Gateway to the Classics: Stories of American Explorers by Wilbur F. Gordy
Stories of American Explorers by  Wilbur F. Gordy

Christopher Columbus

Early Life

Many years ago there lived in Genoa, Italy, a poor man named Columbus. He earned his living by making wool ready for the spinners. Of his four sons, the eldest was Christopher, who was born in 1436.

We do not know much about Christopher's boy-hood, but it seems likely that he was fond of playing about the wharves near his home. Here he could see vessels coming and going, and probably spent many hours watching their white sails fluttering in the breeze, for in those days many vessels brought the wealth of other lands to his native city.

In this way, perhaps, there grew in him a fondness for the sea. But he did not play all the time; he had his tasks as well. He learned his father's trade, and, like other boys, went to school. He studied reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and map drawing. He may have liked geography best of all. At all events we know that he learned to draw maps so well that when he became a man he could earn his living by drawing maps and charts.

The Search for a Water Route to India

When he was about thirty-five years old he made his home in Lisbon. Here his brother Bartholomew lived, and here lived many sailors also. For at this time the men of Portugal were trying to reach India by a water route. They wished to get the silks, spices, and precious stones that were brought from the Far East.

The journey through the Mediterranean Sea and overland was very costly. It was dangerous, too, for there were pirates on the sea and robbers on the land. Therefore the Portuguese, as well as other people of that time, were eager to find another route, over which travelling was less costly and less dangerous. They thought they could find the way by sailing down the west coast of Africa.

But Columbus felt sure that there was a shorter way to India than the route around Africa. He believed that the earth was round, and that by sailing directly across the Atlantic Ocean he could reach India. If he could succeed in doing this, he would become a great man, not only by bringing the wealth of the Indies to Europe, but by proving that the earth was round.

The more he pondered over this scheme, the more he longed to carry it out. When, therefore, he was about thirty-eight years old, he laid his plan before King John of Portugal. The King listened to all that Columbus had to say, but would not agree to help him. Instead, he did a very unfair thing—he played a trick upon him, as you might say. For, after finding out what Columbus was planning, he sent out a company of men, in secret, to see if they could find the short way to India.

Columbus and Little Diego Go to Spain

When Columbus learned about this meanness on the part of the King he was angry, and, taking his little son, Diego, by the hand, he started off for Spain. The boy was only four or five years old, and found the long journey very tiresome. We may picture father and son walking together along the rough mountain-roads, the little fellow trudging bravely by his father's side. But Columbus could not stop to consider whether his little boy was tired. He pressed on, as he greatly wished to find some one to help him work out his plan. At last he came to Palos, and near this town he left little Diego with his aunt.

Columbus then continued his journey in search of the King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. They were engaged in war with the Moors, whom they were driving out of Spain, and Columbus, therefore, had a hard time trying to get a hearing. At last he was called into their presence. Gathered about the King and Queen were also a number of wise men to listen to what he had to say.

When Columbus told them that the world was round like a globe some of the wise men laughed. They said: "Is any one so foolish as to believe that there are people who can walk with their heels upward and their heads hanging down? Can trees grow with their roots above their branches? Can rain, hail, and snow rise instead of fall?"

Yet there were others of the wise men who did not laugh. They believed, as Columbus did, that the world was round like a globe.

Trials and Difficulties

The King and Queen, however, were not convinced, and at last Columbus, sick at heart, decided to leave Spain for France. Thus far he had failed. Men called him a crazy dreamer. When he walked through the villages even the boys laughed at him, and tapped their foreheads as they pointed their fingers toward him.

But Columbus had faith in his plans, and believed that God was willing to help him. Therefore, although sad at heart, he started with good courage for the court of France. Diego, now a lad of eleven or twelve, went with him, and again we may picture them as they walked, side by side, along the country highway.

History tells us that Columbus was a fine-looking man—tall, strong, and well formed. He had a noble face, with keen blue-gray eyes. His hair, already white, fell in long locks about his shoulders; and, although plainly dressed, his courteous manner made him pleasing to all whom he met.

After father and son had gone about a mile and a half, they stopped to get some bread and water at the Convent of St. Mary. Just then the good prior of the convent passed by, and the two men fell into conversation. Columbus talked so well that the prior listened closely to all he had to say, and, deeply impressed by his earnestness, wrote at once to Queen Isabella, telling her what Columbus wished to do. The Queen, who knew the prior well, then sent some money to Columbus, and summoned him back to court.

Having bought himself new and suitable clothing, with lightened heart he again sought the Queen's presence. This time she told him that she liked his plan. But he demanded so much for his services as leader of the expedition that no agreement was reached. Columbus was much displeased. He left the Queen's presence and, mounting his mule, started off alone to seek aid in France.

Shortly after he had left the court, however, an officer begged the Queen to recall him. She did so by sending a messenger on a swift horse to overtake him. On his return the Queen told him she would furnish him with men and vessels for the expedition.

The Little Fleet Sets Sail

But his trials had only begun, for the ocean was unknown, and sailors were afraid. They called the Atlantic Ocean the Sea of Darkness, and believed that in it were frightful monsters ready to destroy the vessels that might sail near them.

In course of time, however, three small vessels with one hundred and twenty men were ready to start. The vessels were not larger than many of the fishing-boats of to-day. The largest was called the Santa Maria,  and the other two were the Pinta  and the Nina.

A half-hour before sunrise on Friday morning, August 3, 1492, the little fleet sailed out of the port of Palos. It was a sorrowful time for the poor sailors and their friends. All believed that the vessels would certainly be lost, and that the sailors would never again see home and friends.

Columbus steered for the Canary Islands, where he stopped three weeks to repair the rudder of the Pinta. On September 6th they again set sail. Soon they were out of sight of land. Then the sailors cried and sobbed like, children.

New Trials and Dangers

Fresh calamities awaited them. At the end of a week the compass-needle no longer pointed to the North Star. A few days later the fleet entered a vast stretch of seaweed. At first the vessels sailed easily over this mass of weeds and grass, but later, when the wind slackened, they moved more slowly. The sailors were greatly troubled. On every side of them, almost as far as the eye could reach, they saw the sea covered with a green carpet of weeds and grass. They feared the vessels would stick fast in this grass or run upon rocks lying just below the surface of the water, and that they themselves would be shipwrecked. But when the wind blew up a little stronger, the vessels passed on in safety.

This danger passed and others loomed up. At length, after many days, their hearts were cheered by flocks of birds. They felt that land must be near. In fact, they often shouted "Land!" when they thought they saw it in the distance. But they were as often mistaken. No land appeared, and their fears deepened day by day.

Then they entered the belt of trade-winds that blew them steadily westward. They said: "We are lost! We can never see our friends again. We can never sail home against this wind that is bearing us farther and farther from all we love." They begged Columbus to turn about and steer for home. He refused. They became angry. They called him crazy. They threatened his life. They said: "Let us push him overboard some night when he is looking at the stars."

Columbus knew his life was in danger, but he did not despair. He still had faith and hope. The greater the danger the more firmly he set himself to meet it with a strong will and high purpose.


On October 11th all were encouraged by signs of land. The sailors saw a thorn branch, a reed, and a carved stick floating by. Now the King and Queen had promised a reward of nearly six hundred dollars to the sailor who should first see land. Columbus also had promised a velvet cloak. We may well believe, therefore, that each wished to be the first to catch a glimpse of land.

That night no one slept. Every one was looking for the first sign of the distant shore. About ten o'clock in the evening Columbus himself saw a light in the distance. It looked like a torch in the hand of a man running along the shore. About two o'clock next morning, Friday, October 12th, a sailor on board the Pinta  saw, about five miles off, a low strip of land. This was an island of the Bahama group.

All were eager for the dawn. Early in the morning boats were lowered, and everybody went ashore. Columbus, dressed in a rich robe of bright scarlet, bore aloft the royal standard. As soon as he reached the land he threw himself, kneeling, upon the ground. With tears in his eyes he kissed the earth and, thanking God for the safe voyage, took possession of the land in the name of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The sailors fell upon their knees before Columbus and begged him to forgive them for all their evil thoughts toward him.

The Indians

At first the natives, whom Columbus called Indians because he thought he was in the East Indies, ran to the woods. They feared the Spaniards, but later they returned and worshipped these white men because they thought they were beings from the sky. They believed the vessels to be great birds, and the sails to be large white wings.

The Spaniards at once began to trade with the Indians. They exchanged tiny bells, red caps, and glass beads for tame parrots, cotton yarn, and a few gold ornaments.

These Indians were poor, dark-skinned, and naked. Their bodies were painted in various colors. The men carried sticks, pointed with fish-bones, for javelins. They used canoes, which they moved with paddles looking like wooden shovels. These canoes, which were made of single trunks of trees, were sometimes large enough to carry forty men.

Columbus in the New World

Columbus called the island on which he had landed San Salvador, which means Holy Saviour. Continuing his voyage, he sailed along the coast of Cuba and Hayti. He thought he was in India, and was therefore on the lookout for the cities of Asia, where he expected to find the gold, spices, and precious stones he so eagerly sought.

On Christmas morning he had a bad mishap. While it was still dark, near the shore of Hayti one of his little vessels ran aground on a sand-bar, and was soon knocked to pieces by the waves. The Pinta  had already deserted the fleet, so that now there remained but one vessel, the Nina.

As this frail craft was too small for all the men to live in, forty of the sailors decided to stay behind when Columbus should sail. They built a fort out of the timbers of the wrecked vessel, and placed its guns inside the fort. There Columbus left the men with provisions for a year. This was the first Spanish colony in the New World.

A Stormy Return Voyage

On January 4, 1493, the Nina  sailed for Spain. Soon afterward the Pinta,  whose captain had been trading with the natives, joined her. Everything went well until February 12th, when a fearful storm arose, which threatened to destroy the vessels.

Columbus was almost overcome in his struggle to meet this grim danger. It would, indeed, be hard to lose all that he had spent so many years in trying to realize. Should he now perish without letting the world know what he had done?

In his distress he wrote on parchment two accounts of his discovery, and sealed and addressed them to the King and Queen of Spain. Wrapping each of these accounts in cloth and enclosing them in large cakes of wax, he placed them in barrels, one of which he threw into the sea and the other he kept on board of his vessel. But, as good fortune would have it, the little Nina  weathered the storm, and on March 15th entered the harbor of Palos in safety.

Great was the joy of the people that day. They stopped all business to give a welcome to the man who had won success for himself and for Spain. His praise was now on every man's lips.

Columbus Honored in Spain

Soon Columbus found his way to Barcelona, where he was honored by a street parade. Leading the parade were six Indians who had returned with him. They were smeared with paint and decked with feathers of birds. Next to them came men carrying stuffed and live birds of beautiful plumage, also from the New World. Columbus, attended by many of Spain's great men, rode on horseback.

When the parade reached the house where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were, Columbus sought their presence. They honored him by rising when he entered, and when he knelt to kiss their hands they commanded him to rise and sit with them as an equal.

The "idle dreamer" was now one of the great men of Spain. Everybody was eager to share his honor and his fame. There was no longer any difficulty in getting some of the most powerful men in the country to join him on a second voyage. They imagined they would return with great wealth if they should go with Columbus on his second voyage to the far-famed East.

The Second Voyage to the New World

In September, 1493, Columbus sailed again. This time there was no trouble in making up a company. He had with him a fleet of seventeen vessels and fifteen hundred men. Many of the men belonged to the best families in Spain. As Columbus planned to found a colony, he took with him on this expedition, not only horses, mules, and cattle, but vines, vegetables, and many kinds of seeds.

He expected to find the men whom he had left on his first voyage the winter before, but on reaching the place in Hayti where the colony had been there was no one to welcome him. He fired guns, but there was no answering salute. No one was in the fort. It had been torn down, the remnant of food had been destroyed, and not one of the forty men remained. Eleven dead bodies were found buried near by.

After building a little town that he called Isabella, in honor of the Queen, Columbus started out to explore the new country. But trouble met him on every hand. The Indians were not always friendly, and his own men were often unwilling to obey him. At length, at the end of three years, he sailed back to Spain, leaving the settlement in a wretched condition. After a long, trying voyage, during which all the food on board was used up, he and his men, almost starved, at last reached home. He was kindly received, and was told that he should have more ships for another voyage.

Later Voyages and Last Days of Columbus

A few years later he set sail on a third voyage. But when he returned to the little town he had built he found things were going badly. Trouble had arisen with the Indians, and more serious difficulties among the settlers themselves.

For two long years Columbus tried to make things right, but he was not successful. Many people were beginning to lose faith in him because they did not get the wealth that they had supposed they should find by joining in his voyages. Others were jealous of him, and made plans for his ruin.

At length an officer was sent from Spain, to examine into the affairs of the colony. When he reached the settlement, he took Columbus's property, put Columbus himself in chains, and sent him back to Spain in dishonor. In this sad condition Columbus came into the presence of the Queen, who had summoned him to court. When she saw him she wept, and he also broke down and fell at her feet, weeping.

A few years later he went on a fourth voyage. But he was shipwrecked, and spent a long year of hardship and misery. At last he returned to Spain, where he arrived but a short time before Queen Isabella, his only protector, died. For eighteen months Columbus lived, broken in health and cast down in spirit. On May 20, 1506, he died of a broken heart, not knowing the grandeur of his discovery—the discovery of a new world.

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