If three shipwrecked English sailors really did travel by foot from Florida to Nova Scotia in 1569 then it would certainly count as one of the most remarkable walks undertaken in recorded history. Although the account's more fantastical elements, such as the sighting of elephants, have spurred many to consign it to the fiction department, John Toohey argues for a second look.
June 28, 2017
In the autumn of 1569 the Gargaryne, a French trader, was moored off Cape Breton in present day Nova Scotia when its captain M. Champaign was alerted to a commotion outside.1 Three English men sitting in a native canoe were asking to be let on board. Their names were David Ingram, Richard Brown, and Richard Twyde, and they told him a story that began in Mexico the year before.
In September 1568, they’d been involved in the battle of San Juan de Ulúa (present day Veracruz, Mexico), between a fleet of English privateers, led by John Hawkins and Francis Drake, and Spanish forces under Francisco Luján. After Hawkins’ ship, the Minion, was damaged, he sailed across the Gulf of Mexico where he put the crew on shore. European settlements along the Atlantic coast were sparse and some of the men decided to walk back to San Juan while others including Ingram, Brown, and Twyde intended to follow the coast north in search of English communities. After some died and others returned south, the three remaining sailors, after more than a year wandering up the eastern coast of North America, reached the fishing village at Cape Breton, Canada, unintentionally becoming, if the story is to be believed, the first Europeans to cross North America.
There are two ways to approach the story of Ingram and his shipmates’ journey. If you believe the account that Sir George Peckham recorded years later then it marks the end of a strange and little known story in North American history. If you have doubts, it becomes the beginning of another that is even stranger in the ways it invokes the visions of empire in Elizabethan England and how they played out in North America.
Ingram existed. We can say that because several people independently stated they met him and they had no reason to make that up, but we know nothing else about the man save he was born in Barking, Essex. If he was typical of Elizabethan sailors however we can make some assumptions. He was probably illiterate.2 This meant that when he later gave his story to Peckham he didn’t write it down but answered Peckham’s questions, all of which had a specific purpose Ingram may not have been wise to. He was religious; most likely protestant, and this meant that his contacts with indigenous people were filtered through a mindset that most probably didn’t allow for their belief systems while his own was wracked with peculiar superstitions.
Compared to many Elizabethans he was also widely travelled. He would have likely seen the Atlantic coasts of Europe and the Mediterranean, and the African and American coasts. But if his ship anchored in the harbour at Constantinople this didn’t mean he disembarked and went into the city. International negotiations were delicate and it was often safer to keep the crew on board. He only experienced some places from a distance, and he had very little to compare what he saw in North America to what he’d seen elsewhere, which helps explain some of his more fantastic claims.
Drake and Hawkins’ fleet of five ships was moored in the harbor of San Juan de Ulúa when Luján attacked, by surprise according to some reports, though given Drake and Hawkins were privateers they could hardly have complained that was unfair.3 The Minion badly damaged, Hawkins retreated across the Gulf of Mexico before running aground at a point on the west coast of present day Florida and ordering the crew off. This was where Ingram’s account began, or more accurately, the account that he gave nearly twenty years later to Peckham and Queen Elizabeth’s secretary Francis Walsingham.
Both men were heavily invested in the case for England colonizing North America. As such they were only interested in the physical descriptions, the topography, the people, and the flora and fauna that Ingram encountered. The emotional experiences of three sailors entering an unknown world were irrelevant.
The sections quoted below are from the best surviving version of Ingram’s account, the opening chapter to Documents Connected with the History of South Carolina, published in 1856.4 Written in the third person, once Ingram and his two friends are introduced their presence is fairly low key. We pick it up a couple of paragraphs in, after Ingram, Brown, and Twyde have been introduced and the circumstances under which they found themselves in Florida explained.
In 1539, Hernando de Soto had explored the Florida region and encountered people living on the Withlacoochee River he called Guazoco.5 If these were the same people Ingram met then contact with Europeans had taken place within living memory. They may not have been surprised at the whiteness of the Europeans’ skin, but also, that might not have been why they stripped them naked. Ingram was no cultural anthropologist; Walsingham and Peckham even less so. Nevertheless, the statement gives us a location and a germ of credibility to Ingram’s story.6
Ingram describes the societies he meets as kings, short for kingdoms, and in his travels through the south east especially, he repeatedly refers to the wealth of the people and the cities they inhabit. The Gizicka typically wear “Rubyes, beinge sixe inches longe and twoe ynches broade.” The rulers are carried about in a “Sumptuous Chayer (chair) of Sylver or Christall.”
A constant problem with his account is that the credible and the fantastic often inhabit the same sentence. A crystal sedan chair sounds like something out of a fairytale but because copper, silver, and gold were worked in pre-Columbian America this statement needs only a slight shift in perspective to be plausible, although it isn’t clear what he meant by rubies, especially of that size. More important is his constant reference to cities, a term that in the sixteenth century equated with civilization and advanced technologies.
From the period of colonization beginning in the early seventeenth century until very recently, the argument that the indigenous inhabitants of North America lived in cities was considered suspect, at best. We now know from work being carried out at Cahokia and other sites that into the fourteenth century there were settlements the size of many in Europe.7
It seems pedantic then to question whether when Ingram spoke of cities he really meant towns or even villages. What he is actually describing as he travels northwards is a network of established communities with sophisticated social structures. Unfortunately, Ingram couldn’t provide locations. Was Gunda on the Mississippi or one of its tributaries, or, when he says it was the most northerly, does he mean present day Canada?
… they doe honor for there god a devell (which) they call Collochio, who speakethe unto them sometimes in the liknes of a blacke dogge, and sometimes in the liknes of a blacke calfe. And some doe honor the sonne, the mone and the stares … he and his twoe fellowes ... wente into a poore man’s house and there they did see the saide Collochio, or devell (with) very great eyes like a blacke calfe. Upon the sighte therof, Browne said “There is the Devell!” and theruppon he blessed him selfe, In the name of the Fathe! and of the Sonne and of the Holy Ghoste and Twide saide verye vehementlie, ‘I defye thee and all thy works!’ and presently the Collochio shranke awaye in a stealinge manner, furth of all the doors, and was sene noe more unto them.
In the 1830s George Catlin painted the Mandan, Pawnee, and other people living along the Missouri River in Missouri and (present day) North Dakota. In some of his paintings men are wearing buffalo heads. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination again to think that the three sailors witnessed a religious ceremony, or that they would think the performers were dressed as devils.
The account frequently reads as though Ingram is answering questions rather than telling the story in his own term. There is no chronological narrative, rather descriptions of the people, the flora and fauna are set out in discrete sections. It is impossible in parts to tell whether he is talking about the south soon after they land, the mid-Atlantic, or the northern regions. When he says that, “there is a clowde somtyme of the yeare sene in the ayer (which) comonlye turnethe to great tempests”, he is talking about tornadoes, which he was more likely to have seen in what is present day Kentucky than Florida or Maine, though tornadoes can strike across the US and in any month.
He also talks about a beast twice the size of a horse, with tusks, that was a “natural enimyes to the horse”. The interesting detail here is not the beast — Ingram describes several unlikely creatures — but that it apparently preys on horses. Standard histories of the horse in North America posit its return, after becoming extinct in the area between 8,000 and 12,000 years ago, as beginning with Cortes in Mexico in 1519. There are alternative Indigenous histories that say it was a domesticated animal before the arrival of Europeans. Ingram appears to be saying he saw horses north of Florida, which could support the Indigenous histories or equally indicate how rapidly the horse population spread once it turned feral.8
When Ingram claims to have seen a bird, “thrice as big as eagle, very bewtyfull to behoulde … (with) a creste or tufte of feathers of sundrye colours on the toppe of the heade”, he could feasibly be describing a condor, a bird Lewis and Clark later observed on the Columbia River. One of his most infamous claims however beggars belief. “He did alsoe see in that countrye boath Eliphantes and ounces.”
Ounces are lynxes, sometimes bobcats or pumas, but there is nothing ambiguous about his use of the word elephants. Because he may never have seen one in the flesh and knew only that they were big animals, it sounds possible that he assumed a distant bison was an elephant, except that elsewhere he clearly identifies bison. More likely he made it up, either to please Peckham, to affirm an idea Peckham had put in his head, or because in the years since the journey Ingram had forgotten details and tried to compensate. Whatever the case, the sentence sits there in the middle of the text as grist for anyone who wants to claim the whole journey was an invention.
Ingram and his friends expected that they would inevitably reach European settlements along the coast. It is easy for us to forget that although England’s first formal attempts at colonization were still more than a decade away, its privateers had been making regular unofficial visits. For most of the century French and Spanish fleets had been frequently turning up on the coast, which had appeared on maps since the 1530s in recognizable form to us today. The three men probably imagined they would be out of contact with Europeans for a few weeks, not a year. However, eventually,
Peckham and Walsingham interviewed Ingram in 1582, some thirteen years after he made his journey. Their account appeared in the first edition of Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation in 1589, but not the second, which came out in 1598. Hakluyt removed it because he thought it wasn’t credible, though he didn’t give his reasons as to why he now thought that.
A more likely explanation is that by the time of the second edition Hakluyt’s campaign for the colonization of North America had hardened. With the French colonizing the north and the Spanish the south, England’s plans took on a sense of urgency as it risked being squeezed out. Hakluyt was very much a pragmatic advocate for colonization; much more interested in arguing from facts than speculation. The first edition had also included sections from John Mandeville’s very fanciful Travels (1356) but if once he had been willing to accept any account, now he had no time to waste with claims that couldn’t be established.
The word of an ordinary, uneducated sailor like Ingram was not to be trusted, not because he would make things up so much as he couldn’t tell the difference between fact and fiction. For Hakluyt, trying to construct a rational case for imperial expansion, there were enough people with strange ideas surrounding Queen Elizabeth without adding an itinerant sailor. One in particular, John Dee, had some of the most eccentric ideas about colonization and he had been very keen to meet Ingram back in 1582.
Dee is best known today as an Elizabethan astrologer, the man who invented a language for communicating with angels and who was convinced by his assistant as to the merits of wife-swapping. Wise man or fool, it is often hard to know which one you are dealing with in Dee’s writings and it is often overlooked that during the 1570s he was part of Elizabeth’s innermost circle, and constructing the intellectual framework for colonizing North America. Dee is also considered the first to use the term “British Empire”.9
If Hakluyt regarded the colonization of North America as fundamental to the expansion of power, Dee sought the moral and justification through Elizabeth’s genealogy. He had traced a line from Elizabeth through her father Henry VIII to King Arthur, a proposed lineage that gave her an unquestioned right to rule the New World. As Elizabethan expansion developed pace, two legends, supposedly ancient but suspiciously difficult to trace, took hold. One was that King Arthur had sailed across to America and conquered it. The other was that the Welsh Prince Madoc, sailed to America in the twelfth century and lived there some years. Depending upon the sources, Arthur had been a Welsh king. The case could be made therefore that, as a descendant of Arthur and through Madoc, Elizabeth had rights to North America.10
On November 1, 1582, Ingram travelled in the company of a Mr Clement to Mortlake to have an audience with Dee.11 Though Dee kept a diary and noted the visit he didn’t record the conversation. We can be sure, however, that one thing he was very interested in was whether Ingram had heard any Welsh in his conversations with the inhabitants. A few words would have been enough.
Hakluyt’s decision to remove Ingram’s story from the second edition would ultimately lead to it being largely deleted from the historical record. When it was occasionally recovered, his statements such as seeing elephants ensured it was as often as not dismissed. There are, however, enough plausible statements scattered among the inventions in Ingram’s narrative to make the case that the three men did actually cross North America in 1569.
What matters today is not whether they were the first Europeans to do this but what value can be found in Ingram's account. The immediate impact has gone unrecorded but if we accept that the journey took place, Ingram left one of the earliest accounts of indigenous societies along the north Atlantic corridor. Most notable are his repeated assertions of large, settled communities, similar perhaps to Hochelaga that Jacques Cartier described at present day Montreal in 1535. If these communities did exist in the 1560s but not in the seventeenth century when French and English explorers began charting the interior, it is likely to be further evidence (if needed) of the devastation European diseases wreaked.
This would not be the first case in which towns were described that would in a short time disappear. In the 1540s the Spanish conquistador, Francisco de Orellana, described extensive communities along the Amazon.12 By the time Pedro Texeira travelled up the Amazon in the 1630s, the part that Orellana had described as heavily populated was largely deserted. The assumption was that Orellana had invented details to encourage settlement (not uncommon). Recent aerial and archaeological surveys, however, have revealed a long hidden network of roads and field systems where Orellana said he saw so many people.13 Ingram could have seen something very similar along the tributaries of the Mississippi.
Etymologies of the word “penguin” indicate it was first used to describe the auks of the northern hemisphere and not the penguins of the south. Anxious to please, perhaps, Ingram was the first on record to claim its origin was a word used by Indigenous North Americans that sounded similar to the Welsh for “white head” (pen gwyn). The now extinct great auk could be immediately identified by the white spot on its head.14
John Toohey is a PhD candidate in Art History at Concordia University in Montreal, specializing in landscape and vernacular photography. He has two books published, Captain Bligh's Portable Nightmare (Duffy & Snellgrove, 4th Estate, Harper Collins) and Quiros (Duffy & Snellgrove) both concerned with early exploration of the Pacific.