Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Trust But Verify

In regards to my textbook project, I've moved out of the writer's block stage of composition, and into the "throw crap at the page" stage. I don't love it, but words on the page are better than no words on the page. And words on the page can be edited and polished, whereas a blank sheet is a blank sheet always.

However, I'm running into the problem of fact -- always an issue with historical writing. 

Here, an example, from the beginning of a chapter about Spanish exploration of North America:


The Cantino Planisphere. This is, at least, well-attested.

In fourteen-hundred ninety-two, 
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Christopher Columbus sailed west from Europe and found a New World. But he didn’t find all of it. He discovered some large islands and some small islands which he called the West Indies, because he thought he had found a new path to India. He sailed along the coast of South America, and he sailed along Central America. However, he never sailed to the north.

In the years after Columbus’s great voyages of discovery, rumors grew of a rich land to the north of the West Indies. As early as 1502, a map of the New World showed an unnamed land up in the corner, with a edge that stuck out into the ocean, and a little trail of islands curving near the southern tip. If you studied that map, and then you looked at a modern map, you might notice that this mystery land is close to the location and shape of Florida.

In 1513, three ships, the Santiago, the San Cristobal, and the Santa Maria de la Consolacion, sailed westward along the string of the Bahama islands. On these ships were Spanish explorers. Their chief, Juan Ponce de Leon, was an adventurer, a soldier, an explorer, the governor of Puerto Rico, and a wealthy man. But he wanted more gold, and he was sure he could find it in this uncharted land to the west.

On these ships were other men, dressed in brown robes. They were Franciscan friars, and they were after wealth too. But the wealth they desired was not cities of gold or the fountain of youth — they were searching for souls. The friars were missionaries, and they knew that in this New World, there were natives who had never heard of Jesus Christ. They dreamed of bringing the Catholic faith to every part of the world. They also wanted to protect the natives from the Spanish explorers, who cared less about human life than about riches and glory.

During Eastertide, Ponce de Leon and his men sighted a beautiful land of flowers.The Spanish name for the Easter season is Pascua Florida — the Feast of Flowers — so Ponce de Leon named this flowery country Florida. Anchoring their ships in the newly-named Bay of the Holy Cross, the men went ashore. The explorers carried their weapons, and the priests carried a crucifix and the Holy Eucharist. There on the sand, they celebrated the first mass in what would one day be the United States of America.

With the sacrifice of the Mass, the Franciscans claimed the land for the Catholic Church. Juan Ponce de Leon claimed the land for King Ferdinand V of Spain. Who would hold it longer?

The three ships sailed south around the coast of Florida. The Spaniards tried to go ashore several more times, but the native Calusa tribe did not trust these invaders. They sailed out in their war canoes and drove the mighty ships away with their spears. Ponce de Leon and his men had to go back to the West Indies. There, he gathered fresh supplies and assembled soldiers and settlers — and more Franciscan friars. This expedition set out in 1521 to establish a Spanish colony in Florida, with Ponce de Leon as governor. Perhaps Ponce de Leon thought that the might of Spain would triumph over the natives, but he was mistaken. A poisoned arrow drove Ponce de Leon out of Florida and back to Cuba, where he died, and with him, his dreams of a new colony .


The problem here is that this isn't all true.

The map of 1502 is true. There is evidence that the Cantino Planisphere, above, depicts Florida based on the accounts of Portuguese explorers who were sailing illegally in Spanish territory. Some of the natives that Ponce de Leon encountered already spoke Spanish, of a sort, and lured his ship close with accounts of gold before they attacked him.

Also, I've left out some historical fictions that plague textbooks. There is no evidence that Ponce de Leon sailed to find the Fountain of Youth -- in fact, the first mention of it in connection with Ponce de Leon comes from a glancing reference in an account of Ponce de Leon's Florida voyage written by Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas more than eight decades later. Washington Irving, that consummate storyteller, included the tale of Ponce de Leon's search for the Fountain of Youth in his book about Spanish explorers, thus searing it into the minds of generations of American schoolchildren. Here is a good scholarly article debunking the Fountain of Youth myth, and also the way the myth has wormed its way into secondary sources. (I've included cities of gold and the fountain of youth as two mythical counterparts to the real wealth the Franciscans were seeking.)

But the Franciscans are my problem. There's no evidence that Ponce de Leon had Franciscans with him or that there was a mass offered in Florida in 1513.

I didn't make this up out of whole cloth. I found the story in a book that had an account of the first Mass in North America. But in researching it since, I can't find any other sources attesting to a Mass in 1513, or that Ponce de Leon even sailed with priests. The Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that the first Mass in North America was in 1526 in a colony founded (and later abandoned) in Georgia.

I've been reading aloud to my youngsters A Child's History of the World by Virgil M. Hillyer, the founder of the Calvert Correspondence School. It's generally an even-handed book, if told in a storytale style. And it too repeats the Fountain of Youth myth. It seems that one way to defeat such myths is to not keep repeating them to successive generations of schoolchildren. This is my goal in writing -- to tell accurate history. But it seems it will require fact-checking each piece of received wisdom, and oh, the time it will take! At least it gives some urgency to my work, even months away from my deadline.


Julia said...

This kind of text is sorely needed.

We ended up going straight to primary sources, after using the Critical Thinking Press curriculum on Colonies to Constitution and the following book on the Civil War, to develop interpretive skills in assessing accuracy of sources. That might be an approach to try?

Mary Hennessey said...

There seems to be evidence of an earlier Mass offered in Mexico, and possible masses in Canada.

Mary Hennessey said...

Actually, my high school history textbook, many moons ago, focused on primary sources. It was definitely an intriguing approach that I appreciated as a teen.

mrsdarwin said...

Mary, you're right, and that's where I should have been more clear: I want to write about the first Mass offered in what would become the United States.

We too are using a lot of primary sources. I'm becoming increasingly frustrated by the textbook sources I've been reading for this project. And yet children need to know about history too, and primary sources aren't always practical for the kind of synthesis they need. But when you tell stories to the young, they remember them to the detriment of real history. How many generations were brought up on George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, a story made up out of whole cloth by Mason Weems?

Brandon said...

One idea might be to use some of the simpler and easier material on something like this to discuss how to use historical evidence, even if only as a sidebar to the main narrative synthesis. It's often seemed to me that history textbooks are not always sufficiently transparent about how historical research and evidence work.