The Longest Walk: David Ingram’s Amazing Journey

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If three and twenty of Ingram’s band failed to make it back, how did three manage to? That, of course, is the question. Of Ingram’s explanation, historians accept at least his word that they were brought back across the ocean in a French ship. But where had they got to, to be picked up by her? You would never guess. According to Ingram, they had traveled, by land, from the Gulf of Mexico to within 180 miles of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia!

So far as is known, the only written record of the trio’s purported adventures consists of information given by David Ingram, in response to questions put by “Sir Frauncys Walsingham knight her majestes principall Secretarye and … Sir George Peckham knight” and Sir Humphrey Gilbert in the late summer of 1582. Ingram’s testimony was published the next year, but no copy of the publication is known to exist. Two manuscript versions survive, however, and the testimony was included in Richard Hakluyt’s The Principall Navigations Voiges and Discoveries of the English Nation of 1589 .

The Relation of Dauid Ingram of Barking, in the Countie of Essex Sayler comes to some forty-five hundred words, which is not much to cover a year of unprecedented travel. While interesting enough, it is disappointing and frustrating. More than half of it deals with the appurtenances and customs of the Indians, most of the rest with plants, mammals, and birds. Of the incidents of the march that would make it real for us, little is said. Dangers, illnesses, hardships receive no mention. Of specific encounters with the aborigines there is nothing. How did the travelers find their way? Shelter themselves at night? Communicate with the inhabitants? No hint is dropped.

We have, of course, no reason to believe that the printed record contains all that Ingram said. That it does is extremely unlikely. Moreover, it is not necessarily what he said. It is simply what a clerk took down. And Ingram probably would have been unable to read the transcript to correct it.

None of this, however, explains a startling discrepancy in the first sentence of the Relation , which has it that the hundred seamen were set on land by John Hawkins near a river “which standeth about 140 leagues west by north from the cape of Florida.” That would be in the neighborhood of present-day Apalachicola. The introductory note puts the disembarkation in “the most Northerly parts of the Baie of Mexico.” If, indeed, the three seamen had started from the western coast of Florida, then the “two thousand miles in the least” that Ingram said they traveled would be about right and the walk, though still epic, more believable. But that the men were set ashore near Tampico, at the western extremity of the Gulf, there can be no question. We shall have to come back to this glaring contradiction.

As striking as the omissions from the Relation are the infusions of fantasy. We are told of great towns a mile or more long, of kings with four-inch rubies, of “vessels of massie siluer” (in “euery house,” too), of “banqueting houses … builded with pillars of massie siluer and chrystall.” Impossibly exotic plants are referred to. We are asked to believe that the travelers saw elephants and red sheep of singular disposition. A “strange beast” is reported with “eyes and mouth … in his breast,” and “a very strange Bird, thrise as big as an Eagle” with “feathers more orient then a Peacockes” and a “head and thigh as big as a mans.…”

Ingram’s Relation did not appear in Hakluyt’s next edition. As Samuel Purchas, who continued Hakluyt’s work, wrote: “It seemeth some incredibilities of his reports caused him to leave him out in the next impression, the reward of lying [being] not to be believed in truths.” The incredibilities are apparent enough, but we may recognize, as Purchas did, the authentic ring of some of what Ingram said, and even the lineaments of actual animals in the monsters he describes. We owe it to him, too, to remember that the world of four centuries past was just emerging from belief in fabulous beasts. Better-educated men than Ingram were still seeing mermen and sea serpents. In 1582, moreover, when he was about forty, Ingram was recalling impressions of fourteen years earlier—a long time—and doubtless mixing up with them the memories of other lands to which he had voyaged, before and afterward, and hearsay as well. And, as Dr. William C. Sturtevant, curator of North American ethnology at the Smithsonian remarked: “He’d probably been cadging food and drink with his story for years, the wonders growing with every telling.”