Thomas Hariot (ca. 1560–1621)


Thomas Hariot (often spelled Harriot) was an English mathematician, astronomer, linguist, and experimental scientist. During the 1580s, he served as Sir Walter Raleigh‘s primary assistant in planning and attempting to establish the English colonies on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina. He taught Raleigh’s sea captains to sail the Atlantic Ocean using sophisticated navigational methods not well understood in England at the time. He also learned the Algonquian language from two Virginia Indians, Wanchese and Manteo. In 1585, Hariot joined the expedition to Roanoke, which failed and returned to England the next year. During his stay in America, Hariot helped to explore the present-day Outer Banks region and, farther north, the Chesapeake Bay. He also collaborated with the artist John White in producing several maps notable at the time for their accuracy. Although Hariot left extensive papers, the only work published during his lifetime was A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, which evaluated the economic potential of Virginia. The report appeared most impressively in Theodor de Bry‘s 1590 edition that included etchings based on the White-Hariot maps and White’s watercolors of Indian life. After a brief imprisonment in connection to the Gunpowder Plot (1605), Hariot calculated the orbit of Halley’s Comet, sketched and mapped the moon, and observed sunspots. He died in 1621.

Oxford and Durham House

Hariot enters the historical record with his matriculation at Oxford in 1577 at the age of seventeen. His tentative date of birth is based on this information. Notes written at the time indicate that he was raised in Oxfordshire and his father was a commoner. Nothing else for certain is known about his early life.

Hariot arrived at Oxford with exceptional talents in mathematics and the sciences, but at a time when these subjects were not particularly valued. This was beginning to change, however, as English adventurers began to recognize the connection between mathematics and the navigational arts necessary to further the nation’s developing interests in colonization, piracy, privateering, and trade, especially in North America. At Oxford, Hariot met Richard Hakluyt (the younger), who went on to edit the influential Principall Navigations of the English Nation (1589), a polemic on behalf of future English colonization disguised as a history of past English successes. Hariot also probably knew Thomas Allen, an Oxford faculty member who collected the latest manuscripts, books, and instruments connected with mathematics and astronomy.

After receiving a BA from Oxford in 1580, Hariot relocated to London, where his interest in applying mathematics and astronomy to questions of navigation brought him to the attention of Walter Raleigh. A favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, Raleigh had obtained permission to establish English colonies in North America. By 1583, Hariot was serving Raleigh at his London residence, Durham House, by focusing on open-sea navigation. The Portuguese and Spanish understood how to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, but the English, with notable exceptions such as Sir Francis Drake, did not and were forced to hug the coasts. Before he could teach it, Hariot needed to master the subject himself, and he set about collecting, building, and learning to use standard navigational instruments, including the astrolabe, cross staff, and sextant. He studied the mathematics required to determine one’s position in the open ocean, collected the best sea charts and maps, and learned the basics of astronomy necessary to navigate by the stars, moon, and sun. He then began lecturing to Raleigh’s sea captains on these subjects in his room at Durham House and collected the knowledge in the now-lost Arcticon.

Raleigh was planning to attempt a colony on the mid-Atlantic coast of North America and in 1584 sent a reconnaissance voyage that landed on Roanoke Island. There, commanders Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe met and returned to England with two Virginia Indians, Manteo and Wanchese. Recognizing that communication with the Indians would be crucial for a successful colony, Hariot worked with the two men and learned to speak their form of the Algonquian language. Hariot even developed his own phonetic alphabet, which allowed him to record the sounds of Algonquian words and to create a now-lost English-Algonquian dictionary. Hariot’s work in this area made him one of the most advanced linguists of the day and recommended him as a member of Raleigh’s Roanoke expedition in 1585.

Roanoke and A briefe and true report

A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia

The Roanoke colonists were mostly military men, the most prominent exceptions being Hariot and the artist John White, who had served as expedition artist on one of Martin Frobisher’s voyages to Greenland. The colonists arrived at Roanoke late in June 1585, but one of their ships ran aground and they lost much of their provisions. After the departure in August of the colony’s two commanders, Sir Richard Grenville and Thomas Cavendish, Ralph Lane assumed governorship, and his relations with the local Indians were friendly at first. The situation deteriorated, however, as the Englishmen failed to find reliable sources of food, and when Sir Francis Drake arrived in June 1586, Lane decided to return the surviving colonists to England.

The year had not been a waste for Hariot, though. With the help of Manteo and Wanchese, and in the company of John White, he had explored the area surrounding Roanoke and, with White, joined a party that sailed north to the Chesapeake Bay and up the Elizabeth and Nansemond rivers, even encountering the Chesapeake Indians at their principal town of Skicoac. He and White used these travels to collaborate on the first accurate maps of the east coast of North America. Using angle-measuring tools to establish latitude and longitude, Hariot mapped out triangle-shaped areas and either recorded these angles in a notebook for later use or, while in the field, sketched these triangles directly onto a sheet of paper attached to a plane table. White, an accomplished painter and illustrator, then finished the maps. While some of the White-Hariot maps remained in manuscript form and did not receive wide circulation, others—such as the small map of Roanoke Island and the large map of the entire Outer Banks region—appeared in Theodor de Bry’s illustrated edition of Hariot’s A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, becoming models for their time of accurate cartography in the New World.

A briefe and true report was, perhaps, Hariot’s most important contribution to England’s colonization efforts. First published in 1588, it appeared again the next year as part of Richard Hakluyt (the younger’s) Principall Navigations. Hakluyt then convinced de Bry to publish a third version as the initial volume in his America series. This last includes etchings of the White-Hariot maps as well as etchings based on White’s watercolor portraits of Virginia Indians and scenes of Indian life. Published in English, French, German, and Latin, the de Bry version enjoyed a wide European audience.

While the Report is sometimes considered scientific, it is more accurately viewed as commercial discourse. Throughout, Hariot argues four related points. First, the 1585 colony failed because many members of the colony were unprepared for the rigors of colonization. Although these men slandered the colony and its leaders upon arriving home, in Hariot’s view Raleigh’s colonization program should be allowed to continue. Second, the Roanokes and other Indian tribes are not to be feared by the English, who possess superior technology and culture. Third, the land in Virginia is abundant enough to provide future colonists with adequate food and building materials. And fourth, Virginia offers a less expensive source for a wide range of trade goods, including shipping supplies, dyes for the cloth industry, and wine.

Later Years

In 1595, Hariot received land from Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, to allow him to continue his scientific and mathematical work. Percy was imprisoned in 1605 for his connection to the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt on the life of King James I on behalf of greater freedom for English Catholics. Hariot’s connection to Percy also landed him in prison, but only briefly. (Percy’s younger brother George was one of the original Jamestown colonists.) Sir Walter Raleigh also ran afoul of the king and was beheaded in 1618. In the meantime, Hariot pursued his interest in astronomy. His unpublished notes on the appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1607 were later used to accurately calculate its orbit. In 1609, he used a telescope of his own making to sketch the moon—four months before the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei more famously accomplished the same feat. In 1610, he was the first to observe sunspots, and in 1611, he produced the first map of the moon.

Hariot died in London on July 2, 1621, of cancer of the nose, probably caused by heavy tobacco use. A posthumous work, Artis Analyticae Praxis, published in 1631, helped to establish the English school of algebra.

Major Work

  • A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1588–1590)

December 20, 1577
Aged seventeen and the son of a commoner, Thomas Hariot matriculates at Oxford University.
Thomas Hariot graduates from Oxford University and moves to London.
1582 or 1583
Thomas Hariot enters Walter Raleigh's service as a mathematician, linguist, surveyor, navigator, and cartographer. He trains Raleigh's ship captains in the principles of open-sea navigation.
Under the tutelage of Manteo and Wanchese, Thomas Hariot begins learning and transcribing the Algonquian language of the Virginia Indians.
April 9, 1585
Five ships and two smaller pinnaces along with 600 men set sail from Plymouth, England, for Roanoke Island, along the present-day Outer Banks of North Carolina. Sir Richard Grenville commands the flagship Tiger, which is piloted by Simon Fernandes. John White, Thomas Hariot, and the Indians Manteo and Wanchese are also present.
June 1585
Late in the month, an expedition of English colonists that includes the artist John White and the mathematician Thomas Hariot arrives at Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina.
August 1585
Sir Richard Grenville and Thomas Cavendish, the two leaders of an expedition of English colonists settled on Roanoke Island off the coast of present-day North Carolina, return to England. They leave Ralph Lane to serve as governor.
February—March 1586
A group of English colonists that includes the artist John White and the mathematician Thomas Hariot returns to Roanoke Island from an exploratory trip north to the Chesapeake Bay and inland along the Elizabeth and Nansemond rivers. The trip was launched the previous fall.
June 13, 1586
A fleet of ships commanded by Sir Francis Drake, which arrived at Roanoke Island the day before to resupply the English colony there, is scattered due to a storm.
Thomas Hariot publishes in England a small octavo edition of A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia that serves as propaganda for Raleigh's 1587 colony.
Theodor de Bry's edition of Thomas Hariot's A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia, which features etchings based on John White's watercolors and maps, is published in Frankfort, Germany, as the first book in de Bry's America series.
Thomas Hariot receives land from Henry Percy, Duke of Northumberland, which allows him to continue his scientific and mathematical work.
Thomas Hariot uses a telescope of his own making to sketch the moon—four months before the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei more famously accomplishes the same feat.
Thomas Hariot is the first to observe sunspots.
Using a telescope, Thomas Hariot is the first to produce a map of the moon.
Thomas Hariot is diagnosed with cancer of the nose, probably due to heavy tobacco use.
July 2, 1621
Thomas Hariot dies in London, England.
Artis Analyticae Praxis, a posthumous work by Thomas Hariot, is published and helps to establish the English school of algebra.
  • Fox, Robert, ed. Thomas Harriot: An Elizabethan Man of Science. Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2000.
  • Horn, James. A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. New York: Basic Books, 2010.
  • Hulton, Paul. America 1585: The Complete Drawings of John White. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
  • Moran, Michael G. Inventing Virginia: Sir Walter Raleigh and the Rhetoric of Colonization, 1584–1590. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.
  • Shirley, John W. Thomas Harriot: A Biography. New York: Clarendon Press, 1983.
APA Citation:
Moran, Michael. Thomas Hariot (ca. 1560–1621). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/hariot-thomas-ca-1560-1621.
MLA Citation:
Moran, Michael. "Thomas Hariot (ca. 1560–1621)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 13 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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