The Little-Known (Perhaps Fictional) Story of a Man Who Crossed North America in 1568
In the 16th-century, English sailor David Ingram may have made one of the most extraordinary journeys in history.
The tale of a voyage supposedly undertaken between 1568 and 1569 by English sailors, David Ingram, Richard Brown and Richard Twyde, comes down to us as one of the oldest records of North America after its conquest. Newly reborn, it’s the nearly forgotten story of the first Europeans who crossed the North American continent – from the coasts of Florida to what is today Nova Scotia in Canada.
The chronicle of the one-year journey by Ingram and his companions is full of inaccuracies and fantastic elements – including the sightings of elephants and giant birds – and these have made some experts think it’s a fictitious story, an invention of the navigator. But David Ingram is known to have existed thanks to several historical records. Born in Barking, Essex, like most English sailors of his time, Ingram was probably illiterate, probably a Protestant, and would have known several ports on the Atlantic as well as the Mediterranean.
The written record of Ingram’s journey has survived in part thanks to the account he made to Sir George Peckham (who compiled a number of stories of the English in America during his lifetime). It’s also thanks to the secretary and spymaster of Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Walsingham, who interviewed Ingram in 1582, 13 years after his trip.
The story of the three sailors begins in present-day Veracruz, Mexico, in September 1568, at the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa. During the confrontation, five English ships (under the command of two notable corsairs, Francis Drake and John Hawkins) were attacked by Spanish ships under the command of Francisco Luján. Caught by surprise, the British suffered casualties and damage to the ships, in particular to the Minion, which then carried Hawkins across the Gulf of Mexico to the shores of Florida. Some of the crew died, others decided to return to San Juan de Ulúa. But three of them decided to walk north, following the Atlantic coast in search of an English settlement. In the fall of 1569, David Ingram, Richard Brown and Richard Twyde arrived, after months of walking, at Cape Breton (today in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia).
One surviving written record of Ingram’s voyage is found in the book Documents Connected with the History of North Carolina, published in 1856. It follows a non-chronological and rather confused description of places and indigenous populations the English sailors encountered. Among them were named the cities of Balma, Ochala, Bega, Gunda, and the Gizicka River. This last has been identified with the river Withlacoochee, known to Spanish explorers as the Guazoco. These coincidences allow us to trace, in an imprecise way, the route of the English, and they also present arguments for defending the verisimilitude of the tale.
The story notes that the sailors never stayed more than three days in one place. Ingram described some of the customs of the inhabitants of the towns visited and these reveal clearly organized civilizations. The Englishman described, at one point, a ritual witnessed in one such place: the worship of a dog or calf-like creature. This may well have been a priest or shaman wearing a buffalo head. (Later chroniclers noted similar rituals of people living near the Missouri River, in present-day North Dakota). The flora and fauna of the places are only rarely described, and highlights include the supposed sighting of elephants (animals that Ingram probably never saw) and giant birds, “three times bigger than an eagle,” which some have noted as a reference to the American condor.
Ingram’s has been excluded from several later compilations on the conquest of North America for its lack of truthfulness and for being but the account of an illiterate sailor. But for a story whose historicity has not been fully accepted to this day, verisimilitude isn’t entirely relevant. This almost forgotten traveler undoubtedly provided one of the earliest documentations of the imaginations and perceptions of the first Europeans in the Americas. It’s a walk that, if it happened, is the first tour made by Europeans across North America and it’s a treasure, somewhere between the literary and the historical, that provides at least a glimpse into the imagination of a 16th century English sailor.
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