The New World, of which our country is the most important part, was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. When that great man set sail from Spain on his voyage of discovery, he was seeking not only unknown lands, but a new way to eastern Asia. Such a new way was badly needed.

THE ROUTES OF TRADE. - Long before Columbus was born, the people of Europe had been trading with the far East. Spices, drugs, and precious stones, silks, and other articles of luxury were brought, partly by vessels and partly by camels, from India, the Spice Islands, and Cathay (China) by various routes to Constantinople and the cities in Egypt and along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. There they were traded for the copper, tin, and lead, coral, and woolens of Europe, and then carried to Venice and Genoa, whence merchants spread them over all Europe. [1] The merchants of Genoa traded chiefly with Constantinople, and those of Venice with Egypt.

THE TURKS SEIZE THE ROUTES OF TRADE. - While this trade was at its height, Asia Minor (from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean) was conquered by the Turks, the caravan routes across that country were seized, and when Constantinople was captured (in 1453), the trade of Genoa was ruined. Should the Turkish conquests be extended southward to Egypt (as later they were), the prosperity of Venice would likewise be destroyed, and all existing trade routes to the Orient would be in Turkish hands.

THE PORTUGUESE SEEK A NEW ROUTE. - Clearly an ocean route to the East was needed, and on the discovery of such a route the Portuguese had long been hard at work. Fired by a desire to expand Portugal and add to the geographical knowledge of his day, Prince Henry "the Navigator" sent out explorer after explorer, who, pushing down the coast of Africa, had almost reached the equator before Prince Henry died. [2] His successors continued the good work, the equator was crossed, and in 1487 Dias passed the Cape of Good Hope and sailed eastward till his sailors mutinied. Ten years later Vasco da Gama sailed around the end of Africa, up the east coast, and on to India, and brought home a cargo of eastern products. A way to India by water was at last made known to Europe. [3]

COLUMBUS PLANS A ROUTE. - Meanwhile Christopher Columbus [4] planned what he thought would be a shorter ocean route to the East. He had studied all that was known of geography in his time. He had carefully noted the results of recent voyages of exploration. He had read the travels of Marco Polo [5] and had learned that off the coast of China was a rich and wonderful island which Polo called Cipango. He believed that the earth is a sphere, and that China and Cipango could be reached by sailing about 2500 miles due westward across the Atlantic.

COLUMBUS SEEKS AID. - To make others think so was a hard task, for nearly everybody believed the earth to be flat, and several sovereigns were appealed to before one was found bold enough to help him. He first applied to the king of Portugal, and when that failed, to the king and queen of Spain. [6] When they seemed deaf to his appeal, he sent his brother to England, and at last, wearied with waiting, set off for France. Then Queen Isabella of Spain was persuaded to act. Columbus was recalled, [7] ships were provided with which to make the voyage, and on Friday, the 3d of August, 1492, the Santa Maria(sahn'tah mah-ree'ah), the Pinta (peen'tah), and the Niña (neen'yah) set sail from Palos (pah'los), on one of the greatest voyages ever made by men. [8]

THE VOYAGE WESTWARD. - The little fleet went first to the Canary Islands and thence due west across the Sea of Darkness, as the Atlantic was called. The voyage was delightful, but every sight and sound was a source of new terror to the sailors. An eruption of a volcano at the Canaries was watched with dread as an omen of evil. They crossed the line of no magnetic variation, and when the needle of the compass began to change its usual direction, they were sure it was bewitched. They entered the great Sargasso Sea and were frightened out of their wits by the strange expanse of floating vegetation. They entered the zone of the trade winds, and as the breeze, day after day, steadily wafted them westward, the boldest feared it would be impossible to return. When a mirage and flights of strange birds raised hopes that were not promptly realized, the sailors were sure they had entered an enchanted realm. [9]

LAND DISCOVERED. - Columbus, who was above such fear, explained the unusual sights, calmed the fears of the sailors, hid from them the true distance sailed, [10] and steadily pursued his way till unmistakable signs of land were seen. A staff carved by hand and a branch with berries on it floated by. Excitement now rose high, and a reward was promised to the man who first saw land. At last, on the night of October 11, Columbus beheld a light moving as if carried by hand along a shore. A few hours later a sailor on the Pinta saw land distinctly, and soon all beheld, a few miles away, a long, low beach. [11]

THE VOYAGE AMONG THE ISLANDS. - Columbus thought he had found one of the islands of the Indies, as the southern and eastern parts of Asia were called. Dressed in scarlet and gold and followed by a band of his men bearing banners, he landed, fell on his knees, and having given thanks to God, took possession for Spain and called the island San Salvador (sahn sahl-va-dor'), which means Holy Savior. The day was October 12, 1492, and the island was one of the Bahamas. [12]

After giving red caps, beads, and trinkets to the natives who crowded about him, Columbus set sail to explore the group and presently came in sight of the coast of Cuba, which he at first thought was Cipango. Sailing eastward, landing now and then to seek for gold, he reached the eastern end of Cuba, and soon beheld the island of Haiti; this so reminded him of Spain that he called it Hispaniola, or Little Spain.

THE FIRST SPANISH COLONY IN THE NEW WORLD. - When off the Cuban shore, the Pinta deserted Columbus. On the coast of Haiti the Santa Maria was wrecked. To carry all his men back to Spain in the little Nina was impossible. Such, therefore, as were willing were left at Haiti, and founded La Navidad, the first colony of Europeans in the New World. [13] This done, Columbus sailed for home, taking with him ten natives, and specimens of the products of the lands he had discovered.

THE VOYAGE HOME. - The Pinta was overtaken off the Haitian coast, but a dreadful storm parted the ships once more, and neither again saw the other till the day when, but a few hours apart, they dropped anchor in the haven of Palos, whence they had sailed seven months before. As the news spread, the people went wild with joy. The journey of Columbus to Barcelona was a triumphal procession. At Barcelona he was received with great ceremony by the king and queen, and soon afterward was sent back with many ships and men to found a colony and make further explorations in the Indies.

OTHER VOYAGES OF COLUMBUS. - In all Columbus made four voyages to the New World. On the second (1493) he discovered Porto Rico, Jamaica, and other islands. On the third (1498) he saw the mainland of South America at the mouth of the Orinoco River. [14] On the fourth (1502-4) he sailed along the shores of Central America. Returning to Spain, he died poor, neglected, and broken-hearted in 1506. [15]

COLUMBUS BELIEVED HE REACHED THE INDIES. - To his dying day Columbus was ignorant of the fact that he had led the way to a new continent. He supposed he had reached the Indies. The lands he discovered were therefore spoken of as the Indies, and their inhabitants were called Indians, a name given in time to the copper-colored natives of both North and South America.

SPAIN'S CLAIM TO NEW-FOUND LANDS. - One of the first results of the discoveries of Columbus was an appeal to the Pope for a bull securing to Spain the heathen lands discovered; for a bull had secured to Portugal the discoveries of her mariners along the coast of Africa. Pope Alexander VI accordingly drew a north and south line one hundred leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, and gave to Spain all she might discover to the west of it, reserving to Portugal all she might discover to the east. A year later (1494) Spain and Portugal by treaty moved the "Line of Demarcation" to three hundred and seventy leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands (map, p. 20), and on this agreement, approved by the Pope, Spain rested her claim to America.


1. For many centuries before the discovery of America, Europe had been trading with the far East.

2. The routes of this trade were being closed by the Turks.

3. Columbus believed a new route could be found by sailing due westward from Europe.

4. After many years of fruitless effort to secure aid to test his plan, he obtained help from Spain.

5. On his first voyage westward Columbus discovered the Bahama Islands, Cuba, and Haiti; on his later voyages, various other lands about the Caribbean Sea.

6. In the belief that he had reached the Indies, the lands Columbus found were called the Indies, and their inhabitants Indians.


[1] In the Middle Ages, when food was coarse and cookery poor, cinnamon and cloves, nutmeg and mace, allspice, ginger, and pepper were highly prized for spicing ale or seasoning food. But all these spices were very expensive in Europe because they had to be brought so far from the distant East. Even pepper, which is now used by every one, was then a fit gift from one king to another. Camphor and rhubarb, indigo, musk, sandalwood, Brazil wood, aloes wood, all came from the East. Muslin and damask bear the names of eastern cities whence they were first obtained. In the fifteenth century the churches, palaces, manor houses, and homes of rich merchants were adorned with the rugs and carpets of the East.

[2] Prince Henry was the fourth son of John I, king of Portugal. In 1419 he established his home on Cape St. Vincent, gathered about him a body of trained seamen, and during forty years sent out almost every year an exploring expedition. His pilots discovered the Azores and the Madeira Islands. He died in 1460. His great work was training seamen. Many men afterward famous as discoverers and navigators, as Dias (dee'ahss), Da Gama (dah gah'ma), Cabral (ca-brahl'), Magellan, and Columbus, served under Henry or his successors.

In those days there were neither steamships nor such sailing vessels as we have. For purposes of exploration the caravel was used. It was from 60 to 100 feet long, and from 18 to 25 feet broad, and had three masts from the heads of which were swung great sails. Much of the steering was done by turning these sails. Yet it was in such little vessels that some of the most famous voyages in history were made.

[3] These voyages were possible because of the great progress which had recently been made in the art of navigation. The magnetic compass enabled seamen to set their course when the sun and stars could not be seen. The astrolabe (picture, p. 35) made it possible roughly to estimate distances from the equator, or latitude. These instruments enabled mariners to go on long voyages far from land. Read the account of the Portuguese voyages in Fiske's Discovery of America, Vol. I, pp. 294-334.

[4] Christopher Columbus was a native of Genoa, Italy, where he was born about 1436. He was the son of a wool comber. At fourteen he began a seafaring life, and between voyages made charts and globes. About 1470 he wandered to Portugal, went on one or two voyages down the African coast, and on another (1477) went as far north as Iceland. Meantime (1473) he married a Portuguese woman and made his home at the Madeira Islands; and it was while living there that he formed the plan of finding a new route to the far East.

[5] In 1271 Marco Polo, then a lad of seventeen, was taken by his father and uncle from Venice to the coast of Persia, and thence overland to northwestern China, to a city where Kublai Khan held his court. They were well received, and Marco spent many years making journeys in the khan's service. In 1292 they were sent to escort a royal bride for the khan from Peking (in China) to Tabriz, a city in Persia. They sailed from China in 1292, reached the Persian coast in 1294, and arrived safely at Tabriz, whence they returned to Venice in 1295. In 1298 Marco was captured in a war with Genoa, and spent about a year in prison. While thus confined he prepared an account of his travels, one of the most famous books of the Middle Ages. He described China (or Cathay, as it was then called), with its great cities teeming with people, its manufactures, and its wealth, told of Tibet and Burma, the Indian Archipelago with its spice islands, of Java and Sumatra, of Hindustan, - all from personal knowledge. From hearsay he told of Japan. In the course of the next seventy-five years other travelers found their way to Cathay and wrote about it. Thus before 1400 Europe had learned of a great ocean to the east of Cathay, and of a wonderful island kingdom, Cipan'go (Japan), which lay off its coast. All this deeply interested Columbus, and his copy of Marco Polo may still be seen with its margins full of annotations.

[6] These sovereigns were just then engaged in the final struggle for the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, so they referred the appeal to the queen's confessor, who laid it before a body of learned men. This council of Salamanca made sport of the idea, and tried to prove that Columbus was wrong. If the world were round, they said, people on the other side must walk with their heads down, which was absurd. And if a ship should sail to the undermost part, how could it come back? Could a ship sail up hill?

[7] On the way to France Columbus stopped, by good luck, at the monastery of La Rabida (lah rah'bee-dah), and so interested the prior, Juan Perez (hoo-ahn' pa'rath), in his scheme, that a messenger was sent to beg an interview for Perez with the queen of Spain. It was granted, and so well did Perez plead the cause of his friend that Columbus was summoned to court. The reward Columbus demanded for any discoveries he might make seemed too great, and was refused. Thereupon, mounting his mule, he again set off for France. Scarcely had he started when the royal treasurer rushed into the presence of the queen and persuaded her to send a messenger to bring Columbus back. Then his terms were accepted. He was to be admiral of all the islands and countries he might discover, and have a part of all the gems, gold, and silver found in them.

[8] The vessels were no larger than modern yachts. The Santa Maria was single-decked and ninety feet long. The Pinta and Niña (picture, p. 11) were smaller caravels, and neither was decked amidships. In 1893 reproductions of the three vessels, full size and as exact as possible, were sent across the sea by Spain, and exhibited at the World's Fair in Chicago.

[9] The ideas of geography held by the unlearned of those days are very curious to us. They believed that near the equator was a fiery zone where the sea boiled and no life existed; that hydras, gorgons, chimeras, and all sorts of horrid monsters inhabited the Sea of Darkness; and that in the Indian Ocean was a lodestone mountain that could draw nails out of ships. Because of the way in which ships disappeared below the horizon, it was believed that they went down hill, and that if they went too far they could never get back.

[10] The object of Columbus was not to let the sailors know how far they were from home.

[11] Columbus was not the first European to reach the New World. About six hundred years earlier, Vikings from Norway settled in Iceland, and from the Icelandic chronicles we learn that about 986 A.D. Eric the Red planted a colony in Greenland. His son, Leif Ericsson, about 1000 A.D., led a party south-westward to a stony country which was probably the coast of Labrador or Newfoundland. Going on southward, they came at last to a spot where wild grapes grew. To this spot, probably on the New England coast, Leif gave the name Vinland, spent the winter there, and in the spring went back to Greenland with a load of timber. The next year Leif's brother sailed to Vinland and passed two winters there. In later years others went, but none remained long, and the land was soon forgotten. Iceland and Greenland were looked upon as part of Europe; and the Vikings' discoveries had no influence on Columbus and the explorers who followed him. Read Fiske's Discovery of America Vol. I, pp. 148-255; and Longfellow's Skeleton in Armor.

[12] Nobody knows just which of the Bahamas Columbus discovered. Three of the group - Cat, Turks and Watling - each claim the honor. At present Watling is believed to have been San Salvador. A good account of the voyage is given in Irving's Life and Voyages of Columbus, Vol. I, Book iii, and in Fiske's Discovery of America, Vol. I, pp. 408-442.

[13] When Columbus on his second voyage returned to Hispaniola, he found that every one of the forty colonists had perished. They had been killed by the natives.

[14] Despite the great thing he did for Spain. Columbus lost favor at court. Evil men slandered him; his manner of governing the new lands was falsely represented to the king and queen; a new governor was sent out, and Columbus was brought back in chains. Though soon released, he was never restored to his rights.

[15] Columbus was buried at Valladolid, in Spain, but in 1513 his body was taken to a monastery at Seville. There it remained till 1536, when it was carried to Santo Domingo in Haiti. In 1796 it was removed and buried with imposing ceremonies at Havana in Cuba. In 1898, when Spain was driven from Cuba, his bones were carried back to Seville.