In Print

What a long strange trip

By Tony Omer - May 18, 2006

"Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America," by Paul Schneider. Henry Holt and Company. 2006. $26. 366 pages.

West Tisbury resident Paul Schneider has written a new book, "Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America." His first two critically acclaimed books, "The Adirondacks: A History of America's First Wilderness" and "The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket," were primarily histories of place, tracking with an historian's eye and a writer's engaging pen the transition of two distinct American regions from pre-historic times to the present.

With a similar highly readable and literate style, Mr. Schneider's new history begins by tracking the final journey of the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez, from his defeat and imprisonment by Cortez while competing with him with his own army for Mexican spoils, through his driven attempts to redeem himself and his honor by conquering La Florida. The expedition to conquer Florida begins in Spain in 1527 and continues after Narváez's death when the initial 600 members of the party had dwindled to a small handful of survivors. It is an intriguing, almost unbelievable tale. The survivors are alternately taken in by friendly natives and used by the less friendly. They work their way blindly west across the uncharted shores of the Gulf of Mexico, hoping to find the Spanish outposts in Mexico. Slowly, over an eight-year period, they make their way to the west coast of Mexico, near the Pacific, and finally to a Spanish settlement further inland.

The book traces Narváez's successful attempt to get the attention of the Spanish King and to gather the financial and human resources necessary to mount his venture in the New World. Narváez had achieved success as a discoverer and trader, having been second man in the conquests of Cuba and Jamaica and cofounder of the town of Havana and could have lived his life out in relative comfort in Spain. But driven by the mono-maniacal bug that was a signature of the ever-expanding Spanish empire he could not stop until his death at sea in a flat-bottom craft constructed in the wilderness to escape the native peoples and harsh conditions of the unconquered west coast of Florida. The tale just keeps getting better.

Mr. Schneider includes an extensive collection of facts. The foundation of his research is based on two less than complete firsthand accounts of the journey. The more complete of the two was written by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca years after the journey. Schneider elaborates, speculates, and expands on the two with a wealth of data from similar journeys by Desoto and other conquistadors. Bolstering his tale with results from many academic studies of the period, his own research and visits to the areas, Schneider weaves a fascinating picture. There are few footnotes in the body and an extensive bibliography and copious notes are found at the end of the book.

The book opens the door to a better understanding of the European colonial mentality and to pre-colonial North America. One of the most interesting parts of "The Enduring Shore," Mr. Schneider's second book, was his presentation of the latest research into the culture and life styles of the peoples who inhabited the "new world" just prior to the European invasion. In "Brutal Journey" he does the same thing, where the data exists, for many of the numerous groups of Native Americans who inhabited the Gulf of Mexico coast from Florida to Mexico. There are periods in the story when the more civilized peoples are without a doubt the Native Americans.

A terrific read that's highly accessible and very well written, the story draws you right in and holds you captive until the last page. Mr. Schneider is a highly skilled writer whose ability to weave a fascinating tale out of many threads of research is to be admired. If it were a movie, it would be a cross between the 1991 movie of the dramatic first encounters between the French Jesuits and the Huron Indians of Quebec, "Black Robe" and Werner Herzog's 1973 "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," the story of a mad conquistador's one-way trek on the Amazon. "Brutal Journey" could be made into a great movie.