Friday, February 26, 2010
A Voyage Long and Strange
Who was the first European to step foot on what eventually became the United States? Leif Erikson the Viking? Nope, he landed up in Canada. Columbus? Nope, never set foot on our soil. The correct answer would be Ponce de Leon somewhere near present day Daytona Beach on his quest for the fountain of youth. Actually the fountain of youth was never his mission nor was it in his charter but was added by a Spanish writer documenting the trip years after Ponce got back. Ponce de Leon was actually after what all Spanish explorers and those sent on their behalf (Columbus) were looking for, gold. Ponce de Leon excelled at murdering natives on the second Columbus expedition and thus got promoted so that he could get his own fleet to look for the land full of golden rivers said to be north of the Caribbean islands. He didn't find gold but he did become the first European to set foot in the future United States of America. But because he didn't have good PR skills, history writers stuck him with searching for the Fountain of Youth to cure his rumored impotence since he didn't have children until age 39. Amerigo Vespucci, another loyal lieutenant of Columbus got that honor (by naming 25% of the earth's landmass) by stepping foot on present day Venezuela. Columbus actually beat Amerigo to Venezuela by a couple years but like Ponce de Leon, he didn't have good PR skills and his murdering, slave-capturing ways had already eroded his credibility by the time he made the landing.
While researching various branches of my family tree that stretch back to the early days of our country, long before it was a country, I got to wondering how so many people were even here. The Pilgrims landed in the early 1600's on Plymouth Rock (this was actually their second landing site and isn't much of a rock as it turns out) and yet less than a century later, my ancestors were already producing generations of offspring. From my grade school years, I had thought that between the time Columbus "discovered" America to the Pilgrims, our continent just sat empty except for a few Indians crossed over from Asia via a land bridge visible from Sarah Palin's house. This couldn't be right so I decided to fill in this "hole" in my knowledge and read a book on pre-Pilgrim U.S. history. The book I selected was A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America by Tony Horwitz
After reading this book, I have pretty much decided all the "facts" that I learned in grade school history were pretty much fiction/indoctrination/whitewashing, whatever you wish to call it other than fact. It seems as if nothing I learned in school was the truth. The murderous Vikings, the first Europeans to set foot on either continents North or South America, may have actually been pretty peaceful people just looking to have a summer home in a land of timber and grapes. The local Indian population drove out these masters of war with only their catapults and spears. Later on Christopher Columbus, our benevolent founder, would turn out to be a ruthless person who murdered people left and right and single handedly starting the slave trade in the western hemisphere. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca made a trip almost three times as long as Lewis and Clark from present day Tampa, Florida to the Gulf of California all the way down into Mexico that took eight years and made the Lewis and Clark expedition look more like an overnight Boy Scout outing. Remember the first permanent settlement of Jamestown? Forty years before that and even before the failed Roanoke experiment, French Huguenots and Spain both had settlements going in Florida. In fact before John Smith or Walter Raleigh even set foot on our shores, Spain had nearly a dozen settlements going. Finally, the pure Puritans were more interested in the local sassafras crop over religious freedom because it was a cure for syphilis and thus very marketable to Europe.
This book is now a proud addition to my library once it finishes making its rounds to my circle of friends with whom I trade books. I consider it a must read for anyone wanting to know unvarnished pre-Pilgrim history specifically in the land that would later become the United States of America. Definitely one of the best books I have read in a long time.