Gabriel Archer (ca. 1574–ca. 1610)


Gabriel Archer chronicled an expedition to New England in 1602 and was among the first settlers of the Virginia colony at Jamestown in 1607. Probably born in Essex County, England, Archer attended Cambridge University. In 1602, he joined Bartholomew Gosnold in exploring Cape Cod, or what was then known as North Virginia, and his account of the trip was published posthumously in 1625. It is the first detailed English account of any part of New England. Five years later Archer was wounded in an attack by Virginia Indians upon first landing on the James River, but soon recovered. He joined Christopher Newport in exploring up the river, writing a narrative of that expedition, too. When John Smith returned from captivity among the Indians, Archer sought his execution but Newport intervened in Smith’s favor. Archer returned to England not long after. A second stint in Virginia began in 1609 and included more conflict with Smith, who left the colony in the autumn of 1609. Archer died sometime that winter during the so-called Starving Time.

Early Years and New England

Archer was born about 1574 and was probably the elder of two known sons of Christopher Archer and Mary Archer, of Mountnessing, Essex County, England. He matriculated as a pensioner of Saint John’s College, Cambridge University, about 1591 and entered Gray’s Inn on March 15, 1593. Very little else is known about his life in England.

The Relation of Captaine Gosnols Voyage to the North Part of Virginia

Archer’s name first appears in association with the New World as a member of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold’s 1602 exploring expedition to New England, which at that point was still considered the northern part of Virginia. Archer wrote an important account of the expedition, “The Relation of Captaine Gosnols Voyage to the North Part of Virginia,” which was first published by Samuel Purchas in 1625. Archer gave an intricate account of the voyage between its departure on March 26, 1602, and its New England landfall on May 14, and he recorded much detail about the exploration of Cape Cod Bay and the offshore islands, including Martha’s Vineyard. Though he joined one expedition into Buzzards Bay, he was primarily engaged in dealing with Wampanoag Indians and supervising the construction of a trading post at Cuttyhunk Island. His narrative contains useful information on the Indians and valuable accounts of fauna and flora gained from a commonsense comparison with English examples. After the expedition’s leaders decided to abandon the trading post, Archer left America on June 18, 1602, to return to England. How far his narrative circulated in manuscript is not known, but it is the first detailed English account of any part of New England.

First Trip to Virginia

Late in 1606, in close association with Gosnold, Archer enrolled in the expedition of the Virginia Company of London to establish a colony in what was then known as South Virginia. Safely entering Chesapeake Bay in the spring of 1607, Captain Archer, as he is referred to in the records, suffered an injury to both hands during an Indian attack on the night of April 26. On the journey up the James River he selected a settlement site, thereafter named Archers Hope, which Captain Christopher Newport rejected in favor of the deeper water a few miles away at Jamestown Island. Archer accompanied Newport in his exploration of the James River as far as the fall line at what became the city of Richmond. Archer’s primary function was to maintain a journal of the expedition’s progress. An unsigned document in the Public Record Office in London contains his narrative of events between May 21 and June 21. A parallel document in a different handwriting, also unsigned but plausibly attributed to Archer on stylistic grounds, gives a useful but superficial account of the topography and Indians encountered in the initial exploration. Both manuscripts have always remained in official custody and were probably sent to Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, the most prominent official supporter of the Virginia venture. Archer’s reports are among the most informative eyewitness accounts of the first weeks of the Jamestown colony.

Archer’s subsequent activities in Virginia are difficult to document thoroughly. He survived the sickness that killed more than half the colonists during the summer and autumn of 1607, and he was nominated recorder of the colony, effectively a magistrate. As such he participated with several councillors in the political trial at which the president, Edward Maria Wingfield, was convicted of a string of minor offenses and deprived of his office on September 10. Wingfield was confined to the pinnace, the small ship Discovery, where he continued to inveigh against Archer throughout the following months.

Ould Virginia

Captain John Smith, having been captured by the Pamunkey Indians and handed over to Powhatan, the paramount chief of Tsenacomoco, was returned to Jamestown on January 2, 1608. According to Wingfield, Archer then charged Smith with responsibility for the death of two of his men, who had been killed by the Indians. On the strength of a text in Leviticus, Archer sought the death penalty. Smith was on the verge of being hanged when Newport appeared in the river with supplies and reinforcements from England. Smith’s version of events merely stated that Archer and his friends had attempted to exclude him from the Council. Newport eventually dealt with the squabbling handful of survivors by leaving for home on April 10, 1608, with Wingfield and Archer on board, much to Smith’s relief.

Death in Virginia

While in England in the summer of 1608, Archer probably supplied the Virginia Company with copies of his reports. Although he made some unrealistic recommendations for crops that could be profitably cultivated in Virginia, including pineapples, sugar, and olives, he did think that tobacco had export potential. During Archer’s 1608–1609 English sojourn he apparently came to terms with Wingfield. Some of the evidence of Archer’s intrigues must also have come to light, but his defects were overlooked because of his experience and his skill as a reporter. When a great national effort was mounted to put the Virginia colony on a sounder footing with a relief fleet of nine vessels, Captain Archer was placed in command of the Blessing. His ship survived the storm that scattered the flotilla, reaching Jamestown on August 11, 1609.

The Portraictuer of Captayne John Smith

Archer found Captain John Smith installed as president until his one-year term expired on September 10. Because the documents conveying authority to Sir Thomas Gates had gone astray during the stormy Atlantic crossing, Smith refused to surrender his presidency to the newcomers and endeavored to distribute the 300 to 400 arrivals at new settlements up and down the river. Using a legalistic ruse that Archer probably devised, the newly arrived councillors announced that they would formally take over when Smith’s term ended. After Smith was injured in an explosion, he finally agreed to leave with one of the departing vessels.

Archer’s last surviving letter, dated August 31, 1609, and sent to a friend via one of the ships returning to England, included a brief but lucid account of his recent voyage as well as an attack on Smith for not showing “due respect to many worthy Gentlemen that came in our ships.” Archer reported on the beginnings of the new administration, admitting that Smith would “have it blazoned a mutenie.” One final record of this antagonism is a series of trivial charges against Smith by Archer that were later forwarded to England.

Gabriel Archer’s Grave

Archer died in Virginia on an unrecorded date during the Starving Time in the winter of 1609–1610. In 2015 archaeologists identified him as one of four bodies that had been buried near the altar in Jamestown’s 1608 church.

Major Works

  • The Relation of Captaine Gosnols Voyage to the North Part of Virginia (1625)
ca. 1574
Gabriel Archer is born in Mountnessing, Essex County, England.
ca. 1591
Gabriel Archer matriculates at Saint John's College, Cambridge University.
March 15, 1593
Gabriel Archer begins studies at Gray's Inn.
March 26, 1602
An English colonizing expedition, led by Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, departs Falmouth on the ship Concord. Twenty colonists and a dozen crewmembers are aboard.
May 14, 1602
The English ship Concord, commanded by Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, anchors off a peninsula that Gosnold names Cape Cod. He later names Martha's Vineyard for his late daughter, before establishing a small colony on Cuttyhunk Island.
June 18, 1602
The English ship Concord, commanded by Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, sails to England after its exploration of the New England coast.
Late 1606
Gabriel Archer enrolls in the expedition of the Virginia Company of London to establish a colony in what is known as South Virginia.
April 26, 1607
Jamestown colonists first drop anchor in the Chesapeake Bay, and after a brief skirmish with local Indians, begin to explore the James River.
May 13, 1607
The Jamestown colonists select a marshy peninsula fifty miles up the James River on which to establish their settlement.
May 26, 1607
While Christopher Newport and a party of colonists explore the James River, an alliance of five Algonquian-speaking Indian groups—the Quiyoughcohannocks, the Weyanocks, the Appamattucks, the Paspaheghs, and the Chiskiacks—attacks Jamestown, wounding ten and killing two.
May 28, 1607
After an Indian attack, the settlers at Jamestown begin building a fort.
June 10, 1607
Finally released from arrest, John Smith takes his seat as a member of the Council.
June 15, 1607
English colonists complete construction of James Fort at Jamestown.
June 22, 1607
Christopher Newport departs from Jamestown for England, carrying a letter to the Virginia Company of London that exaggerates the Virginia colony's commercial possibilities.
September 10, 1607
Council members John Ratcliffe, John Smith, and John Martin oust Edward Maria Wingfield as president, replacing him with Ratcliffe. By the end of the month, half of Jamestown's 104 men and boys are dead, mostly from sickness.
January 2, 1608
John Smith returns to Jamestown after being held captive by Powhatan. Only thirty-eight colonists survive, Smith's seat on the Council is occupied by Gabriel Archer, and the Council accuses Smith of killing his companions. Smith is sentenced to hang, but the charge is dropped when Christopher Newport arrives with the first supplies from England.
April 10, 1608
Aboard the John and Francis, Christopher Newport leaves Jamestown for England. Among those with him are Gabriel Archer, Edward Maria Wingfield, and the Indian Namontack.
Summer 1608
While in England, Gabriel Archer probably supplies the Virginia Company with copies of his reports of the colony at Jamestown.
August 11, 1609
Four ships reach Jamestown from England: Unity, Lion, Blessing, and Falcon. Two others are en route; two more were wrecked in a storm; and one, Sea Venture, was cast up on the Bermuda islands' shoals.
August 31, 1609
In his last surviving letter, Gabriel Archer describes his most recent voyage to Virginia and attacks the leadership of John Smith.
October 1609
John Smith leaves Virginia. The Jamestown colony's new leadership is less competent, and the Starving Time follows that winter.
November 1609
Powhatan Indians lay siege to Jamestown, denying colonists access to outside food sources. The Starving Time begins, and by spring 160 colonists, or about 75 percent of Jamestown's population, will be dead from hunger and disease. This action begins the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609—1614).
Winter 1609—1610
Gabriel Archer dies on an unrecorded date during the Starving Time at Jamestown.
Gabriel Archer's account of Bartholomew Gosnold's New England expedition of 1602 is published by Samuel Purchas.
  • Quinn, David B. “Archer, Gabriel.” In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 1, edited by John T. Kneebone, et al., 191–192. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 1998.
APA Citation:
Quinn, David & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Gabriel Archer (ca. 1574–ca. 1610). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/archer-gabriel-ca-1574-ca-1610.
MLA Citation:
Quinn, David, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Gabriel Archer (ca. 1574–ca. 1610)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 22 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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