David Ingram’s Epic Walk
In November 1567, an English sailor began a massive hike in Tampico, Mexico. His journey ended 11 months and 4,800 km (3,000 miles) later in Nova Scotia. Or did it?
A Pirate’s Life
David Ingram shipped out with John Hawkins, an English sea captain. Hawkins carried with him a letter from Queen Elizabeth I authorizing him to attack foreign ships and to plunder their cargo. The letter had absolutely no international standing but created the nicety that Hawkins could call himself a privateer, a word that is so much less pejorative than pirate, which is, essentially, what he was.
On his third voyage, he set out from England in 1567 in his ship Jesus of Lübeck, along with a fleet of five vessels, one of which was commanded by his cousin, Francis Drake.
The first order of business was to pick up a cargo of slaves from the West African coast. Hawkins then captured a Portuguese slave ship and loaded its human cargo onto his own vessels for the Atlantic crossing.
Hawkins sold his slaves in Spanish territories in the New World. However, his fleet was caught in a storm and put into the Mexican port of Veracruz for shelter. Shortly thereafter a Spanish fleet of 13 ships seeking a safe haven arrived.
The Spaniards sank three of Hawkins’ ships; the other two, the Judith and Minion, were damaged and limped away. Hawkins put as many of his crew as possible, including David Ingram, aboard the Minion. After two weeks, they were running low on water and food and put into a more northerly port for repairs and provisions.
It was now October 1567 and it became obvious that the little vessels could not carry all the men aboard back to England so 100 or so were put ashore, or as David Ingram put it, were “throwen into the sea.”
The Trek Begins
In 1589, the writer Richard Hakluyt published The Voyages of the English Nation to America, Volume 3. In it, he relates the story that David Ingram told him of his long trek.
He starts by stating the sailors “thought it best to trauell along by the Sea coast, to seeke out some place of habitation: whether they were Christians or Sauages we were indifferent.”
Their numbers soon declined after running into hostile Spaniards and Indians. The remnants chose David Ingram to be their leader. He is described by author Rayner Unwin in his 1960 book The Defeat of John Hawkins as “a common sailor whose gifts of fortitude and resolution were only exceeded by his erratic imagination.”
The Journey North
It seems to have been prudent to get away from Spanish-held territory as quickly as possible, so the little group of perhaps two dozen headed north. They could only have had the vaguest idea of where they were going.
As they marched northwards many of their numbers fell by the wayside. Some may have intermingled with Indian tribes, which leads to the notion that some very strange DNA may turn up in tests. More likely, most died. Just three were alive when, according to Ingram, they reached what is today Nova Scotia on Canada's east coast. Ingram’s companions were Richard Browne, and Richard Twide.
The three men were then taken back across the Atlantic aboard a French ship. In the summer of 1582 Ingram was brought before three prominent English gentlemen to tell his story. One of them was Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a man with a keen interest in setting up English colonies in the Americas.
A Vivid Imagination
Apparently, Ingram's testimony was recorded but nobody has been able to find any record of it, although a version was acquired by Richard Hakluyt. It’s from this 4,500-word account that Hakluyt constructed his 1585 narrative.
He wrote that Ingram described the dress and customs of the Indians they encountered. He recalled the animals, and plants, and birds they saw. One bird he said was “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.” A condor perhaps? Among the animals, he told of elephants.
However, Ingram neglected to mention details about the march, and inconsistencies add a whiff of falsehood to the story.
Of course, it’s quite possible that much of the detail of the story has been lost over the years. Also, the documents that exist were not written by Ingram but were accounts taken down by others.
But, what about the elephants? By the time Ingram and his band of men passed by elephants and their like had long since gone extinct in North America, although he claimed to have seen them. Perhaps, he saw a herd of bison in flickering twilight, or more likely he made that bit up to make his story more appealing.
We are asked to believe they also saw “banqueting houses … builded with pillars of massie siluer and chrystall.”
So, Ingram may have coloured his narrative somewhat vividly; perhaps his tale was the price of a good meal and some lusty swallows of grog in a tavern.
Most historians think there are some nuggets of truth in the seafarer's yarn and that some sort of epic trek took place.
In June 1583, Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed from England with five vessels. None other than David Ingram was among the fleet’s crew. Gilbert’s plan, duly executed, was to claim Newfoundland for England. On the return Atlantic crossing Gilbert’s ship, HMS Squirrel, sank with all hands. History does not record whether David Ingram was among those lost.
In the summer of 1588, John Hawkins and Francis Drake, along with Martin Frobisher, were commanders of the English fleet that faced the Spanish Armada. Philip II of Spain sent 130 vessels as part of his plan to remove the Protestant Elizabeth I from the throne. The small, fast, and highly maneuverable English ships played havoc with the lumbering Spanish galleons. About a third of the Armada’s vessels were lost to battle and storms.
- “The Longest Walk: David Ingram’s Amazing Journey.” Charlton Ogburn, American Heritage, April/May 1979.
- “The Voyages of the English Nation to America, Volume 3.” Richard Hakluyt, Imprinted in London, 1589.
- “The Voyages and Colonising Enterprises of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Volumes 1-2.” DavidBeers Quinn, Routledge, July, 2017.
- “The Long, Forgotten Walk of David Ingram.” John Toohey, The Public Domain Review, undated.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor