ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

I didn't know - until I read the new book by Tony Horwitz, I didn't know that Christopher Columbus thought the Earth was shaped like a pear with a stalk like a woman's nipple, promising earthly paradise at the tip. That was one surprise among many for Horwitz as he tried to fill in the gaps at how America was settled by retracing the roots of the earliest explorers and conquerors.

His journey begins after he pays a visit to Plymouth, Massachusetts. A park ranger at Plymouth Rock tells him, people keep asking, why does the rock say 1620 and not 1492?

Mr. TONY HORWITZ (Journalist; Author, "A Voyage long and Strange") Many visitors think that Columbus sailed to America, dropped off the pilgrims and sailed home. But they learned about 1492 in school and a little bit about the pilgrims, and they don't remember anything else about this period.

At the time this amused me, but then I began scanning my (unintelligible) to see what I could retrieve from this period, and basically nothing. There was this 130-year period where I couldn't come up with anything, basically between Columbus in 1492 and the arrival of English settlers in the early 1600s. And that's what really set me to thinking about what happened and what could I find out about it.

BLOCK: You go off retracing a lot of the steps of the adventurers in this country, and a number of them are the Spanish conquistadors. And we, you know, if we think about the Spanish presence in the United States, we might think about New Mexico and Arizona. I wouldn't have thought about Kansas.

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, exactly. I associated conquistadors with Cortez in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru. But the conquistadors who came here didn't just go along in the fringes of Florida and the Southwest. They reached about half of the states in the present day continental U.S. They crossed the Appalachian Mountains, they went down the Grand Canyon, they rafted down to Mississippi. And Coronado and his horseman galloped all the way to Central Kansas, almost the exact geographic center of the continent in the 1540s. And I don't think this is the way most Americans think about their early history.

BLOCK: They were flabbergasted when they got to the Plains. They could not imagine what this territory was that they were seeing.

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. They'd never seen some place so flat. So they described it, you know, as a sea of grass, and one of them lies down on the ground and marvels that he can't even see the Earth. It's so flat. All he can see is sky. And they were, of course, also stunned by buffalo.

BLOCK: We're talking about the more benign side of the Spanish adventurers in America. What was the main true line of that journey was unmitigated killing and destruction of the Indian people that they encountered?

Mr. HORWITZ: Right. You know, the Spanish conquest and this whole period, not just the Spanish, the French, the English, Portuguese - everyone who came here, it's not a pretty tale.

BLOCK: They also seem to have been very scrupulous about documenting exactly what they did. You found no shortage of resources to get back and figure out what had happened.

Mr. HORWITZ: The Spanish, in particular, were great record keepers. And like perpetrators of later centuries, they even documented their torture, execution and other atrocities committed against natives. So there's no shortage of records, in their own words, describing the pain and misery inflicted on native people.

BLOCK: Let's talk about one of these painful chapters. It was the conquistador Juan de Onate - this was almost in the 1600 - taking on the Acoma people in what's now in New Mexico.

Mr. HORWITZ: Onate was a hard-handed man even by conquistador standards. And when the Acoma Indians killed about 15 of his men, he sends essentially a revenge party that burned Acoma, killed hundreds of natives, and then brought back many more as prisoners. Onate put them on trial, and he found them guilty. And the ones over about the age of 15 had their hands or feet cut off, enslaved them, essentially destroyed this culture. Which, remarkably, recovered several decades later, returned to Acoma - and you can visit it today at the Sky City of Acoma. Some people think it maybe the oldest inhabited place on the North American continent.

BLOCK: And they have, by no means, forgotten what happened back in the 16th century?

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah. And one of the fascinating things about taking this parallel journey on the past of these explorers was to find how vivid this long ago history still is, particularly, for native people. And a few years ago, when a statue of Onate went up in New Mexico, somebody snuck up in the night and cut off his foot as Onate had done to Indians many, many centuries ago and sent a note to newspapers essentially explaining why they had done this.

BLOCK: This was a big statue, it took some effort to cut off that?

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah. They needed a power grinder. I went to see the statue, it's an enormous equestrian statue modeled on one of, you know, Marcus Aurelius in Rome. And they snuck up in the night, just took off its foot. It's since been replaced, but you can see the slight scar.

BLOCK: It struck me that you get a lot of your best imparted wisdom from park rangers who are often in places that people just don't show up, so they must have been really glad to see you. And one of them was in Florida, yeah, in Jacksonville, at Fort Caroline National Memorial, a Huguenot settlement in Florida, which he called - the park ranger himself called fort fakey(ph).

Mr. HORWITZ: Well, the French story in Florida was, I think, the single most astonishing to me that there were French Protestants seeking religious liberty in this country 60 years before the pilgrims arrived. And as they almost succeeded, they're driven out by the Spanish. And now, they have a small national park near Jacksonville. But unfortunately, they don't really know what the fort looked like or where exactly it was. So they built a log stockade that this ranger referred to as, yeah, fort fakey.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: In a burst of honesty.

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah.

BLOCK: And he says, you know, if the French had succeeded, we'd be eating (unintelligible) instead of barbecue, and France would have been spared Euro Disney.

Mr. HORWITZ: He was a ranger who had a sense of humor, but I think he's also on to something. Our destiny as an Anglo nation was by no means manifests in this period. At the time that the French and Spanish were fighting it out over Florida, there wasn't a single English person on this continent. So, if you roll your mind back to that era that we would be sitting here today speaking English, and then I would be living in a gloomy place called New England would have been unimaginable.

So I think part of what I wanted to do is restore a little bit of the unpredictability to history. It didn't have to unfold this way, it could well have gone very differently.

BLOCK: You end this journey where you started it, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and you decide with your new knowledge to sort of take it to a bar and test out your theory that maybe Plymouth is not as central to our myths of America, as people would believe. It doesn't go over too well on the bar?

Mr. HORWITZ: Yeah. So I went to this bar and essentially picked a fight with the man who was sitting next to me, who happened to be a tour bus driver. And I said, you know, many people in this country wouldn't regard this as a really the beginning of our European story. What about the Spanish? What about Jamestown and Saint Augustine? And I went on, and he finally got so annoyed. He slammed his hand on the bar and shouted, forget all the others, this is the frigging beginning of America.

So I think once these myths are embedded, they're almost impossible to dislodge. And I think, in the end, I concluded, we're stuck with these stories whether they're true or not.

BLOCK: Tony Horwitz, thanks for coming in.

Mr. HORWITZ: Thank you.

BLOCK: You can read the prologue of Tony Horwitz's new book, "A Voyage Long and Strange" at npr.org/books.

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