Journeys Through Our Forgotten Past

By Roger G. Kennedy

Houghton Mifflin. 398 pp. $24.95

In another year, much of the Western world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's first transatlantic voyage, which was sponsored by the monarchs of Spain. Still, a misconception among Americans with more than just a modest knowledge of their nation's history generally credits the English with establishing the first colonies in this country. In fact, the Spanish had settled in Florida, and rather substantially, a century before the Pilgrims sailed up to Plymouth Rock.

Similarly, the U.S. Cavalry customarily is cited as the decisive factor in the defeat of the Great Plains Indians in the bloody conflicts of the second half of the 19th century. But the "warriors of the plains" were adaptable fighters skilled in the tactical use of repeating rifles. They might have succeeded in defending themselves, at least long enough to win an honorable and economically more satisfactory surrender, writes author Roger G. Kennedy in his intriguingly offbeat look at America's past. What really defeated the Indians was the nature of the land they hoped to save.

"The dry, thin soil of the western prairie could not sustain the forage, game, water, and fuel sufficient to keep an army together unless it was supplied by steam-powered boats and trains," Kennedy argues.

In the 19 essays that make up "Rediscovering America," Kennedy attempts to counteract what he calls "some pernicious simplicities" that cloud our history. He also manages to contribute fascinating but often-ignored details about the enduringly diverse cultures of America's geographical regions.

Although not a professional historian, Kennedy comes to the task with excellent credentials. He is the director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History. And he was the editor of "The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America," a superb 12-volume survey of America's most important historic sites. Some of the essays in his new book are derived from material he prepared as introductions to the series.

In the preface of this work, Kennedy insists that he is not taking a "deliberately revisionist" look at the nation's heritage but is making a personal -- I would say idiosyncratic -- "search for truth." Life, he says, "changes history, and new sides of truth are exposed by digging around it."

Kennedy is a graceful writer, often quite eloquent in his descriptions and witty too. His book is both serious and fun to read. You should, however, be fairly well versed in America's past because Kennedy skips about the centuries with dazzling facility, and it's not always easy to keep up.

Among the forgotten footnotes of our history, he observes that during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress offered to grant freedom to 3,000 slaves in South Carolina and Georgia if they fought against the British. But because of "the selective blindness of American historians," he asserts, "we have apparently lost track of what happened to those who accepted the offer."

And perhaps Americans today can draw some consolation from the fact that the Japanese aren't the first foreign investors to incite unease in the national psyche. During the 1870s and 1880s, Europeans controlled millions of acres of grasslands in the western cattle country. "The power of these foreign investors was so feared," Kennedy says, "that it was possible for American investors to induce state and territorial legislatures to pass the kind of laws restricting foreign investment that we associate with Japan in our own time."

As a resident of this area for 25 years, I found it interesting to read why Annapolis, once a thriving commercial port, ultimately was eclipsed by Baltimore. Annapolis, it seems, shipped tobacco, a crop that lost its importance locally after the Revolutionary War. Baltimore became a grain port, prospering on the produce that fed a growing nation.

In a sense, "Rediscovering America" also serves as a travel guide to the country. Kennedy's essays are dotted with references to places historical and scenic, and I have made a mental note of this one in particular:

"The glory of natural Nebraska," he writes, "is the Sandhills Region, mostly midgrass and nearly ten thousand square miles in extent. Here are lakes and grassy plains as they were when the first humans came upon the scene ..." The reviewer is a writer and assistant editor for The Post's travel section. He has visited all 50 states.