Ignoring the stories of Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain, who traversed New York and the Great Lakes, Horwitz focuses on the far more outrageous exploits of the conquistadors making their misguided way from the Caribbean to what is now Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina, across Mexico and Texas and the southwest, up into New Mexico, Arizona, the Oklahoma panhandle and even Kansas. How many knew that the Spanish penetrated so far north, so early? Or that the Indians they met were primarily not the wandering nomadic tribes we imagine, but highly developed warrior empires, like the one ruled by Powhatan, which stretched from North Carolina to Maryland? Horwitz usefully refutes the noble savage myth, showing that Indian societies were just as Hobbesian as any other. That said, they also did not, as a rule, initiate hostilities with the Europeans, and - albeit partly because of inferior firepower - they emerge as considerably less homicidal, and rather more sensible. They were constantly outsmarting and tricking the Spanish, who retaliated with grotesque, excessive brutality: Hernando de Soto, now remembered by most Americans, if at all, as a Chrysler model, slaughtered between 2,500 and 3,000 Indians hiding in the settlement of Mavila - rivalling even the legendarily bloody civil war battle at Antietam for the dubious honour of highest body count from a single day's combat in American history. The Europeans weren't just massacring Indians, naturally; they were butchering each other, too. Pedro Menéndez murdered more than 100 French Huguenots in what is now Jacksonville, Florida, by stabbing them, impaling them on pikes, and then beheading them - sparing only the musicians, to entertain him.
When Europeans weren't slaughtering each other, they were killing themselves off through ignorance and incompetence. The English died in droves at Jamestown in part because they built on swampland and drank fetid water until the Indians saved them (perhaps, Horwitz surmises, because they reasoned that "dying men who seemed utterly clueless" didn't pose much of a threat). Unsurprisingly, the Jamestown settlers soon arrived at the "Starving Time" in 1609 when they ate shoes, starch from their collars and excrement, and one man killed his pregnant wife and "salted her for his food". This diet might explain the necessity for a spatula mundani, found in an archaeological site, "a narrow spoon used to treat extreme constipation by extracting hard stools".
Historical ironies abound. After the Spanish destroyed all the Indian settlements in their path, they returned from their wanderings and died of the starvation they had caused - no more thriving villages to loot. The self-defeating nature of conquest begins to emerge, and the importance of a lesson we have yet to learn: enlightened self-interest. The vast majority of early European colonies in America died out, in large part, because the colonisers were aristocrats and high-ranking soldiers, accustomed to commanding and being served. They weren't workers, and had few survival skills. The Spanish worked up a sweat, but only at pillaging; they were after instant riches. This is also why Jamestown failed: "too many men 'of a nice bringing up' ", who were "accustomed to 'daintie food' and 'soft beds of downe'" couldn't survive the rigours of life in the wilderness. It was only when the English sent farmers, labourers and merchants to New England (according to Horwitz they were searching for a syphilis cure) that a sustainable colony was built.
The locals he interviews along the way help to bring Horwitz's prodigious reading to life. The story of his trip to Santo Domingo (whose unofficial motto, he tells us, is "estamos jodido": "we're
ed") is worth the purchase price alone. In Arkansas he meets a 95-year-old woman, described to him as "real conversive", who hisses, "I still have a pistol and know how to use it" before inviting him in, feeding him rum cake and sharing "every memory of her ninety-five years", none of which had to do with the conquistador's casket he'd come to learn about. In Florida, he encounters a woman who was converted to evangelical protestantism by "a Spanish woman from a Jewish family who became a voodoo priestess in Mexico City and converted to Christianity while in a mental asylum".
Locals are not just targets of gentle satire, however: they are often highly insightful, and resist categorical thinking. He meets an Indian environmentalist neo-Confederate Southerner, who is entirely free of cognitive dissonance because "Indians are basically conservative people - they want to be left alone with their land and traditions, same as Southerners". The story of American history is, of course, one of racial division, but as the people Horwitz meets explain, and exemplify, it has also always involved racial intermingling. One man comments, "I'm probably two-fifths African, two-fifths Indian, and one-fifth European", before adding, "I'm everything . . . a melting-pot. Isn't that what it means to be American?" Similarly, a woman of Creek Indian descent tells Horwitz that when a form asks her to identify her race, she puts "human". In Santo Domingo, the Spanish ambassador informs him that there are now more Spanish speakers in the US than in Spain: "The future of all the Americas is Spain, and that story began in 1492."
Horwitz experiences first-hand as much as he can, baking in 50lbs of Spanish armour in the hot Florida sun, nearly exploding in a sweat lodge, careering around Santo Domingo. Vivid analogies between then and now abound: for Horwitz "conquistadors were, in essence, armed entrepreneurs, who assembled their own force and assumed the risk". De Soto is likened to a Colombian drug lord by one man he meets; another challenges our easy contempt: "Those evil Spaniards weren't aliens, they were us. Get rich quick - that's the American dream, isn't it?" It is a New England minister, however, who articulates what Horwitz has been thinking: in the end, we prefer myth to the facts.