Home » Horizons » Spanish texts » A Letter from Bartholomew de Fonte


This rather far-fetched description of the 1640 exploits of one Bartolomé de Fuentes or Bartholomew de Fonte appears in the much-later work of Arthur Dobbs, entitled An Account of the Countries adjoining to Hudson's Bay, in the North-west Part of America (originally published in 1744).
The text is excerpted from the version curated by Faded Page, which is public domain in Canada.





Vice-Admiral of Peru and Mexico:


an ABSTRACT of his VOYAGE from Lima in Peru, to prevent or seize upon any Ships who should attempt to find a NORTH-WEST PASSAGE to the South-Sea.

The Viceroys of New Spain and Peru having Advice from the Court of Spain, that the Attempt for the finding a North-west Passage, which had been tried before by Hudson and James, was again attempted in 1639 by some industrious Navigators from Boston in New-England, Admiral De Fonte received Orders from Spain, and the Viceroys to equip four Ships of Force, and being ready, he put to Sea the 3d of April, 1640, from Lima, the Admiral in the Ship St. Spiritus, the Vice-Admiral, Don Diego Penelossa, in the St. Lucia, Pedro de Barnarda in the Rosaria, and Philip de Ronquillo in the King Philip. The 7th of April, at 5 in the Evening, he got to St. Helen, in 2°. South Lat. where he took in a Quantity of Bitumen or Tar, by way of Medicine against the Scurvy and Dropsy. The 10th he passed the Equinox at Cape del Passao, the 11th Cape St. Francisco, in 1°. 7'. N. Lat. and anchored at the Mouth of the River St. Jago, and took in there several Refreshments. The 16th he sailed from thence to the Port and Town Ralco, 320 Leagues W. N. W. Westerly, in about 11°. 14'. N. Lat. It is a safe Port, covered from the Sea by the Islands Ampallo and Mangreza, both well inhabited by Indians; Ralco is but 4 Miles over Land to the Head of the Lake Nicaragua, that falls into the North Sea in 12°. N. Lat. near the Corn or Pearl Islands: Here being Plenty of fine Timber, he bought four Shallops, built expresly for sailing and rowing, about 12 Tons each, 32 Feet in the Keel. The 26th he sailed from thence to Saragua, within the Islands and Shoals of Chamilli, in 17°. 31'. N. Lat. 480 Leagues N. W. by W. from Ralco. From Saragua and Compostella, near this Port he took in a Master and six Mariners, used to trade with the Natives on the East Side of California for Pearl, which the Natives catch on a Bank in Lat. 29°. North from the Baxas St. Juan, in 24°. N. Lat. 20 Leagues N. N. E. from Cape St. Lucas, the S. E. Point of California. The Master, the Admiral had hired with his Vessel and Mariners, informed him that 200 Leagues North from Cape St. Lucas, a Flood from the North had met the South Flood, and he was sure it must be an Island. Don Diego Penelossa undertook with his Ship and the four Shallops, to discover whether California was an Island or not, along with the Master and his Mariners they hired at Saragua; but Admiral de Fonte, with three Ships, sailed from them within the Isles of Chamilly the 10th of May 1640; and having got the length of Cape Abel on the W. S. W. Side of California in 26°. N. Lat. 160 Leagues N. W. by W. from the Isles Chamilly, the Wind sprung up at S. S. E. a steady Gale; that from the 26th of May to the 14th of June, he had sailed to the River Los Reys in 53°. N. Lat. not having Occasion to lower a Top-sail in sailing 866 Leagues N. N. W. 410 Leagues from Port Abel to Cape Blanco, and 456 to Rio los Reys, and sailed about 260 Leagues in crooked Channels amongst Islands, named, the Archipelago de St. Lazarus, where the Ships Boats always sailed a Mile a-head, sounding to see what Water, Sand and Rocks there were. The 22d of June Admiral Fonte dispatched one of his Captains to Pedro de Barnarda, to sail up a fair River, a gentle Stream and deep Water; he went first N. and N. E. N. and N. W. into a large Lake full of Islands, and one very large Peninsula full of Inhabitants, a friendly honest People in this Lake. He named it Lake Velasco, where Captain Bernarda left his Ship; nor all up the River was it less than 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 Fathom Water, both the Rivers and Lakes abounding with Salmon, Trouts, and white Perch, very large, some two Foot long, and with three large Indian Boats called Periaguas, made of two large Trees, 50 and 60 Foot long, Captain Bernarda first sailed from his Ships in the Lake Velasco 140 Leagues West, and then 436 E. N. E. to 77°. N. Lat. Admiral de Fonte, after he had dispatched Captain Bernarda on the Discovery of the North and East Part of the Tartarian Sea, sailed up a very navigable River, which he named Rio los Reys, that ran nearest N. E. but on several Points of the Compass 60 Leagues, at low Water, in a fair navigable Channel, not less than 4 or 5 Fathom Water; it flowed in both Rivers near the same Water, in the River los Reys 24 Foot Full and Change of the Moon, a S. S. E. Moon made high Water; it flowed in the River de Haro 22 Foot and a half Full and Change. They had two Jesuits with them who had been on their Mission to 66°. N. Lat. and had made curious Observations. The Admiral de Fonte received a Letter from Captain Bernarda, dated the 27th of June 1640, that he had left his Ship in the Lake Velasco, betwixt the Island Bernarda and the Lake Conibasset, a very safe Port; he went down a River from the Lake three Falls, 80 Leagues, and fell into the Tartarian Sea in 61°. with the Pater Jesuits and 36 Natives in three of their Boats, and 20 of his Spanish Seamen, that the Land trended away N. E. that they should want no Provisions, the Country abounding with Venison of three Sorts, and the Sea and Rivers with excellent Fish, (Bread, Salt, Oil and Brandy they carried with them) that he should do what was possible. The Admiral, when he received that Letter, was arrived at an Indian Town called Conasset, on the South Side of the Lake Belle, where the two Pater Jesuits on their Mission had been two Years, a pleasant Place. The Admiral, with his two Ships, entered the Lake the 22d of June, an Hour before high Water, and there was no Fall or Cataract, and 4 or 5 Fathom Water, and 6 and 7 generally in the Lake Belle: There is a little Fall of Water till half Flood, and an Hour and Quarter before high Water, the Flood begins to set gently into the Lake Belle. The River is fresh at 20 Leagues Distance from the Mouth or Entrance of the River Los Reys. The River and Lake abounds with Salmon, Salmon Trouts, Pikes, Perch and Mullets, and two other Sorts of Fish peculiar to that River, admirable good, and Lake Belle also abounds with all those Sorts of Fish large and delicate; and Admiral de Fonte says, the Mullets catch'd in Rios Reys and Lake Belle, are much delicater than are to be found, he believes, in any Part of the World. The 1st of July 1640 the Admiral sailed (from the Ships in the Lake Belle in a good Port covered by a fine Island, before the Town Conasset) from thence to a River he named Parmentiers, after his Comrade Mr. Parmentiers, who had exactly marked every Thing in and about that River, and pass'd eight Falls, in all 32 Feet perpendicular from its Source out of Lake Belle; it falls into the large Lake he called Lake de Fonte, at which Place they arrived the 6th of July; this Lake is 160 Leagues long and 60 broad; the Length is E. N. E. and W. S. W. 20, 30, and in some Places 60 Fathoms deep; the Lake abounds with excellent Cod and Ling, very large and well fed; there are several very large Islands, and ten small ones; they are covered with shrubby Woods; the Moss grows 6 or 7 Foot long, with which the Moose, a very large Sort of Deer are fat in the Winter, and other lesser Deer, as Fallow, &c. There are abundance of wild Cherries, Strawberries, Hurtle-berries, and wild Currants, and also of wild Fowl, Heath-cocks and Hens, likewise Partridges and Turkeys, and Sea Fowl in great Plenty; on the South Side of the Lake is a very large fruitful Island, which had a great many Inhabitants, and very excellent Timber, as Oak, Ash, Elm and Fir Trees, very large and tall. The 14th of July they sailed out of the E. N. E. End of the Lake de Fonte, and passed a Lake he named Estricho de Ronquillo, 34 Leagues long, 2 or 3 broad, 20, 26 and 28 Fathom Water; they passed this Streight in 10 Hours, having a stout Gale of Wind and whole Ebb, as they sailed more Easterly, the Country grew very sensibly worse, as it is in the North and South Parts of America; from 36 to the extreme Parts, North or South, the West differs not only in Fertility, but in Temperature of Air, at least 10 Degrees, and it is warmer on the West Side than on the East, as the best Spanish Discoverers found it, whose Business it was, as it is noted by Alvarez Acoste and Mariana. The 17th they came to an Indian Town, and the Indians told their Interpreter, Mr. Parmentiers, that a little Way from them lay a great Ship, where there never had been one before; they sailed to them, and found only one Man advanced in Years, and a Youth; the Man was the greatest Man in the mechanical Parts of the Mathematicks he had ever met with. The Admiral's second Mate was an Englishman, an excellent Seaman, as was his Gunner, who had been taken Prisoner in Campeachy, as well as the Master's Son. They told him the Ship was of New-England, from a Town call'd Boston. The Owner and the whole Ship's Company came on board the 30th, and the Navigator of the Ship, Captain Shapley, told him his Owner was a fine Gentleman, and Major General of the largest Colony in New-England, called the Massachusets; so he received him like a Gentleman, and told him, his Commission was to make Prize of any People seeking a North-west or West Passage into the South-Sea, but he would look upon them as Merchants trading with the Natives for Beavers, Otters, and other Furs and Skins, and so for a small Present of Provisions he had no need of, he gave him his Diamond Ring, which cost him 1200 Pieces of Eight, (which the modest Gentleman received with Difficulty) and having given the brave Navigator, Captain Shapley, for his fine Charts and Journals, 1000 Pieces of Eight, and the Owner of the Ship, Seimor Gibbons, a Quarter Cask of good Peruan Wine, and the 10 Seamen each 20 Pieces of Eight, the 6th of August, with as much Wind as they could fly before, and a Current, they arrived at the first Fall of the River Parmentiers. The 11th of August eighty six Leagues, and was on the South Side of the Lake Belle, on board their Ships, the 16th of August, before the fine Town Conasset, where they found all Things well, and the honest Natives of Conasset had in his Absence treated his People with great Humanity, and Captain De Ronquillo answered their Civility and Justice. The 26th of August an Indian brought him a Letter to Conasset, on the Lake Belle, from Captain Bernarda, dated the 11th of August, where he sent him word he was returned from his cold Expedition, and did assure him there was no Communication out of the Spanish or Atlantick Sea by Davis's Streight; for the Natives had conducted one of his Seamen to the Head of Davis's Streight, which terminated in a fresh Lake of about 30 Miles in Circumference, in the 80th Degree N. Lat. and that there was prodigious Mountains North of it; besides, the North-west from that Lake, the Ice was so fixed from the Shore to 100 Fathom Water, for ought he knew from the Creation, for Mankind knew little of the wonderful Works of God, especially near the North and South Poles. He wrote farther, that he had sailed from Basset Island N. E. and E. N. E. and N. E. by E. to the 79th Degree of Latitude, and then the Land trended North, and the Ice rested on the Land. He received afterwards a second Letter from Captain Bernarda, dated from Minhanset, informing him he made the Port of Arena, 20 Leagues up the River Los Reyes, the 26th of August, where he waited his Commands. The Admiral having Store of good salt Provisions of Venison and Fish that Captain De Ronquillo had salted, by the Admiral's Orders, in his Absence, and 100 Hogsheads of Indian Wheat or Maize, he sailed the 2d of September, 1640, accompanied with many of the honest Natives of Conasset, and on the 5th of September, in the Morning, about 8, was at an Anchor betwixt Arena and Minhanset, in the River Los Reys, sailing down that River to the N. E. Part of the South-Sea, after that returned home, having found there was no Passage into the South-Sea by that they call the North-west Passage. The Chart will make this much more demonstrable.


Tho' the Style of the foregoing Piece is not so polite (being wrote like a Man whose Livelihood depended on another Way, but with Abundance of Experience, and like a Traveller) yet there are in it so many curious, and hitherto unknown Discoveries, that it was thought worthy a Place in these Memoirs, and 'tis humbly presumed it will not be unacceptable to those who have either been in these Parts, or will givethemselves the trouble of reviewing the Chart.

By this Abstract of De Fonte's Voyage, which has all the Appearance of being authentick, it is plain that there is a navigable Passage from Hudson's Bay to California, and tho' it has not had Justice done to it in the Translation, and probably has not been exactly copied or printed; yet, giving an Allowance for Errors of that kind, and it has throughout the Air of Truth. There may be probably some Errors in the Figures relating to the Degrees of Latitude and Leagues in their Course; for the Length of the Lake De Fonte is said to be 160 Leagues, and the Streight Ronquillo 34. Upon his Return from the Boston Ship he is said to have got again to the Mouth of the River Parmentiers in 5 Days, with a stout Gale and brisk Current, which he says was 80 Leagues, which plainly ought to have been 180, otherwise with that stout Gale and Current it would have been but 16 Leagues in 24 Hours, and the other would be but 36, which was reasonable Sailing.

As to his saying there was no Passage, altho' he met the Boston Ship, I take his Meaning to be, that either Bernarda found no Passage by the North-west of Davis's Streights, the Way probably the Spaniards expected it; or that by his passing up one River to Lake Belle, and down another to Lake De Fonte, by what he called Sharps or Falls, he apprehended there was no navigable Passage for Ships the Way he went, or he desired to disguise it, to prevent other Europeans from attempting it to his Country's Prejudice, and therefore he did not publish his Chart which he refers to in his Letter. It is plain that it was an Island below the Lake Belle which divided the River Los Reys from the River Parmentiers, and as the Sea in Lake De Fonte was upon a Level with the Sea at the Mouth of Rio Los Reys, and the Tide flowed up that River into the Lake Belle, it must also flow up the River Parmentiers, and the Sharps and Falls he observed in that River, were only the Sharps occasioned by the several Ebbs he had in sailing down that River, being 5 Days in passing to the Sea; so that the great and true Passage was without that Island, which the Admiral missed by getting among the Islands in the Archipelago of St. Lazarus.

It is a Misfortune his Chart was not published, which would have given more Light as to the Lands, Lakes and Rivers he mentions, now we can only guess in the Dark, and may be mistaken; however I shall venture to give my Opinion of their Situation, tho' I may not judge right.

As I apprehend it, the Archipelago of St. Lazarus, and Rio Los Reys, and Lake Belle, and also the Lake of Velasco, are no Part of North America, but a Country distinct from it, the Passage lying betwixt those Lands and America; for in his Journal he says he sailed 866 Leagues N. N. W. from Cape Abel in California, in Lat. 26°. the last 260 of which was in crooked Channels among Islands, until he got to Rio Los Reys, in Lat. 53°. since by all other Accounts the Coast of America falls off N. E. from Cape Blanco. This must have been a Country distinct from America; here he found two Rivers, one came from the North, from the Lake Velasco, which Bernarda sailed up, and the other came from the N. E. from the Lake Belle, which lay betwixt Lat. 54°. and 55°. Upon what Point the River Parmentiers ran out of the Lake Belle is not mentioned; but as Rio Los Reys ran S. W. we may suppose the other ran E. or S. E. and fell into the Sea which he calls the Lake de Fonte, in near the same Latitude, that Lake, or Arm of the Sea, stretching thence E. N. E. 160 Leagues; if there was any West Variation, as there is now, the N. E. End of that Lake might be in Lat. 57 or 58°. almost West of Churchill, and the Streight Ronquillo running still N. E. might end in Lat. 59°. In two Days from thence he came to an Indian Town, probably about Lat. 60°. near which the Boston Ship lay; so that it may be imagined that the Boston Ship had passed into some of the Openings near Whale Cove, and got to Lat. 60°. or perhaps to 59°. and was trading for Furs, and the Ship might have been afterwards lost or surprized by the Eskimaux upon her Return, having but 12 or 13 Hands on board, since no Account of this Voyage was ever transmitted from Boston. Upon Enquiry made by Order of Sir Charles Wager, whether any of the Name of Shapley, which was the Master's Name, lived at that time in Boston, it appeared from some Writings that some of that Name then lived in Boston, which adds to the Weight of De Fonte's Letter, and confirms its being an authentick Journal.

Sir Graham