Good timing: January brought another round of Washington debate over immigration policy, and I found myself again in opening weeks of teaching a U.S. history survey course—1492-1846—just when Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States was released.
By location, I could get away perfectly well with an eastern history of the U.S. My graduate training focused on New England, I studied in Virginia, and I teach at Gordon College in Massachusetts, spitting distance from many of the colonial highlights that make it into schoolbooks: Thanksgiving at Plymouth, witch trials in Salem, Tea Party and massacre in Boston, militia mustering in Lexington and Concord. It would be easy to go on considering Boston the hub of the universe, students double-dipping local and national history.
But to do early American history that way would be a sorry, partial story. Fernández-Armesto opens his book recalling a time when he was teaching at Tufts University and a vacancy opened in colonial U.S. history. He asked candidates, “Where, in what is now US territory, was the first enduring European colony, still occupied today, established?” Fair question, and not answered by naming Jamestown or Plymouth. The answer he sought was Puerto Rico, whose settlement began in 1505.
Present-minded reasons might press us to learn more about Hispanic America. Even without them, Spanish colonization should be more familiar simply because a large swath of what is now the United States was first part of Spanish settlement. Learning about the history of our country requires learning about Spanish settlement. We overlook this even as the most obvious features of these states, names of their rivers, towns, mountains, monuments, make it plain: Los Angelos, San Antonio, Santa Fe, Brazos, San Augustin, and so on.
Fernández-Armesto’s book is not an alternative history of the U.S., a parallel account written just for and about Hispanics, but recognition of what really is our America. America emerges not simply as a north-south civilization stretching west when things get too crowded, but a mixing of Anglo and Spanish colonial projects.
Religious history presents this narrative of America most strikingly. Yes, Protestants and their institutions figure in Our America. But Roman Catholicism is much more prominent when the American southwest or Gulf coast is focus of attention. Missions dotted the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Florida, as well as in more familiar locations in Texas, California, and New Mexico, before and after English settlers made first efforts to introduce the Gospel.
Interestingly too, Fernández-Armesto emphasizes Mormons’ critical role in transforming the Great American Desert. Mormons are “the vanguard of the Anglicization of the West,” the front wedge of forces including farm machinery and railroads that turned desolate prairie into amber waves of grain. Fernández-Armesto is appropriately impressed: “Colonization of the Midwest and the western interior, with the ecological invasions that preceded and accompanied the settlers, was surely the most complete and surprising transformation of a natural environment by human agency in the history of the world.”
Of course timing may play another part in the appeal of this book: January and February are excellent months to consider early American history from the perspective of, say, Arizona or California or Florida rather than Massachusetts.