David Beers Quinn


Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries


The difficulty of encapsulating David Beers Quinn’s contributions to the history of discovery and settlement has been amply demonstrated by three festshrifts* that only partially accomplished that goal.  A better measure is the extent to which history has been altered by his research and publications during the past six decades.

Little in David Quinn’s background portended his alteration of the recorded past.  As an Irish youth who through age fourteen attended only a one-teacher school, his first interest was in geography, and he might have devoted his career to that subject had the opportunity been offered at Queen’s University, Belfast, from which he graduated in 1931.  Instead, in graduate school at the Institute of Historical Research and King’s College, London, his attention was drawn to the history of early Tudor administration in Ireland, in which he received a doctorate in 1934. For the next five years as lecturer at University College, Southampton, he taught mostly colonial history, and upon returning to his alma mater in Belfast in 1939 he developed a course in Irish history, then little studied at the college level.  Soon, however, his attention was drawn to Sir Humphrey Gilbert and English exploration of North America. On that subject historians still relied chiefly on the works of Richard Hakluyt, nearly four hundred years old. Quinn’s initial research in archives and libraries made the young professor increasingly dubious of uncritical reliance on Hakluyt, and, in his own words, “I kept finding things which added bits and pieces to the accepted story.” Those discoveries opened for David Quinn a new passion: the sources, always the sources.  He was only thirty-one when the Hakluyt Society published his two-volume documentary, The Voyages and Colonising Enterprises of Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1940).  He carried his penchant for research to University College, Swansea, where from 1944 until he moved to Liverpool University in 1957 he broadened his interests to include other explorers, especially Walter Raleigh.  The Hakluyt Society’s publication of Quinn’s two-volume work, The Roanoke Voyages, 1584-1590: Documents to Illustrate the English Voyages to North America under the Patent Granted to Walter Raleigh in 1584 (1955), provided a landmark in the study of English exploration by making conveniently available sources that subsequently produced an avalanche of articles and books as North America approached the quadricentennial of earliest European colonization of the New World.  More than any historian of his generation, Quinn uncovered new pieces of evidence, exposed them for other researchers through publication, and reinterpreted exploration and settlement in the light of new information.

David Quinn’s research and writing soon branched into other scholarly directions, in each of which he made significant contributions.  He sought to understand the North American natives encountered by Europeans, and he published Sources for the Ethnography of Northeastern North America to 1611 (1981).  Upon his rediscovery of the long-hidden John White watercolors in the British Museum during World War II, he recognized their significance to history and ethnography.  He did not rest until, with the help of Paul Hulton, he oversaw their reproduction and annotation in a distinguished two-volume edition, The American Drawings of John White (1964).  After 1948 Quinn conducted personal inspections of North America, walking the lands and sailing the waters explored by his fellow Englishmen centuries earlier.  Based on greater familiarity with those lands and waters, he accelerated his publications, especially of original sources and narratives written for scholars, such as The English New England Voyages, 1602-1608 (1983).  In his dedication to Clio, Quinn generously shared his passion and knowledge with colleagues and educational institutions both in Europe and America.  He was a visiting professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, University of Michigan, and other institutions, and he was a Distinguished Fulbright Fellow and also a Fellow at the National Humanities Center.  He has received many academic honors, and upon his acceptance of the first John Carter Brown Medal, he was described as “the pre-eminent authority on the history of early European exploration of North America.”  Meanwhile, until his retirement from Liverpool University, he shepherded an impressive number of young men and women into the study, research, and writing of the history of overseas discovery and exploration.

But Professor Quinn’s influence has not been limited to academe.  He incorporated his documentary discoveries in books written for a wider lay readership.  For example, he collaborated with others in the production of popular editions, such as W. P. Cumming and R. A. Skelton in The Discovery of North America (1971) and Cumming in The Exploration of North America (1974).  He has ever been ready to insist upon accuracy and credibility in commemorations of historic events.  He was a major participant in the Drake Quadricentennial in California and the Roanoke Quadricentennial in North Carolina, and for the latter, produced “Set Fair for Roanoke,” a distillation of four decades of intimacy with the Elizabethans.

Our understanding of European expansion has been radically altered and advanced during David Quinn’s six decades of mining original sources and making them available to scholars in print.  No one could have expressed that mission better than he did in his address before the American Historical Association in 1986. In that address, simply titled “Reflections,” he said, “I have thought of myself very much as a historical work horse, clearing the way through documentary tangles for others to follow.”  For the ore that he mined, which was refined and turned into shelves of articles and books by other historians, not all of whom acknowledged their debt to the miner, David Quinn stands as a giant among specialists in the history of discovery and exploration. His rank among his contemporaries rises even higher when we acknowledge his own narrative works—represented in the impressive Quinn bibliography—that incorporate new interpretations and understanding based on the sources, always the sources.  Beyond Hakluyt, the single most recognizable name in bibliographies of early English expansion is “Quinn, David Beers.” We are honored to add to his many honorifics the designation “FSHD” — Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries.

*The three festshrifts are:

K. R. Andrews, N. P. Canny, and P. E. H. Hair (editors), The Westward Enterprise: English Activities in Ireland, the Atlantic, and America 1480-1650. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1978.

H. G. Jones (editor). Raleigh and Quinn: The Explorer and His Boswell. Chapel Hill: North Caroliniana Society, 1987.

Cecil H. Clough and P. E. H. Hair (editors). The European Outthrust and Encounter The First Phase c. 1400-c.1700: Essays in Tribute to David Beers Quinn on His 85th Birthday. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994.

Forty-second Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Denver, Colorado
September 8, 2001

Prepared by H. G. Jones




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