Settling Things: A Brief History Quiz

With America already in the throes of the 2012 Presidential election, and with a slate of Republican candidates all vying to prove themselves more patriotic than their rivals, I thought that a brief quiz on the subject of our country’s origins might be in order. The quiz has just one question, and I list four possible answers. Before going to the bottom of this posting and finding out the correct answer, please consider the choices carefully.

The question: What is the oldest continuously occupied European-established city in the continental United States?

The answer choices:
a. Plymouth, Massachusetts
b. Jamestown, Virginia
c. Roanoke, North Carolina
d. Santa Fe, New Mexico

The correct answer: Though it will surprise none of my former students, this is a trick question. The correct answer is Saint Augustine, Florida, founded by Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles on 28 August 1565. Here are the founding dates for the other four cities: Plymouth (1620), Jamestown (1607), Roanoke (1585 – but the city was soon deserted, for reasons that remain a mystery), and Santa Fe (1608).

I defend my duplicity in this matter on two grounds. First, it seems to me that this is the sort of information that every American citizen should know. Second, I think that anyone who did not know the correct answer would benefit from considering why. Granted, it’s not as if this fact appears very frequently in American public school history textbooks, which are clearly skewed in favor of English settlement from the Northeast at the expense of Spanish settlement from the South and Southwest. Does this mean that other important matters in our textbooks might also be biased? What might political nativists, the sorts of generally ignorant bigots who champion an “English first” approach for our nation and its schools, have to say about the fact that Spanish was the first language spoken in a European settlement on our shores? What happened during the course of Manifest Destiny to consign Spanish and Hispanics to second-class status (at best) in the United States? Finally, which of the current Republican candidates trying to become our next President would likely know the answers to these questions – or even the answer to this brief quiz? These might be questions for future quizzes, but I suggest that they are worth investigating now by any thoughtful person interested in our country’s past – and its future.

Pedro Menendez de Aviles

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