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THE PRE-REVOLUTIONARY PERIOD OF
“HE world was content for a time to date European knowledge
of the American continent back only to the day when Columbus and his adventurous companions discerned the new shore-line in the distant west, and so far as actual historical proof is concerned, no definite step can be taken beyond that point. But fearless investi. gation and the opening of new sources of information have revealed a more than possible past for America, that has broader foundations than the theories of the lost Atlantis, the migration of the American Indian from the west of Asia, or the visit of that Chinese explorer, Hwui Shin, to the far-off Fu-sang kingdom, which some say was Japan and some America. Evidence not altogether circumstantial has been advanced to show that the bold and hardy Norsemen, pushing westward with hearts that knew no fear, and restless cravings for motion that only the rocking of the dragonheaded boat upon the cold, white seas of the north, as it dashed onward into unknown regions, could satisfy, were the advance-guard of old-world discoverers, and planted foot upon the eastern shore of the far hemisphere long ere Columbus dreamed of a new road to India, or Catholic Spain had a thought of the proud possessions she should gain beyond the seas.
This reputed descent of the Northmen upon the American coast is by some relegated altogether to romance and speculation, while many historians of discernment and judgment have weighed all the evidence and given their decision in support of its truth. There is
much in favor of the theory they advance, for the men who discovered Iceland and Greenland and added them to the trophies of the Scandinavian race, might well cross over the narrow channel that lay between their last outpost of exploration and the main land, and touch a continent that to their vision should seem, perhaps, only another island locked in polar seas. This we do know, that, in 860, one Naddoddr, a Norse pirate, was blown out of his course, and found himself upon the shores of Iceland; that sixteen years later another sailor, driven westward by adverse winds, saw in the distance a land which he did not touch, but which Eric the Red, in 981, went in search of and found, and which from the verdure upon
it he called “Greenland,” that people of his nation might be led to make it their home.
Beyond these we must look to those grand old sagas, or written records of Iceland, for evidence that the Norse was here before the Genoan or the Spaniard—a source of information open to doubt, and yet true to much that is already surely known. In these we are told that subsequent to the descent of Eric upon the Greenland coast, the vikings had sailed away to the south, where one Bjarni, in 985, discovered a fair country, to which the name of “Vinland” was given. The story, as told in the saga, is full of action and motion, Homeric in the greatness of the theme, and yet circumstantial and detailed in narration. The best obtainable translation—that by Arthur James Weise—is fragrant with the breath of romance, and as brave and sharp as the north wind in its sense of motion and adventure. “They intrusted themselves to the ocean and made sail three days, until the land passed out of their sight from the water. But then the bearing breezes ceased to blow, and northern breezes and a fog succeeded. Then they were drifted about for many days and nights, not knowing whither they tended. After this the light of the sun was seen, and they were able to survey the regions of the sky. Now they carried sail, and steered this day before they beheld land." They “soon saw that the country was not mountainous, but covered with trees and diversified with little hills. Then they sailed two days before they saw another land. They then approached it and
saw that it was level and covered with trees. Then, the favorable wind having ceased blowing, the sailors said that it seemed to them that it would be well to land there, but Bjarni was unwilling to do so... He bade them make sail, which was done. They turned the prow from the land and sailed out into the open sea, where for three days they had a favorable south-southwest wind. They saw a third land, but it was high and mountainous and covered with glaciers. They did not lower sail, but holding their course along the shore, they found it to be an island. Again they turned the stern against the land and made sail for the high sea, having the same wind, which gradually increasing, Bjarni ordered the sails to be shortened, forbidding the use of more canvas than the ship and her outfit could conveniently bear. Thus they sailed for four days, when they saw a fourth land”—which proved to be the Greenland of which they were in search. The next visit to this new-found region was made near the year 1000 by Leif, the son of Eric the Red. The first point upon which he touched was “a land of icy mountains," which he named Helluland, and afterwards a “level country covered with trees," which he called Markland. Again the hardy adventurers set sail toward the vast unknown before them, and after days of travel "went ashore at a place where a river flowed out from a lake," where they werected large buildings” and resolved to remain during the winter. In the spring they discovered "wine-berries,” and because of that the place was named Vinland. Leif then sailed back to Greenland. In the spring of 1007 an expedition of three ships departed in search of the new land. Touching Helluland and then Markland they "sailed southward along the coast," and found not only lands to the south, but wheat and people, “swart and ugly,” with “coarse hair, large eyes and broad cheeks,” with whom they fought and for fear of whom they “determined to depart and return to their own land.” Many later visits to Vinland were made by the Norsemen, the record in the sagas carrying us up to the fourteenth century. The exact location of the described region is not definitely known, and probably never will be, but that it was upon the coast of America there can be little doubt. Some say that it was no farther south than south Green
land or perhaps Labrador, while evidence is at hand to show that it may have been Rhode Island. .
Beyond the region of guess-work lies our knowledge of the expedition that set sail from the port of Palos on the third of August, 1492. Columbus stands forth upon the page of human history with a distinctness that casts Bjarni and even Eric the Red into the shadow, and the prize he won for Europe has made his name one of the few that all peoples will remember through all time. Spanish hesitation as to the profitableness of the venture kept his hope for a long time in the balance, but at last he found himself in command of three small vessels, far from fit for a voyage across the great seas, and carrying one hundred and twenty persons in all. “On losing sight of this last trace of land,” says Washington Irving, in noting his departure from Ferro, the last of the Canary islands, “the hearts of the crews failed them. They seemed literally to have taken leave of the world.” Yet the brave spirit and the well-meant promises of the leader prevailed, and on and on they sailed. “It was on Friday morning, the twelfth of October," continues. Irving, “that Columbus first beheld the new world. As the day dawned, he saw before him a level island, several leagues in extent, covered with trees like a continual orchard. Though apparently uncultivated, it was populous, for the inhabitants were seen issuing from all parts of the woods and running lu the shore." Yet Columbus never dreamed that he had added two great continents to the possessions of the superior civilization of the old world. He believed that he had already partly circumnavigated the world, and that India had been reached. In his own quaint language, in a letter to the treasurer of Ferdinand and Isabella, written on shipboard, March 14, 1493, he says:
“Thirty-three days after my departure from Cadiz, I reached the Indian sea, where I discovered many islands, thickly peopled, of which I took possession, without resistance, in the name of our most illustrious monarch, by public proclamation and with unfurled ban
To the first of these islands, which is called by the Indians Guanahani, I gave the name of Blessed Saviour (San Salvador), relying upon whose protection I had reached this as well as the other isl