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Thoughts on History

One of my fondest memories from the 15 years that my family and I lived on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, is of a summer day in 1975 when we and several carloads of friends set out to “do” what is known as the Cabot Trail, a scenic coastal drive that winds its way through Cape Breton Highlands National Park. Near its northernmost point, we left the Trail for a while to picnic at “Cabot’s Landing,” reputed by some to be the spot where in 1497 the Italian-born explorer John Cabot first raised the English flag in the New World.

Although almost half of the people on that 1975 outing were professional historians, I doubt that any of us gave a second thought that day to John Cabot or his landfall. But during this anniversary year–I discovered while visiting to Cape Breton this past spring–everyone on the island was concerned about where the explorer’s course had steered him.

Both Cape Breton and Newfoundland, its rival for the distinction of having been the place where Cabot first “discovered” North America for Europe, have become increasingly dependent on tourism to bolster their economies, and so the right to stage a celebration in honor of this important milestone in the history of our hemisphere gave the issue a whole new meaning. Beginning on page 16, Alan Williams examines what little is really known about Cabot and his voyages and presents the arguments put forth over the years by historians and geographers to support the cases for both landfall claimants.

As we were completing this issue of American History, three modern-day explorers, two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut, were trying to salvage Russia’s aging Mir space station, damaged a few weeks earlier in a mid-space collision. Having been assured–we hope correctly–that the men are in no danger and can return to earth at any time if their situation worsens, the American public has followed their plight with only passing interest. On page 24, Bryan Ethier recounts Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier just fifty years ago in a flight that not only opened a new era in aviation but also paved the way for our now almost commonplace excursions into space.

This issue also contains other fine articles that help to illustrate the adventure of the American past, but I wish to take this opportunity to say good-bye to the readers of American History. After more than seven years with the magazine, I am leaving to pursue other avenues.

My time with American History has been a wonderful experience for me, in large measure because I have found that so many of you believe, as I do, that only by knowing about our nation’s history–warts and all–can we fully appreciate the accomplishments of those who have gone before us and understand the complex challenges that face our generation and those to come.

Margaret Fortier is the editor of Women’s History and American History magazines and a historian with extensive experience in research and writing for historic sites and museums.