American History Stories—Volume I - Mara L. Pratt

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt

Early Discoveries

Little indeed did the people of Europe know of this country across the water or of the strange copper-colored people living here.

Lately there has been raised in Boston a monument in memory of Lief, the brave Northman or Norseman, who in the year 1000 sailed from his home in Iceland and came to the coast of America.

The vessel in which this Norseman came was odd-looking enough. Sometimes it moved along by the aid of its sails, sometimes each man would take an oar and so help it to move over the water.

The first land these hardy Norsemen found was flat and stony near the sea; but inland high mountains could be seen from the shore. This was Newfoundland. Then on the Norsemen sailed farther south, pleased with the warmth of the sun and the green trees, the song birds and the rich fruits. At one place, supposed to be on the shores of Massachusetts or Rhode Island, one of their company found such delicious wild grapes and in such abundance that Lief gave to the country the name of Vinland.

So delightful was the climate and so rich the fruits that the little band built huts and planned to spend the winter in the beautiful Vinland. It was all very strange to them, the swiftly changing day and night; for in their own land they had only one long day and one long night in a year.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt


Spring came, and Lief hastened back to Iceland to tell of the wonderful new land. Other Norsemen came, and, later still, a Norwegian nobleman with his beautiful young wife, Gudfrida. A colony was formed and the people lived very happily here for three years or more.

Then for some reason the colony died out, and little is known of them except what has been found in old chronicles in Iceland.

In Newport, Rhode Island, is a strange old tower which was once believed to have been built by these Norsemen. Certainly it is old enough and strange enough; but as to the true story of the Norsemen in America, I suppose we shall never know it.

[Illustration] from American History Stories - I by Mara L. Pratt


They were a brave, sturdy people and very fond of adventures. No people were ever so brave upon the sea as these Norsemen, and it is a great pity we do not know all about them.

These Northmen were the only Europeans who ever ventured far away from home. The people of the southern counties of Europe would look out across the sea and wonder; but they dared not venture out a great ways upon the ocean.

In fact, the ships in those days were small and frail, hardly more sea-worthy than a simple pleasure yacht to-day; and therefore very little had been learned of the oceans.

"There is," sailors of southern Europe would sometimes say, "an island far out at sea,—a beautiful sunny island with rich fruits and beautiful flowers and great purple mountains. Rich gems and gold and silver sparkle about its shores, and in the centre on a gentle slope of ground stands the palace of the sea-god."

But although the southern sailors talked of it and the poets sang of it, no one had ever seen this land. Sometimes on a clear day, standing upon the shores and looking away out to where the sky seemed to dip down and meet the earth, some imaginative person would think he saw the island, and would call to his companions; but before they could come, behold, it always disappeared.

There was living at this time a good man whom the people called Saint Brandon. He was always trying to help others to do what to him seemed right and good; and when he heard of this island, he with another good priest sailed away towards it, hoping to find an opportunity to help the people who might be living there.

He never found the island, however—the Atlantis, as it was called, but he did find, so he said, another island, afterwards called the island of St. Brandon. But the wonderful part of the story is that even this island could never again be found. Whether St. Brandon was fond, like the other adventurers of his day, of telling a big story, or whether he did honestly find an island which, by and by, sank below the level of the water, as sea-islands sometimes do sink, no one could ever tell.

Once in the history of Spain there was a terrible war between the Moors and the Spaniards. Seven Spanish bishops, pursued by these Moors, took to their ships and sailed out upon the sea. "Better by far drown than be overtaken by our cruel foe," said they; and they sailed out into the great sea, beyond all sight of land, into the very sunset, so they said.

These bishops came at last upon an island,—a beautiful sunny island, rich in fruit and flowers and the most wonderful trees.

Here they built seven cities, each bishop placing himself at the head of his own city and governing such natives as lived in his part of the island.

By and by, when the cities were prosperous, the seven bishops returned to Spain and told of their wonderful discovery. Strange to say, however, no one was ever able again to find this island; and no one has ever found it yet.

Of one other island we must speak—and that is the island of Bimini. This island was not only rich and beautiful, but there was upon it a fountain of sparkling water whose waters could restore youth and strength to the weakest and oldest of men.

Such an island as that was certainly well worth searching for; and, in 1512, long after Columbus had sailed to the new world, an old man, Ponce de Leon, sailed away in search of this wonderful "Fountain of Youth."

Remember this was the childhood of the modern world, a time when wise old men and women would listen to stories that to-day only a baby could be made to believe. It does not seem possible that they believed these tales; yet they must really have thought them true, for the books they made in those days tell us so. And who knows, after all, that the things we believe to-day may not, hundreds of years later, seem just as strange to the people who will be living then.