“America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else.” – Samuel Morison
The Europeans were running out of room. Growing populations in small, neighboring nations crowded against each other like weeks in an untended garden, and land for expansion was scarce. They also were an adventurous people, unafraid to journey into the unknown, especially if they thought some kind of bounty lay at the end of a far-flung rainbow.
Above all, the Europeans were zealous for a cause. Preserving national honor, competing with rival nations for greater wealth and landholdings, or persuading strangers to adopt their politics or religion, were reasons to pack their saddlebags or sail across an uncharted sea.
With all Europe casting an envious eye at the older, more opulent Asian continent, a 40ish, displaced Italian named Christopher Columbus also succumbed to the treasure-hunter’s lure.
Settling briefly in Portugal before moving on to Spain, the restless sailor spent eight years trying to gain backing for an expedition to India where he not only hoped to gather riches for Spain or himself, but to establish a new sea route between East and West. Columbus’ idea of traveling west to reach the East, however, was a difficult sell. Besides a lingering belief that the world was not round as he thought, but flat as tradition assumed, earlier explorers had already reached India by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Though Columbus expected his route to be shorter, the African direction was the acknowledged route at the time.
Finally, in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, whose idea of the size of the ocean between their country and Columbus’ destination was as flawed as his, agreed to sponsor the explorer’s expedition.
Besides the bounty Columbus expected to find, perhaps the monarchs hoped he would return to Spain with title to new land and an expansion of their kingdom.
But even they could not know that because of their faith in a curious immigrant whose initial voyage inspired others to make similar journeys, Spain would become the first European nation to establish a stronghold in the New World.
Columbus never reached India, and he may never have known how far off course he really was. Still, he called the first land he saw, “The West Indies,” and its people, “Indians,” in the mistaken belief that the islands in the Caribbean Sea between the future continents of North and South America were part of the Asian country he thought he had found.
Columbus also never stepped foot on what would become American soil, not in 1492 or on three more voyages to the new, Western world. But future American school-children would always have reason to believe it was the adventurous Italian who “discovered America.” And nearly 300 years after that 15th-century voyage, a small group of newly independent Americans in the backcountry of Georgia would name their county “Columbia” after him.
Today, many county residents believe this name was influenced by the Quaker community at Wrightsboro, who were opposed to war and, thus, to choosing such an honor for a military hero. Perhaps, too, it was the adventurous spirit shared by Columbus and the later Georgia pioneers that convinced our ancestors to adopt the explorer’s name as their own.
(An excerpt from Barbara Seaborn’s Columbia County history book, As Long As the Rivers Run. Next time: Quaker Meeting Has Begun.)