Dean Edwin Webster worked in Panama in the 1970s and 80s. In his spare time, he was a Drakeologist. He made great discoveries of Drake's movements in Panama, through an archaeological approach. After Drake had unsuccessfully attacked the first mule train, he marched back towards the Caribbean coast. En route, he plundered Venta de Charge. The position of the site remained a mystery until Edwin's find. When I visited the Panama National Museum in the early 1990s, the curator remembered Edwin with the highest professional regard. There is a colour picture on display depicting Edwin conducting archaeology at the site, adjacent to the cobbled Camino Real.
From the early 16th to the mid-18th century, mule trains (recuas) carried the silver and gold of Peru from Panama to the Caribbean coast via the Camino Real (Royal Road). In the earlier part of this period, their first resting place was Venta de Chagre near the ford where the Camino crossed the (River) Rio Chagre. The site now lies under Madden Lake but its precise location can be determined by tracing the Camino Real, when the lake waters are at a low level, by the distribution of colonial artefacts in the areas exposed, and by a comparison of these with descriptions of the town from the colonial period.
Of these accounts, the most detailed is to be found in Sir Francis Drake Revived, published in England in 1628. Despite the relatively late date, it is a compilation of eyewitness reports from those who accompanied Drake in his raid of 1573. The editor claims that the famous corsiar himself read and corrected it.
Drake's party of eighteen English and thirty cimarrones, having crossed the isthmus from their base on the San Blas coast, laid an ambush for a treasure train two leagues south of Venta de Chagre. In Sir Francis Revived the town is consistently referred to as Venta Cruz but the contemporary Spanish correspondence leaves no doubt that it was Venta de Chagre. During the season of heavy rains in April / May to December, almost all the goods, including gold and silver, would be sent via Venta Chagres and the Rio Chagre. In the dry season, however, treasure would pass by the land trail, the Camino Real, from Panama to Nombre de Dios, crossing the Chagre at Venta de Chagre.
Before Drake, no attempt had been made by the English or French on the overland trains. Venta Cruces, however, was well known as a town on the Chagre and as a place of transit for treasure. The French had made an unsuccessful attempt at it in 1568 and had seized profitable prizes at the mouth of the river. The English simply used the one name they knew for a town on the Chagre.
After the treasure train had escaped the ambush, Drake's party attacked Venta de Chagre, spent an hour and a half pillaging, and left at daybreak. A safe retreat was assured by, "the guard which we set as well on the bridge which we were to pass over as at the townes end where we entered (they have no other entrance into the towne by land)..."
The bridge cannot have been over the Chagre, where the seasonal flooding would make it impossible to maintain, but over the Quebrada Rodriguez. The Camino Real ran north along a ridge to the Rodriguez, then crossed it and the low land to the north toward a series of fords, where the Chagre was split by two large gravel shoals. Today, this is all under Madden Lake when the water is at the 250-foot level. In the 1973 dry season, it fell to just above 200 feet, exposing a large area marked by a heavy concentration of colonial artefacts extending along the Rodriguez ridge, northwest to what was once a high bank (today, "Treasure Island") overlooking the Chagre. At about 600 feet south of the point where the Camino Real drops to the Rodriguez, a cobble path leads from a stone patio to the Camino: this may well have been the guardhouse at the town entrance.
The account describes the town as having forty or fifty houses, "many storehouses large and strong," and a monastery. Some exaggeration is to be expected: the raiders were no doubt too busy during the night to come away with exact details. However, the impression of a well-established, prosperous community is probably correct. It did not long remain so. Of coins collected from the site, none are later than the reign of Philip II. This would indicate that Venta de Chagre ceased to be a major stopping place around about 1597, when the Caribbean port shifted from Nombre de Dios to Portobelo.
At the time of Drake's raid, the recuas left Panama about sundown to avoid the hot sun of the open savannah between the city and the Venta de Chagre. Once across the river, they would have the forest cover for the remainder of the journey. From the fort, the Camino Real climbed a ridge to the north and continued in that direction, parallel to the Rio Pequini but about a kilometre to the east, at an elevation averaging 230 feet. It would appear that, with the transfer of the port, the first stopover changed from Venta de Chagre to San Juan, two and a half kilometres to the north. Most coins from this site are from the 17th century, with none later than the 1730s. This date corresponds with the War of Asiento (1739-40), which marked the end of the galleon fleets. Portobelo's commercial importance dwindled and the great recuas became history. Therefore, the settlements north of Venta de Chagre moved to the banks of the Pequini. The forest reclaimed both San Juan's old site and much of the Camino itself. Totten's map of 1857 shows the ford of the Chagre unchanged, but the Camino has shifted from ridge to riverside, connecting the farms and settlements along the banks. San Juan was one of these, located a kilometre from its old site, but Venta de Chagre had completely disappeared.
Map showing the site of Venta de Chagres
© John Thrower
Michael Turner has translated map details on the map supplied by Edwin:
Aerial View of Venta de Chagres
© Michael Turner 1997-2008
Drake's party marched into the way station of Venta de Chagres, which the English called Venta Cruz. The town was the first rest stop for the recuas. It was up-river from Casa de Las Cruces and situated where the Camino fords the Chagres. Drake ordered that none of the women be molested and no Spaniard killed, unless armed. After nearly two hours Drake hastened towards the coast. Still up to this point, none of the Spanish despatches mention Drake by name.
Due to the construction of the Panama Canal, a dam was built and the Chagres has flooded forming the Madden Lake. In 1983, I chose the trail and riverside village of Santa Rosa, six miles west to depict an environmentally acceptable scene. Nine years later, I gladly learnt that the site of Drake's Venta Cruz was discovered by Webster in 1973. At the end of this dry season, the level of the lake had fallen from the usual 220-250 feet to 201 feet. This exceptionally low level also exposed several sections of the cobble-paved highway on the lake's east bank between the 200 and 220 feet level.
Camino Real at Venta de Chagre
© Michael Turner 1997-2008
Webster notes that the bridge could not have crossed the Chagres because seasonal flooding would have prevented its maintenance. Instead, if Drake had entered along the eastern trail, the bridge would have spanned the Quebrada Rodríguez. If he had marched along what was later to be the paved west road, the bridge would have crossed the Rio Chico Viejo. Webster determined the exact site of Venta de Chagres by the positioning of colonial artifacts. A heavy concentration was found along the Rodríguez ridge, extending NW to what was once a high bank, known today as Treasure Island that overlooks the river. Hence, the settlement lay between the Rio Chico Viejo and the Quebrada Rodríguez at 9° 14' N. 79° 34' W.
To determine if a visit is worthwhile, one can verify the current water level with the Canal Hydrographic Office. The visitor can reach the vicinity of the exposed site by driving north from Calzada Larga to within easy walking distance. When my driver reached the end of the stony road, I was able to walk along the south bank of the Chagres to where it meets Lake Madden. I had plotted Webster's information on a current map. I deduced that due to the water level, I was two kilometres SE short of the site. Days later in the National Museum, I saw pictures of Webster's team excavating the causeway. I felt tantalised because I had seen similar views but could not confirm that I had stood on the same patch of ground. The land bordering the lake is low. The latter is dotted with gravel islets. What I had at least accurately documented was the configuration of the surrounding hills.
A year later in 1993, René Gómez had indicated on a map where I could hire a boat on the scarcely populated shores of the lake. John Thrower and I, chartered a dugout canoe from the village of Nuevo Vigía on the lake's west shore, on a rainy afternoon. We reached a scattering of huts on the north shore of the Chagres, marked on the map as Tranquilla. The man who came to greet us had accommodated Dean Edwin Webster twenty years earlier during his field studies! With precision accuracy, he pointed to the flooded site of Venta de Chagres. Coupled with the boatman's knowledge, we navigated two kilometres WSW. John held the canoe against one of the many tree stumps which protrude from the lake. Through murky water, I pulled myself about twenty feet down the trunk in an unsuccessful attempt to place my feet upon Venta de Chagres. Nonetheless, I emerged delighted that I had physically been as close as possible to Drake's footsteps. The excitement continued.
Webster's former host had also directed us a kilometre to the NW, where a cobbled section of the Camino Real emerges from the inaccessible custody of the lake. A two metre wide trail of brownish stones lay intact for an uphill distance of about forty metres. It was quite possible that these were the same stones upon which Drake and his highwaymen had trampled in retreat from their abortive raids. This was once again, literally being in Drake's footsteps!
We are not given details of Drake's return route to the north coast, except that he reached a river other than that from which he had set out. Webster has outlined a probable route.
"... follow the Chagres to the Rio Indio, then travel parallel to the Indio to the saddle between Cerro El Jefe and Cerro Tobora, crossing to meet their own trail near the Utive River. They would retrace their route as far as the Icanti, then go up its eastern tributary, the Aguas Claras, from which today an Indian trail crosses to the Rio Azucar. On its banks, just across the divide and three leagues from their ships, they would take their first rest."
Thank you Edwin.
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