One good thing about having children is, you learn the basics all over again.
Last night’s question was: Who discovered America?
Topic was triggered by the recent occurrence of Columbus Day, plus an observation by Jesse’s 3rd-grade teacher that America’s name actually comes from the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
Curious where Vespucci made landfall, the kids and I headed to the computer and fell down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia’s various entries on New World explorers.
As for the more famous Mr. Columbus, let me start by saying this: Hispaniola, Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic … who cares? My kids and I wanted to know who arrived first in the land which we now call the U.S.
Not Vespucci, it turns out. He was screwing around down by Brazil.
Historians among you will know the correct answer is Juan Ponce de Leon.
He arrived in Florida in 1513, supposedly looking for the Fountain of Youth. (Millions of Americans still on same quest today in the Sunshine State.)
But Ponce de Leon wasn’t even CLOSE to being first in the New World. And no, I’m not talking about Native Americans being here for 20,000 years (though I do give them points for longevity).
Freaking Vikings! I forgot all about those guys.
First there was Thorvald Asvaldsson, a gnarly Norwegian who got exiled to Iceland around the year 960 for committing murder in his homeland. (Allegedly committing murder, I should say. I haven’t read the trial transcript.)
Eric continued the family pattern of misbehavior and got kicked out of Iceland.
You know you’re rough around the edges when you get exiled from a Viking outpost.
Eric the Red kept going west and settled in Greenland.
This new land was a cold, grim, gray, icy place. But Eric the Red called it Greenland in hopes of coaxing other Vikings to come join him.
Eric, in turn, fathered Leif.
Not Leif Garrett, mind you, from VH1’s Behind the Music, but Leif Ericson, a salty, bearded ruffian in his own right, who decided to head still farther west. (No word on whether trip was court-ordered.) Leif landed in Newfoundland, which is of course, part of North America.
Now, I know that Newfoundland isn’t Florida. But to me, it’s easily on par with Hispaniola.
And here’s the kicker – Leif became a Newfie 500 years before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean with smallpox and syphillis.
Seriously, why on earth do we bother with Columbus? Why don’t we switch over to Leif Ericson Day?
But before you get too impressed with Viking explorations, let me also report some bad news. According to Wikipedia, Vikings did not wear horned helmets. Nor did they use human skulls as drinking vessels.
This really sucks. Horned helmets, that’s what Vikings are. You take away those, and what is left?
I was previously unaware of the reputation for drinking wine out of human skulls. But hey, just as quickly as I received the wonderful news, it was snatched away! Dismissed as mere rumor, a non-urban myth, a tendril of fantastic travelogue exaggeration.
Even worse, according to Wikipedia, Leif’s bad-seed dad, Eric the Red, intended to join his son on the trip to Newfoundland, but he fell off his horse on the way to the ship. To him, this was a bad omen. So he stayed home in Greenland.
When I checked with my friend Karen Todd, who is part-Norwegian, she told me that marauding and pillaging were distinctly last resorts for the Vikings. They preferred farming.
Seriously, could the news about Norsemen be any more disappointing?
Well, yes, it turns out. When Leif arrived in Newfoundland, he loved what he saw. He was excited by the ready supply of: timber, salmon and wild-growing grapes. Particularly impressed by the grapes, he named the place Vinland, or Wineland.
Salmon, wine … this New World exploration sounds more like a book-signing party than an epic voyage. At least the Spanish and Portuguese were looking for gold and the Fountain of Youth, and were tangling with Aztecs. The Vikings sound like they were scouting Ikea locations.
Due to these many troubling details, my kids lost interest in the Vikings and turned back to non-Scandinavian explorers.
They were excited about two instances of trickery at the dawn of New World exploration.
First, Lulu was pleased that Columbus kept two sets of books: the real navigation logs, which showed the ship’s true position and its prospects for landfall; and the fake logs which he showed to his crew. In the doctored logs, land was always just over the next swell and certainly within a day or two’s voyage.
I am alarmed the crew kept falling for this trick, day after day. But you have to admire Columbus. At least he knew the limits of his team’s intelligence.
The other instance of trickery was pointed out by Jesse. According to what he learned last year in 2nd grade, some of the professional sailors were less than enthusiastic about joining the English Pilgrims on the cross-Atlantic journey. On purpose, these malcontents either failed to repair a leak in the Mayflower’s sister ship, the Speedwell, or actually manufactured the leak themselves.
It’s unknown whether the sailors were skeptical about the safety of the trip, or were just bummed out by the piousness of the Pilgrims. Either way, the gambit worked. The Speedwell returned to harbor. The Mayflower proceeded alone.
I think the lesson here is that cleverness and shenanigans were just as important as so-called courage in the settlement of the New World.
Scheming certainly came into play again in 1626 when the Dutch purchased Manhattan from the Indians for $24. But the scheming wasn’t entirely on the Dutch side. The Indians who took the $24 were the Canarsees, who lived in Brooklyn, not the Weckquaesgeeks, who lived in Manhattan.
DISCLAIMER: Many of the above historical facts are likely erroneous in detail or patently false. I received them through Wikipedia and/or the filter of my 8-year-old’s sketchy recollection of what his Korean-American teacher may or may not have said 12 months ago. Still, you can probably take most of it to the bank.