On the early American trail with Tony Horwitz
For most of us, there is a 128-year gap between the two most commonly remembered dates in early Euro-American history - 1492 and 1620. Who, why, and what happened in the six generations between Columbus's landfall in the Bahamas and the Pilgrims arrival at Plymouth?
In "A Voyage Long and Strange" (Henry Holt, 2008), Tony Horwitz answers many of these questions, and raises a few more. In the process, he tells a terrific story, moving smoothly between past and present, history and anecdote.
A resident of Vineyard Haven, Mr. Horwitz is the author of five books. Earlier in his career, he worked for the Wall Street Journal for 15 years, reporting from Baghdad and Bosnia, among other hotspots. In 1995, he won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Nowadays he is a full-time book writer.
"As long as I can get away with it, I'll ride this pony as long as I can," he said in a conversation Saturday morning on the porch of his home on Main Street that he shares with his wife, the Pulitzer-winning novelist Geraldine Brooks, and two sons, Nathaniel, 12, and Bizu, 5. "To be paid to indulge your own interests and write about them is a pretty good job."
Horwitz has long been interested in first contact between Europeans and natives. "It's an experience we can't have, no matter how far we travel, and to me it's the ultimate adventure," he said.
A natural adventurer who describes himself as a bit manic, Horwitz has satisfied his wanderlust and curiosity by hitchhiking across the U.S., Europe, and Australia, often writing about the eclectic collection of characters and obscure historical sites he encounters. No surprise, then, that his feet began to twitch and his mind, too, when he happened by Plymouth Rock a few years ago.
Early in "Voyage," he asks: "What would it be like to take a pre-Pilgrimage through early America that ended at Plymouth Rock instead of beginning there? To make landfall where the first Europeans had, meet the Naturals, mine the past, and map its memory in the present?"
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
So off he heads on a parallel exploration of his own -to libraries and to places made famous by the early explorers of America. The first stop is Newfoundland, where the Vikings set up shop for 40 years 500 years before Columbus went ashore in the Bahamas. Archeologists have unearthed various everyday tools, and foundations, but the Vikings' most prophetic legacy was their response to their first contact with native Americans - to slaughter them, for reasons that scholars have debated ever since. Leave it to Horwitz to find someone far from the ivory tower to come up with a compelling conjecture - Loretta Decker, a 33-year-old Newfoundlander who works at the site of the Vikings' settlement. "Maybe it was a test, like dunking a witch," she said. "To see if they were really human. People are always scared of what they don't know."
In the Dominican Republic, Horwitz connects with a renaissance rambler named Caonabo, after a Taino chief who had the temerity to object, by way of massacre, to the mistreatment of natives by the Spanish settlers at La Navidad, Columbus's first settlement on Hispaniola. As they make their tortuous way across the island to visit sites made famous - or infamous, depending - by Columbus, Horwitz attunes the reader to the modern Dominican Republic with a keen eye, ear, and wit.
For a deeper appreciation of Coronado's quest in the southwest, Horwitz turns to a local newspaper editor, the Zuni tribe's archeological office, and Richard and Shirley Flint, amateur turned professional historians who have dedicated their lives to the study of the conquistador who tromped thousands of miles from Mexico into the heart of Kansas in search of Quivira, the land of gold.
On the trail of DeSoto's desperate wanderings through the southeast, Horwitz subjected himself to a role in a reenactment where he could barely hold up the armor he wore - for authenticity. For authority, he interviewed Charles Hudson, an anthropologist at the University of Georgia who dedicated 20 years to mapping DeSoto's route.
With equal measures of scholarship and skepticism, Horwitz also details the first English settlements, in North Carolina and Virginia. John Smith, for one, comes off as something less than the romantic figure merchandisers and myth-makers like to portray.