American History Stories—Volume I - Mara L. Pratt

Other Great Explorers

But if Columbus discovered America, how did it happen that the country was named America? It certainly seems as if Columbia would have been a better and more fitting title for it, and it would have been but fair to Columbus, after all he had borne, to have had his name remembered in naming the country.

But people were not very careful in those days about being "fair" to anybody or anything; and so, when in 1497 Americus Vespucius made a voyage to the new world and on his return talked much of the great continent he had seen, and wrote a diary about it, people began speaking of this new world as the country of Americus Vespucius; by and by they called it America; and, since Columbus was not the man to whine at injustice, and Americus Vespucius did not seem to object to the honor conferred upon him, it soon became customary throughout Europe to speak of the new world as America.

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


Americus Vespucius made another voyage a few years later, and this time directing his course farther south, he came upon the continent of South America. He sailed along the coast for several thousand leagues, very carefully noting all changes in the soil, the climate, and even in the stars.

"In these southern skies," reported he, "there is a constellation never seen by us,—a group of four bright stars arranged in the shape of a cross. One cannot imagine how strange these southern heavens look with this great central figure of four bright stars."

The winds grew colder and colder as they sailed along. The nights were fifteen hours long. Before them lay a great, rocky, ice-bound coast. "Let us return," begged the superstitious sailors; "we must be nearing the land of perpetual cold and darkness and we shall all be caught in the great fields of ice and be frozen to death."

So Americus turned his vessel homeward, glad and eager to tell of his discovery of the "Land of the Southern Cross," and of the marvellous sights he had seen. All Europe rang with praises of the explorer. His writings were passed from one to another, and everybody talked about them; Americus Vespucius, and not Columbus, was now the hero of the hour.

But during all these years the Spaniards had been sending over colonists, until now there were flourishing Spanish towns on those islands round about where Columbus had first landed. The Spanish had begun to be very cruel to the poor Indians, and the Indians were not slow to see that it was an unlucky day for them when the great white ships of Columbus came to their shores.

About twenty years after the landing of Columbus, Balboa came over with a small fleet on a voyage of discovery. A few years later Balboa helped to found a colony on the Isthmus of Panama, and was made its governor. He was very angry because the Spaniards treated the Indians so unjustly; and ordered that no man of his colony should treat them as the other settlers had done.

The poor Indians, who had suffered so much from the Spaniards, were very glad to find these new comers so kind to them; and when they found that the great desire of Balboa was for gold, a chief sent him a large box full of the precious metal as a peace offering.

No sooner, however, had Balboa opened the box, than the men all began quarreling over it, snarling and fighting each other like fierce dogs. The Indian chief, looking with scorn upon their greedy wrangle, said, "Shame upon you, Christians! There is a land not far away where there is gold enough for all."

Balboa and his men cared very little for the Indian's disgust, but began at once to beg him to lead them to this land of gold.

One bright morning very soon after, they started toward a ridge of mountain land beyond which, so the Indian said, lay a great ocean and also the land of gold. Balboa, anxious to see this great ocean first, left his men on the side of the ridge and climbed to its top alone. There lay spread out before him, rolling and sparkling so peacefully, the great Pacific ocean, never seen before by a white man. Calling his men to him, he descended the ridge and, arriving at the shore, took possession of the ocean in the name of Spain.

Since I have told you about Balboa and the new ocean, I must tell you about the first voyage around the world. A Portuguese named Magellan started out from Spain with a large fleet, hoping to find a way through this new continent by which he might sail to the Spice Islands. He sailed directly across the Atlantic to America, and looked all up and down the coast for an opening to the other ocean.

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


Finding there was none, he sailed down to the most southern point of South America, and after sailing around that point he came out into the new ocean. When he saw it first, it looked as it did when Balboa first saw it—smiling and peaceful. On account of its calm, sunny appearance, he named it at once the "Pacific," which means peaceful.

They saw some very strange people as they sailed along the coast of South America, who, so Magellan's men said, were ten and twelve feet tall. These people were unusually tall, but it is not very likely that they were quite as tall as the men said. Sailors in those days liked to tell very big stories, I think, just as they do now.

These natives of South America were as surprised to see the white men as the white men were to see them. The natives could not understand how such little men could make such big ships move; and they thought the boats must be the babies of the ships.

They pulled from the ground, and gave to the white men to eat, something which Magellan and his men said looked like turnips and tasted like chestnuts. The sailors ate them eagerly without cooking, and carried some of them home to Spain as great curiosities. Do you guess what they were? Nothing but common potatoes, which are eaten now everywhere, but which then were only known to the natives of America.

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


But it was not curiosities nor even gold and silver that Magellan most desired to find. Like most of the explorers, including Columbus himself, he was in search of a short route to the East Indies. And as he sailed down the Atlantic coast, he hoped at every little bend in the shore to find himself able to steer his ship directly west towards the Indies. So onward he sailed, till as we said, he finally reached the southern end of South America, passed through the Straits of Magellan—as they were afterwards called—and came into the Pacific. Here was another route to India, that was sure. But, unfortunately, it was not another but a shorter route the European merchants wanted. However, Magellan sailed straight across the new ocean as far as the Philippine Islands, meaning to return to Spain by the old route around Africa.

He had five ships when he set out from Spain, but one of these had been lost while sailing down the Atlantic coast of South America. When he entered the straits the captain of another vessel, discouraged by the distance before him, turned and went back to Spain. With three ships then, Magellan crossed the Pacific. Then, at the Philippine Islands, two more ships were lost in battles with the natives, and he himself was killed. Only one ship—the Victoria—with but eighteen men, and those sick and half starved, was able to make its way back to Spain to tell the story of the first voyage around the world.