The recent visit of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth to Jamestown, Virginia, was accompanied by a flurry of articles about the founding of the United States by Anglo-Saxons. These narratives accurately state that Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement, but err when calling Jamestown the first permanent European colonial settlement in America.
Time Magazine’s May 7th edition had a banner headline on the cover, “America At 400, How Jamestown colony made us who we are.” Inside, the headline to Richard Brookhiser’s feature article called it “An in-depth look at the place where our nation began to take shape.” Buried in the Time article was an acknowledgement of some Spanish presence by 1607: “The 104 English settlers were late entrants in the New World sweepstakes. Spain had conquered Mexico by 1521, Peru by 1534.” These claims ignored the first permanent territorial settlements on the current U.S. mainland, which were also Spanish:
–In 1565, the capital of the Spanish colonial territory of La Florida was founded at San Agustín (now Saint Augustine) by Spanish naval commander Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, and remained a possession of Spain until 1817.
–In 1607, in the Spanish territory of New Mexico, an area that would become the southwestern United States, Spanish settled Santa Fe the same year as Jamestown’s first settlers arrived. In 1610, Santa Fe was formally founded and designated as the capital, making it the oldest capital city in the country. By 1610, the Palace of the Governors, from which the Spanish ruled New Mexico, was built on the new town’s plaza using a style and materials adopted from the local Indian pueblos. It continues to stand there today.
Our national preference for claiming English ancestry is not a new trend. Most historically oriented U.S. literary anthologies start with the Puritans, without a hint there were non-English literatures already published before the Puritans even arrived. The earliest ethnographic account of life in the lands that would become the United States was written in Spanish, not English: Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s La relación (1542). How many U.S. citizens are aware that Spanish letters and learning initiated important institutions of what became U.S. culture? According to Nicolás Kanellos’ introduction to Herenica The Anthology of Hispanic Literature in the United States:
“For better or worse, Spain was the first country to introduce a written European language in an area that would become the mainland United States. Beginning in 1513 with Juan Ponce de León’s diaries of travel in Florida, the keeping of civil, military, and ecclesiastical records eventually became commonplace in what would become the Hispanic South and Southwest of the United States. All the institutions of literacy-schools, universities, libraries, government archives, courts, and others-were first introduced by Hispanic peoples to North America by the mid-sixteenth century.”
But Kanellos’ facts are ignored by public intellectuals whose access to the media is immense.
The late historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. defended the myth that the nation is influenced by one European culture in his 1992 book, The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society:
“The white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition was for two centuries-and in crucial respects still is-the dominant influence on American culture and society. This tradition provided the standard to which other immigrant nationalities were expected to conform, the matrix into which they would be assimilated.”
Schlesinger’s defense brings up another popular stance of public intellectuals: that the Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition has been granted immunity from its own ethnicity, allowing them to claim the United States has entered a post-ethnic period. In “Trans-National America” (New York Review of Books, 11/22/1990), political science professor Andrew Hacker reviewed five books on subjects related to ethnicity in U.S. classrooms. His discussion revealed the books held many conflicting viewpoints and questions. Hacker nonetheless concluded that Alexis de Tocqueville’s one hundred and fifty year old assessment of the United States-that the “prevailing model [for the] country has remained ‘Anglo-American'” — is still accurate “in many respects.”
If this viewpoint has become a standard for educational indoctrination, it was encouraging to see that 26% of the mail received by Time, as reported in their “Inbox” on May 21, felt that “focusing on Jamestown excludes other cultures that helped make America,” even though 74% voted Time’s “Taking an honest look at life in Jamestown enriches our democracy.”
Omitting the multiplicity of events and cultures that evolved over more than two thirds of the territory of the U.S. mainland only continues to keep us from recognizing and therefore understanding fundamental aspects of our national identity.
CARLA BLANK is the author of “Rediscovering America” (Three Rivers Press,
2003). She plays violin on the new CD “For All We Know” by the Ishmael Reed Quintet, available for $12.75 plus $1.00 for mailing, from Ishmael Reed P.O. Box # 3288 Berkeley, Ca. 94703.