ELIOT (Elyot, Eliott, Ellyot), HUGH, merchant of Bristol who is claimed to be, with Robert Thorne the elder, the English discoverer of America; fl. 1480–1510.
Little is known of Eliot’s life. Involved in a Chancery action in 1485, he is found trading to France, Spain, and elsewhere from 1492 onwards. He was sheriff of Bristol in 1500–1 and was a party in various lawsuits there until 1510. Robert Thorne, the younger, in 1527 claimed that his father, and Hugh Eliot had been “the discoverers of the Newfound Landes.” John Dee saw this statement when studying the English title to North America, 1577–80, and endorsed Thorne’s claim, adding, with unknown authority (or none) the date “Circa An. l494.”
No evidence, except the disputed “1494” legend on the 1544 Cabot map [see Sebastian Cabot], has come to light on a voyage of this year. Eliot and Thorne are often considered to have accompanied John Cabot in 1497 and, by having the first sight of land, to have made the discovery then. The statement by John Day, in 1497–98, that the English discovered the Isle of Brasil “in other times,” might seem to put them back as independent discoverers in an earlier period. Eliot may, for instance, have been associated with the voyages of 1480 and 1481 [see John Jay and Thomas Croft].
In 1502 Eliot, Robert Thorne, and William Thorne his brother, bought a ship, the Gabriel, at Dieppe, perhaps for an American enterprise. On 9 Dec. 1502, Hugh Eliot’s name appeared in the charter granted by Henry VII to him, Thomas Asshehurst, João Gonsales, and Francisco Fernandes to continue the voyages to North America begun in 1501 by the Anglo-Portuguese “Company Adventurers into the New Found Lands.” He continued to be active in the company while it lasted, investing money and shipping, though we do not know that he crossed the Atlantic himself, but the Company broke up in 1505 and he was subsequently involved in proceedings for debt against Francisco Fernandes. The link he provides between the late 15th- and early 16th-century American enterprises is an important one.
The great red book of Bristol, ed. E. W. W. Veale (5v., Bristol Record Soc.), pt.III (XVI, 1951). The staple court books of Bristol, ed. E. E. Rich (Bristol Record Soc., V, 1934). Precursors (Biggar). D. B. Quinn “The argument for the English discovery of America between 1480 and 1494,” Geog. J., CXXVII (1961), 277–85. Williamson, Cabot voyages (1962); Voyages of the Cabots (1929).