Aurora University

Schingoethe Center of Aurora University

Columbus Day Reconsidered:
Sources Related to Early European Contact with the Americas

History of the discovery of America

Frontispiece (hand-colored engraving) from: History of the discovery of America, of the landing of our forefathers, at Plymouth, and of their most remarkable engagements with the Indians, in New-England, from their first landing in 1620, until the final subjugation of the natives in 1679. To which is annexed, the defeat of Generals Braddock, Harmer & St. Clair, by the Indians at the westward, &c. By a citizen of Connecticut [Henry Trumbull] Norwich, Connecticut, 1810. From the rare book collection of the Schingoethe Center for Native American Cultures. © 2005, Aurora University

European contact with the Americas in the late 15th century was a fateful event--both for the peoples of the Americas and the peoples of Europe. For the native peoples of the Americas it meant the beginning of a process which, in a matter of a few decades, destroyed a way of life that had been developing for over ten millenia. Warfare, enslavement, and European diseases often resulted in the death of 95% of a native population within years. For Europeans, the contact was usually not deadly, but the cultural impacts were powerful. American gold and silver made Spain and Portugal--briefly--the richest nations in Europe and also multiplied the European money supply by a factor of eleven, an important element in the industrial revolution. American food plants not only transformed European cuisine (even Asian: Szechuan cookery is based on the pepper from South America) but also led to an explosion of the European peasant population (based on the calorie-rich potato) that had political and social repercussions that lasted for centuries.

With the exception of the Aztecs in Mexico, native peoples of the Americas were preliterate at the time of European contact. Thus, nearly all records of the early time of contact are from the European side. Predictably, the European sources reflect cultural biases--and, in many cases, cultural myths by which Europeans reworked their histories and developed apologetics for policy. In particular, the early Iberian adventurers--Columbus, Cortez, DeSoto, Pisarro, et al.--often became "writ large" not only by contemporary writers but by both historians and popular writers, down to (nearly) the present day.

The purpose of this website of research sources is to bring together the materials needed by those who are seeking to deconstruct the myths and reconstruct the history--or to reconsider and revalue the history as written. To these ends, we have provided:

  • Links to primary sources available on the web
  • A brief working bibliography of readily available secondary sources (in other words, where to start at your local library)
  • Links to other secondary-source sites and to sites that provide bibliographical resources

Finally: Anyone who has begun the process of trying to reconstruct the history of early contact quickly becomes aware of the complexity of the project. Not only is there a huge volume of material, both primary and secondary, but there are also several different areas of contact--Spanish, Portugese, Dutch, English, French, and more--which in turn often overlapped and interacted over time. Further, for both cultural groups, the encounter was so startling and alien, and the stakes so high (extermination, unimaginable wealth), that the historical record is "problematic" at almost every turn. We realize that this site is only a very rudimentary beginning for those who are working on these issues and we welcome suggestions, criticisms, and recommendations for further sources, any of which may be directed to the Schingoethe Center of Aurora University.

1. Links to European Sources in the "Age of Discovery"

The "Doctrine of Discovery": Even before Columbus's first voyage to the Americas, Europeans had been making explorations that placed them in contact--and conflict--with non-Europeans. Portugese navigators, for example, had been working their way down the west coast of Africa for decades (Bartholomeu Dias reached the Cape of Good Hope, the southern tip of Africa, in 1487). An essential piece of background for understanding the "age of discovery" is the religious context of Catholic Europe in the fifteenth century. The world is divided into "Christian" and "non-Christian," a distinction that is felt with special clarity in Spain, where there have been several centuries of armed conflict with the "Moors," Muslims who invaded from northern Africa and controlled much of the Iberian peninsula. When the Muslims are finally driven out in 1492, it is not entirely a coincidence that Columbus is at once given approval and support to undertake his first voyage. Well before this, however, the church had taken an interest in the process of contact, Christianization, and conflict.

Romanus Pontifex, a papal bull issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1455, established some basic principles and rules for the interaction of Christians and non-Christians. Since the Portugese were the principal "navigators" then engaged in ocean exploration, the bull is specifically addressed to them, granting privileges to "the illustrious Alfonso, king of the kingdoms of Portugal and Algarve," to "invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed." The bull notes that previous letters from the pope have already affirmed various priveleges of this sort; the bull is intended to pull these items together and give them the force of papal law. It asserts that the overriding purpose of exploration and conquest is to spread Christianity, but, in the process it is acceptable to conquer, kill, confiscate, and enslave.

Inter Caetera, a papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493: the Spanish were given permission to carry out exploration and Christianizing "100 leagues to the west and south" of the farthest known lands west of Europe (the Cape Verde islands); the Portugese were to continue to have control of everything east of that point. Columbus's first voyage, made the year before, is specifically referenced, echoing the origins of the bull: the Spanish monarchs wanted to be granted the same privileges that had been extended to the Portugese by Romanus Pontifex. The dividing line established by the bull turned out to be mostly in open ocean, so, the next year, Spanish and Portugese representatives met in Tordesillas (Spain) and negotiated a point 370 leagues (about 1270 statute miles) west of the Cape Verde islands, incorporated in the Treaty of Tordesillas. In 1529 this was further refined and agreed between the countries in the Treaty of Zaragoza. As provided in Inter Caetera, Spain and Portugal agreed in this treaty that the dividing line was a meridian of longitude that ran all the way around the earth; on this basis, Portugal claimed the Phillipine Islands on the other side of the world! (Spain subsequently took the Phillipines from the Portugese in 1565.) There does not appear to be a complete text of the Treaty of Zaragoza in English on the web; a partial text in Spanish is available.

The Journal of Christopher Columbus: Perhaps the principal "mythic figure" of the "age of discovery" is of course the Genoese voyager Christoforo Colombo (knowns as Christobal Colon in Spanish), who sailed under the Spanish flag to the Americas. He was apparently an experienced sailor and a master of the art of "dead reckoning," sailing across open ocean using only a compass and estimates of distance traveled, making little use of other navigational instruments. By this time, some technology was available for "celestial navigation," using instruments to determine latitude from the stars; Columbus tried to use this method, but never got the hang of it and always went back to dead reckoning. This was not unusual for "practical navigators" of the day, but Columbus was one of the most skillful and one of the first to attempt a dead-reckoned voyage across a huge expanse of open ocean. Determining longitude (how "far around" the world you are) requires comparing "local time" at two points on the earth. This does not become practical at sea until the late eighteenth century when the marine chronometer is developed (an accurate clock that can withstand the rolling of a ship at sea). In Columbus's day, the only way to determine longitude was by comparing the time of the occurence of celestial events such as eclipses--not exactly practical during a sea voyage. On a later voyage, Columbus tried to determine the longitude at Jamaica by this method, but he was pretty far off. (Not that most others did any better: in 1541 a group of intellectuals in Mexico City tried, and were wrong by 1500 miles!)

Columbus was not the first European to cross the Atlantic--by half a millenium (the "Norse" had been making the voyage since at least the year 1000 A.D.). He was certainly not the first to believe the world was round; in fact, the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes, around 240 B.C., not only deduced that the world was a sphere but also calculated its diameter to within about a hundred miles (25,000 miles; the modern figure is 24,901 miles at the equator). In fact, Columbus's plan to reach India by sailing west was based on his refusal to accept the Greek calculation of the size of the earth. He believed the earth's circumference was only about 19,000 miles, and he calculated the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan as about 2400 nautical miles, when it is actually over 10,000 miles! Had the Americas not been in his way, he and his men probably would have run out of food and water long before reaching India! When Columbus tried to interest the Portugese in sponsoring his trip in 1485, the navigation experts at the Portugese court recommended against it, because they had a more realistic opinion of the distance around the world.

However, one great contribution that Columbus did make was to discover what might be called the "circle route" to the Americas and back to Europe. By the fifteenth century, Europeans had adopted the Arabic technology (triangular lateen sails and movable yard arms) that made it possible to sail against the wind by "tacking" in a zig zag course. However, it was much easier (and a good deal faster) to "sail before the wind." Columbus's great innovation was to sail straight south from Spain, not west. Once he reached the tropics, he turned west and sailed before the "trade winds" that blow southwest just above the equator. When he left his landfalls in the Carribbean to return to Europe, he sailed a more northerly route to catch the prevailing westerly winds that brought him more or less straight back to Spain. For the next three centuries, this circular route was practically a "conveyor belt" between Spain and the Spanish regions of the Americas. Columbus's journal of his first voyage is one of the earliest "ship's logs" to survive from Europe and it gives important information both on his method of navigating and on his first encounters with native peoples in the Americas. Incidentally, we only have Columbus's journal today because Bartolomé de Las Casas, who is discussed below, made a transcription of part of it: both the original journal, which Columbus presented to Ferdinand and Isabella, and a copy that was made at the time for him, have disappeared.

The Requerimiento of 1510: Romanus Pontifex had established the principle that "Christian princes" had the right to overcome the interests of "non-Christian princes" in order to spread Christianity throughout the world. A (to us) curious result of this principle was the composition of a document known as the "Requerimiento" by the Spanish jurist Palacios Rubios in 1510. Springing from a legalistic culture, this document was designed to encapsulate the legal claim of the Spanish to carry out the provisions of Romanus Pontifex. The document was to be read out in either Spanish or Latin to native peoples, on the pretext that this would give them the opportunity to submit to Christianization peacefully; when they did not (not surprising, since they could not understand the language used, and would have been puzzled by the cultural context even if they could have understood the language), the Spanish were then free to attack and subdue them by force.

Charter of Henry VII to John Cabot (Giovanni Cabotto): English exploration of the Americas begins with the 1497 voyage of "John Cabot," as he was known in England; he was originally from Venice. Cabot sought, and received, a royal charter from King Henry VII, in which Cabot and his sons were permitted to make voyages of discovery and claim any lands "which before this time have been unknowen to all Christians." In this respect, the charter is consistent with the principle laid down in the earlier papal bulls, even though it does not reference them nor reflect their specific language.

The Las Casas-Sepulveda Debate: Bartolomé de Las Casas was a Spanish Dominican priest, later bishop of Chiapas in Mexico, who spent over 50 years trying to save Native Americans from the enslavement and brutal treatment to which they were subjected by Spanish landowners in America. Las Casas was, himself, one of those landowners at first, but was horrified at what he saw and took orders as a priest in 1521. Over the years he made 14 trips back to Spain to plead the case that the "encomienda" system of land management was responsible for the death and mistreatment of untold numbers of natives, and was not achieving the declared purpose of the Spanish conquest, which was to convert the natives to Christianity. At one point (in 1550), Las Casas and the Spanish philosopher Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (who never went to the Americas) engaged in a formal debate before a government commission concerning the nature and purpose of Spanish colonial policy. Ironically, two successive Spanish kings (Ferdinand and Charles V) agreed with Las Casas and issued proclamations that supposedly safeguarded the welfare of Native Americans. In practice, the Spanish economy was so dependent on the flow of wealth from the New World, and the Spanish landowners were themselves acquiring such wealth through the system of forced labor, that the royal decrees were never enforced. In a further irony, Sepulveda's unabashed defense of the treatment of the natives proved to be too politically embarrassing for the Spanish, and it was also awkward that he based his argument on Aristotle, not on church doctrine: Sepulveda's part of the debate was suppressed.

Johnson v. M'Intosh (1823): Lest we think that the Doctrine of Discovery and the the charter to John Cabot are "ancient history," or that they belong to other cultures, but not our own, it is a good corrective to examine the legal basis of the relationship of the United States government to Native Americans. In three Supreme Court decisions in the 1820s (knowns as the "Indian Trilogy"), chief justice John Marshall established much of this basis. In the third decision of the "trilogy," Johnson v. M'Intosh, he traces the basis of all European land ownership in North America back to the charter of John Cabot in 1496. For a more recent court case turning on these same issues, see Nevada v. Hicks in the Ninth Federal Circuit Court of Appeals (1994), and the later reversal in the Supreme Court (2001).

2. Bibliography: Selected Print Resources

Berger, Thomas R. A Long and Terrible Shadow: White Values, Native Rights in the Americas since 1492. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991, 1999.

Calloway, Colin G. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of Native American History. Boston: Bedford St.Martin's, 2004.

Davenport, Frances Gardiner, ed. European Treaties bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1917. This is a standard source of such items as the papal bulls, treaties, and other early primary sources.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Fuson, Robert H. (translator). The Log of Christopher Columbus. Camden, Maine: International Marine Publishing, 1987.

Jane, Cecil (translator). The Journal of Christopher Columbus. New York: Bramhall House, 1960.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. New York: W.W. Norton, 1976.

Kicza, John E. Resilient Cultures: America's Native Peoples Confront European Civilization, 1500-1800. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2003.

Greymorning, Stephen. A Will to Survive: Indigenous Essays on the Politics of Culture, Language, and Identity. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Nabokov, Peter, ed. Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present, 1492-2000. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Parker, John, ed. Merchants & Scholars: Essays in the History of Exploration and Trade. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.

Weatherford, Jack. Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988.

Weatherford, Jack. Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America. New York: Crown Publishers, 1991.

Wilson, James. The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.