Humans have always been fascinated by what lies out over the horizon of our known world and borders, by what lies over the next hill or over the waves beyond what we see. This fascination has driven us to explore and understand our planet since time unremembered, and countless explorers have bravely pushed past the boundaries of our maps and the limits of our horizon to discover, tame, and conquer. We have many records of these adventures, and often lurking within them are astounding historical tales of strange peoples and creatures, some of which are just as mysterious and perplexing now as they were then, and one of these are the supposed real giants of the New World.
Perhaps the most intriguing and widely known tale of real giants in the age of exploration began with an account concerning none other than the great Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. Between the years of 1519 and 1522 Magellan embarked on his most famous voyage, a Spanish expedition to search for a good route to the Maluku Islands of the east East Indies, that would eventually result in the first successful circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan was given command of five vessels, and one leg of their voyage took them out across the vast ocean all the way to the faraway land of Patagonia, at the southern end of South America. It was here that the expedition would come across a rather baffling sight indeed.
According to accounts by the expedition’s official chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, as they approached the shores of Patagonia there was witnessed a person of “enormous stature” dancing and cavorting naked upon the beach while oddly throwing dust on its head. A crew member was apparently then sent over to try and make contact with the mysterious giant, and upon arriving on shore the man began to mimic the giant’s eccentric movements and behavior in an effort to extend friendship. Pigafetta would relate what happened thus:
The captain-general [i.e., Magellan] sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet where the captain-general was waiting. When the giant was in the captain-general’s and our presence he marveled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned.
The explorers purportedly gave this massive creature food and drink, and it was noted that the giant was absolutely terrified when it saw a mirror. Magellan and his men were finally able to make contact with the rest of the creature’s tribe, and they were on good terms at first, slowly gaining the trust of the giants over several weeks, even eating and hunting with them. Unfortunately, European explorers that they were, the men just couldn’t resist trying to capture some of them to bring home. Two of giants were supposedly captured but did not survive the long harrowing journey back to Spain, meaning they did not return with any real evidence of giants in Patagonia but their fantastic tales of what they had seen.
The stories really took off, and indeed Patagonia would become synonymous with the image of lumbering giants. Such was the popularity of the tale that the very name of the region itself, Patagonia, comes from Magellan’s name for the creatures, patagones, which might be derived from the Spanish word pata, meaning “foot,” thus making the name something akin to “The Land of the Big Feet,” or it may simply come from the fictional wild man characters the Patagonians, featured in a book of the era called Primaleon, depending on who you ask.
The stories of these mysterious giants living out across the vast ocean in some faraway exotic land really captured the imagination at the time, and this would be further stoked when other reports of the giants of Patagonia began to come in from other explorers in later years. For instance, in 1579, Sir Francis Drake’s ship chaplain, Francis Fletcher, wrote of these giants, which were said to be around 10 feet tall. In the 1590s the explorer Anthonie Knivet also claimed that during his time in Patagonia he had seen some dead bodies of the giants, which were estimated as being around 12 feet tall, and there was another account from the English explorer William Adams, who claimed that his expedition had actually been attacked by uncommonly large natives while rounding Tierra del Fuego.
Such encounters further fueled rumors that Patagonia was indeed a land of giants, and these far-out reports would only continue. In 1615, Dutch circumnavigators Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire claimed to have come across a mysterious grave that was filled with the bones and remains of strange beings that would have been around 11 feet tall in height. In 1766 there was the report that Commodore John Byron, who had circumnavigated the world aboard the vessel the Dolphin, had come across a tribe of enormous natives in Patagonia that measured an average of around 9 feet tall and as tall as 12 feet.
Such enigmatic reports coming in from these rugged explorers from Patagonia not only stirred up a lot of wonder, but also quite a bit of debate and skepticism from the scientific community as well. Many academics believed the tales to be hoaxes, over-exaggerations, or a ruse to cover the real intentions behind those making excursions to South America, but the belief that these giants were real nevertheless persisted among the general populace. In later years the romantic legends of the giant Patagonians died down a bit as more realistic information came to light, such as a revised official report from Byron’s travels released in 1773, in which it was written that the natives they had encountered were actually only 6’6”, which was still very tall for the time, but still far from the rumored 9 to 12 feet. Also, in 1628 Sir Francis Drake’s nephew claimed in his book The World Encompassed, that the height of the “giants” his uncle had encountered and spoken of had been highly exaggerated, writing:
Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.
It is thought that these explorers may have really been coming across a Patagonian tribe called the Tehuelche, who have some of the tallest average heights in the world, commonly exceeding 6 feet and reaching over 7. They would have certainly towered over most of the European explorers of the day, who would have typically stood at the low 5-foot range, and subsequent exaggerations, rumors, retellings, and observer misidentifications could have seen descriptions of the “giants’” height increased, giving birth to mysterious traveler’s tales laced with rumor and hearsay. However, in the case of Magellan, the chronicler was an astute observer and had an eye for detail, with most of his information quite accurate, so it is difficult to say whether Pigafetta would have made up some yarn.
Patagonia is not the only place to have seen historic accounts of real giants lurking in the wilderness of the New World, and similar creatures were described during the age of the Conquistadors in the jungles of what is now Florida. The Spanish Conquistador and explorer Pánfilo de Nárvaez faced a disastrous failed invasion of Northern Florida after losing most of his men to native attacks and disease, lack of adequate supplies, and being abandoned by the very ships that had brought them there, and in the wake of this he himself would go on to disappear after departing for Cuba on a makeshift raft.
One survivor of the whole perilous ordeal was a junior officer named Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who along with a ragtag group of others decided to make a beeline for safety in Mexico, which they mistakenly believed to be much closer to where they were than it actually was. They built a raft and departed on their ill-conceived flight, and De Vaca would go on to survive the ordeal and make his way all the way to Texas, before finally returning to Spain and eventually writing a bestselling account of his adventures. Buried in this journal is a very strange and rather harrowing account in which this motley group apparently came across a group of mysterious and very aggressive giants while crossing a lake in Florida. De Vaca would claim in his journal:
When we attempted to cross the large lake, we came under heavy attack from many giant Indians concealed behind trees. Some of our men were wounded in this conflict for which the good armor they wore did not avail. The Indians we had so far seen are all archers. They go naked, are large of body, and appear at a distance like giants. They are of admirable proportions, very spare and of great activity and strength. The bows they use are as thick as the arm, of eleven or twelve palms in length, which they discharge at two hundred paces with so great precision that they miss nothing.
Other areas of North America had historical reports of giants in the same era, and Native people’s would often tell of such massive creatures inhabiting the land. In 1519 a whole village of giants was allegedly found somewhere along the Mississippi River by explorer Alonzo Álvarez de Pineda during an expedition to map the Gulf Coast area. Pineda described them as “race of giants, from ten to eleven palms in height,” and said that they were peaceful and had a wealth of gold, yet that the natives were terrified of them. Years later in 1539 there was also the account of Hernando De Soto, who came face to face with numerous giants during his adventures through the southeast portion of what is now the United States. De Soto had set out from Tampa Bay, Florida, with a contingent of hundreds of men, and during their trek they allegedly frequently came across tribes of natives ruled by giants. One of these was a Chief Tuscaloosa, who was encountered in western Alabama and said to be a hulking, giant of a man who towered over all others.
There are also the reports from the Spanish conquistador and explorer Hernando de Alarcón, who was trying to find a river that could be used to move supplies to Spanish troops along the coasts of California and Mexico. Alarcón would eventually make his way up the Colorado River all the way to up to the Grand Canyon, and during this journey he and his men purportedly came across a tribe of around 200 giant warriors standing up to 10 feet tall. The giants were supposedly very aggressive, but Alarcón appeased them with gifts and other signs of peace. The conquistador Francisco Coronado also told of having come across whole tribes of giants during his quest throughout the southwest in search of the legendary El Dorado.
In some cases, there was physical evidence of these giants found, as was supposedly the case with the conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who served under Hernán Cortés during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. Within the pages of his detailed record of the conquest and subsequent collapse of the Aztec Empire, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, there is an odd account of a race of giants that was claimed by the Tlaxcatec Indians to have once inhabited the area. The chief of the tribe then provided the remains of these mysterious giants as evidence, of which Castillo would write of the tales and the remains:
They said their ancestors had told them that very tall men and women with huge bones had once dwelt among them. But because they were a very bad people with wicked customs they had fought against them and killed them, and those of them who remained had died off. And to show us how big these giants had been they brought us the leg-bone of one, which was very thick and the height of an ordinary-sized man, and that was a leg-bone from the hip to the knee. I measured myself against it, and it was as tall as I am, though I am of a reasonable height. They brought other pieces of bone of the same kind, but they were all rotten and eaten away by the soil. We were all astonished by the sight of these bones and felt certain there must have been giants in that land.
It is unclear what happened to these remains, and it remains just another weird, unverified account among many. Here we have looked at some of the myriad reports of real giants being encountered throughout North and South America in the age of exploration, and such accounts have faded into history to be mostly forgotten and bereft of any real evidence or proof. One is left to wonder if there is any truth to these historical accounts of these massive behemoths, or if they are just tall tales spun by wary explorers or the product of years of evolution and exaggeration. It is difficult to ascertain just how much of these tales are real or fabricated, and we are largely left to speculate and wonder about what these explorers saw out there in these uncharted areas of the planet, the only evidence we have these reports buried in history. Whether they were ever real or not, the idea that giants once roamed the world is a tantalizing one that will likely fire the imagination for a long time to come.