Monday, May 19, 2008

Foundation Myths

I'm a sucker for pop history, so I always greatly anticipate Tony Horwitz' books. His most recent, A Voyage Long and Strange, doesn't disappoint. A visit to Plymouth Rock leads Horwitz to contemplate the 130 years or so of exploration and colonization of the new world that took place between Columbus and the Pilgrims, and to wonder why most of us know so little about it. Horwitz retraces the steps of Coronodo, De Soto, and John Smith, a voyage of discovery of our nation's founding myths, and the ways these myths have, over the centuries, become received as "fact."

Ponce de Leon wasn't looking for a Fountain of Youth; not even the Spanish were that gullible, although they were plenty gullible, spending years and expending men and fortunes schlepping all over the heartland looking for the Seven Cities of Gold. Sir Walter Raleigh never once set foot in Virginia, although his years of flirting with Elizabeth I had netted him title to pretty much the entire east coast. Roanoke's lost colonists weren't lost so much as abandoned; their leader returned to England to get fresh supplies and manpower, but because he hitched rides on ships more interested in piracy than colonization, and because of the war with Spain that culminated in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, it took him five years to return to the colony. At that point the colony had been abandoned, the settlers either massacred by or living with the natives.

Pocahontas may or may not have saved John Smith's life. Natives often put captives through a ritual where their life would be threatened, then dramatically saved, before adopting the captives into their tribe. Plus, Smith was a known exaggerator, Pocahontas was only ten at the time, and a similar story of near execution had been earlier been published by a Spanish conquistador. Pocahontas married John Rolfe, not John Smith. She returned to England with him, had children, enjoyed life in Tudor London. She fell ill and died a few days after they boarded a ship to return to Virginia; she's buried somewhere in Gravesend, England.

The Pilgrims didn't land on Plymouth Rock, which makes sense if you think about it for only a millisecond: who steers a wooden ship towards a rock? They weren't even called "Pilgrims" until the 19th century. Squanto and friends might have shown up to share a harvest meal with the Pilgrims, but this wouldn't have been the first Thanksgiving; that would have taken place almost a hundred years earlier, between the Spanish and the Plains Indians.

At any rate, Thanksgiving wasn't a national holiday until the Civil War, when Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday of November, 1863 as a day of Thanksgiving to recognize the sacrifices made for the Union. Lincoln didn't mention turkey or Pilgrims, and neither did FDR, when he moved the holiday back a week in 1939 at the urging of merchants eager to lengthen the Christmas shopping season.

There's plenty more to be learned from Horwitz' book, which I heartily recommend. I want to particularly thank him for teaching me something I've wondered during every drive through Rhode Island on my way to Provincetown: it's landlocked, so why is it called Rhode Island? Turns out Verrazzano thought the mainland was in fact Block Island. The terrain reminded him of the Greek island Rhodes. His name stuck although it was probably a good PR move in the way that Greenland was so named in the hopes of attracting settlers. Because really, would you move to Rhodeland, or Rhodia? I didn't think so.

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