[Historic Myths.]

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.

[Icelandic Discoverers.]

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.

[Icelandic Voyagers.]

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."

[Leif Erikson.]

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.


The era of American discovery may be said to have continued till the memorable fourth day of September, 1565, when the Spaniard Menendez founded the first town on this continent, on the Florida coast, which he called St. Augustine. In one sense, indeed, the era of discovery did not cease down to within the memory of men still living; for the discovery of a path across the Rocky Mountains might well be regarded as included in it. But during the period which intervened between the return of Columbus from his first voyage and the building of St. Augustine, the extent and character of the eastern portion of our continent was revealed to Europe by many and successful navigators.

[The Cabots.]

The story of Columbus inspired the cupidity and territorial ambition of England, France, Spain, and Italy; and in the year 1497 John Cabot, a Venetian by birth, but long a resident of Bristol, England, set out thence across the Atlantic. He was accompanied by his son Sebastian. On the 24th of June he came in sight of Newfoundland, and then of Nova Scotia; then he sailed southward and reached Florida. As this was a year before the third voyage of Columbus, in which he saw the coast of the mainland, to John Cabot belongs the honor of having landed upon the American continent before Columbus.

[Amerigo Vespucci.]

Voyages to the new land now followed each other in quick succession for many years. It was in 1499 that the accomplished but unscrupulous Amerigo Vespucci made his first voyage to Hispaniola, following it up by voyages along the coast of South America. He returned thence to claim, after the death of Columbus, the honors due to the great Genoese.


Portugal and France, jealous of the success of the Spanish and English expeditions, lost no time in entering into this perilous and brilliant competition for maritime honor and western possession. Portugal sent out Cortereal, and France Verrazzani. The former skirted the coast for six hundred miles, kidnapping Indians, and spending some time at Labrador, where he came to his death. Verrazzani, in 1524, sailed for the Western Continent in the Dolphin, ranged along the coast of North Carolina, and so northward until he espied the beautiful harbor of New York, and anchored for a brief rest in that of Newport. Verrazzani returned to France with glowing accounts of the beauty, fertility, and noble harbors of the country.

[Jacques Cartier.]

Within ten years France sent forth another expedition, under the command of the famous Jacques Cartier, which was destined to acquire for that nation its claim to the possession of Canada. Cartier sailed from St. Malo to Newfoundland in twenty days. He went up the St. Lawrence, and returned home to tell the thrilling tale of his adventures. The next year he came back to discover the sites of Montreal and Quebec; and he made two more voyages, in 1540 and 1542.

[Ponce de Leon.]

Meanwhile, Spain was resolved to sustain the great prestige she had gained by the expeditions of Columbus, and to yield to no rival her claims to dominion on the new continent. In 1512, Don Juan Ponce de Leon, a brave soldier and adventurous man, who had accompanied Columbus on his second voyage, landed on the peninsula of Florida, and established the right of Spain to its possession. Five years after, Fernandez landed on the coast of Yucatan; and ere long Garay explored the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

[De Soto.]

It is not possible, in this survey, to follow, or even to name, the Spanish expeditions of discovery and conquest between 1512 and 1550. Suffice it to say that during this period subjects of the Spanish king landed on the coast of South Carolina, entered the harbors of New York and New England, crossed Louisiana and northern Mexico to the Pacific, explored Mexico and Peru, marched across Georgia under the lead of the renowned Ferdinand de Soto, penetrated to the interior, and, after many romantic adventures and desperate hardships, discovered the magnificent river which we call the Mississippi; made perilous excursions into the wild depths of Arkansas and Missouri, and even to the remote banks of the Red River.

[Character of the Discoverers.]

The enterprises of Spaniards, English, Portuguese, and French were alike prompted by the greed of gain. All sought the fabled El Dorado; all craved the power of colonial dominion. None the less were the navigators and soldiers, whom the nations sent forth to reveal a new world to civilization, men of courage and fortitude, able in achieving the momentous tasks assigned to them. Columbus and Cabot, at least, thought less of riches and fleeting honors than of the proper and noble glories of discovery; it was left to their Spanish successors to kidnap the Indians, to rob their settlements and murder their women, and to invade the peaceful wilds of America, with fire and the sword.