Columbus Day: Biggest Misconceptions and Exploring the Era of First Contact

Famed painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth created a series of murals in 1927 for National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., including this one showing the ships of Christopher Columbus's voyage of discovery. (Photo courtesy NGS)
Famed painter and illustrator N.C. Wyeth created a series of murals in 1927 for National Geographic headquarters in Washington, D.C., including this one showing the ships of Christopher Columbus’s voyage of discovery. (Photo courtesy NGS)

Christopher Columbus’s landfall in the Western Hemisphere on October 12, 1492, is commemorated throughout the Americas and elsewhere with various emphases, including celebrations of exploration, history, cultural heritage, cultural diversity, and more. It has also been seen as a dark day marking the beginning of centuries of violence, disease, and oppression for the people who already dwelt on these shores.

It is of course all of these things. There were good and bad aspects of all groups and populations involved in the history that began on that day. One thing is certain though: It was going to happen sooner or later. With only so much land on Earth, eventually the branches of the human family that had been growing separately on two hemispheres were bound to meet again. When they did, there would be conflict, disease, and misunderstanding, as well as trade, cultural exchange, inspiration, and the sheer thrill of discovery. (Scott Wallace on today’s uncontacted tribes.)

As things turned out, that moment of reunion began in earnest on October 12, 1492. To explore this pivotal moment in the story of our species, I spoke with Tony Horwitz, author of A Voyage Long and Strange: On the Trail of Vikings, Conquistadors, Lost Colonists, and Other Adventurers in Early America. (Read more about Vikings in America.)

What do you see as the biggest misconceptions people have today about first contact?

Tony Horwitz: Many Americans imagine that Columbus landed in what is now the United States. Actually, he landed first in the Bahamas and never touched this continent. Many people also believe that the European chapter of our history begins with the English at Jamestown and Plymouth. In fact, by the time they arrived in the early 1600s, the Spanish, French, and others had been exploring and settling the continent for a century.

Another common misconception is that this continent was wild and lightly inhabited by nomadic natives before Europeans arrived. The reality is that there were millions of natives, enormous mound cities that rivaled European settlements in size, agriculture and trade routes, and other practices that had shaped the land in many ways. This wasn’t a virgin or primitive wilderness.

A dark spot in the history of the Western Hemisphere is the amount of violence and destruction toward the indigenous inhabitants (Read community stories from the Pine Ridge Reservation). Were there Europeans actively working for a different approach? How did they fare?

TH: Yes, there were members of the clergy in particular, such as Bartolomé de Las Casas (known as “Defender of the Indians”), who opposed the exploitation and slaughter of natives. Even some conquistadors, like Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, came to believe that natives should be treated with humanity. The Spanish also established missions and sought to peaceably convert natives and live alongside them. But the lust for land and riches, epidemic disease, and other forces proved much more powerful than the humane impulses of a few.

N.C. Wyeth's murals for National Geographic also include this map of the routes of early European explorers in the Western Hemisphere. (Photo courtesy NGS)
[Click Image to Zoom] N.C. Wyeth’s murals for National Geographic also include this map of the routes of early European explorers in the Western Hemisphere. (Photo courtesy NGS)
It may have started at this moment, but there were hundreds of years of interaction between the cultures. What are some of the things of value or joy you found exploring this forgotten era?

TH: The greatest joy, for me, was reading accounts that convey the wonder and strangeness of people encountering places and cultures that are entirely new to them. This is an experience we simply can’t have today, no matter how far we travel. How do humans who have never seen, or in some cases even imagined, each other behave when they first come face to face? How do they communicate? Get along?

No two stories are the same and many of them are filled with touching and even comic detail. For instance, newcomers and natives often exchanged food, with natives gagging on English mustard and Frenchmen griping that the native fare was insufferably bland. Natives marveled at writing, this magical communication that didn’t require sound, and Europeans—who were generally filthy and malnourished—were struck by how tall, healthy, and clean the natives seemed. Europeans also expressed amazement upon first seeing buffalo, or alligators, or even fireflies. Things we regard today as commonplace were alien and wondrous. I found myself seeing my own country through fresh and newly appreciative eyes.

Finally, different cultures come into contact all the time. What about first contact in the New World makes it of particular interest or value for us today?

TH: I’ve written about early contact in other parts of the world, too, for instance Captain James Cook’s exploration of the Pacific in the late 1700s. In Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and other places, that history is well known. But Americans, in general, aren’t aware of the early contact that occurred in their own country, often in their own backyard: in Florida, Texas, California, New York Harbor, and other points all along the eastern seaboard. The Spanish were even roaming Kansas in the 1540s.

This forgotten history influenced the late-arriving English colonists, and it helped shape the world they found here and the society they created, which we in turn have inherited. The notion that our national story somehow begins in 1776, or with the Pilgrims’ landing in 1620, is a creation myth. If we want to truly understand this land we inhabit, including the environment, it behooves us to know the true story of what happened here a long time ago.


Tony Horwitz’s Recent Book on John Brown’s Raid

First-Hand Stories From the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Scott Wallace on Uncontacted Tribes of Today

Did Sixth-Century Irish Monks Reach the New World?

Read Christopher Columbus’s Journal on Project Gutenberg

Explore 125 Years of National Geographic Expeditions

Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. He is currently beginning a new role as communications director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history.

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