If you’ve walked along Bangor’s Waterfront, you may have stopped in front of one of the several works of public art and memorials that dot the parks along the Penobscot River, and wondered: Who is Estevan Gomez?
The concrete cross, erected in 1999, that sits in the park located at the corner of Broad and Washington streets bears only limited information about Gomez, a Portuguese navigator who sailed in the service of Spain in the 1520s. But Gomez, for whom that park is named, was an important part of the early history of European history in the Americas: he was the first European to make landfall in what is now Maine.
Furthermore, he made that landfall along the banks of the lower Penobscot River, sometime in the first half of 1525 — nearly 500 years ago — at this time of year.
Gomez was born in 1483 in Portugal, and moved to Spain as an adult. In 1519, he went on his first major sailing expedition as pilot of the San Antonio, one of the ships on Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe. As they reached what is now known as the Strait of Magellan in 1520, however, Gomez led a mutiny aboard the San Antonio, saying the sea was impassable and the ship would not survive the trip. Gomez sailed back to Spain and was imprisoned in 1521 for mutiny; he was freed in 1523, after convincing King Charles V that the Strait of Magellan was too dangerous to be used as a viable trade route.
Gomez believed there was a faster route to be found from Europe to the Indies — the fabled Northwest Passage. While that passage was not discovered for more than three more centuries, when explorer Robert McClure traversed a route through the Canadian arctic in 1850, Gomez was one of a number of European explorers vying to find it. King Charles V financed Gomez’s journey, and a 29-man crew set off from Galicia, Spain, on Sept. 24, 1524.
While his exact route isn’t known due to the fact that no written account was saved from the journey, it is believed that Gomez reached Newfoundland in February 1525. He then sailed south, hugging the coast of what is now the eastern U.S. and exploring large river estuaries that they came across, hoping that each one might connect them to the Northwest Passage.
The first large river he encountered after sailing around Newfoundland and Nova Scotia was the Penobscot. It’s not known exactly how far up the river Gomez sailed, but sometime in the spring of 1525, he made it at least as far inland as present-day Bangor. A map drawn up by cartographer Diego Ribero in 1529, based on Gomez’s rough maps, shows that Gomez named the Penobscot “Rio de las Gamas,” because of its abundance of deer.
He also is believed to have explored around the Casco Bay islands, and spotted the White Mountains of New Hampshire from aboard his ship, before making his way down the East Coast, eventually reaching Florida in August 1525. He returned to Spain shortly after.
Of course, the Penobscot people had lived along the river for thousands of years prior to European exploration. While it’s unclear if Gomez actually encountered any of Maine’s indigenous people, it is known that at some point in 1525, Gomez abducted around 50 Native people in what today is Rhode Island or Connecticut, and sailed back to Spain with them, with plans to sell them into slavery in Europe. King Charles V of Spain was reportedly horrified by this, and ordered the Native people set free.
Gomez got his just desserts, some years after kidnapping those Native people. On his final voyage to the Americas, accompanying Spanish conquistador Pedro de Mendoza, he reportedly was killed in 1538 by the indigenous people living along the Paraguay River, in present-day Paraguay or Brazil.
Gomez was just one of many seafarers to explore the East Coast of the United States in the 16th century. At roughly the same time as Gomez’s journey, Giovanni de Verrazzano was also exploring the East Coast, and was likely somewhere along the coast of Long Island, New York, when Gomez was exploring Maine, though it’s unclear if Verrazzano ever actually sailed into the Gulf of Maine during his journey.
Some historians believe that John Cabot, aka Giovanni Caboto, an Italian navigator sailing for the British, actually made the first European landfall in New England in 1497. Concrete evidence for that is scant, however, and most historians believe Cabot landed in either Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, and did not go any further south.
It would be another eight decades before another European would explore any part of Maine, when Samuel de Champlain explored around Mt. Desert Island, Isle au Haut and Petit Manan island in 1604, giving all three islands their names. A permanent European settlement wouldn’t be established until 1613, when the town of Castine was founded at the mouth of the Penobscot River.
Gomez may have engaged in a number of scurrilous, even cruel, activities during his long seafaring career, leading mutinies and enslaving people as he sought glory on the high seas. But he’s notable for at least one thing: the fact that he literally put the Penobscot River on the map.