Eugene Weekly : Books : 5.7.2009


Maps and Legends
Taking on the founding myths
By Suzi Steffen

U.S. creation myths: British pilgrims came to the U.S., stepped off the ship onto Plymouth Rock in 1620 and got help from friendly local Native Americans, who oh wait, maybe weren’t friendly, and when they tried to kill John Smith, Pocahontas intervened, and then there was the first annual Thanksgiving. It all worked out, right? Because eventually there was this Disney movie …

Tony Horwitz, history major, journalist and author of books like Confederates in the Attic and Blue Latitudes, knew something was off in this mélange of confusion. So, after he paid a visit to the disappointing actual Plymouth Rock, he began several journeys to figure out when and where — and which — Europeans had encountered the U.S.

Voyage tells many tales and tells them well. Horwitz plies his trademark wit as he recounts his experiences in tracing the Norse settlements through the moose and black fly-ridden coasts of Newfoundland, attempting to follow the treks of Coronado or De Soto, winding up in Florida in the midst of a recreated religious battle and hanging out in Plymouth with the descendants of decidedly non-English immigrants. Furthermore, his wit makes the research easier to digest. Want to know what kind of lies Amerigo Vespucci made up about the native population of the continents that would come to bear his name? Horwitz can tell you. How about conquistador armor — how heavy was that? Horwitz tries it on for a reenactment. Horwitz makes the facts, the ironies and the legends both real and amusing.

You’ll not find California, the Pacific Northwest or much of the Midwest (and its French explorers) in Voyage. But the book serves as a corrective both to the idea that the continent was empty (not that anyone thinks that anymore, right?) and to the fantasy that the Native American tribes who were here had some kind of mystical connection to the land and to each other. The many governments, economies, political arrangements and laws of those who lived here then, and whose descendants populate the continent, stand as factual background to the Euro-invasion in Voyage.

Horwitz winds up back at Plymouth, revisting the rock, telling funny stories about townsfolk. But what remains for this reader is the image of Tisquantum, captured by an English ship, sold to the Spanish as a slave, returning on another ship in 1619 to what’s now Massachusetts. When the ship arrived at his “formerly large and thriving settlement called Patuxet,” Horwitz writes, the captain “found its inabitants ‘all dead.’” Patuxet’s cleared woods and empty settlement served as welcome to the Mayflower; Tisquantum (whom you may remember as Squanto) helped the colonists plant corn and died soon thereafter. 

For the record, John Smith wasn’t a Pilgrim and he wasn’t at Plymouth; Pocahontas died in March of 1617; and there were many “thanksgivings.” Horwitz concludes by acknowledging and admiring the power of myth, but his book, luckily, serves as its own corrective — an amusing, well-researched corrective with a light tone that makes some of the truth easier to tease out. ew


Tony Horwitz speaks at 7 pm Thursday, May 7, in 177 Lawrence Hall on the UO campus. Free.