"America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else."
- Samuel Eliot Morison
For 250 years, the area known as Columbia County, Ga., has evolved from a sparsely-settled, timber-covered frontier governed by the alternating whims of a succession of immigrants who called the county "home," to the part-rural, part-urban, enviable ring of communities she is today.
Heroes, statesmen, planters, ruffians and religious enthusiasts claimed her land and forged their indelible mark. We who now call the area home owe much to those who left already cleared and civilized lands behind.
The Europeans were running out of room, and land for expansion was scarce. Not only did they need more room, but the Europeans were an adventurous people who were 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 enough 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 was also bitten by the treasure-hunter's bug. 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 expected not only to gather riches for Spain and for himself, but to establish a new sea route between East and West.
Columbus' idea of traveling west to reach the East, however, was a hard sell. Besides a lingering belief that the world was not round as Columbus believed, 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. Although 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 hoped to find, perhaps the monarchs hoped he would return to Spain with rights to new land and an expansion of their kingdom.
But even they could not know that because of their faith in a curious Italian 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 might 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 conclusion that the islands in the Caribbean Sea between the continents that in the future would be called North and South America were part of the Asian country he thought he had found.
Columbus also never stepped foot on what would become North American soil, not in 1492 nor on three more voyages to the new, western - not eastern - 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 famous, 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 someone with a military connection. 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.
Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.
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