A Land So Strange, Andres Resendez

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, Tony Horwitz

For many (most?) Americans, the history of the United States began in the early 1600s when the first Europeans escaping religious persecution settled in the area now known as Virginia and began to explore the surrounding areas post-haste.

Not true, on several points:

  • The history of the United States really didn’t begin until the late 1700s after that thing called the Revolutionary War.
  • The first Europeans to settle in and explore North America – huge parts of it, by the way – weren’t escaping anything. They were Spaniards looking for gold, silver, slaves, and rather than escaping religion, included folks who not only embraced religion but were avidly trying to make any of the natives they encountered embrace it, too. Or at least serve as representatives for their religion – the Catholic Church.

If all of that sounds like revisionism, it isn’t, and both Resendez and Horwitz, in their companion books, prove it soundly and completely.

I call these companion books, published only a year apart, simply because if you read one, please read both, for the histories they document dovetail so completely as to be brilliant in not only research but also the narrative. Beautifully written, these two books re-write the history of the North American continent. They are entertaining, engrossing, and amazing.

In A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, Horwitz starts out with a simple horwitzquestion: What happened between 1492 when Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue, and 1607, the founding of Jamestown? That’s more than 100 years – of nothing? Not by a long shot.

He sets out to find a trove of forgotten, or at least, unheralded, New History of our continent.

His ‘voyage of rediscovery’ leads him from Vikings to French fur trappers, a smattering of Italians, and the decades-long sagas of Spanish explorers who made their way as far north as South Carolina, and west from Florida. They ‘discovered’ the Mississippi, roamed about Texas and all of the Southwest to California, even attempted to establish a settlement in modern-day Kansas – in 1600 or so, just a few years before Jamestown.

The Lewis-Clark expedition is a romantic idea with Sacajawea and all, but French and even Russian explorers and traders beat them to it by about a hundred years.

Horwitz also delves into the ill-fated de Vaca expedition in Florida with narrative about that group’s harrowing 8-year ordeal featuring the slave Estevanico who has to be one of the most fascinating individuals in history.

Resendez’ A Land So Strange picks up this particular story with astonishing, in-depth research that reads like any heart-wrenching novel. But this ain’t no historical fiction, it’s real and gritty and graphic. Supplemented by maps and wood-cuts, the story of de Vaca, Dorantes, Castillo, and Estavanico begins with the usual suspects of conquest and extermination of native tribes in the Caribbean, Mexico and resendezSouth America, and even politics deep and ingrained. Setting the stage, so to speak.

The de Vaca expedition is ill-fated from the start as it heads towards Florida from Havana, Cuba. Racked by storms and currents, the ships are damaged or wrecked at various points; some return to Havana, or try to, eventually stranding only four survivors from the hundreds of men who had started out.

Their tale of near-starvation, enslavement, and beatings by some of the native American tribes, and sheer determination to get back home is as heroic as any you can read, certainly up there with The Odyssey, Men Against the Sea, Unbroken, or PT-109. Seriously. Resendez does not stray from the truth, nor embellish: he doesn’t have to, since the de Vaca story was well-documented by the man himself. Resendez cites hundreds of sources, many from the 1500s.

What is also important about Resendez’ work is that he gives some attention to the role that women played in the Spanish conquests. Yes, there were Spanish women out and about in the New World and they were important: in this case, de Vaca’s wife was rich and powerful in her own right and had accompanied her husband to Cuba.

Brief bios:

Tony Horwitz is a Pulitzer-Prize winning author and holds a master’s degree from Columbia University. His latest book is Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War.

Andres Resendez is Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, specializing in Mexican history, exploration and colonization of the Americas.