Archive | November, 2016

Review of A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America, by Tony Horowitz

29 Nov


I have long been fascinated with America’s long and storied colonial past. The tales of exploration and settlement of North America in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries have always stood out to me as pure adventure, filled with exploits of incredibly brave individuals which provide a glimpse into the deepest recesses of our history as a nation. I have often been amused and saddened, however, at how few people in this country seem to have any understanding of just how many attempts at European colonization took place prior to the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth in 1620. For this reason, and a host of others, I simply had to read Tony Horowitz’s entertaining and witty examination of American origins, A Voyage Long and Strange. Rather than beginning with the Pilgrims’ saga in New England, it actually ends with it. In the pages prior, the author introduces readers to some of the most incredible and little understood episodes of North American exploration in the distant past, and pauses along the way to discover what, if anything, we as a people know and remember about them today.


Horowitz is well suited to the task, being the author of previous bestsellers Confederates in the Attic, Baghdad Without a Map, and Midnight Rising as well as having a decade of experience as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and other prestigious publications. His writings uniquely combine the past and present with a focus on place, and are usually equal parts historical investigation and contemporary social commentary. They are always informed and witty, serving as a gateway to discovery of some topic deserving of further exploration. So it is with Voyage, which tracks Horowitz’s travels from the barren Newfoundland coast in search of a twelfth-century Viking village to the lush Caribbean islands where Columbus walked and on to the American Atlantic seaboard pursuing the sites of Spanish, French, and British origins in what is now the United States.

The book features Horowitz’s customary humor and cultural insight, acquainting his audience with a host of colorful characters and modern-day adventurers worthy of chronicle in their own right. But there is real history in the pages of this book, and in summary it amounts to a profoundly understandable overview of America’s colonial origins prior to the aforementioned landing of the Pilgrims and their famous rock. Those Englishmen were actually rather late arrivals in an already centuries-old endeavor at the time, and, as Horowitz demonstrates, were far from the first group to come to America looking for religious freedom. Nor were they the first to attempt to work closely with the area’s native inhabitants; actually, the first Thanksgiving may have in truth been a seafood feast just outside of modern Jacksonville, Florida at a French Huguenot colony in the 1560s. Horowitz takes readers to Roanoke, to Jamestown, and a host of other well-known and lesser-known spots in the course of the book, facilitating a virtual journey every bit as entertaining as the historical narrative he weaves in the pages of his book. If you are interested in America’s colonial heritage, or American history in general, you will do well to read A Voyage Long and Strange. The book is both entertaining and poignant, as it provides a somewhat sarcastic take on how we remember our own history in America even as it encourages a rethinking of what we think we know about the subject with well-researched facts.



The First Thanksgiving?

22 Nov

We all know the tale about the first Thanksgiving; Puritan Pilgrims, celebrating their successful arrival in North America, where they had gone to flee religious persecution, celebrating the bounty of the land and their good fortune by sharing in a feast with their new Native American friends. There are a lot of incorrect assumptions about that event that are forever engrained in American legend, but the essence of the story is based in some verified facts and has become an important episode in our nation’s shared past. But what if I told you that New England repast was not actually the first “Thanksgiving” in America at all? As it turns out, events in sixteenth century Florida lay a pretty convincing claim on that title.


The story of what some claim is the “real” first Thanksgiving centers on the rivalry between the French and the Spanish in establishing a colonial foothold on America’s Atlantic Coast in the 1500s. By 1564, the French had established Fort Caroline near modern Jacksonville, a move which Spanish authorities expeditiously moved to check.  Landing at what soon became St. Augustine on September 8, 1565, a group of Spaniards held a “Mass of Thanksgiving” to celebrate their safe passage. Local Timucuan Indians greeted them in hospitable fashion, and were invited to join in the feast. The menu was a far cry from traditional Turkey Day fare associated with early New England; oysters, venison, pork, garbonzo beans, squash, olive oil and wine are all believed to have been on the table. The centerpiece would have likely been a stew.

As interesting as this story is—and it has been thoroughly documented by noted University of Florida historian Dr. Michael Gannon in his book Cross in the Sand—an account from the nearby French colony a year earlier, in 1564, is equally compelling. A leader at the French fort (whose inhabitants were almost all massacred by the Spanish a short time later) noted that Timucuans helped supply the new arrivals with food as they attempted to establish their settlement, sparking him to bring everyone together for a feast in which the gathered “sang a psalm of Thanksgiving.”

In truth either event could be called the first “Thanksgiving,” but the holiday as we know it is of much more recent vintage and traces its origins, at least in the form it is usually celebrated today, more directly to the mid-nineteenth century than any of these early colonial-era episodes. But these footnotes about one of our most anticipated holidays provide interesting opportunities to reflect on our shared heritage and its surprisingly deep roots.


Review of Champlain’s Dream: The European Founding of North America, by David Hackett Fischer

15 Nov

In Champlain’s Dream: The European Founding of North America, master storyteller David Hackett Fischer turns his attention to the relatively unsung founder of the French colony of New France, Samuel de Champlain. While the book is a compelling biography written with a rare flair, it is also much more. In chronicling the life and times of one of the more intriguing figures in North American colonial history, Fischer takes his readers on an epic adventure in the settlement of the continent by Europeans and their encounters with native groups that for many will force a reevaluation of what we think we know about the era.


Refreshingly, Fischer approaches his subject with a degree of objectivity all too rare among historical writers working in the colonial era today, pointedly observing that far too many scholars attempt to correct generations of bias against Native Americans with a wholesale celebration of them as innocent victims of uncloaked European avarice. Fischer desires to measure his subjects by their own merits instead. He discovers plenty of heroism and duplicity among both cultures, and stresses that we can never understand those times and their impact on all that came after without grasping this fundamental truth and evaluating people on an individual level. In Champlain, Fischer believes he has found a truly exceptional man who, for the most part, genuinely sought to do the fair and honest thing as he understood it. A skilled diplomat, gifted mariner, and a cartographer, writer, and even an artist of some fame, Champlain was a bold warrior and talented leader (and may even have been an illegitimate son of the French king). He was no new age dreamer and certainly would not measure up to modern standards of political correctness, but he did envision a peaceful coexistence between natives and newcomers in North America based on a degree of mutual respect and accommodation few readers will have seriously contemplated as existing in the seventeenth century.

Fischer demonstrates in the pages of the book that Champlain’s influence hovers over much of Canadian, and no little American, history even though relatively few fully appreciate him for more than merely lending his name to a lake along the United States-Canadian border. But his impact is both literal and figurative, as approximately two-thirds of the French inhabitants of North America today, by Fischer’s reckoning, are descendants of the small colony at Quebec which he founded and nurtured. Rising from humble origins to become one of the most influential figures in France’s effort to establish a colonial foothold in North America, Champlain both sowed the seeds for France’s new world empire through extensive exploration and skillful lobbying of government officials and set the tone for how the French would pursue their colonial goals in the region. He worked tirelessly to advance New France—a broad region spanning portions of modern Canada and the United States—for over thirty years guided by a philosophy fundamentally decent in an era of abject barbarism and accepting during a time of radical bigotry. It yielded uncommonly good relations between the Indians and the French and a story of contact often radically different from that of the English and Spanish elsewhere on the continent.

Even though his vision of New France ultimately took a distinctly different course after France lost out to the English in North America following its defeat in the French and Indian War, the foundation Champlain laid is remarkable and enduring. Champlain’s Dream is an engrossing and provocative biography of a man whose name many historians recognize but few really know much about. It is one of the better biographies I have read recently, and it offers fascinating insight into an incredible age of discovery that influenced virtually everything which came after in a large swath of the North American continent.



Touring Fredericksburg

9 Nov

One of the historical parks I finally got to visit on my trip this summer, which included a visit to Gettysburg and other Civil War and Revolutionary War-era sites, was Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia. The park actually contains four distinct battlefields lying in close proximity; Fredericksburg (1862); Chancellorsville (1863); The Wilderness (1864); and Spotsylvania Court House (1864). As I did not have time to visit all of them on this particular trip, I chose to explore the one I had perhaps most wanted to see: the battlefield at Fredericksburg. The battle was somewhat unusual in many ways, as it was an urban battle fought to some degree in and around a relatively large city and literally featured some house-to-house fighting. It was also one of the most complete and lop-sided Confederate victories of the war, featuring the brutal repulse of numerous charges by Union troops futilely attempting to breech one of the strongest defensive positions troops stood behind during the war. It was the field upon which Gen. Robert E. Lee, taking in the glorious view of his well-positioned and disciplined troops upon a hill commanding the battlefield, is reputed to have remarked that “it is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we would grow too fond of it.”


The battlefield was as compelling as I had hoped, and then some. Standing behind an original section of the famous stone wall from which Southern troops poured deadly fire into the attacking Federal columns was something I had long wanted to do. As I have mentioned several times and in various ways in this blog, there is simply nothing quite like literally standing on the spot where dramatic events from the past took place. This was certainly in my mind one of the most dramatic I have had the good fortune to visit. It was a good thing that wall was there, though, as imagining the battlefield as it appeared in December of 1862 is perhaps a little harder at Fredericksburg than at some more rural Civil War sites, however. Traffic gridlock surrounds the battlefield, and urban sprawl has devoured the landscape in all directions. The heart of the battlefield is preserved, but it is a relatively small section of the wide swath of land over which the contending armies clashed. There are some beautiful, somewhat secluded, sections of the battlefield on the driving tour, but they are ribbons of history surrounded by the chaos of the contemporary world.  


In some ways the scenario of the startling juxtaposition of the historic and the modern at Fredericksburg made the tour even more meaningful for me. It reminded me just how easily historic sites are lost, and that without the dedicated work of preservationists and cultural heritage agencies and organizations their destruction is not a question of if but when they will be paved over. I’m glad that far-sighted individuals decided long ago that at least some of the places where our nation’s greatest trial played out were worth preserving. We can’t save everything, but Fredericksburg demonstrates that saving something is always better than saving nothing. 


Review of The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows, by Gabor Boritt

1 Nov

Few words from American history are quite as recognizable as the Gettysburg Address. Brief, poignant, and resonant, the 272-word speech delivered by President Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863 echoes through the ages as one of the most eloquent summaries of national purpose. The speech, after all, is remembered today as a landmark event in our nation’s past which describes, in some manner, who and what we are all about as a people. We sometimes forget that at the time it was given, though, it served a much more immediate concern in that it helped put into compelling and inspirational words for a war-weary people the reasons Lincoln believed the bloody Civil War must continue.


In 2006 Gabor Boritt, at the time the Robert Fluhrer Professor of Civil War Studies and Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, published a remarkable and unique analysis of the speech and the way it was both received and remembered entitled The Gettysburg Gospel: The Lincoln Speech That Nobody Knows. The book quite literally examines the speech from every angle: dissecting the facts of its hasty creation by a distracted president; the circumstances of its delivery in a crowded town that only four months prior had witnessed the worst man-made disaster in the nation’s history and had been left to deal with its gruesome aftermath in the best way it could; its rather underwhelming reception to that portion of the throng gathered for the occasion that was able to hear it, being delivered in the wake of a two-hour long harangue by the featured speaker of the day, Edward Everett; its political undertones as essentially the kick-off to Lincoln’s campaign for a second term as president; the varying ways in which the nation learned about the speech through remarkably inaccurate initial accounts; the ways by which it eventually became engrained in America’s pantheon of historical events and has assumed a role larger today than anyone at the time could have possibly imagined.

We know its introduction by heart, and instinctively recognize several phrases within it as iconic:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent

a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all

men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing

whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…”


“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never

forget what they did here…”


“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work…”


Lincoln of course could have precious little notion of just what a chord he had struck for posterity with those turns or phrase or with his mentions of a vague “new birth of freedom” and his hope “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. ” As Gabor demonstrates, little did anyone else at the time. The enlightening story of how the speech transformed from a few spur-of-the-moment statements to part of the American legend is the essence of his book. It is a fascinating story, and well worth the read.