In his new book, A Voyage Long and Strange, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tony Horwitz chronicles the exploration of America that occurred before Jamestown. It's a time period, he admits, he knew nothing about before beginning his research:
"There was this 130-year period where I couldn't come up with anything, basically between Columbus in 1492 and the arrival of English settlers in the early 1600s," says Horwitz. "That's what got me thinking about what happened and what could I find out about it."
Horowitz started tracing the steps of the French and Spanish explorers, discovering that some of the early adventurers made it much farther inland that most Americans realize.
"I associated conquistadors with Cortez in Mexico, and Pizarro in Peru," he says. "But the conquistadors who came here didn't just go along the fringes of Florida and the Southwest."
In fact, Horwitz says, the early French and Spanish explorers crossed the Appalachian Mountains, rafted down the Mississippi and explored the Grand Canyon — in all, reaching about half of the states in the present-day continental U.S.
In the 1540s, Coronado and his horseman galloped all the way to central Kansas — almost the exact geographic center of the continent. Once there, says Horwitz, they marveled over the flatness of the landscape and the "sea of grass" before them.
"I don't think this is the way most Americans think about their early history," says Horwitz.