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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

by Tony Horwitz, © 2008; Hardback; 390 pp
Published by Henry Holt & Company

When he came across Plymouth Rock during a road trip through New England a few years ago, Tony Horwitz received a huge let down. Housed within a columned surround, the Rock is a small lump at the bottom of a shallow well. Those of us who have envisioned Plymouth Rock as a mighty boulder or promontory will understand Horwitz’s disappointment.

According to the park ranger on duty, Horwitz’s astonishment was in line with the odd questions frequently asked by tourists, things like” “Did the Mayflower crash into the Rock?” “Is the bronze, 10-foot tall Indian (on a hill overlooking the rock) life-sized?” Many of them confuse Columbus with the Pilgrims, never mind that the nearby sign clearly mentions 1620, not 1492.

Horwitz, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who was educated at private schools and was a history major in college, found himself wondering what had transpired in America during the 128 years between the Columbus and the Pilgrims. Describing himself as an adult “with a third-grader’s grasp of early America,” he set out to learn about the earliest exploration and settlement of the Americas. The resulting book is divided into three sections.

Part One is labeled “Contact.” Around 1000 AD, some Viking mariners apparently became disoriented at sea, having set out from Greenland. There are two versions of this: either the land was sighted by a sailor named Bjarni Herjolfsson (he found the country not worth going ashore to visit) or by Leif Eiriksson, who actually did go ashore and gathered “wondrous plants” before returning to Greenland. The Vikings later returned to found a settlement. Eiriksson became known as “Leif the Lucky,” in the tale more familiar to school children. Their settlement did not endure long.

Next, in 1492, came Columbus and the Spanish explorers. Horwitz gives a good bit of detail about the additional voyages of Columbus, along with the tale of Horwitz’s own exploratory visit to The Dominican Republic. Columbus didn’t reach past the Caribbean to touch South America until his voyage of 1497. Amerigo Vespucci, a man the author labels as a gifted self-promoter, later claimed to have gotten there in 1496, but that claim has been solidly debunked. The fact that his name (Amerigo) was given to America is a gross injustice, courtesy of a map-maker who needed a label for the New World.

Part Two is entitled “Conquest,” and covers the explorations of the Spanish Conquistadors, most notably Cortez , Ponce de Léon, and DeSoto. Horwitz himself set out to follow their trails, and the tale of DeSoto’s march through what is now the American South is particularly vivid and grueling.

Part Three deals with “Settlement,” beginning with Florida. St. Augustine is, of course, America’s oldest city, but Horwitz also uncovers other settlements that didn’t last, along with forts that were abandoned. There was (a surprise to me) a strong French bid to settle Florida, successfully met by Spanish resistance.

After the first hundred years, the English finally weighed in at Roanoke, site of the well-known “Lost Colony.” Horwitz covers all the theories of what happened there, interviewing academics as well as talking to people who have lived in the swampy areas of North Carolina during modern times, including members of Indian tribes.

Jamestown is next, with a long section on Pocohantas and John Smith. Finally, he winds up back at Plymouth.

Horwitz’s style is decidedly un-stuffy. He recounts conversations in detail, so that the language of his interviews brings a lively immediacy to his subjects. This casual approach can at times distract from the very solid scholarship behind his quest, but it makes for easy reading.

I was surprised that the author did not give at least a nod to the possibility that Chinese Admiral Zeng He may have “discovered” America a good 70+ years before Columbus. As yet, there is no solid proof of this, but since the first years of the 21st Century, there has been a buzz about the existence of a chart showing the Cape of Good Hope as discovered by a Chinese “treasure fleet” under Zeng He’s command in 1421. There has been much speculation on the possibility of the fleet’s further westward exploration. If proof can ever be established, Mr. Horwitz may have to write us a sequel, and one can only hope it will be as well-researched and interesting as A Voyage Long and Strange.


Page Three of Reviews>>

©2008 Julia Sneden for

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