David Ingram's Improbable Walk Across 16th-Century America Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

David Ingram's Improbable Walk Across 16th-Century America

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In 1568, while Spain was consolidating its power in Mexico and long before the French and the English were warring in the North, a trio of castaway Englishmen made a remarkable journey of thousands of miles through parts of the territory that now forms Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

The Source of 'The Relation of David Ingram'

In 1589, the European world got its first widely-published glimpse of the interior of the eastern part of the North American Continent. Those who could read Icelandic already had access to centuries-old accounts of European explorations and temporary colonisation of North America, and a Spanish explorer had wandered about what is now the American Southwest and the Mexican North in the 1540s. However, it was only with the publication of Richard Hakluyt's The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English nation, made by Sea or ouer Land, to the most remote and farthest distant Quarters of the earth at any time within the compasse of these 1500 years that a wider public was given access to an account of the marvels to be investigated across the Western Sea. In his book, Hakluyt recounted 'The Relation of David Ingram,' concerning a journey overland from the Gulf of Mexico to what is now the province of Nova Scotia, Canada.

The Setting

In 1568, the North American Continent was a complicated place, full of ancient states and recently-arrived marauders.

The Aboriginal Nations

According to Ingram's 'Relation':

There are in those partes very many Kings, commonly within a hundreth or a hundreth and twenty miles one from an other, who are at continual warres together.

It is probably impossible to reconstruct a list of all the polities through which Ingram and his companions travelled, but the suggestion that the diameter of each 'kingdom' was some one hundred and twenty miles allows us to calculate that the Englishmen passed through some thirty different aboriginal nations on their journey of between three and four thousand miles. This apparent high population density, perhaps surprising to some, is in keeping with modern estimates of the population of eastern North America before European-introduced disease reduced the aboriginal population by as much as two thirds. It is also in keeping with descriptions of the early United States of America which indicate that the landscape was covered with the overgrown remains of urban centres containing elaborate earthworks and mounds.1 Most of this evidence was destroyed by later settlement.

These nations were apparently wealthy by the standards of Europe, the kings being 'carried by men in a sumptuous chaire of Siluer or Christal, garnished with divers sortes of precious stones.' Like the Spanish in Mexico, Ingram and his companions seem to have been overwhelmed by the wealth and civilisation they met in the 'New World.'

The Spanish

The Spanish had been in the Gulf of Mexico since the beginning of the century and had conquered the Mexica of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in the 1520s. Of European nations, they had by far the strongest foothold on the continent. It was a foothold of which the other European nations were jealous.

Additionally, a Spaniard by the name of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca had spent some eight years wandering from the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, through what is now the American southwest, to the Mexican Pacific coast. De Vaca described a tortuous period of near-starvation among poverty-stricken nomadic natives eking out a meagre existence in a hopelessly arid landscape.2

John Hawkins and the English

John Hawkins was an English privateer and slave-trader who made a habit of harassing Spanish and Portuguese shipping in the Atlantic. He worked under the orders of Elizabeth I and was a companion to such luminaries as Francis Drake and Martin Frobisher. During this time before the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the English and Spanish were in a death struggle for control of the Atlantic trade in West African slaves and the products of the New World. David Ingram and his comrades joined Hawkins on his third voyage of piracy and slaving, which left England in 1567. The business methods of the time are typified by Hawkins's strategy at the port of Rio de la Hacha where he took hostages and burned a portion of the town in order to force the Spanish to trade.

The Beginning

Hawkins's little fleet had a successful voyage until they made a stop at the little port of San Juan de Ulua, just south of modern Vera Cruz, Mexico. There, a newly arrived Spanish fleet gave Hawkins a beating such as he'd never had before, forcing him to beat a hasty retreat after the loss of a number of ships. Hawkins ordered the survivors north along the Gulf coast, but soon realised that the ships were overloaded and decided to put about a hundred men ashore near modern day Tampico, Mexico. These castaways soon decided to head south to Panuco, about fifty miles away, where they knew they would find a Spanish settlement and where they hoped they might find mercy.

A battle-group of Chichimeca, mistaking the band of Englishmen for Spaniards (with whom they were at war) attacked from the surrounding forest and killed a number of the refugees. When the Englishmen made no resistance, the Chichimeca held their fire and spoke cautiously in Spanish, soon learning that the strangers could be something other than enemies. They forced the Englishmen to give up their clothes and then let them go free.

After this battle, it became clear that some of the men did not wish to march into Spanish captivity. The group agreed to divide into two parties: one half would continue south to captivity and the other would strike north and take its chances on freedom. Two days into the northern march, this party was again attacked by Chichimeca and half the men had their resolve broken. This group, too, divided. Half retraced their steps to the south and about two dozen men, under the leadership of David Ingram, set off north on a very long walk.

The Journey

The route followed by Ingram and his men is unknown, as is the fate of all but three. Ingram says in his 'Relation' that they remained behind in various cities and towns, marrying local women. Only Ingram, Richard Twide and Richard Browne were found on the coast of Nova Scotia. No trace was ever found - or sought - of the other men.

Ingram left a list of some of the towns and cities he passed through on his journey:

Gunda, a Towne a flight shoote in length
Ochala, a great Towne a mile long
Balma, a rich Citie, a mile and a halfe long
Bega, a Countrey , and Towne of that name, three quarters of a mile long...
Saguanah, a Towne almost a mile in length
Bariniah, a Citie a mile and a quarter long>...
Guinda, a small Towne and a River, both of that name.

Ingram also suggested that there were a great many other large cities and towns, that they were 'five or eight miles one from the other' and that there were a great many small villages between the larger urban centres.

The Rescue

About 11 months after Ingram's group separated from the rest of the Englishman on the western Gulf Coast, Ingram, Twide, and Browne approached a group of Frenchmen attempting to trade with the people of the coastal regions of what is now Nova Scotia. In return for help in negotiating with the locals, the French captain gave the three Englishmen passage back to Europe.

In 1569, the three travellers arrived in England and promptly vanished into obscurity. Thirteen years later, after Twide and Browne had died, Ingram's story was brought to the attention of Queen Elizabeth's Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham. Walsingham summoned Ingram to be interviewed concerning what he knew of the eastern parts of the New World. Ingram's answers to Walsingham's questions make up the text that Hakluyt published 1589.

The Questions

From the beginning, Ingram's story has seemed incredible. Hakluyt left the 'Relation' out of the 1599 edition of his Navigations. Although he gave no reason for setting aside the story, Hakluyt may have found it too far-fetched.

More recently, Rayner Unwin, in his history of Hawkins's third voyage,3 offered a thorough, but eccentric, discussion of the 'Relation.' Unwin argues, showing some mid-twentieth century prejudices, that Ingram's depiction of an urbanised America did not match the true emptiness of the continent before the Europeans came. Unwin also draws on de Vaca's description of the South West forty years before Ingram's walk. However, de Vaca was describing an arid region, not the rich temperate landscape of the eastern half of the continent. Unwin also makes the strange claim that maize was only grown in the southern regions when, in fact, it was a staple crop among the Iroquois and Huron north of the Great Lakes, and so, was probably encountered by Ingram throughout his walk.

Strangely, Unwin finds support for the veracity of Ingram's story in his description of elephants among the Indians! Unwin derived his idea of elephants among the Indians from Herbert Wendt's erroneous description of 'plenty of documentary evidence' of mastodons among the Maya. Wendt even had the idea that the Maya ran around Central America using mastodons as beasts of burden. His understanding of this subject was just as coherent as his understanding of Ingram's journey: Wendt describes 'wanderings that lasted for years' and suggests of Ingram's companions (including those that turned themselves into the Spanish) that 'most of them disappeared as time went on, either starving to death, being killed by the natives or joining Red Indian tribes.' Clearly Wendt is not a dependable source for information about Central America4.

In truth, there is nothing in Ingram's story to suggest that the journey was fabricated. Some details seem to be garbled or imaginative, but there is nothing inherently incredible about three Englishman surviving a journey on foot through what was, for the most part, a landscape as urbanised as much of Europe at the time. In fact, in 1999 another Englishman set out on foot to retrace a possible route of Ingram and his companions. Richard Nathan completed the journey, from north to south, in nine months - two months less than it took Ingram and his companions.

1The most elaborate earthworks were built by the Mississipian culture known as the 'mound builders.' This culture stretched from what is now Minnesota in the north to Georgia in the south. Its influence also definitely stretched to Ohio and into Canada, where earthworks still survive. Little visible evidence remains in the eastern United States. 2De Vaca's story was the subject of the 1993 film Cabeza de Vaca.3The Defeat of John Hawkins: A Biography of His Third Slaving Voyage (London, 1960).4Herbert Wendt, I looked for Adam: the story of man's search for his ancestors (London, 1957), p.545.

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