Names and Nuances

British, French or Spanish? Puritan or Cavalier? The distinct differences in flavor of American culture from region to region go all the way back to their original settlement by different groups of Europeans. Since then, they' ve been spiced up by immigration from all over the world.

Schoolchildren learn to associate America' s colonial era (up to 1776) with British settlers along the East Coast. But the first European settlement in the area of the present United States was made by the Spanish, at St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565. The first Spanish town in New Mexico was San Juan de Los Caballeros, founded in 1598. The Spaniards explored the California coast extensively in the sixteenth century, but didn' t establish their famous mission churches there for
another 200 years. In addition to the old missions, the American Southwest is dotted with lovely Spanish place names, of which Los Angeles and San Francisco are only the most famous. There are also the Sierra Nevada and Sangre de Cristo mountains, and towns like San Ysidro (California), Santa Fe (New Mexico) and San Antonio (Texas).

The Lost Colony

The first English settlers did not come over on the Mayflower, as most American schoolchildren (and their parents and grandparents) seem to think. The first attempts were made in Virginia (named after the then queen, Elizabeth I, who was unmarried and thus officially a virgin). These included the mysterious Lost Colony on Roanoke Island (present-day North Carolina). Governor John White landed with a group of 150 colonists on July 22, 1587, and returned to England for supplies. Delayed by the Spanish Armada, White didn' t get back to the settlement until August 1590. There was no trace of the group except for the strange word" Croatoan" carved on a tree. Theories are that they were abducted by hostile Indians, wandered off in search of food and starved, or even intermarried with a friendly Indian tribe. Maybe they' re still out there somewhere...

The first permanent English settlement was in Jamestown, Virginia, where three ships landed in 1607 (James I was now king, hence the town' s name). The Virginia settlers came to seek their fortunes and look for adventure. Old Virginia families like to believe they are all descended from the younger sons of dukes or earls. This is not true, but to this day they call themselves 'Cavaliers' and are fond of traditionally aristocratic pursuits like horse racing, fox hunting, card playing and whiskey drinking. This sets the tone for the rest of the South.

The Jamestown settlers weren' t all English by any means. Captain John Smith' s list of passengers arriving during the colony' s second year, after naming the" Gentlemen, Tradesmen, Laborers and Boyes," mentions" eight Dutch men and Poles, with some others." The first Africans reached the colony in August 1619 - twenty black men purchased as 'servants' from a passing Dutch ship.

The Mayflower

Another group of English settlers trying to reach Virginia in 1620 got blown hundreds of miles north and landed at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts. Their ship was the Mayflower, and they founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These radical Protestants had left England to escape religious persecution and to build a theocracy based on a" purified" version of the Church of England. Unlike the fun-loving Virginia Cavaliers, these 'Puritans' were a serious and sober lot. They founded America' s first college, Harvard, in 1636, as an outlet for their intellectual excesses. Much of the old character of Massachusetts still remains, blended with a huge Irish influx to the capital, Boston, in the nineteenth century.

The Dutch founded New Amsterdam on the Hudson River in 1625. Although the town went on to some success under the later name of" New York," streets like Beekman, Stuyvesant and Vanderbilt are a reminderof the city' s origins. Later immigrants made New York City what it is today. Food tells the story here: kosher lox (smoked salmon) and bagels, Italian pizza and cannoli (dessert pastry), Irish corned beef and cabbage, German frankfurters (hot dogs), Chinese dim sum, Indian curries, Korean kimchee... Please excuse me while I step out for a bite.

The French Quarter

French explorers gained control of the mighty Mississippi River by establishing the city of New Orleans in 1718. The French flavor continues to predominate in the city' s famous food. The tourist mecca known as the French Quarter is crossed by streets like Bienville, Bourbon and Chartres, although visitors from France would not recognize the pronunciations.

The Great Lakes that lie between the United States and Canada were also first explored by the French,
but their cultural influence throughout the vast Midwest region is pretty much limited to place names like Joliet (Illinois), Des Moines (Iowa) and Eau Claire (Wisconsin). The Midwest of today - where the accents are as flat as the landscape - was shaped by nineteenth-century immigration. Poles, Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, Czechs, Slovaks and others fled their cold, desolate homelands, for what? A part of America that is not only colder and windier in the winter, but baking hot in the summer as well.

Native peoples continue to have the strongest influence in America' s two youngest states. The influence of the Russians, the previous owners of Alaska, can be seen in some wooden churches there with onion-shaped domes, but it' s the native Alaskan tribes like the Aleuts who have remained and continue to live off the bounty of the sea as they have for thousands of years.

At the other end of the thermometer, native Hawaiians continue to make up a large percentage of the population of their Pacific island paradise. Americans from the mainland just come to vacation there in beautiful places with beautiful names - Honolulu, Hanamaulu, Kailua Kona, Kaunakakai, Wailuku, Wahiawa, Waikiki, Waianapanapa...