DERMER, THOMAS, of Plymouth, England, navigator, pioneer, and explorer; d. 1621 in Virginia.
Dermer went first to New England with Capt. John Smith, who was sent out in 1614 by London merchants to lay the foundations of a new plantation and to trade with the Indians there. Dermer was to have accompanied Smith on his 1615 voyage to New England but the ship, after encountering pirates and the French, finally made its way back to Plymouth with great difficulty.
Dermer spent some time in Newfoundland, 1616–18, with his friend and associate, Governor John Mason, at Cuper’s Cove (now Cupids), where he was possibly engaged in the fishing business but more likely involved in explorations of the island’s natural resources. He wrote a letter, dated September 1616, from Cuper’s Cove, in which he describes in flattering terms the fertility of the soil, abundance of wild life, and mineral potentialities, an evidence of his interest in the commercial possibilities of the area.
It was during this stay in Newfoundland that Dermer met Tisquantum (or Squanto), the New England Indian, who, with others, had been seized by Capt. Thomas Hunt in 1614 to be sold into slavery in Spain. Tisquantum eventually escaped and reached Cuper’s Cove. Finding him very intelligent and with the ability to speak English and knowing that there was need for an interpreter between the New England colonizers and the Indians, Dermer had no difficulty in persuading Tisquantum to assume this role. Accompanied by Tisquantum, Dermer returned to England to confer with Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who was at that time attempting to colonize New England. Gorges, who favoured co-operation with the Indians as a matter of policy, was delighted with Dermer’s plan to make Tisquantum an interpreter, in order to promote better understanding between the settlers and the Indians. He commissioned Dermer as commander of his 1619 expedition to New England. Tisquantum was a member of the expedition, was restored to his own people, and his work among them as interpreter amply fulfilled the expectations of Gorges and Dermer.
Dermer did not return to Newfoundland but remained in New England as Gorges’s employee. Here he made extensive explorations along the coast from Cape Cod to Virginia, which he reached in November 1619; he then returned to New England where he spent the next year. He established that Long Island was an island (hitherto it was thought to be a part of the mainland). He prospected for gold and other minerals in the vicinity of Cape Cod, sending back samples of the earth to England. In 1621 he went again to Virginia, where he died of wounds inflicted by the Indians.
Dermer emerges from the records as a man of exemplary character, “this worthy gentleman . . . giving us good content in all hee undertook.” In particular, his dealings with the Indians appear to have won their confidence and esteem. Standing high in their good graces, he was warmly welcomed all along the coast. In no small measure, therefore, he paved the way for the Pilgrim Fathers who landed in New England 11 Dec. 1620.
Purchas, Pilgrimes (1905–7), XIX. Bradford’s history of the Plymouth settlement 1608–1650, ed. Valerian Paget (New York, 1909). John Smith, Travels and works, ed. Edward Arber (2v., Birmingham, 1884), I, 217–18, 220–27; II, 747. H. F. Howe, Salt rivers of the Massachusetts shore (Rivers of America, New York, 1951). R. A. Preston, Gorges of Plymouth Fort (Toronto, 1953). Prowse, History of Nfld. Rogers, Newfoundland. A. L. Rowse, The Elizabethans and America (London, 1959).