Book Review: Discovering a Lost Heritage: The Catholic Origins of America

Book Review by Eleonore Villarrubia:  Discovering a Lost Heritage: The Catholic Origins of America by Adam Miller

So, you think you know your American history? Well, this little gem of a book, a Catholic history of our country, will probably leave you quivering, both with shock at your lack of knowledge of some of the “true facts” of our past and with indignation that this information is not taught in American schools and is absent from standard textbooks. Why, you ask, did this happen? According to the author: “Much of American history is, and has been for two centuries, taught from a Protestant-English viewpoint. To be more exact, U.S. history has been primarily taught from a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) perspective, and this has more often than not been anti-Catholic, or at the least, silent on the foundation of America as being originally Catholic.”

Let’s try a question from early New World history: Who were the first Europeans in New England? Standard answer: Pilgrims, escaping religious persecution in England, landed in Massachusetts in 1620.

That is not the correct answer. As early as the fifth century, a monk, whose name is unknown, and his companions, left evidence of their visit to the area of New Hampshire on a petroglyph. The message praising “Christ the Lord” is written in ancient Celtic. Natives told the early French explorers of this tradition among their people.

Discovering A Lost HeritageIn the late sixth century we know that Saint Brendan, an Irish monk, and his companions, landed on the shores of America near what is now New Salem, New Hampshire. There they planted the Cross of Christ and explored the eastern coastline of North America. Saint Brendan himself recorded the events and descriptions of his explorations in his Saga.

Along about the year 1000, Catholic Norsemen from Scandinavia explored the coastline of the northern part of the east coast from Greenland, down to Nova Scotia and New England. Viking Leif Ericson, who was converted to the Catholic Faith by King Saint Olaf, took missionary monks with him on the voyage. Coastal Indians spoke to them of white, bearded men who wore robes and carried beads and crosses in procession. Was this the stuff of legend or were they speaking of their own times? While that question cannot be answered, surely the story had some basis in fact.

Almost one hundred years before Columbus’ voyage, a Scottish-Norse prince, Henry of St. Clair (or Sinclair) from the Orkney Islands off the northern coast of England, set off on an expedition to America and landed in present-day Nova Scotia. Being a good Catholic ruler, Henry also brought along missionaries who evangelized the gentle Micmac Indians while teaching them many practical skills as well. Evidence exists that the St. Clair party sailed farther south and established a settlement at the site that is today Newport, Rhode Island. One can see in this very American city the remains of a stone tower that once adjoined a church. This tower is not typical of early American architecture, being modeled after a church tower in Scotland, which in turn was modeled after the tower of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; they are the world’s only structures built in this manner. (A photograph of the tower adorns the cover of this book.) More proof of St. Clair’s visit to New England is a petroglyph found on a large rock near Newport. There one can see a large and detailed carving of the coat of arms of the Sinclair family. Although Henry founded several settlements, leaving a missionary at each, he was killed in a family dispute back home in the Orkneys; as a result, deprived of needed supplies, the settlements fell apart and the settlers vanished. The Italian explorer Verrazzano saw the tower in 1524 and encountered Indians he believed to be of mixed race, possibly descendants of the Scottish settlers of St. Clair’s expedition.

Finally, by the 1570’s, France had begun to send explorers and missionary priests to the New England area, where a Cross and French flag were planted near the Kennebec River in Maine and the land was claimed for Christ and France. What we now call New England was earlier known as Norumbega.

All these events happened before the Pilgrims!

Examples of historical distortion (or simply omission) abound in this fact-packed book. Here is another shocker: Did you know that whites were not the only slave owners in nineteenth century America? In 1830, the national census counted nearly 3800 black slave owners who, among themselves, held nearly 12,800 slaves. These were not even all in the South. In New York City that same year, eight free men of color owned seventeen slaves. In addition, there were many whites who were slaves, mostly despised poor Irish and Scottish Catholic immigrants who had no choice but to sell themselves into indentured servitude for life — which amounts to slavery — because of their destitute condition.

Any Catholic living in New England should be able to relate the history of anti-Catholicism that was traditional here. Samuel Adams wanted to establish laws specifically directed against Catholics in every state of the nation. John Jay, prior to becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, did his best as governor of New York to deny Catholics rights of citizenship in his state. Too, in our own state of New Hampshire there was a clause on the books excluding Catholics from holding office as late as 1876. Not one of the proudest of the liberal traditions, is it? And the violent anti-Catholic activities of the Know-Nothing movement is (pardon the pun) well-known!

Of particular interest to this reviewer was the chapter on Texas. Our author explained how the Freemasonic government of the United States eventually annexed the territory, which had already been established as a Republic independent from Mexico and, as had been hoped by Texans, independent of the United States too. Manifest Destiny took care of that, as it did the entire southwest, wresting one third of what would be the United States from Mexico by means of President Polk’s Mexican-American war. The destruction of the Catholic/Spanish culture of the peaceful Indians of Florida is also a sad chapter in American history. Worse than that, in terms of the scale of the injustice, was the forced relocation of all Indian tribes east of the Mississippi to western reservations as outlined first by President Monroe in his 1825 report to the Senate on a “plan of colonization or removal” of said tribes. After the Civil War President Grant pushed a law that prohibited Catholic priests from ministering to Catholic Indians on the reservations; Protestant ministers were sent instead. Our Masonic political rulers were also eager to help their brothers south of the border to cut ties with the Catholic motherland. This is the main reason for the support that the United States supplied to the revolutionary movements in Latin American countries in their successful breaks from European colonizers. Although the Monroe “Doctrine,” as it came to be called, was not enforceable at the time it was proclaimed, it set the stage for a new sphere of influence in the western hemisphere where any colony that sought independence from European powers would have the backing of the United States.

A handy section at the end of the book called “U.S. History Mythbusters” is by itself worth the price of the book. It includes thirty-five common myths regarding our history, which are taken for granted as true by nearly all Americans, and their precise refutations.

This is such an essential little volume — only 195 pages in length — so packed with information that one has to ignore the few misspellings and typos within it. Adam Miller has done a wonderful service by providing us with such a well-researched, fact-filled production.