II. THE ERA OF DISCOVERY.
We live in times when the researches of scholars are minute, pitiless, and exhaustive, and when no hitherto received historical fact is permitted to escape the ordeal of the most critical scrutiny. Many are the cherished historical beliefs which have latterly been assailed with every resource of logical argument and formidably arrayed proofs, unearthed by tireless diligence and pursuit. Thus we are told that the story of William Tell is a romantic myth; that Lucretia Borgia, far from being a poisoner and murderess, was really a very estimable person; and that the siege of Troy was a very insignificant struggle, between armies counted, not by thousands, but by hundreds.
In the same way the old familiar question, "Who discovered America?" which every school-boy was formerly as prompt to answer as to his age and name, has in recent years become a perplexing problem of historical disputation; and at least can no longer be accurately answered by the name of the gallant and courageous Genoese who set forth across the Atlantic in 1492.
Bancroft, on the first page of his history, pronounces the story of the discovery of our country by the Icelandic Northmen, a narrative "mythological in form and obscure in meaning"; and adds that "no clear historical evidence establishes the natural probability that they accomplished the passage." But the first volume of Bancroft was published in 1852. Since then, the proofs of the discovery of the continent by the Icelanders, very nearly five hundred years before Columbus was thrilled with the delight of beholding the Bahamas, have multiplied and grown to positive demonstration. They no longer rest upon vague traditions; they have assumed the authority of explicit and well attested records.
[Discoverers of America.]
The discovery of the New England coast by the Icelanders is the earliest which, down to the present, can be positively asserted. But it has been recently urged that there are some evidences of American discovery by Europeans or Asiatics long prior to Leif Erikson. There are certain indications that the Pacific coast was reached by Chinese adventurers in the remote past; and it is stated that proofs exist in Brazil tending to show that South America was discovered by Phoenicians five hundred years before Christ. The story is said to be recorded on some brass tablets found in northern Brazil, which give the number of the vessels and crews, state Sidon as the port to which the voyagers belonged, and even describe their route around the Cape of Good Hope and along the west coast of Africa, whence the trade-winds drifted them across the Atlantic.
Confining ourselves to credible history, it appears that in the year 986 (eighty years before the conquest of England by William of Normandy), an Icelandic mariner named Bjarne Herrjulson, making for Greenland in his rude bark, was swept across the Atlantic, and finally found himself cast upon dry land. He made haste to set sail on his return voyage, and succeeded in getting safely back to Iceland. He told his story of the strange land beyond the seas; and so pleased had he been with its pleasant and fruitful aspect that he named it "Vineland."
The story of Bjarne impressed itself upon an intelligent and adventurous man, Leif Erikson; who, having purchased Bjarne's ship, set sail for Vineland in the year 1000, with a crew of thirty-five men. He reached what is now Cape Cod, and passed the winter of 1000-1 on its shores. Returning to Iceland, his example was followed, two years later, by another Erikson, who established a colony on the shores of Narragansett Bay, not far from Fall River, where the founder died and was buried.
[Columbus in Iceland.]
It is well nigh certain that Christopher Columbus, in the year 1477, visited Iceland, and even sailed one hundred leagues beyond it, discovering there an unfrozen sea. The idea of western discovery was already in his mind, and he had received hints of a western continent, from certain carved objects picked up in the Atlantic by other navigators. It is altogether probable that the conjectures of Columbus were confirmed into conviction by the Icelandic traditions of Leif's discovery, during his sojourn at Rejkjawik. From this time Columbus was more than ever intent upon the enterprise which, fifteen years after, conferred upon him imperishable glory.
[Voyage of Columbus.]
The story of Columbus is, or should be, familiar to every American who can read. How he sailed forth from the roads of Saltez on the 3d of August, 1492, with three vessels and a crew of one hundred and twenty men; how the voyage was stormy and full of doubts and discouragements; how, finally, early on the morning of October 12, Rodrigo Triana, a seaman of the Pinta, first descried the land which Columbus christened San Salvador; how they pushed on and found Cuba and Hayti; how, after returning to Spain, Columbus made two more voyages westward, - one in 1493, when he discovered Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Porto Rico: and another in 1498 when the Orinoco and the coast of Para rewarded his researches; and his subsequent unhappy fate - all these events have been related by many writers, and most vividly of all by the graphic pen of Washington Irving.