The Longest Walk: David Ingram’s Amazing Journey

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“Does the name David Ingram mean anything to you?” I have been going around asking. The answer is almost always no. Yet if Ingram is to be believed, he and two others with him accomplished perhaps the outstanding walk in recorded history. It seems undeniable that they were the first Englishmen to see anything of North America behind the coast, as certainly Ingram was the first to report on it. David B. Quinn, one of the few historians to have looked much into the case, offers in conjunction with his collaborators in The Discovery of North America —W. P. Gumming and R. A. Skelton—the opinion that while it “appears to be impossible” for the three Englishmen to have gone as far as Ingram said they did in the time available, “The basic fact of his journey and survival, however, is little open to question; this English sailor penetrated some part of the interior on a remarkable walking trip.” I am not so sure about that “impossible”—but then, despite the time I have given him, I am not so sure about anything involving Ingram. I seem to have been left in the midst of intractable, if fascinating, contradictions. Maybe the reader will be the one to see where the truth lies. After all, it has to lie somewhere.

Ingram had shipped with John Hawkins in a fleet of five vessels that departed England in 1567. This was Hawkins’ third venture in capturing blacks from Portuguese slavers and in West African towns and, defying the trading bans of King Philip II, selling them at great profit in New Spain. He had disposed of most of his cargo when he took advantage of the right of vessels to seek haven from storms in the nearest port by entering the harbor of Veracruz despite the protests of the governor. Unfortunately for him, a Spanish fleet of thirteen ships followed him into port, bringing the new viceroy. After an initial pretense of accepting the unwelcome visitors’ presence, the Spanish launched an attack. Only two English ships escaped, the little Judith , under the command of Hawkins’ young cousin, Francis Drake, and the Minion , into which Hawkins loaded as many men as he could from the crew of his largest vessel, the stricken Jesus of Lübeck . “With manie sorowful hearts,” Hawkins related, “wee wandered in an unknown Sea by the space of fourteen days tyll hunger inforced us to seeke the lande.” This they made on October 8 “in the botome of the same Bay of Mexico in twenty three degrees and a hälfe where we hoped to haue founde inhabitantes of the Spanyardes, relief of victualles, and place for the repair of our shippe.… But all things happened to the contrary.” They were able only “to refresh our water.” The two hundred seamen crowded into her were obviously more than the battered Minion could carry home, and by their choice a hundred-odd men were put ashore.

 

These “thought it best to trauell along by the Sea coast, to seeke out some place of habitation: whether they were Christians or Sauages,” one recalled, “we were indifferent.” Eight soon were killed by Indians before the attackers discovered that they were not Spaniards. About half of the remainder headed westward and after ten or twelve days reached the Rio Pânuco, where they fell into the hands of the Spanish and were taken to nearby Tampico. The others pushed northward, and, after more attacks had thinned their ranks, chose for their leader “a common sailor,” as the English writer Rayner Unwin observes in his book The Defeat of John Hawkins , “whose gifts of fortitude and resolution were only exceeded by his erratic imagination”: David Ingram.

Those captured by the Spanish on the Pânuco and at Veracruz were forced to march to Mexico City, over two hundred miles, in pitiable condition. That was only the beginning of years of suffering. Parceled out to labor among their conquerors in Mexico and Spain and in the galleys, with two men burned as heretics, few ever made it back to England. But never have Englishmen been avenged more amply. It was only a final installment when Hawkins and Drake, admirals now and the scourge of New Spain, fell upon the Invincible Armada in 1588.

Hawkins had got the Minion back to England in January, 1569, after a ghastly voyage. (“Our men being oppressed with Famine, died continually,” he reported, until “wee were scantly able to manure [maneuver] our ship.”) He must have been astounded when, a year later, three men he had left on the coast of Mexico presented themselves to him. They were David Ingram, Richard Browne, and Richard Twide, the only members of the northward-marching body to return home.

What happened to the others in their party? All we know comes from Miles Phillips, one of those who surrendered at Tampico and who, after extreme vicissitudes, had got back to England fifteen years later. Phillips wrote that “as Ingram since hath often tolde me, there were not past three of theyr company slaine … so that of the company that went Northward, there is yet lacking, and not certainely heard of, the number of three and twentie men.” Evidently they had dropped out along the way. Phillips adds: “And verely I doe thinke that there are of them yet aliue, and marryed in the sayd countrey, at Sibola.” Cibola, somewhere northwest of Mexico, was the site of the legendary Seven Cities, of abounding treasure. Phillips promised to give his reasons for thinking as he did “hereafter,” and one would have liked to hear them.