North American Exploration - Vol. 1

By John Logan Allen | Go to book overview

1 / Pre-Columbian Discoveries and Exploration of North America

ALAN G. MACPHERSON

In March 1493 Christopher Columbus triumphantly returned from his first transatlantic voyage. After docking in the port of Lisbon and reporting his success to the king of Portugal (who had declined to support Columbus's appeal for funding a year earlier), Columbus wrote a dramatic letter to the monarchs of Spain, who had sponsored his initial attempt to reach the Orient. In this first document of a new European age, Columbus gave his account of the discovery of "very many islands, filled with people innumerable," far westward across the "Ocean Sea."1Columbus could verify what he said he had done, for accompanying him on his return to Europe was a group of Taino people, the first Native Americans to be captured by European explorers and exhibited to the curious Europeans. Columbus's simple act of discovery, coupled with his transportation of New World people to the Spanish court, set in motion five centuries of exploration, exploitation, and settlement of the Americas by people of non- American origin.

Discovery of the lands Columbus dubbed "the Indies" and of the people he called "Indians," in the mistaken but stubborn belief that he had reached the outer fringe of Asia, ignited a controversy that occupied European scholars of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: who were these native peoples of the Indies? As European exploration determined that what Columbus had discovered in 1492 was not really the Orient at all but an entire "New World," the controversy was enlarged to include questions of the origins of the native peoples of the Americas: if they were not Asians or Africans or Europeans, where had they come from? And as European political rivalries grew in the decades following Columbus, still another level of complexity was added to the debate: since the New World reached by Columbus was inhabited, had its inhabitants originated in a

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