A few years ago Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Tony Horwitz found himself at Plymouth Rock amidst a gaggle of tourists. A conversation with the park ranger concerning inquiries typically posed by visitors to the historic site impressed upon Horwitz just how spotty public knowledge of our nation's founding was. This included one question that was particularly glaring in its ignorance, "Is this where the three ships landed?" in reference to Columbus's Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. This blurring in our national memory between Columbus's 1492 exploration and the Pilgrim's 1620 settlement set Horwitz off on a "pre-Pilgrimage" devoted largely to elucidating the chapters of colonial history that occurred during the 128 lost years between those two dates, an adventure culminating in the publication of A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World.
Christopher Columbus, heralded as the man who discovered America, has more books devoted to his memory than Alexander the Great, Leonardo da Vinci, or Adolph Hitler. We've named our District of Columbia, two state capitals, and forty other U.S. cities, towns, and counties after the "Admiral of the Ocean Sea." Interestingly enough, Columbus never actually set foot on the North American continent. His initial landfall was somewhere in the Bahamas where, believing he had reached the East Indies, he dubbed the natives "Indios," remarking in his journal that they "ought to make good and skilled servants." With seven natives taken aboard his ship as captive guides, Columbus continued exploring islands in the Caribbean believing at various times that he had reached either Japan or perhaps the Chinese mainland.
Though never arriving at his Asian destinations, he did over the course of three voyages visit a variety of locales - Cuba, Venezuala, and the Canary Islands among them - and continued returning to the island of Hispaniola, now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The settlements on Hispaniola were famously bungled, and Columbus was eventually arrested and imprisoned for his dismal mismanagement there. On his fourth and final voyage in 1500, Columbus ended up marooned in Jamaica for about a year. He made it back to Spain in 1504, politically and physically crippled and died just two years later at the age of 55, convinced to the end that his voyages had landed him in Asia.
Spain remained relatively satisfied with with its conquest of Hispaniola and surrounding environs for about fifteen years, Horwitz tells us, before rocketing out of the Caribbean in an imperialistic explosion. Among the Spanish conquistadors were Coronado in America, Cortes in Mexico, and Pizarro in Peru. In the fifty years following Columbus's first voyage, Spain had conquered and amassed an empire more vast than imperial Rome at its apex.
In one chapter, Horwitz details the 1540-1542 expedition of conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, who marched hundreds of men from Mexico through the American Southwest and up into Kansas, where he believe lay Quivira, a mythical city of gold. Horwitz notes the Spanish ritual of reading a document called the Requerimiento, sort of a conquistador version of the Miranda rights, to the native tribes they conquered en route. The Requerimiento promised mildly charitable treatment to those who accepted the Spanish rule peaceably and quite the opposite to those who resisted:
"I assure you that, with the help of God, I will attack you mightily. I will make war against you everywhere and in every way ... I will take your wives and children, and I will make them slaves ... I will take your property. I will do all the harm and damage to you that I can."
So begins the procession of Spanish conquistadors who, one after another, brutally impressed what boils down to insatiable imperialism and greed upon the natives they met in the new world. From the conquerors of the Southwest such as Coronado and Juan de Onate, who slaughtered, enslaved, and cut off the feet of the Acoma Indians, to Hernando de Soto, who traveled the entire Southeast and then west into Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas in search of gold, Horwitz mines historical records and picks the brains of local historians and laypeople in revealing the events and nature of our nation's looting and settlement.
As it happens, the first permanent European city in the continental U.S. was St. Augustine, Florida, where the Spanish had their own Thanksgiving with Indians fifty-six years before the Pilgrim's, which we celebrate today. In fact, by the time the English arrived, other Europeans had already visited twenty-four of the continental United States' forty-eight states, along the way introducing foreign animals (horses), foreign diseases, and generally softening up the natives in preparation for later Anglo conquest.