American History and Genealogy Project


The Lost City of Norumbega

Have you ever read the wonderful tales of the Baron Munchausen? If you have, you may be interested to know that Maine history has a Baron Munchausen of its own, one who could make up quite as remarkable stories of his adventures as could the renowned German storyteller. This man was David Ingram. His stories have not entertained the young people for generations nor held a place in the public libraries, but they have served a more practical purpose. They sent adventurers to the coast of Maine in search of the wonderful city of Arembec, and so began the exploration and colonization of our State which might have been delayed a number of years had not this man of wild imagination and lively tongue landed, by accident, in the country called Norumbega.

The historians are agreed that David Ingram was the first Englishman to bring back to his country any detailed report, true or otherwise, regarding the ancient Norumbega, and so it is not strange that his story attracted wide attention. Being of an adventurous nature, young Ingram had no notion of spending his life in the dull little hamlet of Barking, Essex, and, like other English boys who wanted to see the world, he went to sea.

Now Ingram lived in the days when slave-traders and pirates were common places of life on the seas, and so it is not strange that he should have found himself, in 1568, on a ship commanded by Capt. John Hawkins, a slave-trader, bound for the newly discovered shores washed by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean. Hawkins was not above piracy, and his coat-of-arms was crested with the figure of a Negro child bound with cords.

All went well until they put into the harbor of John d'Uloa, where the villainous Capt. Hawkins was attacked by equally villainous Spaniards, who destroyed four ships of his fleet. He managed to escape by the skin of his teeth, and, with his two remaining vessels, he made port in the mouth of the Tampico River on the Mexican Gulf coast.
All the sailors who had escaped with their lives (and there were over a hundred) were crowded into these two little vessels and, when the captain took account of stock, he found that the greater part of his food supply was at the bottom of the sea and that what remained would not last his crew a quarter of the way across. He decided that, in order to get back to England at all, he must dispose of the superfluous crew and this he promptly did by putting them ashore to look out for themselves, choosing, of course, those that he could best spare.

To show that Capt. Hawkins wasn't entirely heartless, one survivor has written that he "set on shore of our company fourscore and sixteen; and gave to everyone of us five yards, of Roan cloth, and monie to those who did demand it. Then he lovingly embraced us, greatly lamenting our distressed state, and having persuaded ns to serve God and love one another, he bade ns all farewell." Then he sailed away.

Just what Capt. Hawkins thought they could do with the ''Roan cloth" and with the "monie" in a land where there was nothing to buy and nobody with whom to trade, we cannot imagine. He left no weapons by which they might protect themselves, probably fearing attack on himself before he could get away.

That night the marooned sailors slept on the sands beside the Pamlico and the next morning they started on their almost hopeless journey through the semi-tropical wilderness, following the coast. They had not gone far before a band of Indians swooped down upon them and soon relieved them of their "Roan cloth," their shirts and other garments. Those who resisted were killed by the arrows of the Indians; the rest, scantily attired, were allowed to go their way. The savages pointed out to them the direction of Pamlico, the Spanish settlement.

The company then divided. Half went west-ward, in the direction the Indians pointed out, led by Anthony Goddard, who, records say, lived to return to Plymouth, his home in England. Ingram, with his companions, Twid and Brown, travelled north ward, for Ingram knew that the waters of Northern America teemed with fish and were visited by his own countrymen. They pushed on for miles through the forests, occasionally resting with a band of friendly Indians they encountered. They lived on food supplied them by these same Indians, and, when that gave out, on the berries and green vegetables they found along the way. At last, after suffering such hardships as you can scarcely believe, Ingram, more dead than alive, crossed what is now Massachusetts into Norumbega, the land of the Bashaba. What became of his companions, the records do not tell us.

David Ingram actually made the journey on foot, thru the miles of wilderness between the Gulf of Mexico and the St. John's River and there is little doubt that he tarried awhile at Norumbega and met the Bashaba at his capital, Arembec, the fabled lost city of Norumbega. Just what he found there, we can only guess, for his own account reads like a fairy tale. Just to lie on the rich furs, which the natives used lavishly for mats and beds, and to feast on the abundance of fish and game, must have seemed princely luxury to the famished and footsore Ingram and no doubt the brilliancy of the savage ornaments dazzled his eyes and their value became magnified many times.

No wonder he found it hard to tear himself away from this land of plenty and continue his weary march to the St. John's, even when informed by the Indians that a ship of the white man was in its waters offering him a possibility of soon returning home. He found the ship to be the Gagarine and her master, Capt. Champagne, gladly offered him passage to France, from which he easily worked his way across the Channel and home.

But perhaps you want to know where Norumbega, which also appears in various manuscripts as Norumbegue and Norombega, is located. The ancient historians and geographers differed widely in their ideas of the extent of Norumbega. It certainly embraced the country drained by the Penobscot, then known as the river of Norumbega and called by the Indians the great river of the Panawanskek. The lost city of Norumbega is commonly believed to have been near the present site of Bangor, though some historians have located it else-where.

The ancient French fishermen, who visited the waters long before the coming of Ingram, called the Gulf of Maine, with its 230 or more miles from Cape Sable to Cape Cod, the sea of Norumbega. Some of the early map-makers made it extend down as far as what is now New Jersey and some as far as Virginia, while others reckoned it a part of Canada. Look, on his map in 1582, made Norumbega an island with the Penobscot as its southern boundary. A later traveler described its form as "very much like the figure of a colossal turnip, with a broad head, a small body and two thin roots."

Had an English student of the 16th century attempted to draw a map according to his knowledge of this part of the country, it would have been a curious looking paper. What limits he would have set on Norumbega, north and south, we cannot guess, but he surely would have made it a thin strip of land, with a body of water, probably no more than a strait, separating it from Asia; for all voyagers then believed that the northern part of America was no more than a small obstruction between the Atlantic Ocean and Asia, and they always were looking for a passage that would take them, by a short cut, to that rich continent. All below Norumbega he would have marked "Florida.'' And then, according to the fashion of the map-makers of those days, he would have liberally sprinkled the "Sea of Norumbega" and adjacent waters with sea-monsters.

Several French voyagers visited Norumbega before Ingram. In 1556, Andre Thevet, a Catholic priest, sailed in a French ship along the entire coast. He entered Penobscot, where he spent five days and had several conferences with the Indians. He found a little fort settlement, which might have been used by French fishermen as headquarters during the fishing season.

He says in the records, which still exist: "Having left La Florida on the left hand, with all its islands, gulfs and capes, a river presents itself, which is one of the finest rivers in the whole world, which we call "Norumbegue,' and the aborigines, 'Agoncy.' Several other beautiful rivers enter into it; and upon its banks the French formerly erected a little fort about ten or twelve leagues from its mouth. Before you enter said river, appears an island, surrounded by eight very small islets, which are near the country of the green mountains and to the Cape of the islets. From there you sail along into the mouth of the river, which is dangerous from the great number of thick and high rocks; and its entrance is wonderfully large.

"About three leagues into the river, an island presents itself to you, that may have four leagues in circumference, inhabited only by some fishermen and birds of different sorts, which island they call "Alayascon,' because it has the form of a man's arm, which they call so.

"Having landed and put our feet on the adjacent country, we perceived a great mass of people coming down upon us from all sides in such numbers that you might have supposed them to have been a flight of starlings. And all this people was clothed in skins of wild animals, which they call "Rabatatz."

If you have ever taken the sail up the Penobscot, from Camden to Bangor, you will recognize this for as clear a description as anyone could give, not knowing the names of the places he was passing. The island "before you enter the river'' was Fox Island; the "Green Mountains" the Camden hills, and the island like a man's arm, Islesboro.

But it remained for David Ingram to discover or invent the magnificent city of Arembec. His stories gained such fame that he was ordered by the English government to describe the countries through which he had passed in his travels and the manuscript is still to be seen in the English State Paper Office. This is a small part of his sworn statement:
"The Kings in those Countries are clothed with painted or Colored garments and thereby you may know them, and they wear great precious stones which commonly are rubies, being 4 inches long and 2 inches broad, and if the same be taken from them either by force or fight, they are presently deprived of their Kingdoms.

"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."

This and much more like it could not fail to arouse in the government an interest to colonize in this wondrously rich country. But the sworn statement was mild in comparison with the tales with which Ingram beguiled the crowds at the London taverns, when they gathered of evenings to enjoy their mugs of ale. His stories gained in the telling and he never lacked an audience ready to believe every word. It was easy to start him back over the 2000-mile trail from the" Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Maine, and when he reached the magic city of the Bashaba his listeners fairly held their breath.

The country wherein lies this marvelous city was a country of great rivers and waterfalls, so he told them. There was gold to be picked up with the sands of the sea; great stores of silver and copper in the rocks, to be had for the digging; pieces of gold in the rivers as big as a man's fist and fine pearls, which he himself had gathered but became tired of carrying and so threw them away. He had come upon a great crowd of people gathered by the shore to feast on the quahog, a strange fish on which they gorged themselves for several days together, until there was left nothing but enormous shell heaps. Ingram may, in truth, have seen such shell heaps, for remains of them are still to be found along our Maine coast.

These natives, he further related to his fascinated listeners, were finely dressed in soft skins, with ornaments of gold and with strings of pearls, in which the rivers abounded. He had been most courteously treated by them and their chief men, who were called Sagamos, had insisted on his accompanying them eastward to their Bashaba. While yet far distant, his eyes had been dazzled by the roofs and towers of the wonder city, Arembec, which glowed like living coals above the tree-tops, by reason of the gold that covered them.

He had made the journey to the marvelous city by canoe and the great Bashaba, having been informed of his approach, had sent an escort down river and, when he arrived, had received him with all honors. I could not begin to give you the description of the Lost City of Norumbega, as Ingram gave it, or of the Bashaba's palace, whose roof, he informed them, was upheld by twelve great pillars of polished silver and whose entrance was of solid crystal inlaid with precious stones, leading into a great hall, whose walls were lined with the finest gold to the ceiling which was of silver. He told of the rugs and coverings of the choicest skins and furs, which were everywhere under foot, not only in the palace of the Bashaba, but in the dwellings of the natives as well. There was probably some foundation for this part of the story, for the Indians never lacked for skins as long as animals were abundant and easily killed by their arrows.

The houses along the main street of the city were white and shining, with roofs, some of silver and some of copper, with wonderful entrances of crystal, hooded with beaten silver and with doors of burnished copper. Such a house the Bashaba bestowed on Ingram, with a squaw to cook his food, rich skins to replace his tattered shreds of clothing, and a supply of bows and arrows, bidding him stay as long as lie liked.

Being tanned by sun and wind to a copper color, when dressed in native costume Ingram's appearance mightily pleased the Bashaba, so he affirmed, and the ruler of all Norumbega had insisted on his remaining and becoming one of the tribe and even now he might have been there, had he not got wind of the white man's ship upon the St. John's, and his longing for a sight of home got the better of his admiration for a country where gold was more common than lead was in England and where, in almost every house, was a bucket of pearls.

I fear that you will not recognize any part of your State of Maine from this description, and neither did the adventurers who later arrived there, after many difficulties. The city of gold and precious stones had disappeared, without leaving a trace of its magnificence, except in the fanciful mind of David Ingram.

There is no doubt, however, that Ingram's stories spurred on the adventurers and navigators of the times to investigate the land of riches and to start colonization. They stirred Sir Humphrey Gilbert to hasten preparations for his expedition, which turned out disastrously, and they even reached the ears of the French. It may have been these self-same tales which aroused Roberval, a favorite of the French king, to persuade King Francis to make him Lord of Norumbega, as well as Viceroy of Canada, with the right of raising a band of volunteers to found a colony, although he gave, as his philanthropic object, The conversion of the Indians, men without knowledge of God or use of reason." Anyhow, the high-sounding title was actually conferred upon him.

The most renowned of the French explorers, who frankly made one of his objects the search for the fabled city of Arembec, was Samuel Champlain, who, as pilot, accompanied DeMonts on his expedition in 1604. This was noteworthy as the first expedition to the Maine coast, with the object of founding a permanent colony.

Emmie Bailey Whitney.

Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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