DURING THE 1500S TOO, EUROPEAN fantasies of worldly splendors had just acquired a thrilling new inspiration and focus. In 1492 Columbus had sailed west in search of a shorter route by sea from Europe to Asia that might replace the overland Silk Road trip—an impossible dream then and for four hundred years afterward. Instead of Japan, he got the Bahamas. But he had discovered a New World. It was a blank slate on which fantastic wealth and glory could be imagined from three thousand miles away.
More European explorers quickly followed and would keep coming, many of them pursuing the dream of a Northwest Passage. That was the dream of Captain John Smith at the beginning of the 1600s when he sailed to the New World, funded by English investors. Imagining that the Potomac River led all the way to the Pacific Ocean, Smith got only as far as Bethesda, Maryland. Passage to Asia was also the dream in 1609 of the Englishman Henry Hudson, who got only as far as Albany. A year later English investors who wanted to believe the Arctic-trade-route dream financed Hudson to try again. This time instead of China, he made it to Ontario; when Hudson wanted to keep going west, his crew, not as enraptured by the fantasy, mutinied; Captain Hudson was never seen again.
But the Spaniards who followed Columbus, instead of searching in vain for a Northwest Passage to Asia, headed southwest. There they discovered advanced civilizations with cities, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in South America. And there too they found the Aztecs’ and Incas’ gold—which they stole and mined for more than a century, thereby establishing a transatlantic empire.
The English envied the suddenly powerful Spanish—and their New World gold in particular.
If there was so much treasure for the taking in the southern reaches, why not thousands of miles closer, in the north, in the lands closest to England? Thus the quest for gold became a fetish for would-be English colonists as the 1500s turned into the 1600s. It also established a theme we’ll encounter again and again: around some plausible bit of reality, Americans leap to concoct wishful (or terrified) fictions they ardently believe to be true.
A young Oxford graduate and royal factotum named Richard Hakluyt was among the most excited and influential of England’s America enthusiasts during the 1580s and ’90s. He cherry-picked the reports of earlier explorers, many of them second- and thirdhand, to depict a perfectly ripe paradise. All those probes into eastern North America, he wrote in a forty-thousand-word manuscript, “prove infallibly unto us that gold, silver…precious stones, and turquoises, and emeralds…have been by them found” up and down the coast. The southern part “had in the land gold and silver”; a bit to the north there was also sure to be gold because “the colour of the land doth altogether argue it”; and farther north too “there is mention of silver and gold.” At the time, England’s population was growing faster than its economy, so Hakluyt proposed shipping off “idle men” to America and “setting them to work in mines of gold.”
It was inconvenient that humans already inhabited the northern New World. However, Hakluyt reported that the natives were “people good and of a gentle and amiable nature, which willingly will obey.” And North America’s population density was less than 5 percent of Britain’s, so to the newcomers it appeared essentially empty, a tabula rasa ready to be transformed into some brand of English utopia.
Hakluyt’s breathless chronicle of America had been commissioned by the thirty-year-old aristocrat, poet, rake, adventurer, zealous Protestant, and gold-mad New World enthusiast Walter Raleigh. He was a charming, larger-than-life up-and-comer—a stereotypical go-go American before English America even existed. As soon as he’d had Hakluyt write his report on the New World, meant to convince Queen Elizabeth to colonize, Raleigh over the course of just three years became Sir Walter Raleigh; got the royal franchise to exploit and govern the eastern coast of North America; and sent three separate expeditions of Englishmen to get the gold. They found none.
Although Raleigh never visited North America himself, he believed that in addition to its gold deposits, his realm might somehow be the biblical Garden of Eden. English clergymen had calculated from the Bible that Eden was at a latitude of thirty-five degrees north—just like Roanoke Island,they said. And there was still more fresh (hearsay) evidence of divine magic in Virginia: a botanist’s book, Joyful News of the New Found World, reported that various plants unique to America cured all diseases. A famous English poet published his “Ode to the Virginian Voyage,” calling Virginia “Earth’s only Paradise” where Britons would “get the pearl and gold”—and plenty of English people imagined that it was literally a new Eden.* Alas, no. A large fraction of the first settlers dispatched by Raleigh became sick and died. He dispatched a second expedition of gold-hunters. It also failed, and all those colonists died.
But Sir Walter continued believing the dream of gold. He failed to find the legendary golden city of El Dorado when he sailed to South America in 1595, but that didn’t stop him from propagating the fantasy in England. He published a book about it that consisted of secondhand historical anecdotes meant to make the dream seem real. Raleigh helped invent the kind of elaborate pseudoempiricism that in the centuries to come would become a permanent feature of Fantasyland testimonials—about religion, about quack science, about conspiracy, about whatever was being urgently sold.
In 1606 the new English king, James, despite Raleigh’s colonization disasters, gave a franchise to two new private enterprises, the Virginia Company of London and the Virginia Company of Plymouth, to start colonies. The southern one, under the auspices of London, they named Jamestown after the monarch. Their royal charter was clear about the main mission: “to dig, mine, and search for all Manner of Mines of Gold…And to HAVE and enjoy the Gold.” As Tocqueville wrote in his history two centuries later, “It was…gold-seekers who were sent to Virginia. No noble thought or conception above gain presided over the foundation of the new settlements.” Two-thirds of those first hundred gold-seekers promptly died. But the captain of the expedition returned to England claiming to have found “gold showing mountains.”
Hakluyt, a director of the London Company, never managed to get to America but never stopped believing in the gold. Sure, none had been found yet, he admitted in a presentation to fellow executives in 1609, but an Englishman who spoke Indian languages and had been on earlier expeditions said that “to the southwest of our old fort in Virginia, the Indians often informed him…there was a great melting of red metall. Beside, our own Indians have lately revealed either this or another rich mine…near certain mountains lying” just a bit west of the failed settlement.
No gold was found. Captain John Smith, looking for a navigable westward route to the Pacific rather than gold, was not completely exempt from gullibility—he reported as fact a native’s claim that people on Chesapeake Bay hunt “apes in the mountains.” But he famously did not believe in the dream of instant, easy mineral wealth. “There was no talk, no hope, no work, but dig gold, work gold, refine gold, and load gold,” Smith wrote of his fellow Jamestown colonists, “golden promises [that] made all men their slaves in hope of recompense.” In fact, Jamestown ore they dug and refined and shipped to England turned out to be iron pyrite, fool’s gold.
Anxious investors in London demanded the colonists produce at least one chunk of real gold. In 1610, three years into the operation, they dispatched a new man to set things right, who arrived just as the surviving colonists finally abandoned the dream and set sail home for England. Lord De La Warr persuaded them to disembark and buck up; he led a team inland to search for another rumored Indian gold mine, where De La Warr’s men killed some Indians, and finally…found no gold.
The gold fantasy wasn’t limited to colonists in the South. Those dispatched at the same time by the Plymouth Company, 120 of them, landed up on the Maine coast, also looking for gold and a faster route to Asia. They found signs of neither. But their desperation to believe the impossible is funny and sad. No gold so far, the colony president wrote home, but “the natives constantly affirm that in these parts there are nutmegs, mace and cinnamon.” Tropical spices growing in New England? “They [also] positively assure me that…distant not more than seven days’ journey from our fort [is] a sea large and wide and deep…which cannot be any other than the Southern Sea, reaching to the regions of China.” Unlike their Virginia compatriots, however, the English colonists in Maine quickly accommodated reality and admitted defeat. Half left a few months after arriving, the rest six months later. They were not credulous or imaginative enough to become Americans.
But…maybe they just hadn’t talked to the right natives! Or looked in the right places! In 1614 yet another Plymouth Company expedition sailed to New England, this one exclusively in pursuit of gold. They had an inside man aboard, a native who’d been captured and enslaved by an earlier Plymouth Company ship off Cape Cod. The Indian had spent his time in captivity in London learning English and the nature of his captors’ shiny-metal fixation, so he concocted a story just for them: There’s a gold mine on my own island,he lied, and I’ll take you back there to claim it. When the English anchored off Martha’s Vineyard, he jumped ship, and his tribal brothers covered his escape with bow-and-arrow fire from canoes. The Englishmen realized they’d been played and sailed home.
Down in Virginia, meanwhile, more than six thousand people had emigrated to Jamestown by 1620, the equivalent of a midsize English city at the time. At least three-quarters had died but not the abiding dream. People kept coming and believing, hopefulness becoming delusion. It was a gold rush with no gold. Fifteen years after Jamestown’s founding, a colonist wrote a friend to request a shipment of nails, cutlery, vinegar, cheese—and also to make excuses for why he hadn’t quite yet managed to get rich: “By reason of my sickness & weakness I was not able to travel up and down the hills and dales of these countries but doo now intend every day to walk up and down the hills for good Minerals here is both gold [and] silver.”
The sickness and weakness and death continued. Gold remained a chimera. Two decades into the seventeenth century, English America was a failing start-up, a vaporware tragedy and farce. But back in England the investors and their promotional agents continued printing posters, hyperbolic testimonials, and dozens of books and pamphlets, organizing lotteries, and fanning out hucksterish blue smoke. Thus the first English-speaking Americans tended to be the more wide-eyed and desperately wishful. “Most of the 120,000 indentured servants and adventurers who sailed to the [South] in the seventeenth century,” according to the University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall’s history of America, Freedom Just Around the Corner, “did not know what lay ahead but were taken in by the propaganda of the sponsors.” The historian Daniel Boorstin went even further, suggesting that “American civilization [has] been shaped by the fact that there was a kind of natural selection here of those people who were willing to believe in advertising.” Western civilization’s first great advertising campaign was created in order to inspire enough dreamers and suckers to create America.
As a get-rich-quick enterprise, Virginia was a bust. The colonists who stayed resorted to the familiar drudgery of agriculture, although the cash crop that saved them was a harbinger of a certain future America—it was indigenous, novel, glamorous, inessential, psychoactive, and addictive: tobacco.
Another leader of the colonization enthusiasts was Francis Bacon, the English government official and philosopher, who at the time was also laying foundations for science and the Enlightenment. He was bracingly clear-eyed about the New World project, and he seemed to understand better than any of his proto-American contemporaries the distorting power of wishful belief, how fantasy can trump fact. “The human understanding,” he wrote in 1620,
when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate….And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by.
In his London circles, Bacon said, it was all “gold, silver, and temporal profit” driving the colonization project, not “the propagation of the Christian faith.” For the imminent next wave of English would-be Americans, however, propagating a particular set of Christian superstitions, omens and divine judgments were more than just lip-service cover for dreams of easy wealth. For them, the prospect of colonization was all about the export of their supernatural fantasies to the New World.
* More than a century later an English land promoter trying to kick-start Georgia was still using the same selling points: it was “the most delightful country of the Universe,” at least as nice as biblical “Paradise [and] lies in the same latitude with Palestine herself…pointed out by God’s own choice, to bless…a favorite people.” Also: it had silver mines, he was certain.