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Friday, October 10, 2014

Columbus Day - Who Discovered America?

Posted by R. Ann Siracusa


I had no idea when I sat down to write this blog, that it would be as difficult as it was. There's nothing too hard about describing Columbus day.

"In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue."

On October 12, 1492, after five weeks of sailing, explorer Christopher Columbus (Genoa, 1451-1506) and his men set foot on the soil of the New World, the present day Bahamas, and claimed the land for Spain. Then they continued on to the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic). And the new world was discovered.

Columbus made four trips to the Americas, opening the continent for European exploration and colonization. [On the second trip he re-introduced horses to the western hemisphere. Horses and camels had existed here at one time, but became extinct. Horses had a distinct impact on the development of the Americas.]

Even though U.S. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in 1892 to honor four hundred-year anniversary of Columbus’ landing in the Bahamas, it wasn’t a national holiday until 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared it a legal federal holiday.

I find it interesting that in quite a few Latin American countries, October 12 is celebrated as Día de la Raza. In the Bahamas it is called Discovery Day, Día de la Hispanidad and Fiesta Nacional in Spain, and as Día de las Américas in Uruguay.


Well, not precisely.

Point one: It depends on what is meant by the word discover.

Christopher Columbus was certainly not the first of human kind to set foot on the North American Continent. There were already Native Americans living there when he arrived, both on the islands where he did set foot, and on the North American continent.

Columbus wasn't even the first European to set foot there, either.  In 1960, undeniable proof of Vikings in North America came to light at L'Anse aux Meadows near Newfoundland, Canada.

Islandic-style house foundations gave proof that the Vikings briefly settled there around 1100 (five hundred years before Columbus arrived), and artifacts including a needle whetstone, a soapstone spindle whorl, and bronze ring-pins of the Norsemen were also convincing evidence.

Leif (The Lucky) Ericson (970-1020) the Norse explorer and first son of Erik the Red, is regarded as the first European to land in North America.

There are a myriad of other claims that others reached the North American continent before Columbus and even before Ericson.

530 AD - St. Brendan
The story of St. Brendan, from Ireland, sailing to America certainly falls within the myth category.

1170 AD - Prince Madoc of Wales
Madoc (Madog or Madawg) ap Owain Gwynedd was a Welsh prince who, according to legend, discovered America in 1170. The story is unconfirmed, but there is a growing belief among many Welsh in the US who believe the Welsh have a claim on the discovery of the continent. The first written account of Madoc's story is in George Peckham's A True Report of the late Discoveries of the Newfound Landes (1583).

There exists disputed archaeological evidence, three hill fort sites similar to Celtic hill forts, along the river in the area they are supposed to have "colonized". The Mandan Indians are reportedly the descendents of these early Welsh explorers. There are no Mandan Indians left of pure blood to confirm this through DNA testing.

1398 AD - Henry Sinclair
Also in the myth category is Henry I Sinclair (sometimes written St. Clair), Earl of Orkney, Baron of Roslin, and Lord of Shetland (c.1345-c.1400). A Scottish explorer/nobleman and the grandfather of William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness, the builder of Rosslyn Chapel, Henry is also noted for being the subject of legend that he undertook early explorations of Greenland and North America in about the year 1398.

Point two: It depends on what is meant by the word America in this context.

While it’s true that Columbus never set foot on what U.S. citizens consider “America,” he never claimed he had. The name “America” (bestowed on the New World) was derived from the name of explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci (Florence, 1454-1512), although even this is in contention.

Through another ironic quirk of history, Vespucci didn’t name it, either. In fact, both Columbus and Vespucci believed what they discovered to be parts of Asia that, at that point, had not been explored by Europeans. Historians tell us that neither man had any concept of a new continent.

One source indicates Amerigo Vespucci was a merchant from Venice who owned a business in Spain outfitting ships for mercantile expeditions. Another claims he worked for Lorenzo de' Medici and was sent, in 1492, to work at the Seville, Spain branch of the Medici bank. According to that source, King Manual I of Portugal invited Vespucci to participate as observer in several exploratory voyages to the east coast of South America between 1499 and 1502. And, in fact, both versions might be correct.

However he got there, Vespucci accompanied those expeditions to South America and, as a result, wrote letters with glowing descriptions of the newly discovered countries which he called the lands of a "New World."

Vespucci’s letters were read by Martin Waldseemuller, a noted geographer, and Mathias Ringmann, who were preparing a reproduction of Ptolemy's treatise on geography. They decided to incorporate Vespucci's voyage into the treatise. Ringmann, acting as editor, was apparently unaware of Columbus’ discoveries fifteen years earlier and wrote the following in his introduction: “There is a fourth quarter of the world which Amerigo Vespucci has discovered and which for this reason we can call 'America' or the land of Americo."

Their work (entitled Cosmographiae Introductio) was published in April, 1507, and marked the first time the word America appeared in print.

And this is sooo not what I learned in high school American History. Do we really know anything for sure?

According to Toby Lester, a contributing editor to The Atlantic and the author of The Fourth Part of the World,History hasn’t served poor Matthias Ringmann nearly as well [as Martin Waldseemuller]. That doesn’t seem quite fair. So tonight let’s send up a few of our fireworks in honor of the man who had the audacity to declare, before anybody else, that the world had a fourth part—and to imagine that he might be the one who could give it a name.”

Is nothing sacred? There is also a claim that the name America came from Richard Amerike, a Welsh-descended English merchant, Royal customs officer and Sheriff who had sponsored John Cabot's voyage to America in 1497.


Stories have it that Columbus died broke and in jail, but for the most part, the history books still give Christopher Columbus the credit for “discovering” the new world and opening up the Americas to European colonization. They also lay the blame for the negative impacts of his arrival in the Western Hemisphere. A double-edged sword.

He is also blamed for the destruction of the native peoples of the islands he explored, and he is labeled a racist, as were most of the aristocracy of that period. People have expended many words on extolling his successes and virtues and criticizing his faults and failures. There is plenty to read, if you want to explore those avenues.


Regardless of who got to the Americas/New World first and the real story, up until Columbus' voyages, the two hemispheres of the world lived in isolation, each unaware of the existence of the other. Christopher Columbus' voyages changed that and had a significant impact (good, bad, or indifferent) on trade and the subsequent history of the world.
And that's what we acknowledge on October 12 (Oops! 13th this year).



Lynda Bailey said...

What an awesome history lesson! Loved it!!! Thanks so much for doing all this research... ;)

Cara Marsi said...

Thank you. How interesting. As a person of Italian heritage, it was a source of pride as a kid to think an Italian "discovered" America. Then, as it came out that other Europeans were here first, that pride dissolved. And when I developed a social conscious and realized that the Europeans coming to this continent was the death knell to the native peoples, I have a whole new perspective on the "discovery." The Mandan Indians had blue eyes, which lends itself to the belief they were descendants of Europeans who came here before Columbus. Too bad there are no more Mandans to do DNA testing.

Rose Anderson said...

Terrific post, Ann! I appreciate time it took to put all that together.

R. Ann Siracusa said...

I know not everyone goes in for the "history lesson" posts, but for me history opens the door to numerous plots for novels, particularly when it's a little different than what we all learned in school.

jean hart stewart said...

You really spend time on your posts and it shows... thanks again..

Melissa Keir said...

Winners get to write the history and Columbus was a good story. The better one is that he was searching for gold (read his diaries). The natives didn't care about gold or see the worth... so they sent him on a wild goose chase. Those people over there have gold. No those people. Go there...

Just wait until you read about the real Pocahontas. That story is also as interesting as Columbus's tale!

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