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Norumbega

03/03/05 12:00AM By Joe Citro
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(HOST) We've all heard the stories about the Spanish searching for Inca gold, but commentator Joe Citro is willing to bet that you haven't heard the story about a mythical city of gold in New England.


(CITRO) We don't generally think of New England as a place of lost cities and hidden empires. But in pre-colonial days, one thing motivating New World exploration was the rumor of "The Golden City of Norumbega".

It appeared on maps as early as 1529 and was later described in writing. But fancy turned to fact when British seaman David Ingram reported visiting the place. Apparently, Mr. Ingram was a remarkable fellow. In 1568 he sailed aboard a fleet of slave ships commanded by Capt. John Hawkins. After four ships were lost in battle with a Spanish fleet, the two surviving vessels limped into a Mexican port for repairs.

There, Capt. Hawkins had to abandon men, among them David Ingram. Mr. Ingram set out on foot, commencing a 2000-mile journey up the Atlantic coast. Eventually arriving in Maine, he sailed safely home to England. But the tale he brought with him reverberates to this day. He described a fabulous place where he had stayed briefly: the gem-encrusted, golden-walled city of Norumbega, ruled by the great Bashaba. Mr. Ingram said he was so generously treated that he hated to leave.

But home he went with two fabulous tales: his 2000-mile trek through new world wilderness, and his luxurious stay in Norumbega. Of course, the riches of Norumbega made the greater impact. It was the Ophir, the El Dorado, of the New World. Now the glorious rumors had been validated. There were buildings plated with gold; jewels did decorate the walls. City gates were pillars of crystal. Pearls and precious gems were as common as cobblestones. But Norumbega may have been built by the same architects who designed Brigadoon. Although many had seen it, no one has ever been able to find it again.

Still, something of the fabled city remains. Even today, visitors to New England, and especially to Maine, will repeatedly encounter the word "Norumbega".

In the late 19th century, Harvard Professor Eben Horsford revived interest in the matter. An amateur archaeologist, he identified Norumbega, not in Maine, but rather on the Charles River at Watertown, Massachusetts. He didn't find any gold or jewels - surely those had been secreted away by earlier treasure seekers - but he found stonework and artifacts enough to convince himself he'd discovered an ancient settlement.

Eventually, he decided that Vikings had settled there around 1000 A. D. Christening it "Fort Norumbega" in 1889, he erected an imitation Viking edifice to commemorate his find.

Professor Horsford's imaginative monument still stands. And legends about the fabled city of Norumbega just won't go away.

This is Joe Citro.

Novelist Joe Citro is a native Vermonter who lives in Burlington.
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