August 21, 2022

From the Vaults: New World History


     Author Tony Horwitz got the idea to write about the history of the New World when he visited Plymouth, Massachusetts in the early ‘00s.  He ended up in Plymouth more by chance than by any deliberate plan.  He was taking a road trip and decided to pull off at that particular exit when the Red Sox game he was listening to on the radio ended.  In the land known best as the spot  where the Mayflower Pilgrims first set foot on these shores, Horwitz decided he may as well visit Plymouth Rock, the fabled location where they first came ashore.  Although the Rock is housed in a columned pavilion, he missed the site on his first pass and had to flag down a speed walker for directions.  His initial reaction was a vague sense of disappointment:  “Stepping inside, I came to a rail overlooking a shallow pit.  At the bottom sat a lump of granite, the wet sand around it strewn with cigarette butts and ticket stubs from the nearby wax museum.  The boulder, about five feet square, had a badly mended cleft in the middle.  It looked like a fossilized potato.”

     As he pondered this icon of American history, other tourists began to gather.  Horwitz listened to their comments and gathered they had similar feelings of being underwhelmed:  “That’s it?”  “It’s like nothing – we have bigger rocks than that in our yard.”  “That’s going to be one heckuva home movie.”  “Yeah, my visit to Plymouth Pebble.”  “The Pilgrims must have had small feet.”  He stopped to talk to the park ranger who was dutifully recording the number of visitors with a hand clicker and asked about people dissing the ‘sacred stone’.  She replied, “A lot of people come here expecting the Rock of Gibraltar.  Maybe that’s where they went on their last vacation.”  Given all the press the Pilgrims get in school history books, I assume most people who go there are expecting something more ‘Disneyland’ and less ‘fossilized potato’.

     As Tony discussed the matter with the park ranger, she mentioned some of the odd questions tourists ask about Plymouth Rock:  “Was it true the Mayflower crashed into it?  Did the Pilgrims serve Thanksgiving on top of it?  Is the ten-foot tall bronze Indian statue on the hill overlooking the rock life-sized?  Why does the date etched into the stone say 1620 and not 1492?  Is this where the three ships landed (meaning the fleet of the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria – the ships from the first voyage of Columbus in 1492)?  Did Columbus drop off the Pilgrims and then sail home?”  

     Upon returning to his room at the William Bradford Motor Inn, Horwitz tabulated his own list of questions.  At the top, he wrote, “How come I know so little about what happened between the Pilgrims and Columbus?”  Tony pondered how little he actually remembered about the history of America between the two dates everyone had burned into their brains in elementary school:  1492 for the arrival of Columbus – 1620 for the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock.  What about the 128 years in between these dates?  He noted, “I was expensively educated at a private school and university – a history major, no less! – I’d matriculated to middle age with a third grader’s grasp of early America.”  Returning home to Virginia, he vowed to visit his public library and do some remedial research about what other things took place in this time period.  The end result was his book A Voyage Long and Strange – Rediscovering The New World (Henry Holt Co. –  2008). 

      I ordered copy in the spring of 2022 from one of those discount book seller’s catalogs and when it arrived, I recognized the cover.  It was a book I had found at our public library and read when it first came out.  It was reasonable to assume most of the information had already left my memory banks from my previous read (considering I had already forgotten the title).  This is one of the reasons I decided to keep a log of the books I have read since my retirement in the summer of 2018!  It didn’t matter because once I started the book (again), I found it hard to put down.

     The plan Horwitz hatched while doing his research was to simply hit the road and visit some of the historical sites that had been skipped over in his education.  The diversity of stories he discovered during his research led him to a conclusion supported by the old axiom, “The winners write the history.”  In that most of North America ended up being controlled by light-skinned Europeans, it made sense to Horwitz – the history they wrote down and peddled was about them.  The ‘losers’ (aka the other explorers who failed to gain a permanent foothold here and the Indigenous peoples who were displaced) became little more than footnotes in this Euro-heavy narrative.  Before the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, there had already been short lived settlements up and down the east coast of North America.  These proto-settlements lasted long enough to inflict new diseases on the locals who had no immunity to fight them off.  Indeed, William Bradford described the area around Plymouth as, “Fit for situation” with land already cleared and ready to plant.  The reason this land was available?  Bradford said it was because “an extraordinary plague” had wiped out the coastal natives.  It was a sad tale repeated at other pre-Pilgrim settlements – later Americans, according to Horwitz, “Didn’t pioneer a virgin wilderness.  They occupied a land long since transformed by European contact.”

     With Columbus and those who followed him as an anchor point, Horwitz decided to go back even further to find the true story of who discovered America.  In the Norse sagas (‘saga’ comes from a Norse word for ‘say’), the original stories were oral histories passed from generation to generation around the campfires.  They weren’t actually written down until much later so, as with any story passed down over many tellings, parts were mixed up and sometimes embellished.  Regardless of how much truth these tales may or may not contain, Horwitz started with the saga of Eirik the Red.  It seems Eirik’s bad temper and habit of killing those he had disagreements with pushed him from Norway to Iceland and eventually to Greenland.  Settling there in 986 A.D., he picked the lush sounding name, “as he said people would be attracted to go there if it had a favorable name.”  Having arrived during a relatively mild period, he and his followers were able to raise stock and enough crops to survive on the green fringes of the largely ice-covered land mass.

     It was Eirik’s son, Leif, who would go on to explore the lands to the west of Greenland.  A Norse seaman named Bjarni Heerjolfsson had become disoriented at sea (an event common enough the Norse even had a word for it – hafvalla) and stumbled upon a previously unknown land.  Lacking curiosity, he sailed along it for five days before returning to Greenland.  Leif (the more curious of the two) bought Bjarni’s boat and set off with thirty five men to explore this new land.  As they explored the coast, they came upon a headland with mild enough temperatures to produce good grazing land year round and rivers full of salmon.  They built ‘large houses’ and settled in.  While making exploration sorties in the area, a man named Tykir discovered grape vines which he recognized from his European homeland.  The Norwegians, who knew of wine (but nothing of grapes), were fine with naming the new land Vinland, or Land of Wine.

     Horwitz discounts most other ‘discoveries’ of Viking relics in North America (perhaps another story for another day), but he fully embraced the discoveries made in the area of what Leif named Vinland.  In 1961, a Norwegian lawyer turned explorer named Helge Ingstad did his own research of the Norse Sagas and followed the trail to the northern tip of Newfoundland.  There at a fishing village called L’Anse aux Meadows, he was shown a field the locals called an ‘Indian camp’.  To Ingstad, the layout reminded him of Norse farms he had seen in Greenland.  He and his wife spent the next eight years uncovering dwellings and artifacts that were dated back to 1000 A.D.  Horwitz had found his starting point for his New World history tour – the Vikings did indeed discover, and then became the first non-native settlers of this continent.

     Horwitz devoted 67 pages to Columbus and his exploits in the New World.  He reminds us that in spite of how many geographical references we can find in North America (like Columbus, Ohio and Washington, District of Columbia), he never set foot on the continent proper.  For the sake of brevity, I am going to only say the voyages of Columbus transformed the islands he touched but not necessarily in a positive way.  The endless search for gold and the subjugation of the native populations are placed squarely on Christobal’s shoulders, but they pale when compared to those who followed him.  For example, when Hernan Cortez conquered the Aztec empire (with a population of some ten million people, 100,000 of which lived in one city, the future location of Mexico City), the history books seemed fixated on the feat because Cortez’s command only contained some 400 men.  Truth be told, his greatest skill as a military leader was rounding up the people who had been conquered by Moctezuma, the Aztec leader.  The dual edge sword of newly inflated numbers (with his new found allies who hated the Aztecs) and the smallpox epidemic that swept the country brought down the empire, not just ‘Cortez and his 400 Spaniards’.

     The Spanish crown needed gold to fund their military campaigns in Europe.  Their secondary goal was to spread their version of Christianity.  As Cortez told his soldiers, “We were obligated to make war against enemies of our faith.”  The pattern would be repeated in North and South America with Spain eventually controlling a larger domain than the entire Roman Empire.  Cortez and the Conquistadors were Johnny-come-latelies, however, as the first Spaniards to set foot on the North American continent were led by Ponce de Leon.  That de Leon would be wounded and die in Florida, the state he named for its beautiful flora, is remembered less than his reported search for a ‘fountain of youth’.  The whole ‘fountain of youth’ schtick being a creative retelling of his adventures by a historical writer who needed to jazz up the story.  We hear about the conquests and pillaging, but we will leave the stories of Cortez, Pizarro, DeSoto, Coronado, and the other conquistadors for another time.  The story Horwitz had never heard was perhaps the greatest of all the Spanish adventures in North America.  It took place almost a hundred years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth.  The Conquistadors listed above left a trail of brutality and exploitation in their wake but the story Horwitz uncovered ended with the explorers being transformed, not the Natives they encountered. 

     Between 1528 and 1536, a former member on one of de Leon’s explorations in La Florida, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, took what Horwitz called, “A cross-country trek that made Lewis and Clark’s expedition, three centuries later, look like a Cub Scout outing by comparison.  This desperate crossing, which transformed him from armed invader to native healer, also demolished my [Horwotiz’s] image of Spanish conquest as a relentless steamrolling of America and its people.”  In his own remembrances, a chronicle Cabeze de Vaca called Account, he stated, “I wandered lost and naked through many and very strange lands.  [This story] is the only thing that a man who returned naked could bring back.”

     Cabeza de Vaca’s tale begins when an exploratory expedition under the command of Panfilo de Narvaez landed near present day Tampa in 1528.  Hoping to find a Tierra Nueva (the New Land) version of an Aztec empire to loot, Narvaez made the classic mistake of dividing his party:  Five ships and a quarter of his men were sent west along the coast to have a look-see.  The rest moved in land.  Ill-provisioned for the hostile climate and under attack by Native archers, they fled back to the coast hoping to be rescued. Their hopes were dashed when they found the ships were long gone, never to return.  The 242 survivors fashioned crude rafts and, “Without having anyone with us who knew the art of navigation,” they followed the Gulf shore west until they ran out of fresh water.  When they encountered the mighty Mississippi River, this makeshift flotilla began to drift apart in the strong currents.  As they came to shore, de Vaca called out to his commander on another raft who answered, “It was no longer time for one man to rule another.  Each one should do whatever seemed best to him in order to save his own life.”  Narvaez and his raft turned from the shore, never to be seen again.

     Stranded and mostly naked after several attempts to relaunch their rafts, de Vaca and his men were taken in by the local Natives who gave them shelter and food.  The 80 Spaniards who remained called this place the Isle of Doom, today known as Galveston Island, Texas.  As Natives and Spaniards alike began to die from a mysterious stomach ailment, their hosts suspected the Spaniards were the cause.  They demanded their visitors heal the ill.  Cabeze wrote, “We did our healing by making the sign of the cross on the sick person, breathing on them (a Native ‘cure’ they had observed), saying the Lord’s Prayer, and a Hail Mary.”  The miraculous healing earned the Spaniards more good will from the Natives who put them to work gathering berries and pulling cane from the water in the spring.  Cabeza de Vaca, tired of being half starved and worked like a slave, fled to a new village on the mainland where he became a trader and a  go-between of the various coastal tribes and their enemies.  He liked the freedom of this life, but after four years, he returned to the Isle of Doom to convince a fellow Spaniard to flee to the west with him.  After only a short while, his companion changed his mind and returned to the Isle, leaving de Vaca to carry on alone.  

     Cabeza de Vaca would eventually connect with the only other survivors of the original 300 man expedition:  two Spaniards, and a ‘black Arab’ who had come ashore in La Florida many years ago.  All four were put to work as slaves and the unrlenting cycle of hard work, tormenting mosquitos, and near starvation marked this as de Vaca’s lowest point.  He stated in Account, “I can affirm that no other affliction suffered in the world can equal this.”  Once they resolved to escape their captivity, the band of four made their way across south Texas and eventually into northern Mexico.  Word about this new ‘healer’ spread ahead of them and their entourage grew to several hundred tag-a-longs.

     The farther they traveled and the more he ‘healed’, the more mystical his version in Account becomes.  With the ‘black Arab’ Estervanico acting as the point man, de Vaca’s little band took on the air of a traveling cult.  All along his travels, de Vaca’s view of the Natives began to change.  Ne no longer viewed them as people to be conquered but to be saved.  His followers, however, had other ideas and took every opportunity to sack whatever villages they came to on the long trek.

     Upon reaching the Gulf of California, de Vaca and crew finally encountered, “four Christians on horseback.  They looked at me for a long time, so astonished that they were not able to speak or ask me any questions.”  Eight years and several thousand miles of wandering after landing in Florida, de Vaca felt he had to protect his band of followers from the slave traders he had just met, so he sent is entourage home.  He later learned the slavers returned and attacked the Natives de Vaca had tried to protect.

     Though he would eventually die in obscurity at a time and place not recorded, de Vaca sailed home after his American ramble and wrote the Crown a letter placing him squarely in the role of 

advocate:  “All these people, in order to be attracted to becoming Christians and subjects of your Imperial Majesty, need to be treated well.  This is a very sure way to accomplish this;  indeed, there is no other way.”  Sad to say, the message fell on deaf ears and, in terms of the Native Americans who occupied these shores long before Columbus, the worst was yet to come.

     One further note on the author:  Tony Horwitz was on the way to a book signing in Washington, D.C. on May 27, 2019 when he suffered a massive heart attack.  He passed away at the age of 60 leaving his wife and two grown sons.t


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