In the December issue of SARASOTA, Paul Schneider tells the story of his most recent book, Brutal Journey: The Epic Story of the First Crossing of North America. It’s the tale of a fleet of 400 Spanish conquistadors who began their expedition in Southwest Florida in an attempt to conquer the Gulf coast of North America. After eight long years, only four survived and were able to cross the continent, ending their journey in Mexico. In this Web-only exclusive, we asked Schneider—whose oeuvre also includes two other histories—how his version of the epic story came into fruition, what lessons can be learned from the conquistadors’ struggle to survive, and why he chose Bradenton as his home base.
What brought you to Southwest Florida?
I’ve only been in Bradenton for two years now, but I’m loving it. I’m originally from the Northeast—Massachusetts mostly, but I also lived in New York City for a long time. We decided to move here because my son is an aspiring tennis player at the Nick Bolletieri Tennis Academy, so we came for his schooling. I thought I would miss the Northern winters, but it turns out I don’t—I miss the fall.
What other books have you written besides Brutal Journey?
Brutal Journey is my third book. The first one, The Adirondacks: A History of America’s First Wilderness, is the history of that area. It’s the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi, and I wrote a social history about it and the rich people who traveled there. The other book, The Enduring Shore: A History of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket, is a regional history, and I’m actually in that book a little bit more than the other two. I sea-kayaked around the whole area while writing it.
What is the draw of historical writing?
I find that the stories that I’m drawn to are not so much the giant forces of history, but the great personal stories. Obviously there are ways that those accounts get caught up in the bigger events, but that’s not so much what I write about. Coming from a journalism and magazine background, I was already writing interesting articles about people and the things that happened to them. I segued into history because I was finding those kinds of stories in the past and wanted to write books about them.
What piqued your interest in this specific story about the Spanish conquistadors?
I’ve always been very interested in the initial moment of contact between the Europeans and the Native Americans, so when I came across this story, I felt like I had to know more about the adventure. There was a lot more interaction in America before the first [Europeans] arrived than we realize.
How did you compile your research?
In addition to reading the academic writing, I used two first-hand accounts—which are great and interesting, but very confusing—and tried to fill them in. I also researched what it was like to be a conquistador: what they wore, the weapons they used, how they fought. That’s the other interesting thing about writing this story: turning over every rock and looking for telling details. For every thousand notes you take, there’s one that ends up in the book, but you can’t find that one without looking at the others. It’s a filtering process.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered while writing the story?
One of the things that was continually surprising and gratifying—and one of the reasons I wanted to write the book in the first place—was how wildly different and varied the Native American groups the conquistadors encountered were. Some were big cultures that built mound cities, others were tiny bands of hunter-gatherers. Some were very generous and some were horribly mean, but they were not part of some cookie-cutter image. The Apalachee, for example, were sports nuts—they played a ball game that everybody in town would go to.
The story is also a really fascinating insight into the way the groups of Native Americans looked at the world. They saw it as full of magic, and thought that all you had to do was access it. The writing process is like that, too—finding the magical quality of any given story.
Did you travel the survivors’ route across the country?
I didn’t strap on armor or go naked across Texas like the four remaining guys did, but I did travel the route in pieces, driving, walking or kayaking as close to it as possible—within 30 to 50 miles.
What do you think contemporary readers can take away from this 450-year-old story?
One of the great things about Brutal Journey is on how many levels it works. It’s a plain old adventure story on the surface, but it’s also a bit Heart of Darkness—these survivors have to learn how to live.
I started writing this book a long time ago—before 9/11, Iraq and all of that. I guess, looking at it today, one of its lessons is that you shouldn’t necessarily believe that because you have strong weapons you’re going to be able to drop into another country and it’s going to be a piece of cake to gain control of it. These explorers thought the Native Americans would welcome them with open arms because in their minds, they were clearly superior—and then everything goes wrong. But there’s also the personal aspect—if you look at these four survivors, you can see that incredible things are possible for individuals if they keep their eye on the prize and are flexible. For me as a storyteller, the lesson is that people are still people. There are some who are leaders, some who are cowards, jealous, or obsessive, some who are in love—human nature hasn’t changed all that much.
Any upcoming projects?
I may be starting a book on Bonnie and Clyde, which is the opposite of the Cabeza de Vaca story. You know, career-wise, you build an audience based on something, but you want to be interested in what you’re devoting a chunk of your life to research, too. This is different. I’m very excited.