Gateway to the Classics: Elementary History of the United States by Gordy, Wilbur F.
Elementary History of the United States by  Gordy, Wilbur F.

The Discovery of America

It seems pretty certain that America was first reached by Europeans in the tenth or the eleventh century. At that time, according to the story told by Icelanders, hardy sailors from Norway came to Iceland and Greenland.

It is supposed that some of these daring explorers reached America. Among them, we are told, was Leif Ericsson, who, in the year one thousand, with five hundred and thirty men, touched upon the coast of Labrador. Sailing south, he landed probably somewhere on the New England coast, and spent the winter. Because of the many grape-vines which grew there, he called the country Vinland. In the spring he went back to Greenland with a load of timber.

The following year Leif's brother sailed to Vinland, where he passed two winters. In later years other Northmen visited the coast. But none remained long, for the natives were unfriendly and attacked them. Vinland was therefore soon forgotten.

It was nearly five hundred years before the people of Europe again made voyages to that part of the world. They did so then under the pressure of a great need. For many hundred years Europe had carried on a large trade with India and China. Merchants of Genoa, Venice, and other ports in the Mediterranean Sea grew rich by this trade. They received from the Far East such luxuries as silks, gums, spices, ivory, and precious stones. All these things were brought by overland routes across Asia to the Mediterranean Sea, and thence by sailing vessels to the Western ports.

But when, in 1453, the Turks captured Constantinople, these overland routes were closed to trade, and the Mediterranean was made unsafe by Turkish pirates. From that time onward Europe began to search for an ocean route to India, China, and Japan.

It was natural that Portugal and Spain, which were then two of the most powerful countries in the world, should take the lead in finding this water route. For seventy years Portuguese sea captains slowly but surely made their way down the west coast of Africa. At last, in 1497, Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope, sailed on eastward to India and the Spice Islands, and having collected a rich cargo of silks, jewels, and spices, returned with it to Portugal. Thus the first water route to the Far East was found.

But some years before Da Gama's voyage another great seaman had tried to find a water route to India by sailing west. This was Christopher Columbus. He failed, of course, to reach India, but in the path of his voyage he discovered the New World.

Columbus was born in Genoa in 1436. From boyhood days he had taken great interest in geography, and when he grew up he became very skilful in making maps and charts. He was also fond of the sea. When about thirty-five years of age, he went to live at Lisbon, Portugal. At this time he was a fine-looking man. His tall form and noble face, his dear gray eyes, and his white hair falling to his shoulders gave him a commanding presence, while his courteous manner made him pleasing to all he met. While in Lisbon he of course heard much about the Portuguese plan of reaching India and China by sailing around Africa. But he asked himself why these countries could not be reached by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean, for he believed, with many others of the time, that the world was round like a globe and that China was not more than three thousand miles west from Europe. If he could find such a short and easy trade route to the Far East, he would bring wealth to Europe and secure honor and fame for himself.

He was so taken up with his great scheme that he dreamed of it day and night. His dreams seemed all the more real because of the reports of Marco Polo and other travellers about the wealth and splendor of the East. These men had told wonderful tales of palaces roofed with gold, of golden rivers, of fountains of youth, and of precious stones the like of which Europe had never seen. Fired by these accounts, Columbus determined to seek a new route. He was not the first man to believe that the world was round, but he was the first man to be willing to test his belief by venturing out upon an unknown sea.

As he was poor, he had to get money before he could carry out his plan. First he consulted the King of Portugal, who refused to aid him. Then he left Portugal and went to Spain to secure the support of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. As they were then engaged in war with the Moors, and were moving their camp from place to place, it was seven years before Columbus could get a hearing. These were years of trial to Columbus. Men laughed at him, and even boys in the street pointed the finger of scorn. Yet he did not give up hope, and at last the king and queen listened to him and agreed to give him help.

But his difficulties were not over. Sailors at that time called the Atlantic Ocean the Sea of Darkness. They believed it was full of dreadful monsters ready to seize both men and vessels. Besides, the ships of those days were small and lightly built. They were not strong enough to battle against heavy seas. So the king had to compel sailors to go with Columbus, and in some cases criminals were taken out of prison to make up his crews.

Of the three caravels made ready, the Santa Maria,  the Nina,  and the Pinta,  none was much larger than an ordinary fishing boat of to-day, and only one, the Santa Maria, which served as flag-ship, had a deck covering the entire hold of the vessel.

With these three vessels and one hundred and twenty men Columbus set sail a half hour before sunrise on August 3, 1492. We may imagine with what joy he found himself at sea. Not so the sailors. They were overcome with fear, and when they could no longer see land they wept like children. As week after week passed by, this fear gave way to despair. From time to time, it is true, their hearts were gladdened by the sight of birds, for this made them think that land was near. Sometimes a shout of "Land!" was heard. Then there was great excitement. But when that which their eyes had scanned melted away, they knew they had been looking at distant clouds.

When the ships reached the belt of trade winds and the sailors were blown steadily farther away from home and the friends whom they expected never to see again, they were angry and despairing. They said Columbus was a "crazy-brained dreamer," and they plotted to throw him overboard. Columbus knew his life was in danger, but his courage did not fail. He still had faith that he would succeed.

Finally, on October 11, a thorn branch with berries on it, a reed, and a carved stick came floating by. Then every heart was cheered, for these were sure signs of land. The sailors became alert. All were eager to catch a first glimpse of land. About ten o'clock that night Columbus himself saw in the distance a moving light, and three or four hours later a sailor saw the shore, then four or five miles away.

At early dawn next morning all the men went ashore. Columbus bore the royal standard. Weeping tears of joy, he knelt and took possession of the land in the name of the King and Queen of Spain. The sailors fell upon their knees before him, kissed his hands, and begged him to forgive them for their unkind thoughts during the voyage.

Columbus had landed upon one of the Bahama Islands. He thought that he had reached the East Indies and therefore he called the natives Indians. Continuing his voyage, he sailed along the coast of Cuba and Hayti. Landing here and there, he looked for the wonderful cities of Eastern Asia, but of course he looked in vain. Early in January the return voyage was made. When he arrived in Spain, he was called into the presence of the king and queen. They honored him by rising when he entered the room and by allowing him to sit in their presence. The poor sailor, the idle dreamer, was now looked upon as a great man.

Men of noble birth were ready to join him on a second voyage, which he took a few months later. He sailed in September, 1493, this time with seventeen vessels and fifteen hundred men. But these followers were bitterly disappointed because they did not find the silks, spices, jewels, and other precious things which they sought. Through failure and jealousy they soon became enemies of Columbus, who now fell upon evil days. Yet he made two more voyages. In one he sailed along the northern coast of South America, and in the other along the eastern coast of Central America.

Nowhere, however, did he find that which he sought. All Spain was disappointed. Many lost faith in the great navigator. Some, jealous of his fame, laid plots to ruin him. Then his friend and protector, Queen Isabella, died and left him without support. In his loneliness and discouragement he fell sick and died of a broken heart, little dreaming that he had discovered a new world.

A short time before Columbus discovered the American continent, Americus Vespucius, a Florentine then living in Spain, may have made a voyage to the New World. In 1497, some have said, he was pilot on an expedition which reached the coast of South America. It is certain that during the next ten years he sailed many times. During these voyages, which were made in the employment of Spain or of Portugal, he sailed along the coast of Brazil and other parts of South America.

Vespucius tells us that some of the Indians were unfriendly and shot arrows at the voyagers. Then at the sound of the white men's guns they ran for life. Some, he says, were cannibals. One great chief boasted that he had eaten the bodies of three hundred human beings. But notwithstanding their unfriendly reception by the natives, the explorers were charmed with the birds of brilliant plumage, the gay-colored flowers, and the magnificent trees. They were even ready to believe, as they were told, that the natives lived in this strange land to the age of one hundred and fifty years.

The good accounts that Vespucius wrote of what he saw attracted the attention of German geographers. For this reason and because one of them believed he was the first man to discover it, the New World was called America in his honor.

As we have seen, Columbus believed that the earth was round like a globe, but none of his voyages proved it. The honor of furnishing that proof belongs to Ferdinand Magellan. He was a Portuguese who went with Da Gama on his voyage to India and the Spice Islands. Like Columbus, he believed it possible to reach the land of silks and ivory by sailing west. His plan was to find a passage or strait in America through which he might sail, for it was now the common belief that America extended to the south pole. When he asked aid of his king and was refused, he entered the service of the Spanish king, and started on his famous voyage of discovery.

With a fleet of five old vessels, manned by two hundred and eighty men, on September 20, 1519, he put to sea. Little did he know what troubles awaited him. Four days after the fleet left port a small vessel overtook the flag-ship with this message from the father of Magellan's wife: "Be watchful. Some of your captains have said that if you give them trouble they will kill you." To make matters worse, a month of severe storms and scarcity of food and water bred a spirit of mutiny among the sullen sailors.

It was nearly four months before the fleet reached the mouth of the La Plata River, and there Magellan spent three weeks in finding out that it was not a strait. During another two months he sailed along the coast of Patagonia in the midst of ceaseless and furious storms. But on the last day of March, six months after leaving the home port, he found a well-sheltered harbor, where he anchored.

It is not strange that the sailors were disheartened. There was but little bread and wine left, and no hope of getting more. They begged Magellan to return. He stubbornly refused. Then open mutiny broke out. But he sternly put it down. A little later one of the vessels was wrecked; yet even in the face of this discouragement, amid violent storms he pushed on.

At length his fleet entered a passage of water which we now call the Strait of Magellan. From this place one of the ships stole away for Spain. Again the sailors on the three remaining vessels pleaded to go home. Magellan's answer was, "I will go on if I have to eat the leather off the ship's yards."

Still heading westward, they began the long, weary voyage across the Pacific. The sailors suffered from famine and scurvy. Many died. The survivors kept alive only by eating the skins and leather bound about the great ropes of the ships. Thus were the words of Magellan made true.

At last they came to the Philippine Islands. Upon landing they had a desperate fight with the natives and had to retreat to their boats. Their loss was heavy. Fearless, Magellan was, as always, the last in retreat. The natives pressed closely about him, bore him to the earth, and slew him.

What were left of his men lifted anchor and steered their course homeward. It was still a long voyage. Not until September 6, 1522, nearly three years after leaving Spain, did they arrive at the home port. Only one vessel returned, manned by eighteen starving sailors, who looked like staggering skeletons.

This was the greatest voyage that had ever been made. It proved beyond doubt that the earth was round. Moreover, the question in men's minds whether the land discovered by Columbus was really the East Indies, as he supposed, was also answered. America, beyond any doubt, was a new continent.

Other great sea captains now began to search for a passage through America to the South Sea, as they called the Pacific Ocean. For although Magellan had found a passage, it was so far south that the voyage through it to Asia was too long to be of advantage to trade. A route farther north was desired. If the New World was not very wide, a passage through it would make a short route to India, China, and Japan. For the next two hundred years, therefore, navigators and explorers sought a northwest passage through North America as the shortest water route to the trade of eastern Asia.

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