July 27, 2017

The Lost City of Norumbega: David Ingram's Journey


"Everything about Norumbega is in dispute." 

Kirsten Seaver, "Norumbega and 'Harmonia Mundi" in Sixteenth-Century Cartography,"
Imago Mundi, Vol. 50, 1998

*****
In 1568, a young Englishman named David Ingram joined Captain John Hawkins as a crew member on one of his ships. Ingram was from the small town of Barking in Essex, and apparently he was looking for adventure - and was willing to overlook the nasty fact that Hawkins was a slave trader whose coat of arm was emblazoned with the image of an African child in chains.

Ingram set sail with Hawkins for the Caribbean with six vessels, but when they reached the coast of Mexico the fleet was attacked by Spanish pirates. Four of Hawkins's ships were captured by the Spaniards, and more than two hundred of his men (including Ingram) were forced onto the remaining two ships. There was not enough food or water for so many men and survival seemed grim. Captain Hawkins was not a compassionate man, so he put ninety-six men ashore near the Tampico River in Mexico. He gave them money and bolts of cloth, keeping the food and weapons for himself, and then sailed off.

The money was useless - there was nowhere to spend it and nothing to buy - but I suppose they could have traded the cloth with the local Native Americans. They didn't get a chance, though, because shortly after being put ashore a band of Native Americans captured the sailors, robbing them and killing those who resisted. They then told the survivors to head west to a nearby Spanish settlement.

Many of the crew headed west, but David Ingram had other ideas. Maybe he was afraid of the Spaniards, maybe he didn't trust the Native Americans, but he and several others decided to go north. They were aiming for the North Atlantic Coast, where Ingram knew English fishing boats visited the region's teeming fisheries. It was more than a thousand miles away.

For months Ingram trekked across North America, getting food, shelter and directions from various tribes along the way. By 1569 he made it to the coast of Maine with at least two other English companions.

Ingram's story sounds pretty incredible, doesn't it? Was it really possible for someone to walk from Mexico to Maine in one year in the 1500s? His journey seems almost unbelievable, but once he reached Maine things got really bizarre. Ingram claimed that he discovered a vast Native American kingdom filled with gold and silver in Maine. It was called Norumbega.

An early map showing Norumbega's location in Maine

According to Ingram, the people of Norumbega dressed in the softest animal pelts and decorated their bodies with gold and pearls.
"All the people generally wear bracelets as big as a man's finger upon each of their arms, and the like on each of their ankles, whereof one commonly is gold and two silver and many of the women also do wear great plates of gold covering their bodies and many bracelets and chains of great pearls." (Emmie Bailey Whitney, Maine, My State, 1919)
Gold and pearls were outrageously plentiful in the kingdom. The rivers were filled with pieces of gold as large as a man's hand, while pearls could be gathered by the fistful. Ingram himself collected large amounts of pearls upon first arriving but threw them away because he got tired of carrying them. It didn't really matter because he could always just pick up more.

The Norumbegans were friendly and led Ingram to their leader, a king named the Bathshaba who lived in the city of Arembec. Ingram claimed that Arambec was about half a mile across, and its buildings were roofed with precious metals. The Bathsheba received Ingram in a hall whose roof was supported by twelve pillars of polished crystal, whose walls were lined with gold, and whose ceiling was made of silver. In other words, it was really nice. 

The Bathshaba took pity on Ingram and gave him furs to wear, a house to live in, and a wife to cook for him. It sounds like a good deal, but Ingram was still eager to return home to England. He eventually found a French ship bound for Europe and returned made his way to London.

Francis Walsingham
Back in England Ingram became something of a celebrity. He told his story to eager audiences in pubs, and discussed Norumbega with leading intellectuals like Dr. John Dee, who was Queen Elizabeth's astrologer and Shakespeare's inspiration for Prospero in The Tempest. Ingram also told his story to Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's secretary and spymaster, who in turn told it to Richard Hakluyt, a clergyman and author who was promoting English exploration. Hakluyt published an account of Ingram's journey called The Relations of David Ingram in 1582, and also included it in his influential 1589 book The Principall Navigations Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation.

Several expeditions tried to reach Norumbega, but none were successful. In fact, no one ever found the city, even when Maine was successfully colonized by the English.

I suppose this is not surprising to you. We all know, from our vantage point in the 21st century, that there was no city of precious metals in Maine. It never existed. Even Hakluyt grew suspicious of Ingram's story, and removed it from later editions of The Prinicipall Navigations. It's not even entirely clear if Ingram was ever even in North America (which he claimed was full of elephants).

Why did people believe him? Well, the Spanish had actually discovered large cities in Mexico, and they were indeed filled with gold, so it seemed plausible these cities might exist elsewhere. A place named Norumbega, or something similar, had appeared on a Portuguese map of North America in 1548. The French explorer Jean Alfonce de Saintonge claimed he visited Norumbega in the 1540s, and found a city "with clever inhabitants and peltries of all kinds of beasts." Saintonge doesn't mention gold, but animal pelts were very valuable, so wouldn't gold be found there as well?

In short, Ingram didn't make up Norumbega out of thin air. Europeans already believed it was an actual place. He was building on some preexisting stories and some of his details do seem plausible. For example, he claims the Norumbegans ate a lot of quahogs and piled up their shells on the shore. It is true that Maine's coastal tribes ate a lot of shellfish, and those piles of shells (called middens) can still be seen today.

Ironically, the name Norumbega may come from a misunderstanding of an archaic Italian phrase "non oro bega," which means "no quarrel about gold." The historian Kirsten Seaver claims that early Italian explorers noted this on a map as a way of telling others there was no gold in the region (and therefore no reason for colonizing countries to quarrel). "Non oro bega" was then written by later mapmakers as "aranbega," and finally as Norumbega. A note indicating a lack of gold finally became a mythical city full of it.

As I mentioned above, many of Ingram's contemporaries came to doubt his story, and English colonists in the region found no trace of Norumbega. The Native American groups in Maine also have no traditions or history regarding a city of gold. You would think that it would recede forever into the realm of myth, but that isn't the case. As I'll discuss in my next post, Norumbega rose again in the 19th century.

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