The Search for Norumbega by Thomas Wentworth

Sir Humphrey Gilbert, colonel of the British forces in the Netherlands, was poring over the manuscript narrative of David Ingram, mariner. Ingram had in 1568-69 taken the widest range of travel that had ever been taken in the new continent, of which it was still held doubtful by many whether it was or was not a part of Asia. "Surely," Gilbert said to his half-brother, Walter Raleigh, a youth of twenty-three, "this knave hath seen strange things. He hath been set ashore by John Hawkins in the Gulf of Mexico and there left behind. He hath travelled northward with two of his companions along Indian trails; he hath even reached Norumbega; he hath seen that famous city with its houses of crystal and silver."

"Pine logs and hemlock bark, belike," said Raleigh, scornfully.

"Nay," said Gilbert, "he hath carefully written it down. He saw kings decorated with rubies six inches long; and they were borne on chairs of silver and crystal, adorned with precious stones. He saw pearls as common as pebbles, and the natives were laden down by their ornaments of gold and silver. The city of Bega was three-quarters of a mile long and had many streets wider than those of London. Some houses had massive pillars of crystal and silver."

"What assurance can he give?" asked Raleigh.

"He offers on his life to prove it."

"A small offer, mayhap. There be many of these lying mariners whose lives are as worthless as the stories they relate. But what said he of the natives?"

"Kindly disposed," was the reply, "so far as he went, but those dwelling farther north, where he did not go, were said to be cannibals with teeth like those of dogs, whereby you may know them."

"Travellers' tales," said Raleigh. "Omne ignotum pro mirifico."

"He returned," said Gilbert, disregarding the interruption, "in the Gargarine, a French vessel commanded by Captain Champagne."

"Methinks something of the flavor represented by the good captain's name hath got into your Englishman's brain. Good ale never gives such fantasies. Doth he perchance speak of elephants?"

"He doth," said Sir Humphrey, hesitatingly. "Perchance he saw them not, but heard of them only."

"What says he of them?" asked Raleigh.

"He says that he saw in that country both elephants and ounces; and he says that their trumpets are made of elephants' teeth."

"But the houses," said Raleigh; "tell me of the houses."

"In every house," said Gilbert, reading from the manuscript, "they have scoops, buckets, and divers vessels, all of massive silver with which they throw out water and otherwise employ them. The women wear great plates of gold covering their bodies, and chains of great pearls in the manner of curvettes; and the men wear manilions or bracelets on each arm and each leg, some of gold and some of silver."

"Whence come they, these gauds?"

"There are great rivers where one may find pieces of gold as big as the fist; and there are great rocks of crystal, sufficient to load many ships."

This was all which was said on that day, but never was explorer more eager than Gilbert. He wrote a "Discourse of a Discoverie for a New Passage to Cathaia and the East Indies"—published without his knowledge by George Gascoigne. In 1578 he had from Queen Elizabeth a patent of exploration, allowing him to take possession of any uncolonized lands in North America, paying for these a fifth of all gold and silver found. The next year he sailed with Raleigh for Newfoundland, but one vessel was lost and the others returned to England. In 1583, he sailed again, taking with him the narrative of Ingram, which he reprinted. He also took with him a learned Hungarian from Buda, named Parmenius, who went for the express purpose of singing the praise of Norumbega in Latin verse, but was drowned in Sir Humphrey's great flag-ship, the Delight. This wreck took place near Sable Island, and as most of the supplies for the expedition went down in the flag-ship, the men in the remaining vessels grew so impatient as to compel a return. There were two vessels, the Golden Hind of forty tons, and the Squirrel of ten tons, this last being a mere boat then called a frigate, a small vessel propelled by both sails and oars, quite unlike the war-ship afterwards called by that name. On both these vessels the men were so distressed that they gathered on the bulwarks, pointing to their empty mouths and their ragged clothing. The officers of the Golden Hind were unwilling to return, but consented on Sir Humphrey's promise that they should come back in the spring; they sailed for England on the 31st of August. All wished him to return in the Golden Hind as a much larger and safer vessel; the Squirrel, besides its smallness, being encumbered on the deck with guns, ammunition, and nettings, making it unseaworthy. But when he was begged to remove into the larger vessel, he said, "I will not forsake my little company going homeward with whom I have passed so many storms and perils." One reason for this was, the narrator of the voyage says, because of "hard reports given of him that he was afraid of the sea, albeit this was rather rashness than advised resolution, to prefer the wind of a vain report to the weight of his own life."

On the very day of sailing they caught their first glimpse of some large species of seal or walrus, which is thus described by the old narrator of the expedition:—

"So vpon Saturday in the afternoone the 31 of August, we changed our course, and returned backe for England, at which very instant, euen in winding about, there passed along betweene vs and towards the land which we now forsooke a very lion to our seeming, in shape, hair and colour, not swimming after the maner of a beast by moouing of his feete, but rather sliding vpon the water with his whole body (excepting the legs) in sight, neither yet in diuing vnder, and againe rising aboue the water, as the maner is, of Whales, Dolphins, Tunise, Porposes, and all other fish: but confidently shewing himselfe aboue water without hiding: Notwithstanding, we presented our selues in open view and gesture to amase him, as all creatures will be commonly at a sudden gaze and sight of men. Thus he passed along turning his head to and fro, yawning and gaping wide, with ougly demonstration of long teeth, and glaring eies, and to bidde vs a farewell (comming right against the Hinde) he sent forth a horrible voyce, roaring or bellowing as doeth a lion, which spectacle wee all beheld so farre as we were able to discerne the same, as men prone to wonder at euery strange thing, as this doubtlesse was, to see a lion in the Ocean sea, or fish in shape of a lion. What opinion others had thereof, and chiefly the Generall himselfe, I forbeare to deliuer: But he tooke it for Bonum Omen [a good omen], reioycing that he was to warre against such an enemie, if it were the deuill."

When they came north of the Azores, very violent storms met them; most "outrageous seas," the narrator says; and they saw little lights upon the mainyard called then by sailors "Castor and Pollux," and now "St. Elmo's Fire"; yet they had but one of these at a time, and this is thought a sign of tempest. On September 9, in the afternoon, "the general," as they called him, Sir Humphrey, was sitting abaft with a book in his hand, and cried out more than once to those in the other vessel, "We are as near to heaven by sea as by land." And that same night about twelve o'clock, the frigate being ahead of the Golden Hind, the lights of the smaller vessel suddenly disappeared, and they knew that she had sunk in the sea. The event is well described in a ballad by Longfellow.

The name of Norumbega and the tradition of its glories survived Sir Humphrey Gilbert. In a French map of 1543, the town appears with castle and towers. Jean Allfonsce, who visited New England in that year, describes it as the capital of a great fur country. Students of Indian tongues defined the word as meaning "the place of a fine city"; while the learned Grotius seized upon it as being the same as Norberga and so affording a relic of the visits of the Northmen. As to the locality, it appeared first on the maps as a large island, then as a smaller one, and after 1569 no longer as an island, but a part of the mainland, bordering apparently on the Penobscot River. Whittier in his poem of "Norumbega" describes a Norman knight as seeking it in vain.

  "He turned him back, 'O master dear,
    We are but men misled;
  And thou hast sought a city here
    To find a grave instead.

* * * * *

  "'No builded wonder of these lands
    My weary eyes shall see;
  A city never made with hands
    Alone awaiteth me.'"

So Champlain, in 1604, could find no trace of it, and said that "no such marvel existed," while Mark Lescarbot, the Parisian advocate, writing in 1609, says, "If this beautiful town ever existed in nature, I would like to know who pulled it down, for there is nothing here but huts made of pickets and covered with the barks of trees or skins." Yet it kept its place on maps till 1640, and even Heylin in his "Cosmography" (1669) speaks of "Norumbega and its fair city," though he fears that the latter never existed.

It is a curious fact that the late Mr. Justin Winsor, the eminent historian, after much inquiry among the present descendants of the Indian tribes in Maine, could never find any one who could remember to have heard the name of Norumbega.


The narrative of Champlain's effort to find Norumbega in 1632 may be found in Otis's "Voyages of Champlain" (II. p. 38), and there is another version in the Magazine of American History (I. p. 321). The whole legend of the city is well analyzed in the same magazine (I. p. 14) by Dr. De Costa under the title "The Lost City of New England." In another volume he recurs to the subject (IX. p. 168), and gives (IX. p. 200) a printed copy of David Ingram's narrative, from the original in the Bodleian Library. He also discusses the subject in Winsor's "Narrative and Critical History" (IV. p. 77, etc.), where he points out that "the insular character of the Norumbega region is not purely imaginary, but is based on the fact that the Penobscot region affords a continued watercourse to the St. Lawrence, which was travelled by the Maine Indians." Ramusio's map of 1559 represents "Nurumbega" as a large island, well defined (Winsor, IV. p. 91); and so does that of Ruscelli (Winsor, IV. p. 92), the latter spelling it "Nurumberg." Some geographers supposed it to extend as far as Florida. The name was also given to a river (probably the Penobscot) and to a cape. The following is Longfellow's poem on the voyage of Sir Humphrey Gilbert:—


  Southward with fleet of ice
    Sailed the corsair Death;
  Wild and fast blew the blast,
    And the east-wind was his breath.

  His lordly ships of ice
    Glisten in the sun;

  On each side, like pennons wide,
    Flashing crystal streamlets run.

  His sails of white sea-mist
    Dripped with silver rain;
  But where he passed there were cast
    Leaden shadows o'er the main.

  Eastward from Campobello
    Sir Humphrey Gilbert sailed;
  Three days or more seaward he bore,
    Then, alas! the land-wind failed.

  Alas! the land-wind failed,
    And ice-cold grew the night;
  And nevermore, on sea or shore,
     Should Sir Humphrey see the light.

  He sat upon the deck,
    The Book was in his hand;
  "Do not fear! Heaven is as near,"
    He said, "by water as by land!"

  In the first watch of the night,
    Without a signal's sound,
  Out of the sea, mysteriously,
    The fleet of Death rose all around.

  The moon and the evening star
    Were hanging in the shrouds;
  Every mast, as it passed,
    Seemed to rake the passing clouds.

  They grappled with their prize,
    At midnight black and cold!
  As of a rock was the shock;
    Heavily the ground-swell rolled.

  Southward through day and dark,
    They drift in close embrace,
  With mist and rain, o'er the open main;
    Yet there seems no change of place.

  Southward, forever southward,
    They drift through dark and day;
  And like a dream, in the Gulf-Stream
    Sinking, vanish all away.