Captain William Lewis Herndon was memorialized in Gary Kinder’s bestselling book Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea, which recounts Herndon’s final acts of heroism as his ship foundered in a hurricane off the Carolina coast in 1857. Seven years before those tragic events, the secretary of the Navy had appointed Herndon to lead the first American expedition into the Amazon Valley, an epic adventure that Herndon immortalized into words.
Herndon departed Lima, Peru, on May 20, 1851, and arrived at Para, Brazil, nearly a year later, traveling 4,000 miles by foot, mule, canoe, and boat. He cataloged the scientific and commercial observations requested by Congress, but he filed his report as a narrative, creating an intimate portrait of an exotic land before the outside world rushed in. Herndon’s report so far surpassed his superiors’ expectations that instead of printing the obligatory few hundred copies for Congress, the secretary of the Navy ordered 10,000 copies in the first print run; three months later, he ordered 20,000 more.
Herndon described his adventures with such insight, compassion, and literary grace that he came to symbolize the new spirit of exploration and discovery sweeping mid-nineteenth-century America. Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon stands as one of the greatest chronicles of travel and exploration ever written.
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United States ship Vandalia — Valparaiso — Santiago — Preparatory orders — Lima — Means of information — Conquests of the Incas in the Montaña — First explorations of the Spaniards — Madame Godin
ATTACHED TO THE U.S. SHIP VANDALIA, of the Pacific squadron, lying at anchor in the harbor of Valparaiso, in the month of August, 1850, I received a communication from the Superintendent of the National Observatory, informing me that orders to explore the Valley of the Amazon would be sent by the next mail steamer.
The ship was then bound for the Sandwich Islands, but Captain Gardner, with that kindness which ever characterized his intercourse with his officers, did not hesitate to detach me from the ship, and to give me permission to await, at Valparaiso, the arrival of my instructions.
The officers expressed much flattering regret at my leaving the ship, and loaded me with little personal mementos — things that might be of use to me on my proposed journey.
On the sixth of August I unexpectedly saw, from the windows of the club-house at Valparaiso, the topsails of the ship mounting to the mastheads; I saw that she must needs make a stretch in-shore to clear the rocks that lie off the western point of the bay, and desirous to say farewell to my friends, I leaped into a shore-boat and shoved off, with the hope of reaching her before she went about. The oarsmen, influenced by the promise of a pair of dollars if they put me on board, bent to their oars with a will, and the light whale-boat seemed to fly; but just as I was clearing the outer line of merchantmen, the ship came sweeping up to the wind, and as she gracefully fell off on the other tack, her royals and courses were set; and bending to the steady northeast breeze, she darted out of the harbor at a rate that set pursuit at defiance. God's blessing go with the beautiful ship, and the gallant gentlemen, her officers, who had been to me as brothers.
Owing to the death of President Taylor, and the consequent change in the Cabinet, my orders were delayed, and I spent several weeks in Valparaiso, and Santiago, the capital of Chili. This time, however, was not thrown away: My residence in these cities improved my knowledge of the Spanish language, and gave me information regarding the Bolivian tributaries of the Amazon which I probably could have got nowhere else.
The city of Santiago is situated in a lovely plain at the very foot of the cordillera. The snowy summits of this chain, painted in bold relief against the hard, gray sky of the morning, have a very singular and beautiful appearance; they seem cut from white marble, and within reach of the hand. It is almost impossible to give an idea of the transparency of the atmosphere at this place. I was never tired of watching, from a little observatory, the stars rising over these mountains. There was nothing of the faint and indistinct glimmer which stars generally present when rising from the ocean; but they burst forth in an instant of time, in the full blaze of their beauty, and seemed as if just created.
Chili, in arts and civilization, is far ahead of any other South American republic. There are many young men of native families, educated in the best manner in Europe, who would be ornaments to any society; and the manners of the ladies are marked by a simple, open, engaging cordiality that seems peculiar to Creoles. I do not know a more pleasant place of residence than Santiago, except for two causes: one, earthquakes, to the terrors of which no familiarity breeds indifference; the other, the readiness of the people to appeal to the bayonet for the settlement of political differences, or in the struggle for political power. These two causes shook the city and society to their foundations a few months after I left it.
On the twentieth of January, 1851, I received the following instructions from the Hon. William A. Graham, Secretary of the Navy:
NAVY DEPARTMENT, October 30, 1850.
SIR: Proceed to Lima, for the purpose of collecting from the monasteries, and other authentic sources that may be accessible to you, information concerning the headwaters of the Amazon and the regions of country drained by its Peruvian tributaries. You will then visit the monasteries of Bolivia for a like purpose, touching the Bolivian tributaries of that river, should it in your judgment be desirable.
The object of the department in assigning you to this service is with the view of directing you to explore the Valley of the Amazon, should the consent of Brazil therefore be obtained; and the information you are directed to obtain is such as would tend to assist and guide you in such exploration, should you be directed to make it.
As this service to which you are now assigned may probably involve the necessity of the occasional expenditure of a small amount on government account, you are furnished with a bill of credit for one thousand dollars, for which you will account to the proper office.
Also, enclosed you will find a letter of introduction to Messrs. Clay and McClung, chargés d'affaires near the governments of Peru and Bolivia.
Respectfully, &c., WILLIAM A. GRAHAM.
As I had obtained from my Santiago and Valparaiso friends all the information that I would be likely to get in the cities of Bolivia, I determined to proceed to Lima, and accordingly embarked on board the mail boat of the twenty-sixth.
My residence in Valparaiso had made new friends and established new ties, that I found painful to break; but this is the lot of the navy officer: Separated from his family for years, he is brought into the closest and most intimate association with his messmates, and forms ties which are made but to be broken, generally by many years of separation. Taken from these, he is thrown among strangers, and becomes dependent upon their kindness and hospitality for the only enjoyments that make his life endurable. Receiving these, his heart yearns towards the donors; and my Valparaiso friends will readily believe that I was sad enough when compelled to leave them.
I arrived in Lima on the sixth of February. This city has changed greatly since I was here twenty years ago. Though we had bullfights on the accession of the new president, yet the noble amphitheatre was not crowded as in old times with the élite and fashion of Lima, but seemed abandoned to the vulgar. The ladies have given up their peculiar and most graceful national costume, the Saya y Manto, and it is now the mark of a ragged reputation. They dress in the French style, frequent the opera, and, instead of the Yerba de Paraguay, called matté, of which they used a great quantity formerly, they now take tea. These are causes for regret, for one likes to see nationality preserved; but there is one cause for congratulation (especially on the part of sea-going men, who have sometimes suffered), the railroad between Lima and Callao has broken up the robbers.
But with these matters I have nothing to do. My first business at Lima was to establish relations with the accomplished and learned superintendent of the public library. This gentleman, who is an ecclesiastic and a member of the Senate, has so high a character for learning and honesty that, though a partisan politician and a member of the opposition to the new government, he preserves (a rare thing in Peru) the respect and confidence of all. He placed the books of the library at my disposal, and kindly selected for me those that would be of service.
The sources of information, however, were small and unsatisfactory. The military expeditions into the country to the eastward of the Andes left little or no reliable traces of their labors. The records of the exploration of the Jesuits were out of my reach, in the archives of Quito — at that time the head of the diocese, and the starting point of the missions into the interior — and nearly all that I could get at were some meagre accounts of the operations of the Franciscans.
Though the information obtained in Lima was not great, I still think that a slight historical sketch of the attempts to explore the Montaña* of Peru, made since the conquest of that country by Pizarro, will not be uninteresting.
* Montaña (pronounced Montanya) is the name given by the Peruvians to any wooded country, monte being the Spanish term for a thick and tangled forest. As there is no other wooded country in Peru except to the eastward of the Andes, the term applies only to the eastern slope, and the level country at the base of the mountains, stretching as far as the confines of Brazil.
Modern books upon the subject — such as Prescott's Peru; Humboldt's Narrative; Von Tschude's Travels; Smith's Peru As It Is; Condamine's Voyage on the Amazon — were all consulted, and, together with oral communications from persons who had visited various parts of the Valley of the Amazon, gave me all the information within my reach, and prepared me to start upon my journey at least with open eyes.
The attention of the Peruvian government was directed to the country east of the Andes even before the time of the Spanish conquest. The sixth Inca, Rocca, sent his son, at the head of fifteen thousand men, with three generals as companions and advisers, to the conquest of the country to the northward and eastward of Cuzco, inhabited by Indians called Antis. The young prince added a space of thirty leagues in that direction to the dominions of his father, but could reach no further on account of the roughness of the country and the difficulties of the march. The tenth and great Inca, Yupanqui, sent an expedition of ten thousand men to pursue the conquests. These reached the Montaña, and, embarking on rafts upon the great river Amarumayo, fought their way through tribes called Chunchos, till they arrived, with only a thousand men, into the territory of tribes called Musus. Finding their numbers now too small for conquest, they persuaded these Indians that they were friends, and, by their superior civilization, obtained such an ascendency among them that the Musus agreed to send ambassadors to render homage and worship to the "Child of the Sun," and gave these men of the Inca race their daughters in marriage, and a place in their tribe.
Years afterwards, the Incas and their descendants desired to return to Cuzco; but in the midst of their preparations they received intelligence of the downfall of their nation, and settled finally among the Musus, who adopted many of the laws, customs, usages, and worship of the Incas.
I have little doubt of the truth of this account, for even at the present day may be found amongst the savages who dwell about the headwaters of the Ucayali, the Purus, and in the country between the Purus and Beni, traces of the warlike character of the mountain race, and that invincible hatred of the white man which the descendants of the Incas may well be supposed to feel. This determined hostility and warlike character prevented me from embarking upon the Chanchamayo to descend the Ucayali and was the cause why I could not get men to ascend the Ucayali from Sarayacu.
This character is entirely distinct from that of the Indians of the plains everywhere in South America, who are, in general, gentle, docile, and obedient, and who fear the white man with an abject and craven fear.
Love of dominion and power had induced the Indian princes of Peru to waste their treasures and the lives of their subjects in the subjugation of the Montaña. A stronger passion was now to urge a stronger people in the same direction. Stories of great empires, which had obtained the names of Gran Pará and El Dorado, filled with large and populous cities, whose streets were paved with gold; of a lake of golden sand, called Parima; of a gilded king, who, when he rose in the morning, was smeared with oil, and covered with gold dust blown upon him by his courtiers through long reeds, and of immense mineral and vegetable treasures, had for some time filled the ears and occupied the minds of the avaricious conquerors.
Hernando Pizarro fitted out two expeditions. These men, led on by the report of the Indians, who constantly asserted that the rich countries they sought lay yet farther to the eastward, penetrated, it is supposed, as far as the Beni; but, overcome by danger, privation, and suffering, they returned with no results, save marvellous stories of what they had seen and learned, which inflamed the curiosity and cupidity of others. These parties were generally accompanied by an ecclesiastic, who was the historian of the expedition. Some idea may be formed of the worthlessness of their records by examining a few of the stories related by them. Here is one:
Juan Alvarez Maldonado made an expedition from Cuzco in the year 1561. He descended the eastern range of the Andes, and had scarcely cleared the rough and rocky ground of the slope when his party encountered two pigmies. They shot the female, and the male died of grief six days afterwards.
Following the course of the great river Mano downwards, at the distance of two hundred leagues they landed upon a beach, and a piquet of soldiers penetrated into the woods. They found the trees so tall as to exceed an arrow-shot in height, and so large that six men, with joined hands, could scarcely circle them. Here they found lying upon the ground a man, five yards in height, members in proportion, long snout, projecting teeth, vesture of beautiful leopard skin, short and shrivelled, and, for a walking-stick, a tree, which he played with as with a cane. On his attempting to rise, they shot him dead, and returned to the boat to give notice to their companions. These went to the spot, and found traces of his having been carried off. Following the track towards a neighboring hill, they heard such shouts and vociferations that they were astounded, and, horror-stricken, fled.
These are of the number of stories which, inflaming the cupidity of the Spaniards, led them to brave the perils of the wilderness in search of El Dorado. They serve to show at this day the little confidence which is to be placed in the relations of the friars concerning this country; I do not imagine, however, that they are broad lies. The soldiers of Maldonado evidently mistook monkeys for pigmies, and some beast of the forest, probably the tapir, for a giant.
But the defeated followers of one faction, flying from before the face of the still victorious Pizarros, did find to the eastward of Cuzco a country answering, in some degree, to the description of the fabulous El Dorado. They penetrated into the valleys of Carabaya, and found there washings of gold of great value. They subjugated the Indians, built the towns of San Juan del Oro and others, and sent large quantities of gold to Spain. On one occasion they sent a mass of gold in the shape of an ox's head, and of the weight of two hundred pounds, as a present to Charles V. The Emperor, in acknowledgment, gave the title of "Royal City" to the town of San Juan del Oro, and ennobled its inhabitants. The Indians, however, in the course of time, revolted, murdered their oppressors, and destroyed their towns. Up to the last three years this has been a sealed country to the white man. I shall have occasion to refer to it again.
It is not to be expected that information of an exact and scientific character could be had from the voyages of adventurers like these. They were mere soldiers, and too much occupied in difficulties of travel, conflicts with Indians, ambitious designs, and internal dissentions, to make any notes of the topography or productions of the countries they passed through.
But a task that had baffled the ambition and power of the Incas and love of gold, backed by the indomitable spirit and courage of the hardy Spanish soldier, was now to be undertaken by men who were urged on by a yet more absorbing passion than either of these. I mean missionary zeal — the love of propagating the faith.
The first missionary stations established in the Montaña were founded by two Fathers of the holy company of the Jesuits in 1737. They commenced operations at the village of St. Francis de Borja, founded in 1634 and situated on the left bank of the Marañón, not far below where it breaks its way through the last chain of hills that obstructs its course.
In the same year (1637), according to a source (whose statements, I think, are always to be received cum grano salis), a Portuguese captain ascended the Amazon with a fleet mounting forty-seven large guns. After an eight months' voyage from Pará, he arrived at the port of Payamino, on the river Napo. I am unable to find out how far up the Napo this is; but leaving his fleet there, the captain went with some of his officers by land to Quito. The Royal Audience of that city determined to send explorers with him on his return, and two Jesuit Fathers were selected for that purpose, and directed to report to the King of Spain.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
LIST OF PLATES,
Chapter I INTRODUCTORY United States ship Vandalia — Valparaiso — Santiago — Preparatory orders — Lima — Means of information — Conquests of the Incas in the Montaña — First explorations of the Spaniards — Madame Godin,
Chapter II INTRODUCTORY Orders — Investigation of routes — River Beni — Cuzco route — Preparations for the journey — The start,
Chapter III Passports — Means of defence — The road — Narrow pass — Bridge — Tribute money — Dividing line between the Coast and the Sierra — Varieties of the potato — Mines of Párac — Narrow valley — Summit of the Cordillera — Reflections,
Chapter IV Mines of Morococha — A Yankee's house — Mountain of Puy-puy — Splendid view — Lava stream — Chain bridge at Oroya — Descent into the valley of Tarma — American physician — Customs — Dress — Religious observances — Muleteers and mules — General Otero — Farming in the Sierra — Road to Chanchamayo — Perils of travel — Gold mines of Matichacra — View of the Montaña — Fort San Ramon — Indians of Chanchamayo — Cultivation,
Chapter V Division of the party — Acobamba — Plain of Junin — Preservation of potatoes — Cerro Pasco — Drainage of the mines,
Chapter VI Departure from Cerro Pasco — Mint at Quinua — Chinchao Valley — Huallaga River,
Chapter VII Itinerary — Tingo Maria — Vampires — Blow-guns — Canoe navigation — Shooting monkeys — Salt hills of Pilluana,
Chapter VIII Pongo of Chasuta — Chasuta — Sta. Cruz — Antonio, the Paraguá — Laguna — Mouth of the Huallaga,
Chapter IX Entrance into the Amazon — Upper and lower missions of Mainas — Conversions of the Ucayali — Trade in Sarsaparilla — Advantages of trade with this country,
Chapter X River Ucayali — Sarayacu — The missionaries — The Indians of the Ucayali,
Chapter XI Upper Ucayali — M. Castelnau — Length of navigation — Loss of the priest — Departure from Sarayacu — Iquitos — Mouth of the Napo — San José de los Yaguas — State of Indians of Peru,
Chapter XII Caballococha — Alligators — Indian incantations — Tabatinga — River Yavari — San Paulo — Making — River Juruá — River Japurá,
Chapter XIII Egas — Trade — Lake Coari — Mouth of the Rio Negro — Barra — Trade — Productions,
Chapter XIV Town of Barra — Foreign residents — Population — Rio Negro — Connexion with the Oronoco — River Purus — Rio Branco — Vegetable productions of the Amazon country,
Chapter XV Departure from Barra — River Madeira — Villa Nova — Cocoa plantations — Obidos,
Chapter XVI Santarem — Population — Trade — River Tapajos — Diamond region,
Chapter XVII Departure from Santarem — Monte Alegre — Prainha — River Xingu — Great estuary of the Amazon — India-rubber country — Method of collecting and preparing the India-rubber — Bay of Limoeiro — Arrival at Pará,
Chapter XVIII Pará,
Chapter XIX Resumé,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wonderly stimulating book. Much to learn therein. Well written. Easy to read and read, and not put down!
This book is a wonderfully welcomed reprint of the original 1850's edition written by the Captain of the 'Ship of Gold' which was actually the USS Central America that went down in 1850's. I am very happy to find it reprinted in paperback