David Ingram: the Tudor sailor who hiked across pre-colonial America
Having lost his ship and seeing no way of getting home, an intrepid 16th-century sailor took his chances in the wilderness of America. Dean Snow follows in his footsteps as he tramped 3,600 miles between the coasts of Mexico and Canada – and survived to provide an account that informed early English attempts to colonise North America
On an autumn day in 1569, the French trading ship Gargarine was anchored off the coast of north-east Canada when men aboard spotted a Native American canoe. To their surprise, the smaller vessel was carrying three Englishmen, who asked to be taken back to Europe. The tale they recounted – of traversing North America on foot, from the Gulf of Mexico via the east coast to the Bay of Fundy – was extraordinary. And the later account of one of them was to have a profound impact on the future of the continent.
By the 1580s, the idea of establishing North American colonies was gaining traction in England. Adventurers and merchants including Walter Ralegh attempted to persuade Elizabeth I to lend her support to such ventures. So it was that in the summer of 1582, the queen directed her principal secretary and spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, to interrogate the one living Englishman known to have explored tracts of North America in person.
That man was David Ingram, one of the sailors picked up by the Gargarine, who claimed to have undertaken his transcontinental trek more than a decade before Walsingham spoke to him. He had, though, also visited the African coast and the Caribbean, and (adding to the confusion) he was illiterate. As a consequence, written accounts adapted from Ingram’s interviews – particularly those published in Richard Hakluyt’s 1589 work The Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation – were lurid and, to modern eyes, clearly fantastical.
Descriptions of creatures such as elephants, giant eagles and “a beast far exceeding an ox in bigness” were attributed to Ingram, and informed illustrations including drawings of giant human figures with faces in their chests. Most of these flourishes were the results of flawed interpretations of Ingram’s testimony. Yet his odyssey may well have happened much as he said – a truly extraordinary journey revealing rich details of the people, landscapes and wildlife of North America before the advent of large-scale European colonisation.
Little is known of Ingram’s early life, though he said he was born in Barking, Essex, and had worked as a sailor for a number of years before his epic overland adventure. In 1567, he sailed on the third slaving expedition of navigator and privateer John Hawkins. Some 400 men departed England aboard six ships, sailing for west Africa. There they undertook the horrible business of enslaving its people and transporting them to the Caribbean, where they were sold like cattle to Spanish colonists.
- Read more | Tudors at sea: 8 ways to survive a voyage
It was a profitable journey up to that point, but then the expedition’s luck failed. A hurricane drove the ships into the unfriendly Spanish harbour of San Juan de Ulúa (now Veracruz, on the Mexican coast). After fighting broke out on 24 September 1568, Hawkins’ cousin – the young Francis Drake – escaped with one of the smaller ships. All but one of the remaining English vessels were sunk, with half of the mariners killed or captured.
The rest – including Ingram – escaped with Hawkins aboard the Minion. Sailing a damaged ship and carrying little food, Hawkins had no hope of getting so many men home. So, in early October, many of them elected to take their chances ashore, landing near the side of modern-day Tampico, about 240 miles north of Veracruz. “These hundred men we set on land with all diligence in this little place,” recalled Hawkins. Most soon gave themselves up to the Spanish colonists, but Ingram and about two dozen others decided to escape northward.
Most were never seen again, but Ingram, Richard Browne and Richard Twide survived to tell the tale – or a version of it.
Witness to wonders
Ingram had at least been on the continent before, having called at a French colony in north-eastern Florida during a previous expedition with Hawkins. So he and his two companions set out for that settlement, hoping to find help there, and perhaps even a way home. The three Englishmen carried bundles of cloth, given to them by Hawkins, which they aimed to trade en route. They also picked up mesquite berries, shells and other light items they could exchange for food and shelter.
Ingram and the others picked up a few local words, but encountered too many different languages to achieve any meaningful level of communication. Instead, they did what the indigenous people did when they encountered language barriers: they learned to use the native sign language of the region. The hairy, light-skinned Englishmen were welcomed in the settlements they encountered along the network of well-worn, ancient trails. They learned which items would increase in value as they worked north and east toward the French outpost in Florida.
Descriptions of creatures such as elephants, giant eagles and “a beast far exceeding an ox in bigness” were attributed to Ingram, and informed illustrations including drawings of giant human figures with faces in their chests
And they saw many wonders that Ingram described in his later interrogation, including a tornado, alligators and enormous manatees, describing that species as so fat that “it had neither head nor neck. His eyes and mouth were in his breast. This beast is very ugly to behold, and cowardly by nature. It bears a very fine skin like a rat, full of silver hairs.” This accurately depicts the manatee’s silver vibrissae, which contain nerves enabling it to detect currents and to navigate.
After two months of walking, Ingram and his companions arrived in northern Florida – only to discover that the French outpost had been destroyed by the Spanish. There would be no help for them there; their only good option was to move toward the next likely place where they might encounter a friendly ship. This, they decided, could only be Cape Breton, in what is now Nova Scotia. Thus Ingram, Browne and Twide turned north-east, along trails following the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains – the same route taken by a Spanish expedition of Hernando de Soto two decades earlier.
Where de Soto had turned west into the mountains in search of gold, though, the Englishmen continued north. By spring 1569 they were approaching Chesapeake Bay, on the part of the east coast where, encouraged by Ingram’s testimony, the English later attempted to settle in the mid-1580s. The first English colony, backed by Walter Ralegh, was founded on Roanoke Island in 1585; settlers included artist John White and scientist Thomas Harriot.
Their findings confirmed what Ingram had observed years earlier regarding the people and their clothing, customs and houses, and the promising nature of the land. Harriot wrote that “we found the soil to be fatter, the trees greater and… finer grass and as good as ever we saw any in England.” Like Ingram, he described the native crops: maize, beans, squash and several other plants.
- Read more | What happened to the colony of Roanoke Island?
Further north, the men came to a Northern Iroquoian settlement of huge bark longhouses, where they stayed for a week. Ingram later provided the first recorded mention of these “People of the Longhouse”, including the earliest clear evidence of their masked “False Face” curing societies, which were partly a reaction to a series of epidemics that swept North America in the 17th century.
The masked physician shocked the three sailors, who did not understand his beneficial intentions. “Twide said very vehemently: ‘I defy thee and all thy works’,” recalled Ingram, “and presently the Collochio [devil] shrank away in a stealing manner forth of the doors and was seen no more.”
The men pressed on into the region later named New England, passing through smaller settlements located too far north to rely on domesticated crops. Finally, they reached the end of the indigenous trail system at what is now Old Town, Maine. From there, they had little choice but to continue by river in birch-bark canoes. These carried them to the northernmost settlement on their trek, a spot on the St John river in western New Brunswick.
There, people drew pictures in the dirt, indicating that a European ship was trading at the river’s mouth on the Bay of Fundy. A rapid final leg by canoe took the excited sailors to the Gargarine. Over the course of about 11 months, the three men had trekked some 3,600 miles, and become the first Englishmen to explore the interior of North America. Back in England, they were greeted and rewarded by their astonished former captain, John Hawkins.
However, their public fame was brief, and before long the three men had to return to work. Ingram went back to sea, sailing with Francis Drake in the 1570s, most notably aboard the Elizabeth during the first part of Drake’s circumnavigation of the world. Six years after his interrogation, in 1588, Ingram was probably one of the thousands of sailors who confronted the Spanish Armada.
- Read more | The Tudor guide to colonising the world
His end is unknown. Perhaps it’s not surprising Ingram’s words were so badly mistranscribed and mangled. The men asking the questions in 1582 would have had no concept of the wonders Ingram had witnessed in Africa and North America, and no frame of reference with which to tie them together. Ingram could not write his own account, so Hakluyt did it for him. The thread of the story had been muddled in the interrogation records, so Hakluyt reorganised paragraphs by topic, incorrectly advising readers that everything in the resulting document related to the North American journey.
No wonder Ingram seemed to say that elephants, leopards, iron tools, grey parrots, giant eagles and many other things he’d seen in Africa and the Caribbean were found in North America. The published version of Ingram’s story has been ridiculed by historians ever since. Few have looked at the original records, depending instead on Hakluyt’s flawed but more legible published version.
Only recently have the archived records revealed what really happened, and Ingram’s 1582 narrative has at last been unscrambled. It reveals important new facts about African and American cultures before the profound changes wrought by colonisation. For example, it demonstrates that the native trail system of North America was ancient, elaborate and heavily used. Dugout canoes were often large and numerous in the portions of the Eastern Woodlands south of northern New England. Itinerant traders could make a good living in North America. And Native Americans recovered and repurposed gold and silver found in Spanish shipwrecks.
A story that long seemed too fantastic to believe may, in fact, improve our understanding of pre-colonial North American cultures.
Dean Snow is an ethnohistorian, archaeologist and emeritus professor at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The Extraordinary Journey of David Ingram (Oxford University Press, 2023)
This article was first published in the March 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
Dean Snow is an ethnohistorian, archaeologist and emeritus professor at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of The Extraordinary Journey of David Ingram (Oxford University Press, 2023).
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