Exploration, Travel; Continent: North America

  • Can’t think of what happened in North America between Columbus and the Pilgrims? Neither could the author, so he wrote a book about it.
  • 445 pages (390 without Notes, Acknowledgements, etc.)

A few summers before starting this writing project, author Tony Horwitz made an unplanned stop at Plymouth while on a road trip. He decided to look around, but found himself a bit underwhelmed by Plymouth Rock. Once he found it, the famous rock was slick with seaweed and surrounded by tourist litter and small change (tourists try to land a coin on the rock for luck). What was he supposed to be getting out of seeing it? He realized that he wasn’t so sure, in spite of an elite education and a degree in history.

Landmarks Are to Your Vacation As the History Channel Is To Your Education?

That question inspired him to make more travels throughout much of the continental United States. What a visitor to a historical site gets out of the trip is knottier question than just whether or not the signage explaining the site is accurate or relevant. Horwitz’s conversations with the park rangers at many of the major historic sites he visits run along the same lines: the rangers have some scripted content to share in tours or dramatic presentations, and the material is often themed along tourist expectation. The problem is that the tourists don’t know (or even necessarily want to know) the actual history of a place. Sometimes, they aren’t especially clear on the mythology of a location, either. For the visitor ready for more than a photo opportunity, though, park rangers are often a wonderful resource for accurate information.

Horwitz’s memoir puts a spotlight on the way some locations he has visited have capitalized on their fame. Tourists like to be entertained, so places like St. Augustine have taken on the feel of a ren faire without fully tapping into the knowledge of local historians or park rangers. Other sites mentioned in the logs of conquistadors like Coronado may be entirely undeveloped and next to impossible to find. In fact, what is thought to have been Coronado’s route through the southern United States has undergone some revision in academic circles, a sore point with some communities claiming Coronado-related sites now in dispute. Who knew there was economic fallout for a debate about a conquistador’s route through the 16th-century woods of North America? Certainly not me before reading this book.

Getting a Better Bead on U.S. History

Horwitz will also straighten you out a bit on some of your textbook American history, in case you (like most of us) never did the math to notice that the Pilgrims are a few generations after Columbus: they didn’t just jump aboard the Mayflower with Columbus’ first report to Europe. He also points out that not only were the Pilgrims not the first Europeans in North America, they weren’t even the first ones to Massachussetts. Their party also included some people who weren’t looking for religious freedom so much as a chance to make a living. In case this is bursting your Thanksgiving bubble too much, the notion that Squanto saved their bacon that first winter is pretty much true, though.

A substantial chunk of Horwitz’s book describes the conquistadors. Frankly, they’re are all a big Spanish blur of violence and ridiculous armor from my fifth grade textbook — the one year my public school disctrict talked about them much at all. Their demographic is so uniform that I still have trouble keeping them straight: minor Spanish nobility with just enough wealth and reputation to take a shot a gaining some real wealth and reputation. Tough customers, too: honestly, if I were a wealthy Spaniard in those days, I might have given one of these dudes a spare ship just to get him out of town. Horwitz makes a sincere effort to clarify who’s who, but I don’t know if I’ll remember anyone other than Coronado with any real clarity.

Conquistadors are hardly the full story offered here: Horwitz gives the Vikings in Newfoundland their due, too. Also Jamestown, St. Augustine and Roanoke — European settlements in North America that predated Plymouth — have much of the mythology surrounding them debunked, too. For example, Horwitz makes sure you end up with a better sense of Pocahontas’ identity than Disney offered us. Not only was she not the statuesque Barbie doll who once in a while gets included as a Disney Princess, she was about ten years old when John Smith (who sounds like a complete tool) showed up.

Road Trip

Horwitz gives the reader ample opportunity to consider the tourist industry’s confluence with historical scholarship, but the best reason to read this book may be that it’s just fun to read about his travels in writing it. He tours the islands over which Columbus was nominally made governor (Columbus bails because it turns out finding islands is more fun than ruling them). He visits an Indian sweat lodge, canoes across the Mississippi to retrace Cabeza de Vaca’s route, and travels the “sea of grass” in the plains. Like any good travel writer, he’s game for adventure but describes his experience in full, unadorned detail, even if he couldn’t recommend trying it.

This is a great travel story to bring on your own trip. The sections are short enough for the road-weary traveler to absorb before lights out at the hotel. The conquistadors traveled through 48 of the 50 states, so if you’re visiting the continental U.S., then there’s something here about where your own travels take you.

Image: Photo by Don White, 2014. Source: Pixabay.com

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