Where Does American History Begin?

Mixing geography with invention, the first explorers and mapmakers made the New World a very hard place to pin down


Ralph Waldo Emerson may be the patron saint of The American Scholar, but it would be difficult to argue that he felt much admiration for the intellectuals of his day, and particularly for those who read, wrote, and taught American history. At the end of his essay “History,” he erupted with a riposte against the self-appointed know-it-alls who made the past even more lifeless than usual. “Broader and deeper we must write our annals,” he insisted; “if we would trulier express our central and wide-related nature, instead of this old chronology of selfishness and pride to which we have too long lent our eyes.” Putting aside the question of whether trulier is actually a word, it is still exciting to hear Emerson light into the specialists. The final sentence of his essay throws off more sparks than a bottle rocket: “The idiot, the Indian, the child, and unschooled farmer’s boy, stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissector or the antiquary.”

We cannot know what Emerson would think of the United States in 2008, but we can guess that he would still find much to question in the way we confront our past. The problem is not merely that we do not know the basic facts of American history well; that goes without saying. On April 28, 2008, during the heated contest for the Democratic nomination, Fox News did a feature on the Lincoln-Douglas debate, all well and good, except that their graphic included a photo montage of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Worse, the teaching of history tends to be narrowly defined, politically corrected, and bundled into quantifiable categories, in compliance with the standards demanded by No Child Left Behind, or those imposed in more subtle ways by Ph.D. committees, peer reviews, and the Byzantium of department politics.

One way to get “broader and deeper” with American history is very simple—move the starting line backward. Where does American history begin? The answer can be maddeningly elusive. The United States dates its origins to not one but two founding moments: the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. A half century ago and more, scholars and essayists often traced the earliest hints of the American character to the arrival of settlers in Jamestown and Plymouth—a view that is less prevalent now. Yet American history had been unfolding for some time before 1607. The Spanish Empire penetrated deeply into the Americas during the long century that elapsed between the landfall of Columbus in 1492 and the first English settlements. The recent discovery of an old footprint in Mexico suggests that hominoids may have been here as long as 40,000 years ago—far longer than previously assumed. The New World is not always so new—what may be the oldest living thing on earth is a bristlecone pine tree named Methuselah, nearly 5,000 years old, in California. In other words, American history goes back very far—to what T. S. Eliot called “a time / Older than the time of chronometers.”

Certainly it accompanies most of what we would call European history. Long before Columbus planted the first flag in the New World—a simple banner, with the letters “F.Y.” for Ferdinand and Isabella (Ysabella)—Europeans felt a strong intuition that a great land existed to the west. The literature of antiquity furnishes frenzied speculations on just what lay past the Pillars of Hercules guarding Gibraltar, none more famous than Plato’s riveting account of the great civilization of Atlantis that had perished 9,000 years before; a land that abounded with “kings of amazing power,” golden statues, even hot and cold running water. We believe with reasonable certainty that the Phoenicians sailed far into the Atlantic. Coins from ancient Carthage have been discovered as far west as the Azores. Roman-seeming amphorae have been discovered in the waters off Rio de Janeiro. Norsemen stayed for more than four centuries in Greenland—far longer than the United States has been a nation. We know now what we did not for most of our history, that Vikings inhabited North America a thousand years ago. And there were hundreds, thousands, of reports from the nebulous and interlocking worlds of mariner gossip, writerly embellishment, and outright fabrication of places that seemed so real that mapmakers listed them well into the modern age.

These lies and legends may seem unworthy of the attention of serious historians, for whom facts and dates are the essential matter. But they are compelling precisely because they seem so distant from the grand narrative we have been trained to repeat—that Anglo-Saxon settlements ultimately turned into a nation based on equality, freedom, and democracy. Perhaps the landfall of Columbus was not so much a beginning as an ending. For a westward longing seems to have been a perpetual condition from the start of recorded thought to the explosion of interest following a letter Columbus published in Barcelona in 1493 describing the voyage he had just taken to the ends of the earth. Nearly every European tradition has a story that describes the inclination to sail toward the sunset and what lay beyond it. A 15th-century Irish text, the Book of Lismore, records older legends of a Land of Promise, 15 days’ sail to the west. Many of these legends were attached to the story of a sixth-century monk, Saint Brendan, who prayed to the Lord for “a land secret, hidden, secure, delightful, separated from men,” and was then granted an angelic vision of an island in the Atlantic that answered his needs. From the end of the 13th century until the time of the first English settlements, “St. Brendan’s Island” appeared on maps, beckoning sailors (it may have been Madeira). Like the Irish, Bretons and Basques fished far to the west, and one Breton legend described Les Iles Fantastiques—a near cousin to television’s Fantasy Island and, like it, a place where dreams were believed to come true.

The Moors were also tied to incipient ideas about America. When they invaded Spain at the beginning of the eighth century, it was rumored that seven bishops fled with their followers across the Atlantic to found “the Island of the Seven Cities,” another fabled place that appeared on otherwise reliable maps in the 15th and 16th centuries. One of these possible places was called Antillia, a word that later resurfaced as the Antilles of the Caribbean. The Moors had their own traditions, too. The great Arab geographer Edrisi described a group of mariners, the Magrurin, who sailed across “the Sea of Darkness and Mystery” sometime before the middle of the 12th century and discovered a number of islands. Would it not change a few worldviews to find proof that America was discovered by Muslims?

In an age of information surfeits, it is a joy to celebrate the mistakes as well as the leaps forward that these proto-Americans made. Today we cannot make a cell-phone call without revealing our precise GPS coordinates. But at the dawn of American history, hardly anyone knew exactly where they were, or whose claims encompassed what territory, or what country they were in. Hugo Grotius thought that the native peoples might be from different civilizations—the North Americans from Norway, the Central Americans from Ethiopia, and the South Americans from China. Many of the Spanish explorers thought they would find Islamic redoubts and had orders to destroy any mosques they encountered.

Well after Columbus, quasi-fictional islands, often with special attributes, continued to be “discovered” and then un-discovered. Some were very bad places (the Islands of Demons, alleged to be north of Newfoundland), and some were very good (the Saintly Islands, near the tip of Florida). A crescent-shaped island known as Mayda, a name possibly Arabic in origin, flitted around the Atlantic on the early maps as if it were a flea leaping across a bed sheet. The Sunken Land of Buss, a great island between Greenland and Iceland, was soberly reported by explorer Martin Frobisher and geographer Richard Hakluyt at the beginning of English colonization and lingered on some maps and accounts into the 20th century. The maps that were used to settle the boundaries between the United States and Canada during the negotiations ending the American Revolution described two islands in Lake Superior that were completely fictitious. California was depicted as an island until the late 18th century—and in some ways has never stopped being one. It may become an island again if a sufficiently large earthquake pries it loose from North America. Similarly, the fabled Northwest Passage, long dreamed of as a shortcut between Europe and Asia, may become a viable shipping lane if global warming can melt enough ice. Sometimes the old mapmakers weren’t as ill-informed as we think; it just took us a while to catch up to them.


The capacity to wonder, and to wander, proved robust following the first glimpses, and, if anything, the tendency to distort America only intensified after 1492. Europe was seized by a passionate interest in the discoveries and a desire to read as much about them as possible. But the new reality-based accounts were often as fabulous as the old. Columbus himself borrowed ideas from writers whose fantasies had stimulated his imagination—like the Cardinal d’Ailly, who felt that an Earthly Paradise might be located near the islands of the western Atlantic. Columbus’s son recorded that his father was inspired to cross the Atlantic because of “the islands of St. Brendan of which wonderful things are told.” Columbus also wondered, in his early confusion, if he might have stumbled on the Terrestrial Paradise, a mythical place in the eastern regions of Asia. At other times, he thought he might be near the mines of Solomon. Of course, he also thought he was sailing toward China, Japan, and the Indies.

For quite some time America was described as a series of islands, reflecting the way it was revealed to island-hopping explorers, whose knowledge of the continents was patchy. An excellent new book, David Abulafia’s The Discovery of Mankind, takes the origin of American history all the way back to Spain’s colonization of the Canary Islands in the middle of the 14th century, a success that brought crucial information about native peoples to Iberia and offered a way station for the longer voyages to come. The path across the Atlantic had been marked by the slow discovery of archipelagoes farther and farther away from Europe—after the Canaries, the Madeiras, the Azores, and the Cape Verde Islands. In 1492 it made perfect sense to think of the latest discoveries as the latest link in the chain.

If there was something a little insular about this “world” then coming into focus, one reason may be that so many of its lands barely existed at all. Geographical features were enlarged through overeager imaginations, but even recognizable ones were hard to explain in conventional language. Walt Whitman liked the word terraqueous to describe something between land and water. It perfectly described aspects of the New World, beginning with the Sargasso Sea and its endless clumps of floating seaweed. Or Rockall, a curious triangular rock that sticks up out of the depths more than 200 miles west of Scotland. Various sandbars appeared one moment and disappeared the next. Far off the shore of Newfoundland are the Virgin Rocks, first reported in the early 16th century and legendary both for the wealth they offered (to fishermen) and the danger (the rocks are very close to the surface). Rudyard Kipling found them mesmerizing in Captains Courageous. His little crew, sailing the Atlantic, comes across a veritable city of boats, nearly a hundred of them, all clustered around a seemingly random point in the ocean. The crews were speaking in what seems like all the world’s tongues (“every dialect from Labrador to Long Island, with Portuguese, Neapolitan, Lingua Franca, French, and Gaelic, with songs and shoutings and new oaths”). Then Kipling allows us to peer below the surface: “Next day several boats fished right above the cap of The Virgin; and Harvey, with them, looked down on the very weed of that lonely rock, which rises to within 20 feet of the surface. The cod were there in legions, marching solemnly over the leathery kelp.” That crowded mid-Atlantic scene presents a suitably confusing picture of the way the earliest explorers came across the New World and each other simultaneously.

Well into the 16th and 17th centuries, writers combined real geography with pure invention to entertain the masses of readers who had developed a taste for the novelty of the New World. These included fantasies about perfect political societies that might someday come into existence, places where war might be abolished, or female government initiated, or democracy unleashed. Sir Thomas More’s Utopia and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis were set in locales that drew from American travel, and many a political scientist used a watery locale to conjure up the idea of a commonwealth where humans might someday live in relative freedom (James Harrington’s Oceana, for example). It was a rare writer who did not pilfer something from an explorer; certainly Rabelais and Shakespeare, two of the greatest, shared in the plunder. Milton was similarly entranced, and Book Seven of Paradise Lost recounts the “great idea,” the story of the creation of a new world after the expulsion of Satan. Near its conclusion, there is another bit of text that might pass for an explorer’s tract:

Witness this new-made World, another Heaven
From Heaven-gate not far, founded in view
On the clear hyaline, the glassy sea;
Of amplitude almost immense, with stars
Numerous, and every star perhaps a World
Of destined habitation.

Further, many thinkers believed that the New World truly was a different world; a widespread belief in the 16th century held that there were two spheres, and that everything about the Americas (land, people, animals, plants) had a different origin, almost as if a new planet had collided with the earth. A long-running scientific argument postulated that there was something quite wrong with the atmosphere in the New World, since insects and amphibians seemed to be too large (huge cockroaches astonished the Europeans, as they do to this day), while red-blooded mammals seemed too small. A distinguished French scientist, the Comte de Buffon, noticed with royalist pride that no American mammal could compare to the lion, the king of beasts, unless it was the runty tapir of South America, or the sloth, barely able to rouse itself to eat and mate. A disturbing subcurrent of his argument was that the air and water of the New World dampened the sexual ardor of the American male—an argument that enraged Jefferson and Franklin, who devoted considerable energies to counter it.

As a consequence of the two spheres, European laws applied indifferently in this non-world, and certain practices like piracy were allowed to flourish. The thought that the two worlds were legally different offered a precedent for the powerful idea that Americans would later use to argue that European diplomacy was broken and that its rules did not apply in this hemisphere. It is not so great a leap of the imagination to go from the two spheres to the Monroe Doctrine, America’s first emphatic warning to Europe that the New World was developing a foreign policy entirely its own. That feeling has not entirely vanished from the ether.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh stunned the world by flying in a continuous arc, along the Great Circle route, from New York to Paris—a feat nearly as surprising as Columbus’s. But midway through the transoceanic voyage, he experienced delusions straight out of the 15th century when he clearly saw land beneath his left wing, “purple, haze-colored hills; clumps of trees, rocky cliffs” and “small, wooded islands” guarding the strange shore. “Land in mid-Atlantic!” he exclaimed, “Something has gone wrong!” He wondered briefly if he had stumbled upon Atlantis. But then it came to him:

No, they must be mirages, fog islands sprung up along my route; here for an hour only to disappear, mushrooms of the sea. But so apparently real, so cruelly deceptive! Real clouds cover their higher hills, and pour down into their ravines. How can those bluffs and forests consist of nothing but fog? No islands of the earth could be more perfect.

If Europeans did not exactly know where America was, then it could also be argued that they did not know when it was. Then, as now, there was a great inconsistency over America’s place in world time. Columbus believed that he was acting out a biblical prophecy and that his discoveries might lead to the second coming of Christ and the recapture of Jerusalem (he called himself Christoferens, or Christ-bearer, and devised an elaborate signature that suggested he thought he was the advance messenger). One of his favorite biblical passages was from Isaiah: “Give ear, ye islands, and hearken, ye people from afar.” There was a belief in Spain, at the time he lived there, that a “last world emperor” was coming to rule, in fulfillment of prophecy, and that this emperor would fight Antichrist and restore Christianity in the Holy Land. Columbus followed these prophecies passionately and wrote down his fevered calculations of biblical resonances as if they were geographical bearings. They were no less contested. Sometime in the late 16th century, 10 pages of his own book of prophecies were cut out by someone who objected to them, on what grounds we know not.


Wherever they landed, Europeans never tired of the surpassing strangeness of the New World, with humans and plants and animals that seemed to have sprung from the legends of earlier centuries. Mixed in with the science and discovery was a remarkable welter of credulous beliefs and superstitions. Ponce de Leon famously believed that Florida held the key to eternal youth—a longing that still animates millions of retirees. Samuel de Champlain dropped extraordinary claims into his seemingly scientific narratives. In his first book, full of accurate drawings of plants and animals, a winged dragon suddenly appears amongst all the familiar crocodiles and parrots. At the end of a sober essay about natives, Des Sauvages, he introduces the Gougou, a monster as tall as a ship’s mast (“it makes horrible noises in this island”). When Sir Walter Raleigh visited Guiana, he heard about natives with “eyes in their shoulder and their mouths in the middle of their breasts.”

Even the real stories were “rich and strange,” as Shakespeare put it. Native Americans were endlessly intriguing to Europeans, who paraded them before the royal courts in their finery. Many English settlers thought that America’s languages had traces of Welsh (the word penguin, for example), because of a medieval Welsh prince who had traveled to the west. Language was always a problem; when English settlers came to Carolina in 1584, they named the region Wingandacoia, which is what they thought the natives called it. It turned out they were mistaken; according to Raleigh, the natives had not understood the question (who could blame them?), and were politely saying, “you wear good clothes, or gay clothes.” It was not the worst name for a new country. The land was rich and strange as well, and soon, enterprising scientists realized that the New World’s abundant plant specimens offered a dizzying range of new medicines and pharmacopoeia. New food products revolutionized the European palate—can anyone imagine steak frites without the potato? Spaghetti without the tomato? More than anything, tobacco signaled the intoxicating narcosis unleashed by the Americas.

In this globalizing age, it makes sense to date our origins to this moment of supreme confusion, when so many of the world’s creatures were united for the first time. In “Passage to India,” Whitman saw this as the moment it all began to come together:

The medieval navigators rise before me,
The world of 1492, with its awaken’d enterprise,
Something swelling in humanity now like the sap of the
earth in spring,
The sunset splendor of chivalry declining.

It is not entirely wrong to celebrate “freedom,” our most overused word, as a legacy of these primitive early encounters. The expansion of the world that followed in the wake of Columbus revolutionized not only what people knew, but how they thought. The discovery of these vast domains led to a general loosening of intellectual constraints, as if the very knowledge of all that breathing room across the Atlantic offered a form of fresh air to Europeans. Inevitably, the ferment led to a new consciousness of liberty, in every sense of the word. It was there in subtle ways from the start, implicit in the story of this enormous new land with no known boundaries, geographical or otherwise. Writers were drawn by the freedom with which men and women lived their lives in the New World, unfettered by strict rules of propriety in religion, or politics, or the simplest matters of everyday life. This fascination undoubtedly drew on earlier legends—the classical precedent, and the Garden of Eden before it—but it now stood before astonished readers in clear anthropological focus, a living example rather than a distant memory. Amerigo Vespucci’s letter (1504) painted an idyllic picture of the natives, who “have neither king nor lord, nor do they obey anyone, but live in freedom.” The chronicler Peter Martyr, the source of so much information about the New World, betrayed a similar interest in the absence of rules in America: “They go naked, they know neither weights nor measures, nor that source of all misfortune, money; living in a golden age, without laws, without lying judges, without books, satisfied with their life, and in no wise solicitous for the future.” It does not seem an insurmountable distance from that sentence to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, Whitman, Easy Rider, American Idol, MySpace, and all the other touchstones of our modern condition.

It takes little effort to perceive an erotic energy pulsing beneath these breathless accounts. Columbus likened the shape of the earth to a pear with a nipple, and throughout the literature of exploration one encounters a relentless emphasis on fecundity, both human and vegetable. In retrospect, the use of the word Virginia to describe this land appears to have been somewhat ironic. (The Iranian government blocks access to the Web site of the University of Virginia, simply because of the word’s power of suggestion.) In narrative after narrative, the feeling of liberty rampant was enhanced by the description of naked natives, eager to do all they can to please the Europeans encountering them. Peter Martyr continued:

When the company approached, some 30 women, all wives of the cacique, marched out to meet them, dancing, singing, and shouting; they were naked, save for a loin-girdle, which, though it consisted but of a cotton belt, which dropped over their hips, satisfied these women devoid of any sense of shame. As for the young girls, they covered no parts of their bodies, but wore their hair loose upon their shoulders and a narrow ribbon tied around the forehead. Their face, breast, and hands, and the entire body was quite naked, and of a somewhat brunette tint. All were beautiful, so that one might think he beheld those splendid naiads or nymphs of the fountains, so much celebrated by the ancients.

A celebration of this saturnalian scene is probably not what Emerson had in mind when he urged us to return to our earliest origins. He was not entirely consistent on the issue—in English Traits he denounced Amerigo Vespucci, the original American, as a mere “pickle dealer” who “managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his own dishonest name.” But still, there is wisdom in the old man’s advice that our huge and complicated nation should find a huge and complicated history worthy of itself. The founders were quite comfortable with the deep American past, and Columbus may never have been more popular in the United States than during the republic’s first 50 years, when everyone from Joel Barlow to Washington Irving wrote about him as the one who started it all. Thomas Jefferson urged his future son-in-law to learn Spanish, if only because that is where he would encounter “the ancient part of American history.” It is a time and place that still beckons to would-be explorers.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ted Widmer directs the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. He is a contributing editor of The American Scholar.


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