- Historic Sites
“By Chaos Out Of Dream”
An exploration into the exploration of America
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
When literally nothing is known, anything is possible, and even the greatest explorers can err. It took a long time merely to establish what was island and what was continent, especially in the icy and much-islanded north. By the time Gordillo in 1521 and Verrazano in 1524 had, between them, coasted the Atlantic seaboard from Florida to Newfoundland, they still knew only a shore line, and that in the most general terms. The density and mass of what lay beyond the shore was inconceivable, and would not become fully clear for three centuries. Uncounted expeditions would have to go up the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa and out through the Great Lakes, or from Hudson Bay up the Nelson and Churchill to the Saskatchewan, up the Saskatchewan to the Rocky Mountains, over the mountains to the sea. It would require the labor and daring of Nicolet, Marquette and Jolliet, La Salle, Duluth, Groseilliers and Radisson, Henry Kelsey and Peter Pond, La Vérendrye and Hearne, Alexander Mackenzie, and Lewis and Clark to demonstrate how wide a barrier lay between European wishfulness and Cathay. Because no one in the beginning had any conception of the breadth of the continent, error was sometimes ludicrous. Verrazano, sailing along the Carolina coast searching hopefully for a shortcut to China, looked across a low sand isthmus a mile or so wide and thought the water he saw on the other side might be the Pacific. It was Pamlico Sound. He couldn’t even see the eastern shore of America, much less the western.
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Verrazano entered New York harbor, but missed the mouth of the Hudson, the only eastern river besides the St. Lawrence that would have taught him something about the extent of the wilderness that lay between him and the ocean leading to the Orient. Actually it was the St. Lawrence-Ottawa route that led Europeans into the interior, but it took well over a century before the combined efforts of Cartier, Champlain, Nicolet, Marquette, Jolliet, and La Salle, plus a generally nameless but indispensable tribe of coureurs de bois, before that interior was opened even as far as the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.
No matter how much they found out about it, they kept looking for a way through it. In the 1570’s, fifty years after Verrazano, Frobisher was groping through the Arctic ice in search of the Northwest Passage. Ten years after Frobisher, John Davis was forced to turn back from what he thought was the very entrance. And in 1610, a generation after Davis, Henry Hudson, in search of the same passage, was set adrift by his mutinous crew and added to the casualty list of the New World, a long list that would grow: John Cabot lost without trace in the Atlantic; Verrazano killed and eaten by Carib cannibals; Cabrillo dying of injuries and exhaustion on a remote California island; de Soto buried in the Mississippi; La Salle murdered by his own men in the collapse of his imperial dream; Jesuits sliced up and killed a finger at a time by the Iroquois; settlers dying of scurvy and starvation and wounds at Fort Caroline, Santa Fe, Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, San Diego, Winter Quarters; Jedediah Smith escaping Mohave and Umpqua ambushes only to be rubbed out by a Comanche war party on the Santa Fe Trail.
Renaissance princes steeped in Machiavelli, adventurers, soldiers and settlers, bond servants, pathfinders, dreamers in search of riches and freedom unthinkable in static Europe, they were of many nations and kinds, but to all of them the New World was a pillar of fire and cloud, an impetuous dynamism, a throwing open of what had been closed and locked for centuries. America opened Bastille Europe.
Probably, in the last analysis, the economic motive was the strongest of all that moved the newcomers, and imperial rivalry the next strongest. Think of it in our contemporary terms: without the Russians for rivals we would not yet have walked on the moon. And if the moon rocks our astronauts brought back had been solid gold, our space shuttles already would be working, and the launching pads would be crowded with emigrants. But setting aside the Aztec and Inca gold, what opened up around the year 1500—the beginning of modern times—was enough to blow the European mind. Walter Webb summarizes it presuasively in The Great Frontier : North and South America found beyond the mists of the Atlantic, with Australia— Terra Australis Incognita —to follow about a century later; Africa rediscovered and laid open to slavers and ivory hunters; a way found around the Cape of Good Hope to India; shortly afterward a way found around South America into the Pacific. And everyone of these discoveries a source of or avenue to new wealth.