Tony Horwitz is one of my favorite writers. His books are the place where two of my favorite subjects – history & travel – meet. This book is no exception as it is prompted by his curiosity of what happened between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and the settlement of Plymouth in 1620. This period of nearly a century & a half is often neglected in popular history and sometimes even in classroom history. To answer this question, Hortwitz travels across North America in the footsteps of explorers, traders, conquistadors and colonists from the Norse to the Spanish, French, and English.
I tend to know a bit more than average American about this period in American history, but there were a few surprises for me in this book. For example, I never knew that French Huguenots settled at Fort Caroline in present-day Jacksonville, Florida only to be massacred by the Spanish. I know of Columbus’ bad treatment of the “Indians” but didn’t know that his first voyage was relatively peaceful and it was only in his later travels when he was mistakenly made a colonial administrator that he oversaw genocidal madness. The extent of De Soto and Coronado’s journeys within the current United States boundaries was eye-opening as well.
Horwitz’s travels take him to:
- Newfoundland for the remnants of Norse settlements from 1000 years ago.
- The Dominican Republic to explore the land that Columbus so poorly administered.
- De Vaca’s route along the Gulf Coast.
- Coronado’s journeys through the Southwest and Plains.
- Through the Southeast and across the Mississippi with De Soto.
- French & Spanish settlements in Florida.
- The “Lost Colony” of Roanoke on North Carolina’s Outer Banks
- The English Settlements of Jamestown and Plymouth.
Horwitz balances appreciation for the hardships and hardiness of these explorers with an honest appraisal of their greed and cruelty. He’s also amazing in his ability to find people who are connected with these stories whether they be descendants or merely fascinated with the period of history. One Pamunkey Indian even teases Horwitz for his tenacity in trying to get the story. “You are hard to get rid of, just like those damned English.”
This is a great book for anyone wanting to catch up on the history they may have slept through in high school written in a lively and humorous style. Another great volume for Hortwitz’s oeuvre.
“People thing the conquistadors were mad and greedy, always searching for pay dirt,” Walter said, over the clank and crush of machinery. “Well, here we are, still digging.” He took a long drag on his cigarette. “Those evil Spaniards weren’t aliens, they were us. Get rich quick — that’s the American dream, isn’t it?” – p. 149
Seven Cities of Gold, the Isle of the Amazons, El Dorado – these weren’t wild fantasies to the Spanish, they were vivid realities, just waiting to be found. Europeans often wrote disdainfully of Indian “superstition” – while marching through jungles and mountains in pursuit of their own potent myths. – p. 193
[Reverend Gomes] smiled benignly, as I imagined he might at a bewildered parishioner. “Myth is more important than history. History is arbitrary, a collection of facts. Myth we choose, we create we perpetuate.
He spooned up the last of his succotash. “The story here may not be correct, but it transcends truth. It’s like religion — beyond facts. Myth trumps fact, always does, always has, always will.” – p. 387.
Recommended books: Jamestown, the Buried Truth by William M. Kelso, In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick and The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell