Tony Horwitz wrote in his revealing book, A Voyage Long and Strange, “Expensively educated at a private school and university — a history major, no less! — I’d matriculated to middle age with a third grader’s grasp of early America.” Horwitz would remedy this problem by beginning a cross-country adventure. He would uncover this missing history from first contact with the Vikings, to the forgotten era between Columbus’ landing in 1492, and the founding of Jamestown in 1607. Even those humanity-changing events have been reduced to mere sentences in our history lessons, as Horwitz discovered.
An artifact of our education system, history has long been neglected. Arguably, it’s the most important field once you realize how much our ancestors can teach us. There is little we experience or endure they didn’t experience first. In our hubris, we ignore the answers to the test they have handed us. By reducing our study to names and dates, they seem like myths. Many would be surprised how much we do know about the people who came before us. The best teachers and writers of history re-discover this past and allow us to time travel through the eyes of our ancestors. In Horwitz’s case, he found a “dramatic tale of conquistadors, castaways, French voyageurs, Moorish slaves, and many others who roamed and rampaged across half [of the continent of North America], long before the Mayflower landed.”
In Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower, he finds while there is “a surprising amount of truth in the tired, threadbare story of the First Thanksgiving,” it was only the beginning of the story. That event was followed by “fifty-five years of struggle and compromise — a dynamic, often harrowing process of give an take. As long as both sides recognized that they needed each other, there was peace.” War eventually came, but “there was nothing inevitable about King Phillip’s War” which “caught almost everyone by surprise.” It’s a story with a powerful and relevant message for our time: “When violence and fear grips a society, there is an almost overpowering temptation to demonize the enemy.”
How could the settlement of Jamestown, its tenuous survival through famine and conflict, pushed to the edge of extinction many times, produce a transformative country a century and a half later? Benjamin Woolley’s Savage Kingdom, peels back the mythos often centered on John Smith and Pocahontas, and finds a motley but determined group who were “deposited…in America…ill prepared, badly equipped and poorly financed.” Where Plymouth was founded for religious freedom, Jamestown was a wholly economic enterprise. Yet even that doesn’t tell the whole story. This attempt to colonize America was “…about flawed, dispossessed, desperate people trying to reinvent themselves. It is about being caught in a dirty struggle to survive, haunted by failure, hungering for escape, dreaming of riches an hoping for redemption.”
These, then, are timeless stories of humanity’s struggles. Perhaps we should pause and listen to what our ancestors have to say.