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Who Really Discovered America? Myths About Famous Explorers

October 11, 2010

In June 2010, the History Channel ran a documentary called Who Really Discovered America? The show explained many of the myriad theories regarding the discovery of our nation as well as the cultures that preceded Europeans on our shores. In grade school, my peers and I learned that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and “discovered” America. As it turns out, there’s a lot my history teacher left out of that lesson.

Columbus Was Here …
But was he here first? For generations, American schoolchildren have eaten up the conventional wisdom that Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach the New World in 1492 when he arrived in the West Indies.

But the History Channel documentary features the opinions of scholars who believe that the Norse Explorer Leif Ericson crossed the Atlantic first and hit the shores of Newfoundland around AD 1000. Other historians interviewed in the documentary theorize that Welsh and Irish sailors, or even the ancient Hebrews, preceded Ericson in North America by hundreds of years.

Gavin Menzies’ book 1421: The Year China Discovered America makes the case that Chinese explorers reached the western coastline of the Americas five years before Columbus did. And still others argue that the Japanese and Polynesians beat him to the punch.

Did Marco Polo Really Get to China?
There’s an argument to be made that Marco Polo had something to do with the discovery of America, too. After all, he inspired Christopher Columbus to set sail in hopes of finding a better route to the riches that Polo described in the East. But was Polo telling the truth?

Seven centuries after his voyage, some historians claim that Polo fabricated his accounts of China in The Travels of Marco Polo, which he wrote in 1298. Had Polo actually set foot on China, critics say, he would have reported important aspects of thirteenth-century Chinese culture that he doesn’t mention at all, like tea drinking, calligraphy, foot binding, and―oh, yeah ―that huge wall. Frances Wood, in her 1995 book Did Marco Polo Go to China? finds these omissions curious and argues that Polo probably never got beyond Persia and instead used the accounts of Arabs and Persians who had visited China to devise his story.

Polo’s supporters counter that the Great Wall wasn’t all that great at the time of the explorer’s journey. John Larner, author of Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World, writes that much of the wall had crumbled by the thirteenth century and wasn’t fully rebuilt until the 1500s.

This isn’t the first time that Polo’s accounts have been met with skepticism; his contemporaries didn’t believe him, either. They expected travelers to the East to bring back tales of freaks and oddities. Instead, Polo told them that, compared to second-rate Western culture, China was a thriving, wealthy civilization. That idea didn’t go over so well in a part of the world in the midst of what would later be known as the Dark Ages.

Cooking Up False Facts
Hawaiian schoolchildren aren’t just taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America; they’re also taught that Captain James Cook “discovered” the Hawaiian Islands. This bit of information is more due to good PR on Cook’s part than actual fact. According to Christopher Aaron Straub in his well-received history master’s thesis, which he wrote in November 2009 while a student at California Polytechnic State University, Cook wrote exciting accounts of his adventures and the welcome given him by the people already inhabiting the islands. One popular social studies textbook currently used in Hawaiian schools provides this excerpt: “Natives came out in their canoes to meet us. They seemed very happy we had come. We were surprised to find that they spoke about the same language as that of Otahiti (Tahiti) where we had visited.”

In our more politically correct modern times, of course, Cook’s presentation of himself as having discovered Hawaii doesn’t fly. It’s not as if he was stepping onto completely untrodden soil; Polynesians had been inhabiting the islands for over a millennium before Cook got there. At the time of his arrival, according to Straub, Hawaii was divided into chiefdoms and had approximately one million inhabitants throughout the main islands.

A safer statement would be that Cook was the first European to arrive in Hawaii, but even that idea has its detractors. Straub writes that there are Hawaiian accounts of white foreigners visiting the islands before Cook, but no one has confirmed that statement’s validity.

According to history teachers Mike Trinklein and Steve Boettcher, creators of The Oregon Trail, the award-winning documentary film that aired nationally on PBS, explorer John Fremont is one of America’s biggest heroes because of his journeys west along the Oregon Trail in 1842 and 1843. But we really have Fremont’s wife, Jesse Benton Fremont, to thank for the cross-country road trip’s becoming a rite of passage for American youth, argue Trinklein and Boettcher.

Fremont got the job of publicizing the West because Jesse’s father was the powerful Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton. He believed that Americans were born with a natural right to all territories to the west, an idea later called Manifest Destiny. Benton ordered Fremont to go and make the West seem attractive and worth settling.

Trinklein and Boettcher write that Fremont’s reports from his journeys were “upbeat” and made the trip west seem “easy―enjoyable.” Easterners pored over the reports and were inspired to become pioneers and claim their piece of the American dream.

But Fremont didn’t write the reports―his wife did. While they bear his name, Fremont gave up his writing and left the work to his “intelligent and articulate” wife, Jesse. So she was really the one who helped spark Americans’ move West.

The Man Behind Magellan
Today, the name Magellan is synonymous with exploration. For example, the Magellan spacecraft, the first to map Venus, was named after the sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer. But was Ferdinand Magellan really the first person to circumnavigate the globe? Samantha Levine, writing for U.S. News & World Report, says no. Magellan’s slave Enrique deserves that honor.

According to Levine, Enrique was probably born on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and sold to Magellan in nearby Malacca in 1512, during one of the explorer’s early voyages. Enrique was part of the crew when Magellan set sail to find a passage through the Americas to the East Indies and ended up back in Malacca after the voyage, ten years later. So Enrique really made a full circuit around the globe before everyone else aboard Magellan’s fleet. Magellan was killed in the Philippines and never actually made it home.

Revisionist History
These five explorers and the false knowledge that has been handed down about their so-called discoveries merit a closer look at the history we all learned in school. In most of these examples, errors arise because of racism and Eurocentrism, but they also remind us that, even in the age of recorded history, knowledge isn’t always accurate.

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