Coming to America: Who Was First? Most of us were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Yet it is far from clear cut. There are alternative theories about who got here first — some well-documented, others much more flimsy in their scholarship. A new book probes their merits.
NPR logo Coming to America: Who Was First?

Coming to America: Who Was First?

Columbus gets the credit for being the first to land on these shores. Does he deserve it? Bettmann/Corbis hide caption

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Bettmann/Corbis

Columbus gets the credit for being the first to land on these shores. Does he deserve it?

Bettmann/Corbis

Excerpt: 'Who Was First?'

'Who Was First?'

Read an excerpt from Who Was First? by Russell Freedman:

Before Columbus

For a long time, most people believed that Christopher Columbus was the first explorer to "discover" America—the first to make a successful round-trip voyage across the Atlantic. But in recent years, as new evidence came to light, our understanding of history has changed. We know now that Columbus was among the last explorers to reach the Americas, not the first.

Five hundred years before Columbus, a daring band of Vikings led by Leif Eriksson set foot in North America and established a settlement. And long before that, some scholars say, the Americas seem to have been visited by seafaring travelers from China, and possibly by visitors from Africa and even Ice Age Europe.

A popular legend suggests an additional event: According to an ancient manuscript, a band of Irish monks led by Saint Brendan sailed an ox-hide boat westward in the sixth century in search of new lands. After seven years they returned home and reported that they had discovered a land covered with luxuriant vegetation, believed by some people today to have been Newfoundland.

All along, of course, the two continents we now call North and South America had already been "discovered." Before European explorers arrived, the Americas were home to tens of millions of native peoples. While those Native American groups differed greatly from one another, they all performed rituals and ceremonies, songs and dances, that brought back to mind and heart memories of the ancestors who had come before them and given them their place on Earth.

Who were the ancestors of those Native Americans? Where did they come from, when did they arrive in the Americas, and how did they make their epic journeys?

As we dig deeper and deeper into the past, we find that the Americas have always been lands of immigrants, lands that have been "discovered" time and again by different peoples coming from different parts of the world over the course of countless generations—going far back to the prehistoric past, when a band of Stone Age hunters first set foot in what truly was an unexplored New World.

1. Admiral of the Ocean Sea

Christopher Columbus was having trouble with his crew. His fleet of three small sailing ships had left the Canary Islands nearly three weeks earlier, heading west across the uncharted Ocean Sea, as the Atlantic was known. He had expected to reach China or Japan by now, but there was still no sign of land.

None of the sailors had ever been so long away from the sight of land, and as the days passed, they grew increasingly restless and fearful. The Ocean Sea was known also as the Sea of Darkness. Hideous monsters were said to lurk beneath the waves—venomous sea serpents and giant crabs that could rise up from the deep and crush a ship along with its crew. And if the Earth was flat, as many of the men believed, then they might fall off the edge of the world and plunge into that fiery abyss where the sun sets in the west. What's more, Columbus was a foreigner—a red-headed Italian commanding a crew of tough seafaring Spaniards—and that meant he couldn't be trusted.

Finally, the men demanded that Columbus turn back and head for home. When he refused, some of the sailors whispered together of mutiny. They wanted to kill the admiral by throwing him overboard. But, for the moment, the crisis passed. Columbus managed to calm his men and persuade them to be patient a while longer.

"I am having serious trouble with the crew . . . complaining that they will never be able to return home," he wrote in his journal. "They have said that it is insanity and suicidal on their part to risk their lives following the madness of a foreigner. . . . I am told by a few trusted men (and these are few in number!) that if I persist in going onward, the best course of action will be to throw me into the sea some night."

All along, Columbus had been keeping two sets of logs. One, which he kept secretly and showed to no one, was accurate, recording the distance really sailed each day. The other log, which he showed to his crew, hoping to reassure them that they were nowhere near the edge of the world, deliberately underestimated the miles they had covered since leaving Spain.

They sailed on for another two weeks and still saw nothing. There were more rumblings of protest and complaint from the crew. The men seemed willing to endure no more. On October 10, Columbus announced that he would give a fine silk coat to the man who first sighted land. The sailors greeted that offer with glum silence. What good was a silk coat in the middle of the Sea of Darkness?

Later that day, Columbus spotted a flock of birds flying toward the southwest—a sign that land was close. He ordered his ships to follow the birds.

The next night, the moon rose in the east shortly before midnight. About two hours later, at two A.M. on October 12, a sailor on one of Columbus's ships, the Pinta, saw a white stretch of beach, shouted, "Land! Land!" and fired a cannon. At dawn, the three ships dropped anchor in the calm, blue waters just offshore. They had arrived at an island in what we now call the Bahamas.

Excited crew members crowded the decks. People were standing on the beach, waiting to greet them. The natives had no weapons other than wooden fishing spears, and they were practically naked. Who were these people? And what place was this?

Columbus supposed that his fleet had landed on one of the many islands that Marco Polo had reported lay just off the coast of Asia. They must have reached the Indies, he thought—islands reputedly near India and known today as the East Indies. So he decided that those people on the beach must be "Indians," the name by which they have been known ever since. China and Japan, he believed, lay a bit farther to the north.

Though Christopher Columbus was an Italian born in Genoa, he had lived for years in Portugal, where he worked as a bookseller, a mapmaker, and a sailor. He had sailed on Portuguese voyages as far as Iceland in the North Atlantic, and down the coast of Africa in the South Atlantic. During his days at sea, he read books on history, geography, and travel.

Like most educated people at the time, Columbus believed that the Earth was round—not flat, as some ignorant folks still insisted. The Ocean Sea was seen as a great expanse of water surrounding the land mass of Eurasia and Africa, which stretched from Europe in the west to China and Japan in the far distant east. If a ship left the coast of Europe, sailed west toward the setting sun, and circled the globe, it would reach the shores of Asia—or so Columbus thought.

In the past, European explorers and traders had taken the overland route to the Far East, with its precious silks and spices. They traveled for months by horse and camel along the Silk Road, an ancient caravan trail that crossed deserts and climbed dizzying mountain peaks. Marco Polo had followed the Silk Road on his famous journey to China two centuries earlier. But recently, this land route to Asia, controlled in part by the Turks, had been closed to Europeans. And in any case, Columbus was convinced that he could find an easier and faster route to Asia by sailing west.

There were plenty of stories circulating in those years about the possibility of sailing directly from Europe to Asia, an idea first considered by the ancient Greeks. Columbus owned a book called Imago Mundi, or Image of the World, by a French scholar, Pierre d'Ailly, who argued that the Ocean Sea wasn't as wide as it seemed and that a ship driven by favorable winds could cross it in a few days. Next to that passage in the margin of the book, Columbus had written: "There is no reason to think that the ocean covers half the earth."

In 1484, he proposed his bold scheme of sailing west to China to King John II of Portugal, a monarch who had paid much attention to the discovery of new lands. Portugal was Europe's leading maritime power. Portuguese explorers in search of slaves, ivory, and gold had already discovered rich kingdoms and colossal rivers in western Africa and would soon reach the Cape of Good Hope at Africa's southern tip. From there, they would be able to sail across the Indian Ocean to the famed Spice Islands of southeast Asia.

King John listened to what Columbus had to say, then submitted the Italian sailor's plan to a committee of mapmakers, astronomers, and geographers. The distinguished experts declared that Asia must be much farther away than Columbus thought. They said that no expedition could be fitted out with enough food and water to sail across such an enormous expanse of sea.

Rejected by the Portuguese king, Columbus decided to approach King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, a country he had never before visited. Well-connected friends gave him letters of introduction to the inner circle of the Spanish royal court. Ferdinand and Isabella seemed curious about the route to Asia that Columbus proposed. Like King John, they too appointed a committee of inquiry to consider the matter, but those experts came to the same negative conclusion: Columbus's claim about the distance to China and the ease of sailing there could not possibly be true.

Columbus persisted. He talked at length to members of the Spanish court and convinced some of them, but Ferdinand and Isabella twice rejected his appeal for ships. Finally, angry and impatient after six discouraging years in Spain, he threatened to seek support from the king of France. Columbus actually set out for France, riding a mule down a dusty Spanish road.

With that, royal advisors persuaded Ferdinand and Isabella to change their minds. If another king sponsored Columbus, and his expedition turned out to be a success, then the Spanish monarchs would be embarrassed. They would be criticized in Spain. Let Columbus risk his life, the advisors said. Let him seek out "the grandeurs and secrets of the universe." If he succeeded, Spain would win much glory and would overcome the Portuguese lead in the race to exploit the riches of Asia.

And so Ferdinand and Isabella decided to take a chance. They dispatched a messenger to intercept Columbus on the road and bring him back to court. They were ready to grant him a hereditary title, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and the right to a tenth of any riches—pearls, gold, silver, silks, spices—that he brought back from his voyage. And they agreed to supply two ships for his expedition. Columbus himself raised the money to hire a third ship.

A half hour before sunrise on August 3, 1492, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa María sailed from the port of Palos, Spain, carrying some ninety crew members in all. They were small, lightweight ships called caravels, swift and maneuverable, each with three masts, their white sails with big red crosses billowing before the wind. They had on board food that would last—salted cod, bacon, and biscuits, along with flour, wine, olive oil, and plenty of water, enough for a year. In his small cabin, Columbus kept several hourglasses to mark the passage of time, a compass, and an astrolabe, an instrument for calculating latitude by observing the movement of the sun.

The little fleet stopped for repairs at La Gomera in the Canary Islands, a Spanish possession off the coast of Morocco. On September 6, after praying at the parish church of San Sebastian (which still looks out over the ocean today), Columbus and his three ships set sail again, heading due west, moving now through the unknown waters of the Ocean Sea. Five weeks later, on October 12, his worried crew finally sighted land.

Columbus called the place where they landed San Salvador—the first of many Caribbean islands that he would name. The natives who greeted him called their island Guanahani. They themselves were a people known as the Tainos, the largest group of natives inhabiting the islands of what we today call the West Indies.

Columbus tells us a few things about these now-extinct people. He was impressed by their good looks and apparent robust health. "They are very well-built people, with handsome bodies and very fine faces," he wrote in his log. "Their eyes are large and very pretty. . . . These are tall people and their legs, with no exceptions, are quite straight, and none of them has a paunch." Many of the Tainos had painted their faces or their whole bodies black or white or red. And as Columbus and his men noticed right away, some of them wore gold earrings and nose rings. They offered gifts to the European visitors—parrots, wooden javelins, and balls of cotton thread.

From San Salvador, Columbus sailed on to several more islands, still believing that he was close to Japan "because all my globes and world maps seem to indicate that the island of Japan is in this vicinity." He stopped at Cuba and at Hispaniola (the island that today contains Haiti and the Dominican Republic). And he wrote enthusiastically in his journal of the lush tropical beauty of the islands, the sweet singing of birds "that might make a man wish never to leave here," and the hospitality of the people: "They gave my men bread and fish and whatever they had." And later, "They brought us all they had in this world, knowing what I wanted, and they did it so generously and willingly that it was wonderful."

The Tainos lived in large, airy wooden houses with palm roofs. They slept in cotton hammocks, sat on wooden chairs carved in elaborate animal shapes, and kept small barkless dogs and tame birds as pets. They were skilled farmers, fishermen, and boat builders who traveled from island to island in long, brightly painted canoes carved from tree trunks, each of which carried as many as 150 people.

They told Columbus that they called themselves Tainos, a word meaning "good," to distinguish themselves from the "bad" Caribs, their fierce, warlike neighbors who raided Taino villages, carried off their girls as brides, and, the Tainos insisted, ate human flesh. To fend off Carib attacks, the Tainos painted themselves red and fought back with clubs, bows and arrows, and spears propelled by throwing sticks.

The Tainos themselves were not warlike, Columbus reported to his monarchs: "They are an affectionate people, free from avarice and agreeable to everything. I certify to Your Highnesses that in all the world I do not believe there is a better people or a better country. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the softest and gentlest voices in the world and are always smiling."

A village chief gave Columbus a mask with golden eyes and large ears of gold. And the Spaniards were already aware that many of the Tainos wore gold jewelry. They kept asking where the gold came from. After much searching, they found a river on the island of Hispaniola where "the sand was full of gold, and in such quantity, that it is wonderful. . . . I named this El Rio del Oro" (The River of Gold).

Columbus built a small fort nearby and left thirty-nine men behind to collect gold samples and await the next Spanish expedition. Still believing that he had discovered unknown islands near the shores of Asia, he sailed back to Spain with some gold from Hispaniola and with ten Indians he had kidnapped so he could train them as interpreters and exhibit them at the royal court. One of the Indians died at sea.

He returned to a triumphant welcome. It was said that when Ferdinand and Isabella received him at their court in Barcelona, "there were tears in the royal eyes." They greeted Columbus as a hero, inviting him to ride with them in royal processions. A second voyage was planned. This time, the monarchs gave Columbus seventeen ships, about fifteen hundred men, and a few women to colonize the islands. He was instructed to continue his explorations, establish gold mines, install settlers, develop trade with the Indians, and convert them to Christianity.

Columbus returned to Hispaniola in the fall of 1493. He hoped to find huge amounts of gold on the island. But the mines yielded much less gold than expected, and the European crops planted by the settlers wilted in the tropical climate. Some settlers began to lord it over the Indians, stealing their possessions, abducting their wives, and seizing captives to be shipped to Spain and sold as slaves. Thousands of Tainos fled to the mountains to escape capture. Others, vowing to avenge themselves, attacked any Spaniards they found in small groups and set fire to their huts.

While Columbus was a courageous and enterprising mariner, he proved to be a poor governor, unable to control the greed of his followers. In 1496, he was called back to Spain to answer complaints about his management of the colony. When he appeared at court before Ferdinand and Isabella, he found the king and queen were still willing to support his explorations. Columbus gave them a "good sample of gold . . . and many masks, with eyes and ears of gold, and many parrots." He also presented to the monarchs "Diego," the brother of a Taino chief, who was wearing a heavy gold collar. These hints that more gold might be forthcoming encouraged Ferdinand and Isabella to send Columbus back to the Indies, this time with eight ships.

When he returned to Hispaniola on his third voyage in 1498, he found the island in turmoil, torn by rivalries and disagreements among the settlers. Many colonists, unable to make a living from the gold mines or by farming, were clamoring to return to Spain. Others, rivals of Columbus who wanted to gain control of the colony, rebelled against his rule. When word of the conflict reached Spain, the king and queen sent an emissary, Francisco de Bobadilla, to investigate the uprising and take charge of the government.

Columbus, it seems, made the mistake of arguing with the royal emissary and challenging his credentials. He was promptly arrested and with his two brothers was shipped back to Spain to face charges of wrongdoing. "Bobadilla sent me here in chains," he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella when he landed in Spain. "I swear that I do not know, nor can I think why." Though Columbus was quickly pardoned by the Spanish monarchs, who felt he had been treated too harshly, he was stripped of his right to govern the islands he had discovered, and he lost his title as Admiral of the Ocean Sea.

Even so, he was allowed to make one more voyage, sailing across the Caribbean and exploring the coast of Central America. This final expedition was cursed by bad luck. Two of Columbus's ships became so infested with termites, they sank. When he headed back to Spain, he had to beach his remaining ships at St. Ann's Bay in Jamaica, where he was marooned for a year before being rescued in the fall of 1504. He returned to Spain an ill and disappointed man.

Spanish colonists, meanwhile, had been settling in Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and other islands in the West Indies. The local Indians were put to work as forced laborers in the goldfields or on Spanish ranches. Indians who resisted were killed, sometimes with terrible brutality, or were shipped to Spain to be sold as slaves. Spanish missionaries denounced this mistreatment, but with little effect. "I have seen the greatest cruelty and inhumanity practiced on these gentle and peace-loving [native peoples]," Father Bartolomé de Las Casas would say a half century later, "without any reason except for insatiable greed, thirst, and hunger for gold."

As the number of Spanish colonists increased, the native population of the West Indies quickly declined. Tens of thousands of native people were worked to death or died of smallpox, measles, and other European diseases to which they had no immunity. As the Tainos died off, the colonists brought in black slaves from Africa to labor on ranches and in the spreading sugar-cane fields.

Within fifty years, the Tainos had ceased to exist as a distinct race of people. A few Taino words survive today in Spanish and even in English, including hammock, canoe, hurricane, savannah, barbecue, and cannibal.

Columbus died in a Spanish monastery on May 20, 1506, at the age of fifty-seven, still believing that he had found a new route to Asia, and that China and Japan lay just beyond the islands he had explored. By then, other explorers were following the sea route pioneered by the Admiral of the Ocean Sea, and Europeans were already speaking of Columbus's discoveries as a "New World."

The first map of the world to show these newly discovered lands across the Ocean Sea appeared in 1507, a year after Christopher Columbus's death. The mapmaker, Martin Waldseemüller, named the New World "America," after the Italian Amerigo Vespucci, who had explored the coastline of South America and was the first to realize that it was a separate continent, not part of Asia.

Columbus wasn't the first explorer to "discover" America. His voyages were significant because they were the first to become widely known in Europe. They opened a pathway from the Old World to the New, paving the way for the European conquest and colonization of the Americas, changing life forever on both sides of the Atlantic.

Excerpted from Who Was First? Copyright © 2007 by Russell Freedman.

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