Author Takes a New Look at America’s Old History

August 12, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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By tracing the paths of European settlers in the 16th century, Tony Horwitz tells the history of America's colonization of the new world during an oft-forgotten century. Ray Suarez discusses Horwitz's new book, "A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World."

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a conversation about rediscovering the new world, and to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: Think you know about history, especially our own? Every school kid knows Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. But then what? What happened in the new world over the next hundred or so years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620?

It’s that lost century that Tony Horwitz focuses on in his new book “A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World.”

It’s like you single-handedly went out to become a — to fly the flag for the 16th century.

TONY HORWITZ, Author: Well, it’s weird that we’ve lost a whole century. I think most Americans would be hard-pressed to think of one thing that happened on this continent in the 1500s. Perhaps the lost colony of Roanoke, that might resonate, Virginia Dare. And apart from that, I think it’s a blank.

A scramble for real estate

RAY SUAREZ: And why is it important? What happened in those 100 years that creates the world of North, South and Central America that we eventually came to know?

TONY HORWITZ: Right. It's really the beginning of the story we're still finishing: globalization, the beginnings of colonies and empire.

And it also really paves the way for what happens later, because it's during this period of early contact that disease and other factors make it possible for the English to settle successfully in a way that most that came before really struggled.

RAY SUAREZ: And there was really a great scramble during that century, wasn't there? I mean, everybody had their eyes on getting some real estate in this hemisphere.

TONY HORWITZ: Right. It was really almost an international food fight, with the English being the last at the table. You have the Spanish and the French and the Portuguese and others all roaming and, in some cases, settling this continent and trying to stake their claim. And it really isn't resolved for a long time.

RAY SUAREZ: Even Swedes in Delaware...

TONY HORWITZ: Later on, yes, Dutch, it goes on and on.

Competing European settlers

RAY SUAREZ: But how did it come to be that, finally, the two big winners would be the two big empires, the English and the Spanish?

TONY HORWITZ: Right. Well, the Spanish are really the first-comers in terms of Europeans. And they, in the course of the early 1500s, sweep across, you know, all of South America, Central America, and a lot of this continent. The English really don't get here in a significant way until the 17th century.

But partly they're able to do it because of what's happened before. You know, the early Europeans bring diseases to which natives have no immunity, and they effectively depopulate large stretches of the continent, making it possible for the English to settle, for instance, at Plymouth without opposition, because an epidemic there has just wiped out the coastal population. So that's one factor.

But, also, they've mapped the continent or at least given guides that didn't exist before. And they've also really pushed the English to get into this race. At first, the English are on the sidelines. And then they see the Spanish and the French, and they want their piece, as well.

A need to learn American history

RAY SUAREZ: How did you get started? Was it realizing how much you really didn't know about all of this?

TONY HORWITZ: Yes, it happened really accidentally for me on a visit to Plymouth Rock, where I had never been before. And the first surprise is how physically unimpressive the rock is. It's this sort of pathetic, little, cracked boulder sitting in a dirty sandpit on the shore in Plymouth.

But what really startled me was what a ranger told me about visitors there and how confused they are about American history, that basically they learn about 1492 in school, or a little bit, and then they fast-forward to the Pilgrims in 1620. And the rest is a blank or a blur.

A lot of visitors think that Columbus sailed here, dropped off the Pilgrims, and sailed home. And that's really all they know.

At first, this amused me, but then again, when I started to scan my own brain for what I knew, I realized there was nothing there, either. And I decided to try and fill that void.

RAY SUAREZ: Part of your, let's say, pulling back the layers and trying to get at what's essential about this story, you compare Jamestown and the attempts to colonize Virginia with the, in many ways, much better-known story of the Pilgrims coming to what became the Massachusetts Bay Colony.


RAY SUAREZ: What did you conclude about why the Pilgrim fathers come to be much better known and much more revered by us than the Virginia settlers?

TONY HORWITZ: I think this is an instance where, really, the old saying, "The winners write the history," is true.

In the colonial period, it's the English who prevail for the contest for much of this continent. And in the early U.S., it's really Protestant New Englanders who shape our memory of our European origins.

So, first of all, they diminish the role of non-English, and Catholics, and French, and Spanish, but also of Southerners. They almost portray Virginia, well, first, as a failure, but also as a sort of degenerate southern twin of Plymouth, where pious Pilgrims through hard work, you know, succeeded on this continent.

So even to this day, really, even though Jamestown preceded Plymouth by 13 years, I think it continues to play second fiddle to Plymouth in the imagination of most Americans.

A study in human behavior

RAY SUAREZ: The story takes you to a lot of interesting places, from steamy Puerto Plata to cold, damp Nova Scotia. You seem to have also learned your North American geography, too.

TONY HORWITZ: Yes, yes, Newfoundland is where the Vikings settled 1,000 years ago, and that's where I begin the story. And it is, indeed, damp. In fact, in mid-summer, there were icebergs floating by, so quite an inhospitable setting, and then to the Dominican Republic, where Columbus colonized in the 1490s, which is, obviously, subtropical, and then Mexico, and through the U.S. So I did see a lot of territory.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you come away from this wishing that American history was better taught because then it would turn our kids on a little more?

TONY HORWITZ: Yes. I think the first thing I realized is that the true story of our founding by Europeans -- because the native story, obviously, begins thousands of years before -- but the European story is so much richer than the storybook version that I got in school about brave Columbus and solemn Pilgrims in funny hats.

There are just incredible adventures, and also the drama of first contact. This is an experience we simply can't have today, no matter how far we travel. And in these early Spanish and French and other accounts, you get a sense of kind of the wonder of what happens when societies that have never encountered each other before collide on a beach in North Carolina or the desert of New Mexico.

How do they communicate, get along, make sense of what they're hearing and seeing? It's a fascinating study in human behavior.

RAY SUAREZ: That mutual incomprehension on both sides.

TONY HORWITZ: Exactly, and mutual discovery. I mean, one of the first things they almost always do is share food. And there are wonderful descriptions about the Indians in Massachusetts tasting English mustard for the first time or recoiling at the French with the garlic on their breath, and vice versa.

The Europeans generally are appalled by how bland Indian cuisine is, and they're always hunting for salt. So there's a gentle side that goes with what's often a very grim story of conquest by Europeans.

RAY SUAREZ: "A Voyage Long and Strange," Tony Horwitz, thanks.

TONY HORWITZ: Thanks for having me.