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The Lost City of Norumbega

Updated on June 1, 2016
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Robert writes eclectic and informative articles about weird historical incidents and speculative science.

What Was the Fabulous Lost City of Norumbega?
What Was the Fabulous Lost City of Norumbega?

The Accidental Discovery of Norumbega

Columbus’s discovery of North America, set off a scramble for territory, resources and riches by the major European powers. Two of the main rivals and contenders for supremacy in the New World were Spain and England, who for centuries fought over which country would control the fabulous riches of the South and North America. Spain’s centers of power were Peru and Mexico, from which fleets of galleons regularly travelled back to the mother country laden with gold and the spoils of conquest.

The British were late comers to the New World and because they lacked wealthy colonies, they often resorted to piracy, raiding the Spanish convoys and coastal settlements. In 1568, a small British fleet left England and journeyed to Mexico where it raided several coastal settlements. But before it could make off with its booty, the British squadron was surprised and defeated by a stronger Spanish fleet.

The few surviving vessels limped northward towards the little-explored coast of Texas. The British ships were in bad shape, damaged and overladen with survivors that they had taken on board from the other ships that had been sunk. Their prospects looked grim; there was no way that the surviving British ships could cross the Atlantic with so many men on board. Some of them would have to be left behind.

The commander of the rag tag British fleet decided to set about 100 men ashore near what is now the northern part of Mexico. Some of the marooned sailors decided to walk south towards Mexico City and give themselves up; most of them spent the rest of their lives in Spanish prisons or doing forced labor. Almost none of the British sailors who surrendered ever saw Britain again.

The Search for the Lost City

David Ingram's Epic Walk Across a Continent

But about 50 of the sailors, among them a man named David Ingram, decided that they wanted to take their chances and make their way to freedom. Although North America was still poorly explored by Europeans, Ingram knew that Cod fishermen from France and Britain regularly visited the coast what is now New England.

Ingram and his companions reasoned that if they could walk the 1400 or so miles from their present location to the area around what is now Boston, and reach it in time for the next year’s fishing season, they might be rescued by a friendly vessel.

And so the small band of about 50 men embarked on an epic journey through the uncharted interior of what would one day be the United States, encountering hostile Indian tribes, and wonders never before seen by Europeans: herds of buffalo, tornadoes, vast wildernesses and city states. In the end, only 3 of the 50 men made it to the East Coast. Most either died or decided to settle down among the Indians. Ingram and his two companions were the only ones who made it all the way.

Ingram was rescued by a French fishing vessel and eventually made it back to England. He was consulted by the British government eager for intelligence and information on the interior of North America. He told an amazing story of survival, human endurance and unbending resolve. His life story was amazing; but the description of what he had seen was even more amazing, and led to his accounts being eventually dismissed as fanciful.

A 1570 Atlas Showing Norumbega
A 1570 Atlas Showing Norumbega

Norumbega: The City Gold and Elephants

Ingram described a continent full of largely urbanized Indian tribes, living in densely populated city states, which often warred with each other. He described rich Indian potentates and marvelous cities. This in itself was at odds with Europe’s view of North America as being sparsely populated and inhabited by backwards tribes.

But it was Ingram’s account of the chief of these cities, called Norumbega which fascinated other explorers in search of riches, but eventually led to Ingram being written off as a quack by most people, though not before much effort was put into locating Norumbega.

According to Ingram, Norumbega was an incredibly wealthy city located in what is now New England, probably in Massachusetts. He described it as follows:

"Genirallye all men weare about there armes dyvers hoopes of gold and silver which are of good thickness. The women of the country gooe aparyled with plates of gold over there body much lyke unto an armor."

"The towne [is] half a myle longe and hath many streates farre broader than any streate in London. There is a great aboundance of gold, sylver and pearle, and ...dyvers peaces of gold some as bigge as [my] finger, otheres as bigge as [my] fist."

He described architectural marvels such as columns made of crystal and buildings inlaid with gold and silver.

But that was not all! Ingram said that the locals spoke of having had contact with Chinese sailing vessels, and he said that he had also seen horses and elephants, most likely brought by Chinese merchant ships.

His account of his travels to Norumbega were so vivid that for centuries after it was initially “discovered”, the city and its supposed kingdom of the same name were shown on maps of North America.

The Quest for Gold

The promise of unimaginable wealth also spurred several expeditions to reach Ingram’s city of gold, some with tragic results. In 1582 a British expedition consisting of several ships , commanded by Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh, set out to reach Norumbega, but due to bad weather, poor leadership and several mishaps the expedition barely made it to Newfoundland, before turning back. On the return voyage Humphrey’s ship went down with all hands.

The famous French explorer Samuel De Champlain also tried to locate the city of Norumbega, but found nothing except a few wigwams and huts He commented wryly,

If this beautiful towne hath ever existed in nature, I would fain know who pulled it down, for there are now only a few scattered wigwams made of poles covered with the bark of trees and the skins of wild beasts.

But the dream of Norumbega would not die easily. The city of Norumbega and its country by the same name continued to appear on maps for centuries, and even influence modern history. By a process of false etymology, the name Norumbega came to be translated as Norse Land, and hence as evidence of Viking settlement in the New World. And in a process of life imitating myth, there are now several places in and around Boston and vicinity nearing the name of Norumbega.

Today most historians regard the story of Norumbega as a tall tale, with no more factual basis than the stories of El Dorado in the south, which also lured men to their doom with stories of fabulous wealth.

Norumbega Shown Next to Virginia
Norumbega Shown Next to Virginia

Others Who Visited Norumbega

As early as 1524, the Spanish explorer Verrazano made landfall in New England and reported a populous nation named Norumbega. A year later, in 1525, the Spanish commander kidnapped some local natives of Norumbega and brought them to Spain. Their fate is not recorded.

In the decades and centuries that followed, many more explorers claimed to have visited the great city. Thevet, in 1625, led an expedition which made a careful survey of the region, and his maps note the city of Norumbega, as well as a fort of Norumbega.

The British explorer John Walker in 1580 reported finding a silver mine in the area, and again reported the existence of Norumbega. Another traveler, Stephen Bellinger, claimed to have visited Norumbega in 1883 and to have purchased great quantities of goods from the natves, mostly animal pelts.

Which leaves a big question: to what extent did Ingram make up his story? And why would Ingram feel the need to embellish the story, when his true, epic tale of survival contains enough true adventure for a thousand lives? Was there some truth in his account of Norumbega? While surely there are no elephants in North America, could there have been a city, now lost forever, which had contact with China? Or had Ingram lost his mind in the endless forests of an unknown continent?

And if a great city called Norumbega really existed at one time, what happened to its people and civilization?

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