One of the B-list holidays in America is Columbus Day, which falls next week – celebrating (or not) the “discovery” of the New World by the intrepid Italian-sailing-for-Spain navigator a mere 517 years ago. Every American school child knows that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” and in a few weeks we’ll celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey and corn and decorations with funny hats with buckles on them – commemorating the “First Thanksgiving” celebrated by the Pilgrims, Squanto and his pals the year after their founding of Plymouth in 1620 – something else that every American school child knows.
But there’s a problem here. There are 128 years between Columbus and the Pilgrims – and most Americans probably can’t tell you anything about the intervening years. Kids in Virginia will tell you about Jamestown being founded in 1607 – though you can guarantee they don’t know that Santa Fe, New Mexico was founded in 1608 — or that St. Augustine Florida beat them both by 40+ years.
And such is the thesis for a great book I finished reading last month “A Voyage Long and Strange” by Tony Horwitz. In this book, the author tracks down the “missing” history between Columbus and the Pilgrims. He interweaves the history with a sort of odd travelogue where he visits the colonial sites of yore in the present day. In fact, he begins with a trip to Newfoundland and an investigation of the Norse colonies there about 500 years BEFORE Columbus.
The book is witty and also sad. Horwitz’ writing captures well that “stranger in a strange land” feeling as he goes across North America in search of the historical truth of this often-neglected era. Along the way, the saddest parts are those in which historical evidence is ignored so that certain myths can be fostered – usually for civic and personal gain.
Almost as remarkable are the forgotten histories of many of the Spanish explorers in the New World — the most remarkable is probably that of Alvar de Vaca, who’s journey in the New World made the Lewis and Clark Expedition of the 19th century look like a Cub Scout camping trip.
But of course, since Anglophiles were writing American history books, all this is often ignored to pump up the image of the fearless Captain Smith and Pocahontas of Jamestown (though they probably leave out the cannibalism there in the second harsh winter), and extol the determined, Puritan work-ethic of the Pilgrims also leaving out their own religious persecution of those that disagreed with them.
I encourage everyone that wants a good yarn and to learn a little more about our own history of which we are too willfully ignorant.
Oh – and the first Thanksgiving between Europeans and Native Americans in what is now the US was in Florida and probably consisted of a pesole-like pork stew and corn. Remember that next month!