- 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
Ingram had said, “There is very great store of those Buffes, which are beasts as big as two Oxen … their homes be crooked like Rams homes, their eyes blacke, their haires long, blacke, rough and shagged as a Goat.” Dr. Bogan felt that the “Buffes” certainly could be bison—which no Englishman had theretofore seen or described. Another “Monstrous beast” of which Ingram spoke was “in proportion like to an Horse … sauing it was small toward the hinder partes …” and had “two teeth or homes of a foote long growing straight forth by their nosethrilles.” Dr. Bogan thought there might be something in Rayner Unwin’s suggestion that descriptions of a moose and a walrus had got combined. (Cartier had seen “large beasts, like great oxen, with two teeth in their jaw, like an elephant,” in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.) He thought Unwin might have a point, too, in ascribing to a seal’s skin that “strange Beast bigger then a Beare. It had nether heade nor necke, his eyes and mouth were in his brest … it beareth a very fyne skynne like a Ratte, full of syluer heare.” If, as it would appear, Ingram was distinguishing the gray fox from the red in reporting that “The Foxes haue their skins more gristed then ours in England,” he deserves full marks for that.
That the “Guinie hennés which are tame Birds … as big as Geese, very blacke of colour,” were Mexican turkeys was probable. But if Ingram was to be taken seriously, his “abundance of Russet Parrots” was a puzzler. Ornithologist George E. Watson had an idea about them immediately persuasive to anyone who has noticed the striking similarity of fast-flying flocks of tapering-tailed species of parrots and doves: they were passenger pigeons. “The flamingo is well described—‘billed like a shovel’” he said, “but Ingram would have had to visit the West Indies to see numbers of them.” Referring to Ingram’s “very strange Bird, thrise as big as an Eagle, very beautifull to beholde … his head and thigh as big as a mans … His beake and talents in proportion like Egles, but very huge and large,” Dr. Watson recommended my looking at page 111 of The Auk , the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, for 1963. “That will give you some fun.” It did. What I found was an article describing the fossil discovered in a late Pleistocene fluvial deposit in northern Florida of “a bird of tremendous size, larger than the African ostrich,” of the superfamily Phorusrhacoidea. Is it possible that … ?
But let me get a grip on myself. Ingram had spoken of a “Foule,” obviously the great auk, “which hunteth the Riuers neere unto the Hands: They are of the shape and bignesse of a Goose but their wings are couered with small yelowe feathers, and cannot flie: You may driue them before you like sheepe: They are exceeding fatte and very delicate meate.” Dr. Watson thought that hunteth should be haunteth and that yelowe was the wrong word altogether and was proved right in both cases by one of the manuscript copies: the feathers were “callowe.” What struck him most was Ingram’s remark that “they have white heads, and therefore the Countrey men call them Penguins (which seemeth to be a Welsh name).” He said that “George Gaylord Simpson in his recent book on penguins suggests that the name may be derived from the Welsh words for ‘white head,’ pen gwyn , but I’m surprised to see it brought out so early.” I recalled that The Oxford English Dictionary cited Ingram’s use of the word for the auk as only the second on record. “But of course,” Dr. Watson added, “great auks have only a patch of white on the face, not white heads.”
Dr. Eyde got us out of that difficulty, finding lexicographical authority for the view that Penguin Island, off Newfoundland, was so named because of its snowcapped peak and may have given its name to the birds. That this is so is indicated, I found, by Hakluyt, who, in connection with the voyage in 1536 of “Master H’f6re and Divers Other Gentlemen,” refers to “the Island of Penguin … whereon they went and found it full of great fowls, white and gray, as big as geese, and they saw infinite number of their eggs.” There is no suggestion that the fowls were called penguins. That would have come later.
Such is the internal evidence about which the reader may make up his own mind. The view I have come to is that judgment of the character of Ingram’s interrogators should weigh equally in the balance. They were worldly, sophisticated men, Walsingham being known for the effective instrument he made of the English intelligence service. Ingram’s walk would have seemed as amazing to them as to us and surely they would have examined Ingram closely enough to satisfy themselves as to the truth of it had they wished to know . If we judge that they did, then I think we must accept the walk as fact. But were they, rather, without much scruple, simply using Ingram for what he could contribute to the promise of the New World? It looks to me as if they were.