- Historic Sites
“By Chaos Out Of Dream”
An exploration into the exploration of America
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
For centuries Europe had been living up to the limits of its land and resources. Its population, periodically reduced by the Black Death, was nearly static. Its faith was both frozen and tested by a corrupt and politicized but “universal” church now beginning to break up in the Reformation, its social and economic system strangled in the survivals of feudalism and chivalry, its history crazy with dynastic wars and soggy with blood, its learning only just opening out of scholasticism into the Renaissance. To closed and limited Europe America was, as Webb says, a pure windfall, a once-in-the-historyof-the-world opportunity. Both Reformation and Renaissance, already begun, were enormously enhanced by the discovery of the New World; freedoms only half-imagined were suddenly possible. No wonder Europe fell upon America as if it had been Blackbeard’s chest. No wonder it brushed aside the Stone Age natives—a nuisance, like mosquitoes. Even if a few Europeans looked upon them as souls to be saved, none for a long time regarded them as men and societies with rights and cultures and a healthy relation to the earth. Europe simply washed over them, a tidal wave of cupidity and hope.
From the point of view of the invaders, a story mad with the impossible, by chaos out of dream. And dream kept opening into further dream, chaos often led on to more confusing chaos. Take the Northwest Passage again. It eluded all search from the Atlantic side, but after Magellan showed the way into the Pacific in 1520, men could dream of finding it from the west, and so invented an opening called the Straits of Anian.
Cabrillo in 1542…43 explored the Pacific coast as high as 42.5 degrees north latitude without finding the straits he was searching for. After that, Spanish exploration subsided, exhausted by fifty years of intense adventuring. But Sir Francis Drake, having looted the Manila galleon in 1579, sailed up the coast and careened the Golden Hind for repairs on a beach north of San Francisco, in the country he claimed for England and called New Albion. He was confident that the Straits of Anian lay only a short distance northward, but he did not go farther in search of them. Nevertheless his incursion galvanized the Spanish into new activity, for fear Drake might be right and England gain an enormous advantage. So Vizcáino came to see what he could discover, and in 1603, off the northern California coast, the captain in his bunk with broken ribs, the crew so weak and sick they could not work the sails, Vizcáino s boatswain thought he saw the mouth of a large river just south of Cape Mendocino. Scurvy, starvation, and constant storms gave them no chance to explore it. There is no river where he thought he saw one; either the ship was not where the boatswain thought it was, or what he saw was an illusion of longing and blowing fog. But Torquemada, reading the boatswain’s report back in Spain, leaped to the conclusion that he had seen the Straits of Anian, and had it recorded on the map. Characteristically, the map maker placed it not just below Cape Mendocino but near Cape Blanco Illusion was thus compounded by clerical error and perpetuated by document, and knowledge was postponed.
It was so easy to err, even without the intervention of wishfulness. Sailors in strange waters, working from nearly total ignorance toward knowledge with no tool except their own observation, could miss even salient features. Verrazano missed the Hudson, Lewis and Clark missed the Willamette, Major Powell on the last great exploration within the continental United States missed the Escalante. Cabrillo, and Drake, Pérez, and Vizcáino after him, missed the Golden Gate, opening into one of the greatest natural harbors in the world.
Like other New World dreams, the Northwest Passage flickered along just ahead of knowledge, just beyond the next day’s sail, beyond where vision blurred with fog and distance. When you do not know how wide a continent is, or whether it is continent or island, or whether it is a separate land body or part of Asia, and especially when you do not yet have a reliable method of determining longitude, anything is possible. Any bay or gulf may open a broad way to the Orient, any river may lead you to the divide beyond which rivers run serenely to the South Sea. For a while the James and the Potomac were eyed hopefully. And once the Mississippi was found, it was perfectly possible to think it might flow into the Pacific. Marquette and Jolliet, making their way in 1673 from Green Bay up the Fox River, across the portage into the Wisconsin, and down the Wisconsin to the Mississippi, were by no means sure that the great river they had found would not lead them to the Gulf of California. By the time they turned back at the mouth of the Arkansas for fear of running into difficulties with the Spanish, they were fairly sure where it did flow, and La Salle, going the whole distance nine years later, proved that it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. But both expeditions, passing the mouth of the muddy, rushing, tree-choked Missouri, looked up that savage stream and wondered if that might be the route to Asia.