- Historic Sites
The Longest Walk: David Ingram’s Amazing Journey
He was the first Englishman to give a detailed description of the North American wilderness. Was it a pack of lies?
April/May 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 3
Finally we must take account of the object of his interrogation, which was to help determine—or more likely, demonstrate—the suitability of North America for English settlement. Sir Humphrey Gilbert had been a leading proponent of a northwest passage to the Orient. In 1578 he had obtained a charter to discover and occupy “heathen lands” in that direction “not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people.” Later that year he had invested all his capital in an expedition to North America that had accomplished nothing. In 1583, taxing Sir Francis Walsingham for payment for services meanwhile rendered the government, he would manage to fit out another—taking Ingram!—and establish in Newfoundland the first English settlement in the New World. Sir George Peckham was interested in finding a new home overseas for English Catholics, upon whom ruinous penalties had been imposed. Walsingham was Elizabeth’s Secretary of State; an ardent Puritan and strongly anti-Spanish, he too would have supported Gilbert’s and Peckham’s plans.
Ingram could have been in little doubt as to how to ingratiate himself with his illustrious inquisitors. Unfriendly savages? Hunger? Ague? Why, it was a country through which one could walk for a year without untoward incident. There were cannibals—“they haue teeth like dogs teeth”—but “the people in those Countreys are professed enemies to the Canibals.…” As for the land, “The ground and Countrey is most excellent, fertile and pleasant.…” There were “great plaines, as large and as fayre in many places as may be seene.… And then great and huge woods of sundry kind of trees … and in other places great closes of pasture, environed with most delicate trees.” Riches? The kings are “carried by men in a sumptuous chaire of Siluer or Christal, garnished with diuers sortes of precious stones.” Moreover, “there is in some of those countries great abundance of pearle.…” Some pearls were as big as beans, and one of these Richard Browne took with him and gave to the captain of the ship that carried them to France. There was gold, too. The people generally wore bracelets and anklets “whereof commonly one is golde and two siluer. And many of the women also doe wear plates of golde, couering their bodies in a maner of payre of curets [cuirasses].”
Well.… Well, René Goulaine de Laudonnière, founder in 1564 of Fort Carolina near the present site of Jacksonville on the St. Johns River, wrote of the green valley inland of it that there “were the most beautiful prairies in all the world and herbage most suitable for pasturing livestock.” Pearls, albeit fresh-water ones from mussels, are a product of the region the three Englishmen would have traversed. A chest full of them was the only booty de Soto acquired in the bloody quest for treasure that took him across the Southeastern part of our country. Litter-borne red men? The Queen of Cafitachequi (near Augusta, Georgia) received de Soto’s company on an ornamented, covered litter carried by her noblemen, as did a Creek chief in Alabama. As for adornments of precious metals, Laudonnière wrote that “Gold and silver is found in quantity among the savages, which as I have understood from them, comes from ships that have been lost on the coast.… They aver that in the mountains of Appalesse there are mines of copper, which I think are of gold.” Those mountains are known to have produced nuggets at least a quarter the size of the “sundry pieces of golde, some as big as a mans fist,” that Ingram said they found at the heads of “great rivers,” adding, “the earth being washed away with the water.” Writing of the Roanoke Island colony two decades later, Ralph Lane spoke of Indians “dwelling more to the westward,” who were reported to obtain a metal like copper, but “very soft, and pale” by washing sand from a river bottom. “Of this metall,” said Lane, “the Mangoaks have so great store, by report of all the Savages adioyning, that they beautify their houses with greate plates of the same.” It sounds very like one of Ingram’s reports.
Giving Ingram the benefit of the doubt, one can picture the three hikers as they made their way northward, never remaining “in any one place aboue three or foure dayes, sauing onely at the Citie of Balma,” where they stayed “five or seuen dayes.” They passed from one king’s realm to the next, “commonly within a hundreth or a hundreth and twenty miles one from an other.” They learned how to approach a king, how to recognize noblemen in his favor (by “feathers in the haire of … a Byrde as bigge as a goose of russet collour”—clearly eagles’ feathers), and the Indians’ sign of friendship, by which “you may undoubtedly trust them.” They observed the methods of bargaining among the Indians and their weapons as they went “to the warres … in battell aray two and three in a ranck.” They heard their hosts play “instruments of Musicke made of a piece of a Cane, almost a foote long, being open at both endes: which sitting down, they smite upon their thighes …”; also one “like a Taber, covered with a white skinne somewhat like Parchment.” Here the recorder added, with, one fancies, a flicker of amusement, that “This Examinate can very well describe their gestures, dauncing, and songs.” Ingram found the people, as he usually calls them, “commonly … of good favour, feuter [feature] and shape of body.” Other than their being “so brutish and beastly, that they will not forbeare the use of their wiues in open presence"—surely an invention to widen the eyes of the Examinate’s tavern intimates—he considered them “naturally very courteous, if you do not abuse them. …”