Sir Humphrey Gilbert

“Sir Humphrey Gilbert,” The Cradle of the Republic: Jamestown and James River, 1906, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, F229.T96.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert

1539 CE - 1583 CE


Primary Goal:
To establish an English colony in the New World.
He inspired future explorers and colonists.

It’s believed Humphrey Gilbert was born in 1539 in Devon, England. He had two brothers and a sister when his father died and his mother remarried. The family grew bigger as his mother had two sons and one daughter by his stepfather, Walter Raleigh. One of these sons, Walter Raleigh the younger, would explore with Humphrey when he grew older.

Humphrey Gilbert was educated at Eton and Oxford. He served in several military campaigns, and was made a knight during a campaign in Ireland in 1570. At a very young age he became quite interested in exploration. He made a proposal to the queen to find a route to China that was not already controlled by the Spanish or the Portuguese. He invested in the exploration of Martin Frobisher and John Davys, who then named Gilbert Sound, near Greenland, after him. In 1571, he was elected as the representative to Parliament for Plymouth.

When Sir Humphrey was 40 years old, he was given permission to start an English colony in North America. He made his first attempt to land a colony in 1578, but, unfortunately, the ships never got very far due to terrible storms off the coast of England. In 1583, Gilbert made a second attempt at establishing a colony. He traveled on board the Delight, and this time, most of the group made their way successfully to Newfoundland. Once there, Gilbert set off in a smaller vessel, the Squirrel, to explore some of the smaller waterways. While he was exploring, the Delight was wrecked. Many people died, and many of Gilbert’s records were destroyed. Gilbert chose to stay on the Squirrel for the return voyage to England. This would prove to be a fatal mistake – the ship sank, and Sir Humphrey died in the accident.

Sir Humphrey came from a huge family of explorers. His brother, Adrian Gilbert, was given permission from the Crown to continue exploration in search of a Northwest Passage. His son, Raleigh Gilbert, along with George Popham, led the northern version of the Jamestown settlement, to Maine. Unfortunately, the Popham colony, as it was known, was not as successful as the Jamestown colony, and the surviving colonists went back to England in 1608. Of course, his half-brother Walter Raleigh was involved in exploration and colonization as well, being the main force behind the settlement of Roanoke Island by English settlers.