Before Columbus



The written history of America begins with the year 1492, the date of the first voyage of Columbus to its previously-unknown shores. Yet there pertains to the preceding period a considerable variety of interesting material of a semi-historical character, -- is part traditional, legendary, and speculative, in part based on researches into the languages, race-characteristics, customs, and antiquities of the American aborigines. Some attention to the abundant literature relating to this earlier epoch seems desirable as a preface to the recent history of America. This literature is in no proper sense American history, yet it is all we know of the existence of man upon this continent during the ages preceding the close of the fifteenth century. It is far too voluminous, and, as a rule, too speculative, to be dealt with otherwise than very briefly, yet it cannot properly be ignored in any work on the history of the American continent.

WHEN it first became known to Europe that a new continent had been discovered, the wise men, philosophers, and especially the learned ecclesiastics, were sorely perplexed to account for such a discovery. A problem was placed before them, the solution of which was not to be found in the records of the ancients. On the contrary, it seemed that old-time traditions must give way, the infallibility of revealed knowledge must be called in question, even the Holy Scriptures must be interpreted anew. Another world, upheaved, as it were, from the depths of the sea of darkness, was suddenly placed before them. Strange races, speaking strange tongues, peopled the new land; curious plants covered its surface; animals unknown to science roamed through its immense forests; vast seas separated it from the known world; its boundaries were undefined; its whole character veiled in obscurity. Such was the mystery that, without rule or precedent, they were now required to fathom..

When, therefore, the questions arose, whence were these new lands peopled? How came these strange animals and plants to exist on a continent cut off by vast oceans from the rest of the world? The wise men of the time unhesitatingly turned to the Sacred Scriptures for an answer. These left them no course but to believe that all mankind were descended from one pair. This was a premise that must by no means be disputed. The original home of the first pair was generally supposed to have been situated in Asia Minor; the ancestors of the people found in the New World must consequently have originally come from the Old World, though at what time and by what route was an open question, an answer to which was diligently sought for both in the sacred prophesies and in the historical writings of antiquity.

Noah's ark gave rise to a number of such constructions, and the experience gained during the patriarch's aimless voyage emboldened his descendants to seek strange lands in the same manner. Driven to America and the neighboring islands by winds and currents, they found it difficult to return, and so remained and peopled the land. It was thought the custom of eating raw fish among some American tribes was acquired during these long sea-voyages. That they came by sea is evident, for the north--if indeed the continent be connected with the Old World--must be impassable by reason of extreme cold.





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