They have ruined [these provinces] by wandering in search . . . of Eldorado or a new Atahuallpa; thus they wasted their time and destroyed whatever was there.

—Martín de Urué, 15731

American history is . . . the history of our drive into abundance.—Leland D. Baldwin, 19812

There is no clearer fact in American history than the fact of conquest. . . . It is perfectly clear who started this fight.

—Patricia Nelson Limerick, 20003

A MONG THE TOOTHY AMERICAN CARS of the 1950s was a large and primitive sedan (now extinct) with De Soto written on its tailfins, a chrome memorial to a man better known as a “discoverer” of the Mississippi than a conqueror of Peru. No doubt more than one De Soto made a trip from the Cartier Bridge in Canada to Raleigh, North Carolina, and many must have chugged across the Verrazzano Bridge in New York City. All four famous names—the Italian Verrazzano, the Frenchman Cartier, the Spaniard Soto and the Englishman Raleigh, to put them in chronological order—tried to open up the unknown continent north of Mexico in the sixteenth century. And all failed, as did others whose deeds are too obscure to be immortalized on maps and tailfins. But the information they (or their men) brought back reveals what eastern North America was really like before being changed forever by the European onslaught.

The mythic history we have all soaked up describes the land as a “virgin wilderness” or “primaeval forest” inhabited only by a handful of “wild men” or “savages.” In a typical (and still influential) popular history published in 1931, James Truslow Adams declared that “a squirrel might have leapt from bough to bough for a thousand miles and never have seen a flicker of sunshine on the ground.”4 This idea of an empty, sylvan America has always had unshakably strong appeal for both the early British invaders and their American descendants—because it brushes aside awkward questions of indigenous ownership and sovereignty. Virginia may have been named for a questionably virgin Queen Elizabeth, but the pun on her nickname was soon used to sell the idea of an untouched land awaiting the white man’s seed. Even the canny Tocqueville, researching his great book on the settler republic in the 1830s, would fall for the notion that the original Americans were nomadic hunters flitting about in the woods, people without sovereign rights to their homeland because “the Indians occupied, without possessing. . . . It is by agricultural labour that man appropriates the soil.”5

The true state of affairs was very different—as the first eyewitnesses make clear.6

In the spring of 1524 Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine navigator working for the French king, reconnoitred the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States.7 This was still early in the clash of worlds: soon after the fall of Aztec Mexico and eight years before the conquest of Peru.

Verrazzano sailed up the coast from the Carolinas to Canada—probably the first European to do so and certainly the first to leave a good account. For much of the way, his ship was held off by the Outer Banks, but he went ashore at several spots, including a wooded hill he named Arcadia, now known to have been Kitty Hawk, North Carolina—more famous for a later pioneering trip, the Wright brothers’ flight in 1903.8

Whenever he sighted good land, Verrazzano found it thickly inhabited by farmers, whose fires were “burning continually along the shore.”9 He became the first white visitor to New York, anchoring off Staten Island in what are now the Verrazzano Narrows. From there he took a small boat into Upper Bay and glimpsed Manhattan, which was also densely populated: “Running back and forth across the water were about thirty of their boats with an infinite number of people aboard.”10 These Americans greeted the strangers with curiosity and laughter; indeed, they sound rather like later New Yorkers—noisy, bustling, loudly dressed, scooting about in fleets of big canoes where ferryboats now take tourists to the Statue of Liberty.

At this engaging moment, when Europeans and Americans were about to meet, contrary winds forced the strangers to make for open sea. Verrazzano had better luck at Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, where he anchored for two weeks, establishing good relations with the locals and making several trips inland. He found the people here “confident . . . beautiful [with] the most civil customs [and] taller than we are.” They had polished stone tools, sheets of worked copper, seagoing boats that could hold fifteen men, and large round houses in which up to thirty people lived together.11Verrazzano makes it clear that these folk were farmers, like everyone he’d seen along the seaboard. The Rhode Islanders’ fields stretched inland, he reckoned, for “25 to 30 leagues12 [80 to 100 miles] . . . open and free of any obstacles and trees.” He adds intriguingly that the people followed an astronomical calendar: “When sowing they observe the influence of the moon, the rising of the Pleiades, and many other customs derived from the ancients.”13

On his way back to France, Verrazzano sailed past Bacalaia (“Cod-land”), or Newfoundland, which didn’t delay him. He knew it had been “found a long time ago by the Portuguese” and then claimed by John Cabot for England.

Verrazzano made his report to the French king and returned to the New World two years later, only to be killed by aggrieved natives in the Caribbean. In the mid-1530s, the French tried again, sending the Breton Jacques Cartier up the St. Lawrence River. There he found two large towns that would one day become the chief cities of New France: Stadacona (Quebec City) and Hochelaga (Montreal). Cartier gathered words at both towns—enough for present-day scholars to identify the language family as Iroquoian, which includes Huron and Mohawk among its members.14 On his first trip, he kidnapped two boys and took them to Europe as proof of his discoveries. These two, who were sons of the Quebec leader, he brought back unharmed, but when he shanghaied ten more Quebeckers in 1535, nine of them died overseas—grim evidence of the vulnerability of New World people to Old World sickness.

On a sunlit autumn day in 1535, Cartier reached what is now Montreal and was then Hochelaga—or “Great Rapids”—for the first time. (Thinking he might be in Asia, or at least well on his way there, he named the rapids La Chine, China.) “More than a thousand people,” he wrote, had gathered at the landing, “welcoming us as warmly as a father greets a son.” The Hochelaga ladies showered the Frenchmen with fish and cornbread, “which they threw into our boats in such a way that food seemed to rain from the sky.” After this greeting, the strangers went ashore:

We came to their tilled land and beautiful open fields full of the grain of that country, which is like Brazilian millet, about as big or bigger than a pea, and on which they live as we do on wheat. And in the midst of these open fields stands the town of Hochelaga, beside a mountain whose slopes are farmed and very fertile and from whose top one can see a long way. We named this hill Mount Royal.15

Cartier’s description of the strongly fortified town is equally interesting and reliable—his details borne out by later accounts of similar Iroquois towns, which the English called “castles.” Hochelaga had a triple stockade and parapet enclosing fifty multifamily longhouses, “each about fifty or more paces in length and twelve or fifteen in width, built completely of wood.” The houses were arranged on a grid plan around a broad central square.16 Reckoning fifty residents per longhouse (which may be on the low side), several thousand must have lived within Hochelaga’s walls.

For reasons Cartier does not explain, he left for Stadacona (Quebec) the next day, never to return to Hochelaga. When other Frenchmen went far enough upriver to reach Hochelaga in the early 1600s, the towns on the St. Lawrence and most of the people had disappeared.17

The early French glimpses of a thickly settled, agricultural North America are confirmed in much greater detail by a three-year “expedition”—rampage is a better word—through the southeastern United States, led by Hernando de Soto and bankrolled by his share of Atahuallpa’s gold.

Although he had become one of the world’s richest men overnight, Soto wanted an Eldorado all to himself, another golden empire like the one he had found with Pizarro in Peru. So, not seven years since the grassy breath of his horse had stirred the crimson fringe on Atahuallpa’s brow, he outfitted a substantial private army and invaded Florida, landing at Tampa Bay in 1539 with about six hundred men, two hundred horses, dozens of war dogs (armoured mastiffs routinely fed on Indians) and a large drove of swine. Things did not go well. The people of Florida vividly recalled meeting other Spaniards in the 1520s and put up a sharp resistance, their archery proving a good match for cumbersome crossbows and crude guns. Spaniards were shot through chinks in their armour; horses, through the heart.18

On his way through what are now South Carolina and Georgia, and then westward through Alabama to the Mississippi, Soto saw farming polities advanced enough to sustain his dream that an imperial city, another Cusco, lay somewhere within reach. In reality, the societies he saw were not provinces of an empire but independent states and small kingdoms, heirs of the Mississippian Temple Mound culture that had built the great city of Cahokia, near modern St. Louis, a few centuries before. These peoples had trading and political alliances, but the power of Cahokia had waned. In any case, their wealth was in copper, mica and pearls; there was no Cusco of the north with stone temples sheathed in gold. Since plunder was Soto’s only goal, his search was doomed.19

The European army had to live off the land—which meant finding towns, seizing corn from their granaries and enslaving the citizens to carry it—so the records of Soto’s march give useful data on the population and economy. Thousands were rounded up and snapped into iron collars; horses and hogs devoured the growing crops. Local guides who disappointed the Spaniards were tortured, mutilated, thrown to the dogs or burned alive. Anyone who began as a friend soon became a foe.

The way of life the Spaniards saw was indirectly influenced by Mexico, where the triad of maize, beans and squash—the famous “three sisters” who together give sustainable tilth and a balanced diet—had developed between seven thousand and ten thousand years ago.20 North America also had its own domesticates, including the sunflower and several grains of the chenopodium, or goosefoot, family. The maize economy had slowly spread onto all suitable soils and climate zones of the future United States and southern Canada, moving north and east as plant breeders achieved more cold-resistant varieties.21 Whenever Soto and his men drew near a major settlement, they described riding for miles beside great fields of corn.

The main towns of the South were considerably bigger and more elaborate than Hochelaga. Some had hundreds of dwellings around ceremonial plazas, from which rose tall, earthen platforms supporting temples, public halls and houses for chiefs. Most of these mounds were later levelled by white Americans building their own towns in the same agreeable spots (to say nothing of dams and highways), but enough survive to show they were like Mexican pyramids in shape: rectangular, often tiered, with flat tops reached by flights of stairs. The greatest, at the city of Cahokia itself, has a base larger than that of Egypt’s Great Pyramid and is still more than a hundred feet high—the biggest building in the United States until the twentieth century.22 Several other temple platforms approach Cahokia’s size, including Etowah (or “Hightower”), a 64-foot mound near Atlanta, Georgia, which Soto may have seen. Architecture on such a scale can only have been the work of sophisticated, stratified, farming societies, just as Soto’s records describe.

The three eyewitness chronicles (and a fourth by the half-Inca historian Garcilaso, who wrote in Spain after interviewing survivors) differ in detail but agree on substance.23 Names in these documents are tantalizingly familiar to anyone who knows the South of later years: Tazcaluza(Tuscaloosa), Chalaque (Cherokee), Chicaza (Chickasaw), Mabila (Mobile), Alibamu (Alabama) and so forth. Scholars have been able to trace the general swath of the Spanish invasion, though the exact path, the whereabouts of many ancient towns and the borders of polities are still moot.

In May 1540 the Spaniards entered a realm called Cofitachiqui, which controlled most of South Carolina and parts of the Smoky Mountains from a capital, Talimeco, whose remains may well lie buried in silt beneath the modern city of Columbia.24 The ruler was an elegant woman, dressed in fine white linen and carried like an Inca princess on a palanquin. “She spoke to the Governor with much grace and self-assurance,” wrote Soto’s secretary. “She was young and of fine appearance, and she removed a string of pearls that she wore . . . and put it on the Governor’s neck.”25

The Spaniards promptly found more pearls in a charnel house and stole two hundred pounds of them. Perhaps understanding her own helplessness in the circumstances, the Lady of Cofitachiqui told the invaders to go to her capital, where they would find so many pearls that the horses wouldn’t be able to carry them.26 Soto’s secretary described Talimeco as “a town of great importance,” with a commanding “mosque” on a high mound. Garcilaso adds detail:

It had five hundred houses, all large and of the best workmanship and materials . . . so that it indeed looked like the seat and court of a mighty lord, built with more finery and adornment than the common towns. The halls of the ruler could be seen from far away because they were in the highest place. . . . In the middle of the town, opposite the ruler’s houses, was the temple or burial house. . . . Around the temple were eight halls . . . filled with weapons . . . very well made with bronze blades gleaming so brightly that they looked like gold.27

Thinking the shiny bronze might at least be alloyed with gold, Soto set out for the Smoky Mountains, where he hoped to find the real thing.28 Some idea of the indigenous political structure can be gleaned from the Spaniards’ observation that they rode through the Lady of Cofitachiqui’s lands “for a hundred leagues [330 miles], in which . . . she was very well obeyed” and that people beyond Cofitachiqui regarded themselves as her vassals.29 By this time, however, the locals had begun to rise up against the uncouth and violent strangers.30 Soto decided to resort to the standard conquistador technique of taking the ruler hostage, but the Lady slipped from his grasp in the mountains.

From the Smokies, the Spaniards turned southwest, driven by hunger—and lured by rumours of gold that had been planted to get rid of them. At Guaxule, desperate for meat, they ate three hundred of the Indians’ dogs.31 The next important town, Chiaha, had stores enough to feed the European army for two weeks and provide five hundred bearers to carry off what was left. Relations must have been unusually cordial, for Soto allowed these carriers to work without “collars and chains.”32

In October 1540 the Spanish vanguard turned up at Mabila, or Mobile, Alabama.33 By this time their reputation had preceded them, and the locals were less obliging. The town’s leaders lured Soto and some of his officers inside the elaborate fortifications. After a show of hospitality, a great many armed men (some sources say five thousand, but this may be an exaggeration) sprang from hiding. They killed half the Spaniards on the spot and wounded the rest, including Soto and Rodrigo Rangel, his secretary and chronicler.

The Europeans got out and regrouped. The Americans readied their defences, and the battle raged until dusk. It was an unequal fight, with native deaths running a hundred to one against the armoured whites. Mobile’s walls and bastions were of wood, mortared and coated with clay, which made them hard to burn, but eventually the Spaniards managed to set the town ablaze. Thousands died in both the fighting and the flames, including an unknown number of women, some of whom took up Spanish weapons and fought to the death.34

According to Rangel, the people of Mobile killed 22 Spaniards and wounded 148. Though not huge losses in themselves, they proved to be the turning point in Soto’s fortunes. Since setting out from Tampa, more than a hundred men had died—a sixth of his army. Many horses and most of the baggage had been lost. The would-be conqueror slid into depression—moody, aggressive, more careless than ever of others’ lives. His men began to murmur about building boats and fleeing to Mexico.

But Soto kept up his mad search for more than a year, harrying Alabama, Arkansas and the Mississippi Valley. Everywhere that corn would grow, the Spaniards saw similar cultures: populous, hierarchical, ruled by haughty lords who lived on pyramids, rode on palanquins and claimed a special relationship with heaven.35 When Soto tried to overawe one ruler by claiming to be the “Son of the Sun,” the chief (who likely claimed that title himself) replied that if the white man would dry up the Mississippi, he might believe him.36

At last, in 1542, Soto fell ill and died. The survivors of his army—now only half the number who’d set out—straggled back to Mexico in disgrace, shoeless, dressed in rags and starving, having salted and eaten the few horses not killed or taken by Indians. The only treasure they brought out is the information in their chronicles, a final view of the South’s pre-Columbian way of life. For, even as his men trod the streets of Talimeco and other towns, the citizens were dead or dying, less from Spanish steel than from the tiny weapons in the Europeans’ breath, blood and bowels.

The Lady of Cofitachiqui may have deferred to Soto because she had few fighters left to wield her arsenal of bronze. Near her temple the Spaniards saw four longhouses with the dead stacked up inside like firewood. “About the place,” wrote one eyewitness, “were large empty towns, grown up in grass. . . . the Indians said that, two years before, there had been a great plague in the land.” Even the capital itself was already a ghost town: “The Castilians found the town of Talimeco without any people at all.”37

In the United States, as in Mexico and South America, plague was already running ahead of the whites themselves, smoothing the invaders’ way. America was no virgin; she was a widow.38

The English got off to a late start in the scramble for America, and their first effort was as fruitless as Hernando de Soto’s. In the mid-1580s, Sir Walter Raleigh (who never set foot in North America himself) sent kinsmen and followers to secure an outpost in “Virginia,” at that time as vague and elastic a name as Spain’s “Florida,” with which it overlapped.39

Anyone mentioning Sir Walter Raleigh in later ages is likely to be deafened by applause. But in his day, though dashing and brilliant, he was thought cruel and devious, as adept at making enemies as making myths.40 His Englishmen were much like Soto’s Spaniards—adventurers seeking gold, slaves and plunder, often in the form of Spanish treasure ships. (Europeans who couldn’t find an Eldorado of their own were not above poaching from those who had, committing piracy on the high seas as “privateers.”) In 1585 the expedition disembarked at the low island of Roanoke, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the “Arcadia” Verrazzano had seen sixty years before. Raleigh’s colony was little more than a garrison. Of the five hundred sent out, most were fighting men; only 108 were settlers, none were women and there was no priest—which shows up the professed mission of bringing God to the heathen for what it was, a mere fig leaf over worldly desires.41

In promoting the venture, the London lawyer Richard Hakluyt had listed three reasons for sailing to Virginia: “to plant Christian religion . . . to trafficke . . . to conquer; or, to doe all three.”42 His list makes it clear that the place was already spoken for—you can’t convert, conquer or trade with people who aren’t there. Hakluyt’s friend Ralph Lane, writing back to him from Roanoke, described the region as “very well peopled and towned . . . Savages possesse the land.”43 In one town, the English counted more than seven hundred locals at a feast.44 Either the great plagues of the early 1500s had missed this backwater of swamps and islands or the population had recovered in the meantime. At this date, “savages” (from a Latin word for “woodland dwellers”) was not necessarily an insult; it was more a general term for non-Christians interchangeable with “natives,” “naturals” and “Indians.” The English described the people as “very handsome, and goodly . . . and in their behaviour as mannerly, and civill, as any of Europe.”45

At first these “goodly” folk welcomed the newcomers and showered them with gifts, hoping to draw them into a network of reciprocal exchange. The Americans even tried to teach the English how to grow maize and build fish weirs, lessons that went unlearned. Meanwhile, hogs and cattle brought by the whites ran amok in unfenced native fields. Come winter, the intruders grew hungry and tried to buy, beg or steal the locals’ supplies, even (like Soto) barbecuing their dogs.46 In return, the Americans stole metal tools and other European goods. Outraged by these losses and fearful of an attack—or perhaps seeking an excuse to take everything by force—the English struck first.

History records two such incidents in the Roanoke area: one in July 1585, when Raleigh’s cousin Sir Richard Grenville burned the Indians’ homes and “spoiled their corne”; and another, much worse, at the Roanoke people’s head town a few months later.47 There Ralph Lane gunned down the friendly chief Wingina to a battle cry worthy of Pizarro: “Christ our victory!” It was white America’s first preventive war.48

Christ’s victory was short-lived. In 1586 Francis Drake had to rescue the starving settlers and take most of them back to England. About this time, the native people “began to die very fast” of an Old World plague. When Raleigh’s ships returned for the rest in 1590 (after being delayed by the Spanish Armada’s attack on England), they found Roanoke empty and in ruins. Letters carved on a tree suggested that the survivors had fled to a friendly town called Croatoan near Cape Hatteras, but the weather did not allow a search. The Lost Colony, as it became known, was never found.49

Nearly a whole century had passed since Columbus’s first voyage, yet the peoples of North America—though bloodied by Europeans and devastated by their plagues—were still free and independent. In the following century, the whites would come to stay.

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