to have sailed for the Western Hemisphere with Sir Richard Grenville in 1585. En route Harriot made many observations of the sun and stars to track his course, and he also observed a partial solar eclipse. The ship sighted Dominica in the Caribbean, then moved northward. On June 30, 1585, it anchored at Roanoke Island, off Virginia. On shore, Harriot observed the topography, flora, and fauna, making many drawings and maps, and the native people, who spoke a language the English called Algonquian. Harriot worked out a phonetic transcription of the native people's speech sounds and began to learn the language, which enabled him to converse to some extent with other natives the English encountered. Apparently Harriot favored friendly relations with the native people, but others in the party felt otherwise, and at least one of the native people was killed. At the same time, Sir Francis Drake, patrolling the Florida coast for Spanish treasure galleons to capture, heard the Spanish planned to attack the colony at Roanoke. He sailed north to warn the English and took most of them back to England in 1586. Harriot wrote his report for Raleigh and published it as A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia in 1588. Raleigh gave Harriot his own estate, in Ireland, and Harriot began a survey of Raleigh's Irish holdings. He also undertook a study of ballistics and ship design for Raleigh in advance of the Spanish Armada's arrival.

Security Shaken

Two events made Raleigh's and Harriot's lives stressful about this time. First, Raleigh's political situation became murky when he married Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Queen Elizabeth's ladies in waiting, in 1587. He had been a favorite of Elizabeth, and the marriage may have displeased the queen. Second, the queen issued a proclamation on October 18, 1591, attacking Jesuits in England for trying to return the country to Catholicism. Perhaps in retaliation, Jesuit father Robert Parsons attacked Elizabeth's sometime friend Raleigh, as well as Harriot, accusing them of atheism.

Then in 1592, soon after Raleigh's son was born, Elizabeth imprisoned Raleigh and his family in the Tower of London. Coincidentally, one of Raleigh's ships captured a Spanish treasure ship, the Madre de Deus, not long after the imprisonment. With Raleigh in prison, the ship was being gradually looted. Elizabeth wanted the greater part of its fortune for England's treasury, so Raleigh and his family were released so that Raleigh could stop the looting. Harriot remained under Raleigh's patronage in Ireland, avoiding the plague that struck London in 1593.

Harriot Studied Optics, Algebra

In 1595, the Duke of Northumberland, Henry Percy, a great friend of Raleigh's, became Harriot's patron and deeded him property in Durham as well as allowing him use of a house in London. Harriot undertook a study of optics, using part of the house as a laboratory. The studies eventually led to several important discoveries concerning the refraction of light, but Harriot never published his results. He also began to analyze the forces affecting projectiles and commenced various studies in algebra. He and earlier mathematicians may have made several discoveries often credited to Rene Descartes (1596-1650). He wrote Artis Analyticae Praxis ad Aequationes Algebraicas Resolvendas, an algebra text, and left specific instructions for its publication in his will, but knowledgeable mathematicians reportedly think that the work which was eventually published represents Harriot's efforts poorly. His body of work in algebra is considerable. He advanced the notation system for algebra (although the "greater than" and "less than" symbols that have been credited to him are now thought to have been introduced by the editor of Artis Analyticae Praxis ) and did novel work on the theory of equations, including cubic equations and negative and imaginary numbers.

Queen Elizabeth died in March 1603, and James I became king. Raleigh was implicated in a plot against the new king and was arrested and charged with high treason. After a failed suicide attempt, Raleigh was sentenced to death, and Harriot, who had tried to help his former friend and patron, was mentioned in the judgment as "an atheist and an evil influence." Harriot, apparently shaken, ceased scientific work for about a year. Raleigh's death sentence was withdrawn, but he remained in the Tower of London. Then Guy Fawkes was arrested on November 4, 1604, for a plot to blow up Parliament. Henry Percy's grandson was arrested with Fawkes, and Harriot was imprisoned in a place called the Gatehouse on suspicion. Later in November, Percy was imprisoned in the Tower to remain for 16 years.

Moons, Sunspots Observed

Harriot was released by the end of 1604 and quickly resumed his study of optics, still under Percy's generous patronage. He also visited Percy and Raleigh in the Tower from time to time. Harriot was working out a theory of color, and a correspondence began between him and the German astronomer Johannes Kepler, although nothing memorable seems to have resulted. Harriot went on to observe a comet, later identified as Halley's, on September 17, 1607. With his painstaking observations, later workers were able to compute the comet's orbit. Harriot also was the first in England to use a telescope to observe the heavens. He made sketches of the moon in 1609, then developed lenses of increasing magnification. By April 1611, he had developed a lens with a magnification of 32. Between October 17, 1610, and February 26, 1612, he observed the moons of Jupiter, already discovered by Galileo. While observing Jupiter's moons, he made a discovery of his own: sunspots, which he viewed 199 times between December 8, 1610, and January 18, 1613. These observations allowed him to figure out the sun's period of rotation. After this time, his scientific work dwindled.

Cancer Diagnosed

The cause of Harriot's diminished productivity may have been a cancer discovered on his nose. A doctor he consulted in 1615 made notes in which he called Harriot "a man somewhat melancloly… . A cancerous ulcer in the left nostril eats up the septum of his nose and in proportion to its size holds the lips hard and turned upwards… . This evil the patient has suffered the last two years," quoted the "Thomas Harriot" website. Harriot lost several friends during this time, and on October 29, 1618, he witnessed the public execution of his friend Raleigh.

Three days before Harriot died, he made his will. His mind was clear. He willed Percy charts and maps and his choice of books and papers. He remembered friends, servants, and Tom Buckner, a childhood friend with whom he maintained contact all his life and who had accompanied him on Grenville's trip to America. In the will, Harriot mentioned a sister, whose son he left fifty pounds, and a cousin. Most evidence suggests they were his only family when he died; it seems he never married. He remembered his servants generously, as well as Tom Buckner's wife (in whose house he died) and the Buckners' son.

Harriot died July 1 or 2 (accounts vary), 1621, in London and was buried in Saint Christopher's Parish Church, which burned in the fire of London in 1666. According to Thomas Harriot: Science Pioneer, after the fire an inscription was incorporated in a plaque in the Bank of England of London which reads, Harriot "cultivated all the sciences And excelled in all." The plaque calls him "A most studious searcher after truth." Harriot was several times accused of atheism during his lifetime, but the plaque adds that he was "a most devout worshiper of the Triune God."

Papers Rediscovered

Harriot's story did not end with his death. What some writers describe as his "thousands upon thousands of sheets of mathematics and of scientific observations" appeared to be lost-until 1784, when they were found in Henry Percy's country estate by one of Percy's descendants. She gave them to Franz Xaver Zach, her husband's son's tutor. Zach eventually put some of the papers in the hands of the Oxford University Press, but much work was required to prepare them for publication, and it has never been done. Scholars have begun to study them, and an appreciation of Harriot's contribution began to grow in the second half of the twentieth century. Today scholars, sometimes referred to as "Harrioteers," study the details of his life and work to understand both the man and the science of his time.


Staiger, Ralph C., Thomas Harriot: Science Pioneer, Clarion Books, 1998.


Apt, Adam Jared, "Harriot, Thomas," Encyclopaedia Britannica Library,, 2003.

O'Connor, J. J., and E. F. Robertson, "Thomas Harriot," (March 1, 2003).

—, "Thomas Harriot's Manuscripts," (March 16, 2003). □

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(b. Oxford, England, c. 1560; d. London, England, 2 July 1621),

mathematics, astronomy, physics. For the original article on Harriot see DSB, vol. 6.

Harriot continues to be an important figure in the historical study of early modern science. Recent work has shed light on his ideas about atomism as well as his contributions to astronomy. Harriot’s telescopic observations (c. 1609–1612) have been overshadowed by Galilei’s rather similar ones, but may have started earlier; he had long-standing personal contacts with the Netherlands, which gave him quicker chances of access to technical developments there than were available to Galileo, and no need to act as if they were his own.

The most important new insights concern his remarkable mathematical achievements. After the death of François Viète (1603), Harriot was the leading mathematician of his time, and a notable scientist and astronomer. He was, in all his various activities, essentially a problem solver; his mathematics made no distinction between pure and applied work (as it is now called). Each arose out of the other, and extended from shipbuilding and optics to the purest geometry and algebra. He was an important part of the chain from Viète to René Descartes and beyond, which made the historic transformation of mathematics from geometric to algebraic formalism that has been the dominant mathematical development since his time, and one whose high points in the seventeenth century were the calculi of Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Harriot himself applied his algebraic notations, almost the same as the modern elementary ones, to geometry, and thence to loci in optics, projectile theory (where the work, if published, would have inaugurated the modern study of ballistics), ship design, cartography, interpolation, and impacts.

J. A. Lohne’s original article covers the main areas of Harriot’s contributions, but some of his details and emphases are misleading or unreliable. For example, the “ingenious attempts” to rectify and square the equiangular spirals were entirely successful, even extending to the rectification of the loxodromic twisted spiral. These include the first known rectifications, partly repeated by Evangelista Torricelli in the 1640s, and an extension of the classical work of Archimedes and others. Again, the “nearly finished” tables of meridional parts were in fact not only complete, but the most accurate such tables until the 1920s.

Harriot’s work would still have been notable done fifty years or more later. Many of his methods and results were rediscovered by others, such as Leibniz, Newton, Isaac Barrow, Willebrord Snel, Descartes, James Gregory, Pierre-Simon Girard, Edmond Halley, Bonaventura Cavalieri, and Thomas Simpson; later some were extended by Johann Lambert and Carl Friedrich Gauss. Particularly notable was his work on conformality and the geometry of the sphere, leading to his directly calculated tables of logarithmic tangents (meridional parts, which solve Mercator’s problem, the construction of a conformal plane map of the spherical globe; this logarithmic work was preNapierian, and more accurate). The fundamental relation here, equating an exponential of the difference of longitude to a tangent of the colatitude, is identical in form to that of the much later hyperbolic non-Euclidean geometry of Farkas Bolyai and Nikolai Lobachevsky, where the constant surface curvature is negative instead of positive. This relates directly to Harriot’s 1603 result on the area of the spherical triangle, and it is intriguing to see how this result, which gradually became known in the seventeenth century, was first modified by Lambert 150 years later for what was (in effect) the hyperbolic geometry, and then extended to more general surfaces by Gauss in the 1820s.

Harriot’s numerical methods arose from the general binomial theorem that he derived from working back from finite differences, and which also led him to the limiting exponential series. Harriot’s algebraic theory of equations is now available in translation (Steddall’s edition of 2003), and was hardly a work for “amateurs.” It starts from Viète’s work, and includes the key step of associating roots with binomial factors, the derivation of various inequalities, and extensions of Viète’s methods of obtaining numerical solutions of polynomial equations, which he applied elsewhere to problems in refraction. Moving on from Viète’s positive roots, it recognized both negative and complex roots; he called the latter “noetic,” that is, of the mind. It is no longer appropriate to judge Harriot’s algebra entirely by the posthumous and incomplete Artis Analyticae Praxis of 1631.

Harriot’s discovery (or, perhaps, confirmation) of a constant refractive index is dated in his manuscripts to 10:30 A.M. on 21 July 1601 (Old Style). John Shirley, referring to different work, dates the result to before 1597; perhaps both dates are, in some sense, correct. Both amply predate Snel (?1621) and Descartes (1637). Harriot quantified the medieval models in which rainbows were produced by refraction and reflection in spherical raindrops. He found that the maximum value of the exit arc, 2r – i, occurs when tan i = 2 tan r. This gave Harriot the “tropical” (i.e., turning) ray, which led him to the height of the primary rainbow. Armed with a constant refractive index, this result can be obtained by elementary infinitesimals, but Harriot’s own derivation is unknown.

Harriot’s cubic curve solution of Alhazen’s problem, mentioned by Lohne, not only anticipated Barrow, but turned out to be the inverse of Christiaan Huygens’s hyperbolic solution of 1660. Inversion and its related conformality are a thread in much of Harriot’s best work.

Unfortunately, one must mention recent revisionist historical trends (“the new historicism”), as they touch on modern accounts of Harriot’s life and work. His 1588 A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia(modern North Carolina, in and around the Outer Banks, where he was a senior member of the Roanoke Settlement [1585–1586]), which has long been recognized as a leading source on early American life and settlement, has been seen by some recently as contaminated by racial and class biases. This allegation is then used to ignore or denigrate his scientific work. However, as B. J. Sokol argues forcefully, an unbiased reading of the 1588 text shows that Harriot gave fair, if somewhat optimistic, accounts of the resources, and a sympathetic description of the native population, from whom he learned much, as he himself recognized. Granted that he was part of a settlement, he was perhaps the most open-minded and enlightened of its members. His phonetic system for the local languages, long misunderstood as a “secret code,” was a notable contribution to early phonetics.

During his life Harriot was a controversial figure and he continues to provoke lively debate amongst historians.


See also the valuable and continuing series of over forty pamphlets and lectures published by the University of Durham (U.K.) Thomas Harriot Seminar since 1983, covering many and varied aspects of Harriot’s life, work, and times. Reference: Prof. G. R. Batho, Harriot Seminar, Durham Miners Hall, Durham, U.K.


The Greate Invention of Algebra: Thomas Harriot’s Treatise on Equations. Edited by Jacqueline A. Steddall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. An edition in English translation, from the original manuscripts, with introduction and bibliography (pp. 315–320).


Chapman, Allan. “The Astronomical Work of Thomas Harriot (1560–1621).” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 36 (1995): 97–107.

Fox, Robert, ed. Thomas Harriot: An Elizabethan Man of Science. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000. Prints the first ten Thomas Harriot Lectures, Oriel College, Oxford, England, 1990–1999. The next ten are due out in 2010. Also contains a bibliography by Katharine D. Watson (pp. 298–303) of relevant work since the original DSB in 1974, and a note by Gordon R. Batho on possible portraits of Harriot (pp. 280–285).

Henry, John. “Thomas Harriot and Atomism: A Reappraisal.” History of Science 20 (1982): 267–296.

North, J. D. “Thomas Harriot’s Papers on the Calendar.” In Light of Nature: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science Presented to A. C. Crombie, edited by J. D. North and J. J. Roche. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Nijhoff, 1985.

Shirley, John W. Thomas Harriot: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983. Generally reliable, more complete on life than works; extensive bibliographies, pp. 476–490.

Sokol, B. J. “The Problem of Assessing Thomas Harriot’s ‘A Briefe and True Report’ of His Discoveries in North America.” Annals of Science 51, no. 1 (January 1994): 1–16.

———. Invisible Evidence: The Unfounded Attack on Thomas Harriot’s Reputation. Thomas Harriot Seminar Occasional Paper 17. Durham, U.K.: University of Durham, 1995.

Jon V. Pepper

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Thomas Harriot (1560-1621)

English Ethnographer


Youth. Little is known about Thomas Harriots early life. He was born in Oxford in 1560, and at the age of seventeen he enrolled at university, where he studied science and mathematics. After graduation he joined Sir Walter Raleighs household staff and worked as a tutor. Raleigh was fascinated by Harriots lessons in astronomy, navigation, and math and enlisted his aid when in 1584 Raleigh received a charter to colonize the New World. At his patrons request Harriot drew up the plans for Arthur Barlowes exploratory voyage, and with a textbook he had written he taught the pilots and crewmen how to apply their nautical navigational skills to the exploration of land.

The Lane Expedition. When Barlowe returned with glowing reports of the future site of the colony, Harriot decided to join the Ralph Lane expedition. His job was to record astronomical observations, aid in navigation, and with John White observe the native inhabitants as well as their natural environment with the aim of mapping and surveying the colony. He was well prepared to undertake an ethnographical investigation of the Algonquian population because he had spent a full winter with two Indians, Manteo and Wanchese, who had been captured by Barlowe during his visit to the area. Harriot learned the Algonquian tongue spoken by the Indians while he taught his two charges English; he also began to develop a phonetic alphabet to aid in recording their speeches and vocabulary. Upon their arrival at Roanoke, Harriot spent the next several months recording his observations of Indian life while White painted what he saw.

A Briefe and True Report. Harriot published his observations upon his arrival back in England in 1588. He began A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia with a chapter on Virginias Marchantable Commodities. What caught his eye first were tent caterpillars he took to be silkworms. With careful cultivation of mulberry trees, the plant on which silkworms fed, Harriot predicted there will rise as great profite in time to the Virginians, as there of doth now to the Persians, Turkes, Italians and Spaniards. Other economic endeavors for which he thought the colony was well suited included the cultivation of sassafras, used as a treatment for venereal disease, and wine grapes. Cedar, a valuable wood, was plentiful, and the great walnut and oak trees provided nuts and acorns from which a good and sweete oyle could be made. The colony also held out great potential for miners and hunters. He had found iron deposits in two areas, and the copper ornaments worn by the wereowances suggested that the mineral would not be hard to find. Deer, bears, and wildcats could provide hunters with enough furs to make a good profite.

Assessment of the Natives. Having outlined where and how colonists could extract a living from the Carolina coast, Harriot went to great pains to describe the Algonquian groups already resident in the area. He first assured the readers they had nothing to fear: the Indians had no edge tooles or weapons, of yron or Steele to offend us with. They also lacked any defenses for English weapons, having only shields made of bark and armor made of woven twigs. Their towns were small, with only ten to twelve homes on average, and they were organized as chiefdoms under the command of various wereowances. In respect of us, Harriot informed his English audience, they are a people poore, and for want of skill and judgement.... And the fact that they believed their god had created woman first, Harriot implied, was further evidence of their inferiority. In conclusion he reminded readers that were it not for certain English provocations, which were nonetheless justifiable to his mind, the colony might have survived. The Indians, he asserted, gave what they got, and future settlers ought, he believed, to take the lesson into consideration.

Impact. A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia sold perhaps two or three hundred copies. However, it was republished two years later complete with engravings of the detailed and naturalistic paintings made by White. The second edition, undertaken by the Flemish printer and engraver Theodor de Bry, was translated into Latin, French, German, and reissued in English. With the addition of the drawings and the accessibility that different translations offered, the book became incredibly popular and was reissued for several decades. Indeed, the story of the first Roanoke colony became standard reading among a literate European population that was fascinated by the New World. One of the most avid readers was John Smith, who later governed the Jamestown colony. Not only did he prefigure his behavior based on what Harriot wrote, but also he took the volume as a model and patterned his own writings about Virginia after it. Harriots small book also transformed the way Europeans wrote about the New World. Instead of simply describing native behaviors and the flora and the fauna, those who followed Harriot began to rationalize native cultures and to develop scientifically based interpretations of the land and its human, animal, and vegetable inhabitants in order to calculate the wealth that they might extract from their colonies.

Later Years. Unlike White, Harriot did not return for the second Roanoke colony. Instead he became a favorite in the household of Henry, earl of Northumberland. Although he corresponded with Johannes Kepler, the famous German astronomer and mathematician, Harriot failed to make any further contribution to the sciences. He died of cancer of the nose in 1621.


Thomas Harriot, A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia: The Complete 1590 Theodor de Bry Edition (New York: Dover, 1972);

David Beers Quinn, Set Fair for Roanoke: Voyages and Colonies, 15841606 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

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Thomas Harriot (hâr´ēət), 1560–1621, English mathematician and astronomer. He was tutor to Sir Walter Raleigh, who sent him in 1585 to Virginia as surveyor with Sir Richard Grenville. Returning to England, Harriot wrote A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia (1588), one of the earliest known large-scale statistical surveys. He made valuable contributions to algebra, introducing new symbols and notation. His Artis analyticae praxis appeared in 1631.

See biography by M. Rukeyser (1971).