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“By Chaos Out Of Dream”

July 2024
23min read

An exploration into the exploration of America

Sure you’re romantic about American history … it is the most romantic of all histories. It began as myth and has developed through three centuries of fairy stories. Whatever the time is in America it is always, at every moment, the mad and wayward hour when the prince is finding the little foot that alone fits into the slipper of glass.… Ours is a story mad with the impossible, it is by chaos out of dream, it began as dream and has continued as dream down to the last headline you read in a newspaper.… The simplest truth you can ever write about our history will be charged and surcharged with romanticism, and if you are afraid of the word you had better start practicing seriously on your fiddle.

—Bernard DeVoto to Catherine Drinker Bowen

Three centuries of fairy stories, DeVoto says. But the fairy stories go back far deeper into time than three hundred years. As Atlantis, as Brazile or Antillia or Groenland or the Fortunate Isles, as the Earthly Paradise or the Garden of the World, as something for nothing, as escape from history or authority or oppression or the grind of poverty, as the promise of social justice, freedom, or the ideal society, America is Europe’s oldest dream. “The Atlantic,” says Howard Mumford Jones in O Strange New World, “hid in its misty vastness many wonderful islands, and these island images, compounded of wonder, terror, wealth, religious perfection, communism, utopianism, or political power, conditioned the European image of America. They floated on the maps of the Ocean Sea like quicksilver globules, now here, now there, now nowhere at all, some of them remaining on British Admiralty charts into the nineteenth century.”

America was not only a new world waiting to be discovered; it was a fable waiting to be agreed upon. Preconceptions, some medieval, some as old as Europe’s memory, were part of it before its discovery and clung to it afterward. Preconceptions are not readily soluble in observed fact, and they often give rise to insoluble consequences.

Thus Columbus, sailing westward to find the East, found something, and assumed that what he found was what he had gone in search of. So he called the inhabitants Indians, and in spite of all later revisionist suggestions such as Amerinds and Native Americans, they remain Indians to this day. Thus Vespucci, only ten years after Columbus’ first voyage, clearly demonstrated that America was not Asia; yet 133 years later, in 1635, when Champlain sent Jean Nicolet to explore among the Nipissings on the way to Georgian Bay and the great interior lakes, Nicolet took along in his birchbark canoe an embroidered mandarin robe, just in case, out there in the depths of unknown forests, by unknown rivers, he should encounter the Great Khan, and need ceremonial dress.

As historians have remarked, America was discovered by accident and explored to a considerable extent by people trying to find a way to somewhere else. Cathay died hard. When the reluctant truth was finally established that neither the northern nor the southern mainland was China, and that none of the islands north or south formed part of Cipango or the East Indies, restless men representing restless and expanding empires probed for ways through or around it, ways easier than the one Vasco da Gama found around the Cape of Good Hope in 1498, or the way Balboa found across the Isthmus of Panama in 1513, or the stormy way around the bottom of South America that Magellan opened seven years later. There must, said logic and wishfulness in ignorance of any facts whatever, there must be some waterway, some Northwest Passage, that would take Europe conveniently into the South Sea and on to the jewels and spices of the East. In the absence of more than a few fixed points of knowledge, wish became fact, and fantasy turned cartographer.


It is a story staled by generalized repetition, but it is the greatest story in the history of civilized man—how the New World was found, explored, opened, inventoried, finally settled. And raped. Rapine was a good part of it, and still is.

When literally nothing is known, anything is possible, and even the greatest explorers can err. It took a long time merely to establish what was island and what was continent, especially in the icy and much-islanded north. By the time Gordillo in 1521 and Verrazano in 1524 had, between them, coasted the Atlantic seaboard from Florida to Newfoundland, they still knew only a shore line, and that in the most general terms. The density and mass of what lay beyond the shore was inconceivable, and would not become fully clear for three centuries. Uncounted expeditions would have to go up the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa and out through the Great Lakes, or from Hudson Bay up the Nelson and Churchill to the Saskatchewan, up the Saskatchewan to the Rocky Mountains, over the mountains to the sea. It would require the labor and daring of Nicolet, Marquette and Jolliet, La Salle, Duluth, Groseilliers and Radisson, Henry Kelsey and Peter Pond, La Vérendrye and Hearne, Alexander Mackenzie, and Lewis and Clark to demonstrate how wide a barrier lay between European wishfulness and Cathay. Because no one in the beginning had any conception of the breadth of the continent, error was sometimes ludicrous. Verrazano, sailing along the Carolina coast searching hopefully for a shortcut to China, looked across a low sand isthmus a mile or so wide and thought the water he saw on the other side might be the Pacific. It was Pamlico Sound. He couldn’t even see the eastern shore of America, much less the western.


Verrazano entered New York harbor, but missed the mouth of the Hudson, the only eastern river besides the St. Lawrence that would have taught him something about the extent of the wilderness that lay between him and the ocean leading to the Orient. Actually it was the St. Lawrence-Ottawa route that led Europeans into the interior, but it took well over a century before the combined efforts of Cartier, Champlain, Nicolet, Marquette, Jolliet, and La Salle, plus a generally nameless but indispensable tribe of coureurs de bois, before that interior was opened even as far as the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.

No matter how much they found out about it, they kept looking for a way through it. In the 1570’s, fifty years after Verrazano, Frobisher was groping through the Arctic ice in search of the Northwest Passage. Ten years after Frobisher, John Davis was forced to turn back from what he thought was the very entrance. And in 1610, a generation after Davis, Henry Hudson, in search of the same passage, was set adrift by his mutinous crew and added to the casualty list of the New World, a long list that would grow: John Cabot lost without trace in the Atlantic; Verrazano killed and eaten by Carib cannibals; Cabrillo dying of injuries and exhaustion on a remote California island; de Soto buried in the Mississippi; La Salle murdered by his own men in the collapse of his imperial dream; Jesuits sliced up and killed a finger at a time by the Iroquois; settlers dying of scurvy and starvation and wounds at Fort Caroline, Santa Fe, Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, San Diego, Winter Quarters; Jedediah Smith escaping Mohave and Umpqua ambushes only to be rubbed out by a Comanche war party on the Santa Fe Trail.

Renaissance princes steeped in Machiavelli, adventurers, soldiers and settlers, bond servants, pathfinders, dreamers in search of riches and freedom unthinkable in static Europe, they were of many nations and kinds, but to all of them the New World was a pillar of fire and cloud, an impetuous dynamism, a throwing open of what had been closed and locked for centuries. America opened Bastille Europe.

Probably, in the last analysis, the economic motive was the strongest of all that moved the newcomers, and imperial rivalry the next strongest. Think of it in our contemporary terms: without the Russians for rivals we would not yet have walked on the moon. And if the moon rocks our astronauts brought back had been solid gold, our space shuttles already would be working, and the launching pads would be crowded with emigrants. But setting aside the Aztec and Inca gold, what opened up around the year 1500—the beginning of modern times—was enough to blow the European mind. Walter Webb summarizes it presuasively in The Great Frontier : North and South America found beyond the mists of the Atlantic, with Australia— Terra Australis Incognita —to follow about a century later; Africa rediscovered and laid open to slavers and ivory hunters; a way found around the Cape of Good Hope to India; shortly afterward a way found around South America into the Pacific. And everyone of these discoveries a source of or avenue to new wealth.


For centuries Europe had been living up to the limits of its land and resources. Its population, periodically reduced by the Black Death, was nearly static. Its faith was both frozen and tested by a corrupt and politicized but “universal” church now beginning to break up in the Reformation, its social and economic system strangled in the survivals of feudalism and chivalry, its history crazy with dynastic wars and soggy with blood, its learning only just opening out of scholasticism into the Renaissance. To closed and limited Europe America was, as Webb says, a pure windfall, a once-in-the-historyof-the-world opportunity. Both Reformation and Renaissance, already begun, were enormously enhanced by the discovery of the New World; freedoms only half-imagined were suddenly possible. No wonder Europe fell upon America as if it had been Blackbeard’s chest. No wonder it brushed aside the Stone Age natives—a nuisance, like mosquitoes. Even if a few Europeans looked upon them as souls to be saved, none for a long time regarded them as men and societies with rights and cultures and a healthy relation to the earth. Europe simply washed over them, a tidal wave of cupidity and hope.

From the point of view of the invaders, a story mad with the impossible, by chaos out of dream. And dream kept opening into further dream, chaos often led on to more confusing chaos. Take the Northwest Passage again. It eluded all search from the Atlantic side, but after Magellan showed the way into the Pacific in 1520, men could dream of finding it from the west, and so invented an opening called the Straits of Anian.

Cabrillo in 1542…43 explored the Pacific coast as high as 42.5 degrees north latitude without finding the straits he was searching for. After that, Spanish exploration subsided, exhausted by fifty years of intense adventuring. But Sir Francis Drake, having looted the Manila galleon in 1579, sailed up the coast and careened the Golden Hind for repairs on a beach north of San Francisco, in the country he claimed for England and called New Albion. He was confident that the Straits of Anian lay only a short distance northward, but he did not go farther in search of them. Nevertheless his incursion galvanized the Spanish into new activity, for fear Drake might be right and England gain an enormous advantage. So Vizcáino came to see what he could discover, and in 1603, off the northern California coast, the captain in his bunk with broken ribs, the crew so weak and sick they could not work the sails, Vizcáino s boatswain thought he saw the mouth of a large river just south of Cape Mendocino. Scurvy, starvation, and constant storms gave them no chance to explore it. There is no river where he thought he saw one; either the ship was not where the boatswain thought it was, or what he saw was an illusion of longing and blowing fog. But Torquemada, reading the boatswain’s report back in Spain, leaped to the conclusion that he had seen the Straits of Anian, and had it recorded on the map. Characteristically, the map maker placed it not just below Cape Mendocino but near Cape Blanco Illusion was thus compounded by clerical error and perpetuated by document, and knowledge was postponed.


It was so easy to err, even without the intervention of wishfulness. Sailors in strange waters, working from nearly total ignorance toward knowledge with no tool except their own observation, could miss even salient features. Verrazano missed the Hudson, Lewis and Clark missed the Willamette, Major Powell on the last great exploration within the continental United States missed the Escalante. Cabrillo, and Drake, Pérez, and Vizcáino after him, missed the Golden Gate, opening into one of the greatest natural harbors in the world.

Like other New World dreams, the Northwest Passage flickered along just ahead of knowledge, just beyond the next day’s sail, beyond where vision blurred with fog and distance. When you do not know how wide a continent is, or whether it is continent or island, or whether it is a separate land body or part of Asia, and especially when you do not yet have a reliable method of determining longitude, anything is possible. Any bay or gulf may open a broad way to the Orient, any river may lead you to the divide beyond which rivers run serenely to the South Sea. For a while the James and the Potomac were eyed hopefully. And once the Mississippi was found, it was perfectly possible to think it might flow into the Pacific. Marquette and Jolliet, making their way in 1673 from Green Bay up the Fox River, across the portage into the Wisconsin, and down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi, were by no means sure that the great river they had found would not lead them to the Gulf of California. By the time they turned back at the mouth of the Arkansas for fear of running into difficulties with the Spanish, they were fairly sure where it did flow, and La Salle, going the whole distance nine years later, proved that it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. But both expeditions, passing the mouth of the muddy, rushing, tree-choked Missouri, looked up that savage stream and wondered if that might be the route to Asia.

It was, after a fashion, as Lewis and Clark demonstrated from 1804 to 1806. But even Lewis and Clark, as sane and organized as they were, had their own illusions about the unknown. They left the Mandan villages in the spring of 1805 confident that the Shining Mountains would be a simple range beyond which the westward-flowing rivers would lead them to the Pacific. What they found was five hundred miles of interlocking ranges, a vast belt of mountains, difficult pass after difficult pass, canyons that frustrated attempts to descend them, rivers that ran in every direction. Only after the greatest labor and hardship were they able finally to make the Clearwater and the Columbia.

As with the Northwest Passage, so with other dreams and fantasies, products of the medieval imagination or simply of the unlimited possibility of the New World. Ponce de Leon, the discoverer of Florida, searched it hopefully for the Fountain of Youth it was rumored to contain. The rumor was probably generated by reports of the great springs, actually underground rivers, that boil up through the flat limestone of the peninsula. No spring revealed to Ponce de Leon any magical properties; but three centuries later, after reading about Florida in the Travels of William Bartram, Coleridge demonstrated the immortality of legend by making one of those springs into Alph, the sacred river, which runs through Kublai Khan’s magical gardens, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea. Perhaps the South Sea.

Poetry is realization of a kind, a splendid kind. El Dorado, the fabled Golden Man whom Walter Raleigh pursued so desperately up the Orinoco, found no such place in poetry, but survives as legend. The Seven Cities of Cíbola and the land of Quivira did not survive, even as legend, the exposure of their reality. Their pursuit brought only bitterness and disappointment, dust and ashes.

When Pánfilo de Narváez tried to colonize Florida in 1528, he died of the attempt, and most of his people with him. A handful, including Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, survived eight years of wandering among the Indian tribes, sometimes as prisoners, sometimes as revered medicine men, and in 1536, having walked across the southern part of the continent and down the Mexican Gulf Coast, they appeared in Panuco (now Tampico). They brought tales, heard from the Indians, of a land to the north and west where there were seven cities built of stone, with buildings four and five stories high whose doorposts and lintels were set with turquoise.

People still vibrating to the shock waves of what Cortés and Pizarro had found were not skeptics. Viceroy Mendoza sent a friar, Marcos de Niza, northward to investigate, and along with him the black slave Esteban who had been with Cabeza de Vaca. Esteban went ahead of Fray Marcos, sending back increasingly excited messages of what the Indians along their route told him. He was still ahead when they reached the first “city,” but when he entered it, his arrogance and his way of handling Indian women so offended the inhabitants that they killed him. Fray Marcos and his companions watched from a ridge and then fled—“with,” the historian Pedro de Castañeda wrote contemptuously, “their habits up to their waists.” But not before their eyes had seen what their imaginations told them to see: tall stone buildings, a city “larger than the city of Mexico,” doubtless full of treasure.

Fray Marcos’ overheated report led to the Coronado expedition, as grandiose a failure as even the Spaniards in the New World ever launched. The company that gathered at Compostela on February 22,1540, contained two hundred and thirty mounted men, many of them nonSpaniards, filibusters and fortune hunters from all over Europe. There were also sixty-two foot soldiers, one thousand horses, six hundred pack animals, thousands of sheep and cattle, four friars with their escort, mountains of supplies, and hundreds of Indians—a far more powerful force than either Cortés or Pizarro had had for their conquests. It was supported, moreover, by a naval arm under Hernando de Alarcón, with which it was supposed to make contact at the head of the Gulf of California.


This army pursued hallucination up the west coast of Mexico, through the Sonora and San Pedro valleys to near the GiIa, and then northeast to the Zuñi town of Hawíkuh—in Castañeda’s words “a small, rocky pueblo, all crumpled up, there being many farm settlements in New Spain that look better from afar”—which resisted and was destroyed. No gold or silver could be sifted out of its ruins. Resting the main army, Coronado sent his captains exploring—Tovar to the Hopi towns, Cardenas as far west as the Grand Canyon, Alvarado eastward past Acoma and the Tigua pueblos around modern Albuquerque and on to Cicuye (Pecos), where a fast-talking Wichita Indian from the buffalo plains told the Spaniards the kind of tales they liked to hear, of a land called Quivira, on a great river far to the east that contained fish as big as horses, where Indian kings rode around in canoes with twenty paddlers on a side, ate off golden plates, and took their siestas to the tinkling of little golden bells.

By spring Coronado had left some of the Rio Grande pueblos in ruins and the rest in a state of sullen submission. He had found no treasure in those poor mud-mortared villages. But there remained Quivira. Under the guidance of the Wichita, whom they nicknamed the Turk because he looked like one, they set out into country that only Cabeza de Vaca’s party had ever seen, the southern plains.


Perhaps leading them on so that they could be cut off and destroyed, the Turk kept repeating his gilded tales, embroidering them as Spanish impatience and unbelief grew. At last, far out in the plains of Kansas, in country that Pedro de Castañeda thought was “part of a continuous continent with Peru, as well as with greater India or China,” the Turk’s stories would no longer wash, and they strangled him on the excuse that he had been heard conversing with the devil. Then they retreated from Quivira, and shortly from the Rio Grande, and returned in defeat and disgrace, quarreling among themselves and with their leader, to New Galicia. Of the three hundred horse and foot soldiers who started, about one hundred returned. No historian counted the losses among the Indian allies, or among the horses, which may from this expedition have begun to populate the horse heaven of the plains. Of the friars, two elected to stay in Cíbola and save souls, and they were killed for their pains.

Not even the most pitiful amount of treasure came from all their effort and bloodshed, and though some of the participants reported wonders, including many strange beasts out of medieval bestiaries, Castaƥeda, a cool observer, saw nothing of the kind. What he did see, and describe for the first time (though Cabeza de Vaca and his companions had certainly seen them first) were the plains and the buffalo, no small wonders in themselves.

All that they could see in that country, he said, was cattle, by which he meant the buffalo, and sky. “The land is in the shape of a ball, for wherever a man stands in it he is surrounded by the sky at the distance of a crossbow shot,” and “so level and bare that, wherever one looked at [the buffalo] one could see the sky between their legs. ” There, for almost the first time out of a Spanish mouth, is accurate observation of New World phenomena. He goes on: “Who could believe that although one thousand horses, five hundred of our cattle, more than five thousand rams and sheep, and more than 1500 persons, including allies and servants, marched over those plains, they left no more traces when they got through than if no one had passed over, so that it became necessary to stack up piles of bones and dung of the cattle at various distances in order that the rear guard could follow the army and not get lost.”

Coronado spent two years, from 1540 to 1542, trying to find another Tenochtitlân among the New Mexico pueblos and out on the Kansas plains. Blinded by gold, he missed the opportunity to settle the Rio Grande valley, an operation that would have to wait nearly sixty years. At nearly the same time as Coronado’s failure, Hernando de Soto was seeing what could be realized out of Florida. His men too were raiders, not settlers, and their encampments were beachheads, not towns. The Florida that they searched and ravaged was more than the peninsula. It covered much of Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Alabama, and before they were satisfied de Soto’s men had probed out into Mississippi, Arkansas, and East Texas. As reported by Garcilaso de la Vega in The Florida of the Inca , de Soto’s campaign through swamps and forests had to be one of the bloodiest in the history of the New World, and it was attended by more hardship, suffering, and death on the part of the Spaniards than any other.

They found as little treasure as Coronado found, nothing but some furs and fresh-water pearls that they traded for or seized for lack of anything better. The one thing of importance that they did find, the Mississippi River, was more barrier and threat than anything else. Its 1543 spring flood appalled them. In the same turbid waters, the year before, they had sunk the body of their commander to keep the Indians from learning of his death. Down that majestic current they eventually made their escape. After four years of campaigning, two-thirds of them dead, their horses all killed, the survivors sick and full of wounds, bearded, dirty, clothed in rags and skins, they scrabbled together seven crude boats on the Gulf Coast and made their difficult way to Panuco.

There their suffering was enlarged by an ironic realization. At Panuco they found Spaniards tilling the ground, scratching out a bare living, making a settlement in country not one-tenth as rich and attractive as that which the de Soto army had passed through in scorn. More: the few furs and pearls they had managed to hang onto struck the Panuco people as being of great fineness and worth. Panuco was filled with envy at the richness and wonders these haggard ragamuffins had been privileged to see. But the ragamuffins, embittered at how the lust for gold had blinded them to the good land of Florida, broke out in fighting with knives and swords among themselves and were hardly kept from assaulting the king’s officers who had misled them.

There is a moral here, the same one that Castañeda drew from the Coronado fiasco. Castañeda thought Coronado’s retreat from New Mexico a mistake—he should have stayed and settled the Rio Grande valley. “For although they did not obtain the riches of which they had been told, they found the means to discover them and the beginning of a good land to settle in and from which to proceed onward. And since, after they returned from the land which they had conquered and abandoned, time has made clear to them the location and nature of the region they reached, and the beginning of a fine land they had in their grasp, their hearts bemoan the fact that they lost such an opportune occasion.”

Though unauthorized filibusters would raid New Mexico in the 1590’s, though Caspar Castano de Sosa would again conquer Pecos Pueblo and the Tewa, Queres, and Tigua towns, and though Leyva de Bonilla and Antonio Gutiérrez de Humana would carry Spanish ferocity from San Ildefonso clear to the Arkansas River in eastern Kansas, New Mexico would not be officially recognized as an opportunity until Juan de Oñate left the Rio de Conchos in February, 1597, with one hundred and thirty families, eighty-three wagons, and seven thousand head of stock, and took a direct line through El Paso to the upper Rio Grande. That was the true beginning of New Mexico. It was a beginning made with a reduced and more realistic expectation; a settle- | ment, not a raid.


Reduced expectation was something that Europeans other than the Spaniards did not have to learn by so hard a means, but it is something that all Americans in these shrinking times will have to learn better than they so far have. The first lesson was to learn to be satisfied with something less than rooms full of gold—with land, timber, water, native crops, wild game, all the natural richness of the virgin continent. The continuing lesson is to learn to be satisfied with less and less of these until they run out, or to take forethought and plan for their careful use and steady renewal.

Whatever America might in the end prove to contain, whatever authentic wonders of great rivers, mountains, plains, minerals, oil and coal, deep soil, fertile valleys, canyons so deep that rocks which from the top look no bigger than a man prove to be taller than the great tower of Seville, it took time before they could be seen straight. Some gilded expectations would have to be scaled down, some fantasies disproved and discarded, some open-ended possibilities put over on the impossible side, some biases given up, some purely native matters first understood and then accepted, some civilized accomplishments of the indigenous tribes given credence and respect. It took a long time for Europeans even to grant that Indian civilizations sprang from Indian brains, and were not taught them by some blue-eyed god or Welsh Prince Madoc or Nephite out of the Book of Mormon. Some myths, especially that of the Welsh Indians, died hard and late. In the 1870’s Brigham Young sent a Welsh Mormon down to the Hopi towns to see if the Hopi language contained any Welsh words. If it did, the Mormon theory that these town-dwelling Indians reflected culture traits surviving from the Nephites, who were in turn derived from the Lost Tribes of Israel, would have come into question. It didn’t and the Book of Mormon remains unchallenged by the descendants of Madoc.

More: The hope of sudden wealth that the New World engendered in a human race not until 1500 sanguine about the worldly future has not died. Every mineral and oil strike, every Prudhoe Bay or Overthrust Belt, every boom town from Dawson City to Rock Springs, demonstrates how undying is the human desire for a jackpot. It burns in us like a pilot light; the mere turning of a jet blows it into flame. For that lust the y New World is not to blame, but it is an accessory after the fact.

No one ever duplicated the glittering strikes made by Cortés and Pizarro, but it is surely true, as Walter Webb suggests, that New World wealth fueled Europe’s climb out of the Middle Ages, and that because of it, modern times in both Europe and America have been times of almost unbroken boom, now approaching or at its end.

The French and English, enviously watching the Spanish loot their American empire, had to settle for something less than Aztec and Inca gold—though Drake alone, in his single small ship, took home from his piracies on Spanish galleons enough gold so that Queen Elizabeth, out of her royal share, was able to pay off the entire national debt and have enough left to found the British East India Company. Drake’s gold was only a redistribution of Spanish booty, but actually all Europe benefited from the New World in food plants, especially maize and potatoes, as well as in timber, fish, furs, and much else. For the French and English the more permanent enrichment came from the fish of the Newfoundland banks, from Canadian furs, and from tobacco.

The French got their foothold on the St. Lawrence and expanded it. The English, after the disaster at Roanoke and the near-disaster at Jamestown, consolidated footholds in Virginia and Massachusetts and shortly took over the only serious competition in their area, that of the Dutch. There is no better way to remind ourselves of the variousness of the American heritage than to remember how different the French and English were in their approach to the new continent, and how different both were from the Spanish. The Spanish, at first looters, became settlers and imposed Spanish institutions on their territories, including the encomienda system that in practice enslaved the Indians, but they did intermarry- biologically they incorporated themselves into the indigenous population even while they were bending the indigenous population to Spanish ways. The French likewise never made a barrier to intermarriage. Adventurers and woods runners, they came closer to adapting themselves to the continent than any of their rivals, and except for some accidents of history and some pressures from the United States, they might have created in western Canada a métis nation like the mixed nation of Mexico. The English, stickers and settlers, did not much intermarry and did not much wander, but what they took and held they changed.


In his History of the Dimding Line (1729) William Byrd complained that “our country has now been inhabited more than 130 years by the English, and still we hardly knew anything of the Appalachian Mountains, that are no where above 250 miles from the sea.” The French, by contrast, had run over half the continent, had discovered the canoe route to the Great Lakes, had found the Mississippi and gone down it to its mouth, had explored the Ohio and the Illinois, had dreamed of a vast inland empire based on the fur trade (a trade that depended on continuing wilderness) with the Illinois and Mississippi rivers as its lifeline and the Gulf of Mexico as its opening on the world.

Had La Salle s magnificent dream been realized, his colony on the gulf would have been under constant threat from the Spanish to the west, and indeed, Spanish exploration from Mexico eastward through Texas in 1689-90 was motivated by fear of La Salle’s settlement, as her colonization of California in the eighteenth century was motivated by fear of Russian incursions from the north. Empire went to those who got there first and backed their claims with force. Consider La Salle. With that European arrogance which was so innocent it is almost charming, he stopped his canoes at the mouth of the Arkansas in 1682 and took formal possession of the land he named Louisiana in honor of Louis XIV. “On that day,” Francis Parkman says, “the realm of France received on parchment a stupendous accession. The fertile plains of Texas; the vast basin of the Mississippi, from its frozen northern springs to the sultry borders of the Gulf; from the woody ridges of the Alleghanies to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains—a region of savannas and forests, suncracked deserts, and grassy prairies, watered by a thousand rivers, ranged by a thousand warlike tribes, passed beneath the sceptre of the Sultan of Versailles; and all by virtue of a feeble human voice, inaudible at half a mile.”

In nothing was the New World more fabulous than in the justifications Europe found for seizing it—a foot on a strange shore, a boat in a river mouth, a proclamation to wondering Indians, a brass plate, a planted cross. But the dubiousness of imperial “rights” did not make the conflict less bitter. After a century of border wars, France lost Canada to the British on the Plains of Abraham in 1729. England in turn lost its thirteen colonies to the Americans in the Revolution. Louisiana, tossed back and forth between Spain and France, was finally sold to the Americans by an overextended Napoleon Bonaparte for $15,000,000 in 1803. Within two years, Lewis and Clark had taken the Americans to the Oregon coast—claimed by America because Captain Gray had taken his ship Columbia over the bar into an unknown river for a quick peek in 1792. Manifest Destiny was born of westward pressures, and clashed with the Spanish in Texas, the British in Oregon; and in 1846, which DeVoto called the Year of Decision, war with Mexico and compromise with Great Britain gave the United States another vast accession of territory and confirmed it as a continental nation, with nearly its present boundaries.


In the long effort that led to unification and to independence from Europe, most of the myths melted away. California’s Amazons receded back into the romance from which they had sprung; Cíbola and Quivira, the Fountain of Youth and the Rio Buenaventura, faded out in the daylight of observation; such animals as Vizcáino’s men saw on Monterey Bay, with wool that dragged on the ground and horns three yards long, shrank and reshaped themselves into tule elk. But realistic wonders remained, a continent whose riches even by 1846 had been barely touched and only fragmentarily discovered. Already penetrated, not quite so vaguely realizing westward as it once had, possessed America lay ready not for them, Europeans, but for us, Americans, molded by generations of adaptation to the frontier, with our unchastened hope and greed and our barely formed responsibility, our democracy and our capitalism and our technical know-how, all products of the frontier; with our optimism and our gospel of work, our individualism and independence and self-reliance, likewise born of the frontier and the long boom it fostered; and with our carelessness born of plenty, our wastefulness that, once we were past the first stage of settlement, had never known shortage.

The people who inherited the United States in the mid-nineteenth century were as unstoried, artless, and unenhanced as the land of their inheritance, midway between a Europe that had not yet died in them and an America not quite born; but they had begun to try to answer the question Orevecoeur had asked before the Revolution: “Who is this new man, the American?” In a little more than a generation, Henry James would have essayed his portrait, significantly naming him Christopher Newman, and Mark Twain would have done him in one-gallus frontier terms as Huckleberry Finn, and Abraham Lincoln would have embodied his highest virtues on such a grand scale that he thereafter would sit like a demigod above our national life. But no sooner would those trial syntheses have been made than fresh waves of immigration, drawn by New World opportunity and hope, would flood the nation with new seekers, new races, new types, old hungers, and old, old memories. Those floods would postpone a higher synthesis, a final consolidation of the American character, into the twenty-first century or beyond.

It has taken a long time. We are older than we think. The nation’s bicentennial in 1976 persuaded some of us that we have been working on this continent only for a couple of centuries. But the four hundredth anniversary of Coronado’s grandiose raid passed thirty-eight years ago. The four hundredth anniversary of our oldest city, St. Augustine, passed in 1965. And in 1992 it will be half a millennium since Columbus and his sailors crowded to the rail in response to a cry from the lookout of the Pinta , and in the soft tropical night, by the light of a moon just past full, stared at a dark ambiguous shore line and sniffed the perfumed land breeze off a new world.

What we have done to that new world in nearly five centuries of raid and accommodation—and what it has done to us—is in its way a story mad with the impossible. But it is no fairy story.

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