Monday, April 1, 2013

As we near the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s landing, I highly recommend every resident and visitor to Florida pick up this book to expand our understanding of America's colonial past.  In the preface Tony Horwitz sets out to correct confusion he observes at Plymouth Rock, namely what happened in the 128 pre-Mayflower years between Columbus's landing in 1492 and the landing by the Pilgrims.  Even among those aware of Cortez and his incursion through Mexico, news of Ponce de Leon landing six years earlier in Florida is certainly a surprise.

Horwitz combines history with contemporary visits to sites critical in telling America's Colonial story.  In this way readers can ingest historical information with modern places they already know and visit.  Plus Horwitz just seems to be one of those guys who invite humor and are perpetually in the right place at the right time.  Of particular interest to Florida readers would be chapters "The South: De Soto Does Dixie," "Florida: Fountain of Youth, River of Blood," and "The Gulf Coast."

Inside cover featuring North American exploration routes.

I loved how much archaeology he included.  For example, in the Jamestown chapter he gets in a trench with Bill Kelso on site who renders this gem: "If you're looking for evidence of failure," Kelso said, waving his trowel across the crowded graves "there it is (342)."  Behind the scenes, I know a few archaeologists who were there that day and remember Horwitz as down to earth, excellent researcher, and someone interested in talking to everyone- from Principal Investigator down to the shovel bums.  Horwitz also visited Anhaicia site in Tallahassee, De Soto in Bradenton, Kathy Deagan's La Isabela site in Haiti, the Viking L'Anse aux Meadows site in Canada, and Etowah, to name a few. 

Le Moyne featured in Fountain of Youth, River of Blood chapter.

Now, to the St. Augustine chapter (Fountain of Youth, River of Blood). Many in our town feel he was unfair in the St Augustine chapter and could explain why my pleas to bring him in as a speaker on a grant have not gone over well. As a resident and someone who works in heritage in this town, I think he got it right. He doesn’t use the word I do (which is schizophrenic) but he describes St. Augustine as an authentically-challenged community. It is really difficult to navigate the real and the unreal walking around town, and some of that confusion is intentional. He met with Bill Adams, then the head of Heritage Tourism for St. Augustine. Bill has since moved, but the issues addressed in that chapter are very much still an issue today.  Horwitz's sense that "American's [don't] so much study history as shop for it," returns in the conclusion with a challenge to go beyond the "past as a consumable (389)."  We will certainly continue to try.

Overall, I rate this book a “must read!” Don’t just read it when you get it, read it every year. I do; I need a frequent refresher on who came to Florida and when. Plus its amazing what these explorers did, how far they got. For example, did you know there were Spanish in Kansas in the 16th century? They got THAT far. Amazing. And its very timely for our state and city. It comes up again and again that America’s colonial history is nearly 100 years older than most Americans are aware.

Sites Close to this reviewer's heart.

If you have read this book and have a favorite part, please share in the comments below!  Beyond A Voyage Long and Strange, I recommend you read anything Horwitz has ever written. I love Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic, and Baghdad without a Map.  You should also check out books by his wife, Geraldine Brooks.  She's perhaps best known for her Civil War era novel March, but as an anthropologist and archaeologist I very much enjoyed People of the Map, Year of Wonder, and Nine Parts of Desire.

A Voyage Long and Strange is available at More information on Tony Horwitz can be found on the author's website.

Text: Sarah Miller, FPAN staff
Images: various sources contained in the book A Voyage Long and Strange 

One Response so far.

  1. My favorite part is probably, "The South: De Soto Does Dixie," largely because I'm it in.

    I was in St. Augustine/Jacksonville filming the History Channel's "Conquest of America" when Tony was doing his St. Augustine research. After shooting was done for the day, and I was recovering from the aches and pains of simulated 16th C. combat and he a day of research at the St. Augustine Historical Society we discussed St. Augustine over a couple of beers in the Taverna. I was a bit more forgiving of the Fountain of Youth then he was. I pointed out that regardless of the apocryphal claims of the attraction - it would likely have been waterfront condos long ago rather than a relatively preserved area for archaeologists and open to historical reenactment camping events.

    I also noted how similar St. Augustine, FL and Plymouth Mass, were. Similar kinds of T-shirt shops, Ghost tours and other touristy things. Plymouth of course has Plimoth Plantation a first class Living History Venue of St. Augustine had only the Spanish Quarter as a pale comparison.

    If you do get a chance to see him speak in person I highly recommend it. he as good at entertaining his audience live as on the printed page.


    Tim Burke
    Sarasota, FL

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