The fascinating story of Roger L’Estrange stands alongside Sheffield’s claim to Robin Hood, and if it is true, makes him one of our most remarkable sons.
This account begins in 1891 when Dominick Daly, barrister-at-law, and former editor of the Birmingham Gazette, was in Mexico City on private business, and was asked by his friend, Colonel Hoffman, of New York, to see if he could find documents that he could use in a forthcoming book about Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican Messiah – a strange legendary white man with a long beard, reputed to have imparted the doctrine and practices of Christianity on the Aztecs, hundreds of years before the Spanish Conquest.
Daly visited the city’s library and was allowed access into its archives.
“One day, I happened to pick out from amongst the contents of an old cedar-wood chest, a strongly, though roughly bound book of quart size, secured by a broad strap of leather.”
Written in English and Spanish, it appeared to be a diary written by Roger L’Estrange, ‘Sometime Captain of the Florida Army of His Excellency the Marquis Hernando De Soto, Governor of Cuba, and Captain-General of all Florida,’ who accompanied De Soto in the invasion of Florida in 1541, when the Mississippi River was discovered.
De Soto (1500-1542), the Spanish explorer and conquistador, was famous for leading the first European expedition deep into the territory of the modern-day United States, through Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, where he died on the banks of its great river.
Daly spent the next few years translating the document and it was published as Adventures of Roger L’Estrange by Swan Sonnenschein & Co in 1896.
The book came with an impressive preface by Henry Morton Stanley, journalist, explorer, author, and politician, famed for his exploration of central Africa and his search for missionary and explorer, David Livingstone, whom he later claimed to have greeted with the now-famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”
“What I most admire in Roger is that he is so fresh, naïve, and candid, and can tell a straight story. Even Daniel Defoe, of whose style he reminds me, could not have told it better.”
The reference to Defoe was not lost on a reviewer in The Bystander magazine:
“I read with immense pleasure the book by Mr Dominick Daly. The book contained an extremely interesting account of De Soto’s ill-starred expedition, together with an elaborate route map; but I confess I am still in doubt as to whether it was a work of fiction or fact. I accepted it as the latter; but many critics treated the book as pure romance.”
The Sheffield connection appeared in the opening chapter of the translation:
“My father, Roger L’Estrange, was son of a yeoman in a Yorkshire holding in fee by ancient descent a small but sufficient estate in land not far from the town of Sheffield. My mother was daughter of Sir Geoffrey Stanley, of the ancient and noble family of Stanleys of Hooton Manor, Cheshire.
“My early years were partly passed in my father’s house, and partly in that of a bachelor brother of his, Uncle Richard, who was a founder and worker of metals, at Sheffield, where he made knives, scissors, and cutting implements of all kinds, as well as many other useful things. Now Uncle Richard was much attached to me from my earliest youth, and desired greatly that I should come into his trade at Sheffield and keep it as my own business after he passed away. Therein I was nothing loth, nor was my father unwilling; but my good mother and the Stanleys were cold to a proposal which they said would turn me from a gentleman into a mere mechanic.
“So, though much was spoken about it, nothing ever came of Richard’s plan; though all the same I spent a good deal of time with him, and by his help gained some knowledge of the many curious arts of his business, and also of those appertaining to other trades carried on by artificers engaged in making metal implements and utensils, pottery, bricks, grindstones, charcoal, lime, and other things. For Sheffield is a town where there are five rapidly flowing streams, which are made use of to turn a multitude of wheels for all kinds of purposes. Besides which, great quantities of metallic ores, stones, and clays of various sorts, and wood, are found very near the town, or not far off. What I learned with my Uncle Richard in Sheffield was afterwards very useful to me.
“I was nigh seventeen years when my father died somewhat suddenly, and then my brother Hugh succeeded as heir to the paternal estate. Thereupon my Grandfather, Sir Geoffrey, sent to my mother to say that she should come back to Hooton to live again with him, and should bring me with her, and he would take charge of my education and future advancement.”
Roger L’Estrange, along with his cousin Stanley, eventually left Hooton, travelling to Bilbao, and via Madrid, ended up in the Florida expedition with De Soto, going through thrilling adventures and continuous fights between the Indians and the Spanish invaders. That was in 1538.
L’Estrange never returned to Sheffield but married an Indian woman and established a ‘Little Sheffield’ on the banks of the Mississippi River. He began making spades and ploughs made of wood, then, having built a furnace for melting copper, made hammer heads, nails, household utensils, and other useful articles. He built a large trade by barter with neighbouring Indian tribes.
Then the L’Estrange’s found iron and tin, and his implements and weapons greatly improved, the first steel saw fashioned from an old cuirass (piece of armour).
Roger eventually built a corn-grinding mill alongside his works, but they didn’t last long. The Mississippi River having little sympathy with foreign invaders, flooded the land, and ‘Little Sheffield’ was destroyed.
The story didn’t end here.
L’Estrange, looking into his affairs, found that he possessed a fortune in jewels, settled in Mexico with his Indian wife and five children, where Antonio de Mendoza, the Spanish Viceroy, bestowed on him a large estate, and where, as alleged, he wrote his diary, subsequently lost, rediscovered, and then forgotten about.
In the 1930s, Mr Cecil L’Estrange Ewen, author of “Witch Hunting and Witch Trials’ and “A History of British Surnames,’ published a pamphlet designed to show that there never was a Roger L’Estrange, and that Sheffield’s claim “to have produced the first Englishman to navigate the Mississippi must be relegated to the limbo of the chimerical.”
The Telegraph and Independent responded:
“For our part, we intend to go on believing it – as in the case of Robin Hood. Learned persons assure us that Robin was a myth. Not to us, he wasn’t; Nor are we going to consign Roger to that category. Whether Mr. Ewen is right or wrong in the contentions he puts forward in his pamphlet we shall make no attempt to decide. But we don’t like parting with Roger and the ‘Little Sheffield’ story. If it wasn’t true, it ought to have been. It was just the sort of thing a Sheffield man would do.”
But it appears that Sheffield did forget Roger L’Estrange – ignored until now.
For my part, I’m afraid that “Adventures of Roger L’Estrange” was probably an elaborate work of fiction, a story brilliantly orchestrated by Dominick Daly.
With the benefit of modern technology, it appears there never was a Roger L’Estrange from Sheffield, neither does there seem to have been a Sir Geoffrey Stanley at Hooton Manor (although the family and house did exist until 1788). Colonel Henry C. Hoffman died in 1883, eight years before supposedly asking Dominick Daly to search the library archives. And, in 1891, the year of the diary’s discovery, Daly appears to have spent most of the year in the English law-courts, and not in Mexico!
But, there again, you never know, and it makes a compelling story.
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