Skip to main content

The Man Behind Columbus

July 2024
21min read

But didn’t Columbus discover America all by himself? And who were the Pinzóns anyway? Good questions—and not one American in ten thousand probably knows the correct answers.

When Columbus made landfall in the West Indies on October 12, he was joined by the brothers Pinzón, three Spanish explorers who had done as much to organize, finance, and lead the expedition as the Italian himself. Museum of Prado

As you approach the village of Palos de la Frontera, some fifty miles west of Seville in Spain’s Analgesía, the squat little church of San J’orge looms in the foreground at the base of a rocky cliff that overlooks the tidal flats created by the mingling of the rivers Tinto and Odiel. The shallow estuary where the two rivers converge, known of old as the Saltés, is undistinguished scenically, an obscure corner of Spain virtually unknown to American tourists.

But a visitor mounting the steps to the plaza of the seven-hundred-year-old church from the road below soon becomes aware of a dusty marble plaque affixed to the crumbling brown façade of the sanctuary. Now chipped and broken, it is a sad remnant of a long-forgotten burst of civic pride. Chiseled on it are these words:


(to the Pinzóns: Immortal sons of this town, codiscoverers with Columbus of the New World; August 3, 1910; the community of Palos).

But didn’t Columbus discover America all by himself? And who were the Pinzóns anyway? Good questions—and not one American in ten thousand probably knows the correct answers. Yet the role of the brothers Pinzón in the discovery of America, and particularly that of the eldest, their redoubtable leader, Martín Alonso Pinzón, can fairly be equated with that of Columbus himself.

Pinzón was, in fact, the de facto leader of the expedition, since the crews looked to him for direction rather than to Columbus, whom they mistrusted as a foreigner.

Pinzón organized the expedition of 1492 after Columbus had failed to enlist a crew. Pinzón not only helped to finance the voyage but also advanced funds from his own pocket to the families of the sailors so they would not be in need during the absence of their breadwinners. One of the great sailors and navigators of his day, he contributed the maritime skill and knowledge necessary for the success of the expedition.

The Pinta, under Pinzón’s command, invariably led the fleet, and it was her crew who first sighted land in the predawn hours of October 12. Pinzón was the discoverer of the island of Haiti, where the Spaniards established their first New World colony, and he was the first European to strike gold in America.

Pinzón was, in fact, the de facto leader of the expedition, since the crews looked to him for direction rather than to Columbus, whom they mistrusted as a foreigner.

It is not difficult to assess the reasons for history’s neglect of Martín Pinzón. He died obscurely in Palos within two weeks after the return of the fleet of discovery on March 15, 1493. (Only two ships returned; Columbus’ flagship was wrecked on the north shore of Haiti on Christmas Eve.) Columbus and Pinzón quarreled bitterly in the West Indies, and only Columbus’ own version of the voyage has survived in conventional histories of the Discovery. He was a prolific writer of journals and letters; even if he and Pinzón had not quarreled, his incessant portrayal of himself as the lone discoverer of the New World would have prevailed because there was no other version.

After the quarrel Columbus’ complaints against his fellow argonauts were endless: the seamen of Palos were a bad lot, lawless and disobedient; the Pinzón brothers were greedy and insolent. The theme was picked up by two major contemporary historians, Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, an ardent admirer of Columbus, and Ferdinand Columbus, the illegitimate son of Christopher, who wrote a laudatory biography of his father. Subsequent histories of the Discovery were based almost exclusively on these three sources—Columbus himself, his son Ferdinand, and the partisan Las Casas.

But lying virtually forgotten for nearly three hundred years in the Archive of the Indies in Seville was a mass of unique historical data that revealed the great part Martín Pinzón played in the discovery of America. Preserved in the cramped handwriting of sixteenth-century court reporters are hundreds of thousands of words of sworn testimony about the first voyage that offer a considerably different view of the Enterprise of the Indies from that of the Columbus tradition.

Only gradually, in the last century and this, has this mine of historical evidence yielded its treasure through the work of successive Spanish scholars. Known as the Pleitos de Colón (litigation of Columbus), the transcripts of these extraordinary proceedings embody the eyewitness recollections of nearly a hundred residents of the comarca , or countryside, of the Tinto-Odiel, men who had been personally acquainted with both Pinzón and Columbus and who had witnessed or participated in the events in Palos immediately before the departure of the expedition of 1492 and after its return seven months later. At least five of the witnesses had been on the voyage.

The Pleitos were initiated by Diego Columbus, elder son of Christopher and the latter’s successor as admiral of the Indies. Diego brought suit in 1508, two years after his father’s death, to have restored to the Columbus family the titles and authority of viceroy and governor of the New World colonies, which King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had revoked in 1499, deposing Columbus and appointing a new governor. Defending the case for the Crown, the fiscal , or royal attorney, chose to base his defense not on the grounds of Columbus’ dubious record as governor but on the allegation that he was not the exclusive discoverer of America.

Testimony was presented in an attempt to prove that not only did Martín Pinzón organize and lead the expedition but that it was his idea in the first place. The latter claim, however, had so little evidence to support it that the Council of the Indies, before which the suit was tried, rejected it out of hand.

But the depositions relating to Pinzón’s predominant part in organizing the fleet and his role as partner and collaborator in the Discovery were abundant and explicit and were never challenged or denied by the attorneys and witnesses for Diego. Indeed, at least one witness for the plaintiff, Juan Rodríguez de Mafra, a veteran pilot, volunteered in his sworn statement, made in 1515, that if it had not been for Pinzón, Columbus never could have enlisted a crew.

The proceedings dragged on for twenty-five years, with periodic hearings over wide intervals of time and in widely separated places. In the end Luis Colón, wastrel grandson of Columbus, was conceded a dukedom in lieu of the viceroyalty demanded in the suit. Meanwhile descendants of Martín Pinzón were granted a coat of arms by the emperor Charles v in belated recognition of Pinzón’s contribution to the Discovery.

Thus but for the court records of the Pleitos the knowledge of Pinzón’s great role would have vanished forever. Aside from those records the documentary history of the Pinzón family is scanty.

Traditionally 1441 is given as the year of Martín’s birth in Palos. Nothing is known of his parents, but evidently the family had been settled in the Palos area for generations. Martín and his younger brothers, Vicente Ybáñez and Francisco Martín, lived together in a large house on Galle de la Nuestra Señor de la Râbida, the main street of Palos. Presumably they had inherited the house together with a finca , or farm estate, located upriver near Moguer.

Over the years Pinzón built up a prosperous deep-sea shipping business in which his brothers participated. His ships—he owned as many as three at a time—ranged far into the Atlantic and Mediterranean, particularly in the Guinea trade down the West African coast.

Las Casas, whose father later accompanied Columbus on the second voyage in 1493, described the Pinzón brothers as “wealthy mariners and principal persons to whom nearly everyone in their town deferred.” And Martín Pinzón, he went on, was the “chief and most wealthy and most honored, very courageous and well versed in matters of the sea.”

But it is in abundant testimony presented in the Pleitos that the full measure of Pinzón’s influence in his community is realized. Witness after witness, without a dissenting voice, told of the admiration and respect in which he was held by his fellow citizens as a sea captain and as a civic leader. And it was precisely Pinzón’s influence in the Tinto-Odiel comarca that was to be decisive in the discovery of America.

The declaration of Francisco Medel, regidor (magistrate) of Huelva, made in Seville in 1535, is typical of many:

The said Martín Alonso Pinzón was very knowledgeable in the art of navigation in all the seas and was a man than whom in all the kingdom there was no other more courageous in warfare nor more determined … for whatever he set his mind to, and at times he had one ship and at others two or three and this witness saw that he had them … and he had many honorable relatives and friends and superb equipment … to make the said discovery.

From the Pleitos we learn the name of Pinzón’s wife, María Alvarez, but little else about her. She was probably the daughter of one of the deep-sea mariners of Palos who formed an elite fraternity in a town devoted to the sea. The men who sailed the swift caravels of Andalusia to the far ports of Europe and Africa considered themselves a cut above the humbler fishermen whose daily forays into salt water were confined to the immediate area.

The couple were probably married in 1469, when Pinzón was about twenty-eight. This may be inferred from the testimony of their eldest son, Arias Pérez Pinzón, who was forty-five years old when he testified in 1515.

The world in which Martín and María began their married life was not a tranquil one. Palos was a tough little frontier seaport in a turbulent land. Andalusía was the bloody battleground for the hatreds and ambitions of feudal nobles who maintained private armies and even fleets of war. Bands of robbers nested in strongholds in the mountains and made periodic forays on villages and towns, returning with impunity to their lairs. Also, along the Andalusian coast the towns were prey to raids by Moslem corsairs from North Africa. The area around Palos, situated at the head of the estuary of the Saltés, an open door to the ocean, was particularly vulnerable to forays.

According to tradition in Palos, Pinzón’s two younger brothers continued to live with him on Galle de la Râbida after María moved in as a bride, and she kept house for all three. At the end of her first confinement she and Martín, attired in their Sabbath best and accompanied by two sponsors, carried their infant son to the baptismal font in the church of San Jorge, where a friar from the monastery of La Râbida solemnly christened him Arias Pérez Pinón. In subsequent years came Juan Martín, Catalina, Diego Martín, Mayor, Leonor, and Francisco Martín.

Most of the children were reasonably healthy, but there was a distressing exception. One of the little girls—which one is not known—was subject to violent convulsions. Her malady was diagnosed as the dreaded gota coral —epilepsy in its most acute form. This melancholy ordeal in the married life of the Pinzóns is revealed in a curious document brought to light by the Spanish historian Navarrete. Couched in archaic Castillan legalese, it is a mandate issued by Ferdinand and Isabella on December 5, 1500, ordering the authorities of Palos to act on a petition by Arias Pérez Pinzón that his brothers be compelled to take their turns in caring for their epileptic sister in their respective homes.

Martín and María had been married five years when the wretched reign of Enrique IV, the last of the Trastámara dynasty, which had ruled Castile for a hundred years, ended with his death in Madrid in 1474. The throne was seized immediately by his young half sister Isabella and Prince Ferdinand of Aragon, whom she had secretly married five years before. Isabella had the support of a powerful faction of Castilian nobles who were profoundly disturbed by the moral degeneracy of Enrique’s court.

Their accession precipitated a war with Portugal, whose king, Afonso v, claimed the Castilian throne on behalf of his niece, Juana. Afonso sent an invading army into Castile to enforce her claim, but it was routed by the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella in a battle on the Duero River in 1476.

Afonso did not attempt a second invasion, but the war continued at sea with singular ferocity. Martín Pinzón and his fellow seamen of Palos were in the forefront of the naval fighting that ranged up and down the Atlantic coast from Lisbon to Guinea in West Africa. In the Pleitos a number of witnesses testified to Pinzón’s personal prowess. Commanding his own ship on privateering expeditions, he won the admiration of his contemporaries by his valor and daring.

“At the time of the war with Portugal, all the Portuguese feared him because each day he captured some of them,” declared Gonzalo Martín of Huelva in his deposition in 1532. Fernando Iáñes Montiel, also of Huelva, said that “he knew very well the said Martín Alonso Pinzón and he was the most valorous man in all this land and with his ship he was feared by the Portuguese.” Ferrán Yáñez described Pinzón as being “as courageous a man as there was in this land … and there was no Portuguese ship that dared face him.”

Because of past irritations the fighting was especially bitter. The Spanish seamen resented the Portuguese claim to a monopoly of the African trade; the Portuguese were incensed by the Spaniards’ incursions into what they considered their exclusive domain. The war finally ended with the Treaty of Alcáçovas in September, 1479. Afonso gave up his claim to the Castilian throne; Ferdinand and Isabella recognized the exclusive right of the Portuguese to West African trade.

This last provision put a severe crimp in the economy of Palos. The shipowners and their crews henceforth had to depend largely on less lucrative trade with the Canaries and with Mediterranean and northern European ports.

So things went until one day in the winter of 1484-85 an indigent foreigner appeared at the gate of the monastery of La Rábida and begged for bread and water for his small son. It was a minor event that later was to have unimaginable consequences for Pinzón and for the whole world: the stranger was Christopher Columbus.

It was probably two or three years after this that María died and Pinzón took a second wife, Catalina Alonso, who was hated by her new stepchildren. There is no surviving record as such either of María’s death or of the second marriage. But both events are implicit in two curious documents in the royal archives of Spain, both bearing the same date and marking another intervention by the Catholic sovereigns in the Pinzón family affairs.

They were discovered by the American scholar Alicia B. Gould y Quincy in the archive of Simancas. Both documents, signed by Ferdinand and Isabella, bear the date October 12, 1493, exactly one year after the discovery of America and six and a half months after the death of Pinzón. The first is a mandate to the authorities of Palos to take appropriate action on a petition by hve of the Pinzón children—Arias Pérez, Juan Martín, Mayor, Catalina, and Leonor—to have their stepmother evicted from the family home. The second, directed to the woman herself, instructs her to comply with the wishes of the Pinzón heirs or show cause to the royal magistrates in Palos why she should not.

Thus when Pinzón first met Columbus some time in the latter half of the Pinzón household, with an epileptic daughter and with a second wife at swords’ points with her stepchildren, was anything but happy.

Columbus had spent six bitter years, much of the time in dire poverty, trying to persuade the sovereigns to underwrite his expedition. They were mildly interested, but they were engaged in a costly war with the kingdom of Granada, the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain. Moreover, a commission appointed to examine Columbus’ proposal, headed by the queen’s most trusted adviser, Father Talavera, reported on it unfavorably. The queen informed Columbus he could not count on royal support.

Heartsick, Columbus returned to La Rábida, where, several years earlier, he had been too poor to care for his son and had left him in the care of the monks. He was determined to try his fortunes in France. But the guardian of the monastery, Father Juan Pérez, had become interested in the project and persuaded him to delay his departure until a new appeal could be made to the queen. Father Pérez at one time had been a contador (accountant) in the queen’s household and had served as her confessor.

It is clear from testimony in the Pleitos that the new application to the queen was contingent on inducing Martín Pinzón to join the enterprise. The shrewd priest must have suspected that a weak point in Columbus’ case was the lack of an experienced navigator and fleet organizer.

Unfortunately, at the moment Pinzón was on a voyage to Italy with a cargo of sardines. Once there, he and his twenty-one-year-old son, Arias Pérez, visited Rome and were taken on a tour of the library of Pope Innocent vin. Their host is described as a “familiar” of the pope and an old acquaintance of Pinzón. He is not otherwise identified, but it is likely that he had once been a monk at La Rábida.

In the Pleitos the legal battery for the Crown made much of this visit of the Pinzón to the Vatican in attempting to prove that Pinzón and not Columbus had initiated the voyage of discovery. Responding to Question XI in the interrogatory of October 15, 1515, Arias testified to the conversation he and his father had had with the papal servant, whom he described as a “great cosmographer.”

“And there this witness and his said father were informed of these lands that awaited discovery,” Arias continued. He further said that his father was so impressed by the evidence of undiscovered lands that he was determined to go in search of them himself.

There is a great deal of eyewitness testimony relating to the first meeting between Columbus and Pinzón on the latter’s return from Italy. Typical was that of Hernando de Villareal, who said that he “knows that on arrival of the said Martín Alonso from Rome, the said Admiral [Columbus] reached an agreement with him and the said Admiral sent to court a friar of La Rábida and he made relation thereof to Their Highnesses …”

The evidence in the Pleitos dovetails with the accounts of the renewed negotiations between Columbus and the sovereigns as related by Father Las Casas and Ferdinand Columbus in their respective histories. Father Pérez wrote to the queen from La Rábida. His letter was so effective that she replied within two weeks, summoning both Pérez and Columbus to the royal encampment of Santa Fe on the vega , or lowland, of Granada, where the Spanish armies were besieging the Alhambra. The queen sent 20,000 maravedis (about $140) to Columbus so he could shed his threadbare clothes and make a decent appearance at court.

The Alhambra surrendered on January 2, 1492. Three and a half months later the monarchs signed the Capitulations of Santa Fe, authorizing the voyage and making extraordinary grants of titles and perquisites to Columbus. By a stroke of their pens the erstwhile Knight of the Ragged Cape, as some of the courtiers had scoffingly dubbed Columbus in his years of travail, was transformed into the Very Magnificent Lord, Don Cristóbal Colón, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Along with the Capitulations the sovereigns issued a directive to the town authorities of Palos to furnish and equip two caravels and to supply the necessary manpower for them.

Columbus returned in triumph to Palos, and the royal directives were read in the church plaza to a small knot of Palos officialdom. Unfortunately for Columbus, his new admiral’s uniform and the decrees from the sovereigns did little for him in the jaundiced eyes of the local citizens. To them he was still the indigent foreigner without money or credit who was trying to force them to go on a desperate journey to God knew where.

To Alonso Pardo, town notary of Moguer, fell the task of seeking two caravels in accordance with the royal mandate. He managed to commandeer a couple of ships of dubious vintage whose owners were either unlucky or indifferent. Pardo, a witness years later in the Columbus family litigation, testified that “this witness saw that everyone scorned the said Christopher Columbus and believed he would die and everyone who went with him.”

The hostile state of mind of the people of Palos is abundantly revealed in uncontroverted testimony presented in the Pleitos . Witness after witness, in interrogatories taken over a period of twenty years and in widely separated places, testified to the universal lack of confidence in Columbus when he tried to man and equip the fleet on his own.

“Everyone said the enterprise of the said Don Cristóbal was vain and they made a mockery of it,” declared Martín Gonzalo Bisochero in the 1515 hearing in Moguer.

The villagers’ hostility toward Columbus was even confirmed by witnesses sympathetic to Diego Columbus. One of them was Juan Rodríguez de Cabezudo, a Moguer farmer who had rented a donkey to Columbus when the latter went to court after his first interview with Pinzón. “Many persons made fun of the said Admiral,” Cabezudo testified. “They … even reproached this witness for lending him a mule and publicly they scorned the enterprise.”

Week after week the embargoed caravels swung idly at anchor in the Rio Tinto while Columbus strove in vain to enlist a crew. Apparently he must have given the sovereigns the idea that the villagers’ stolid resistance portended a full-scale revolt. On June 20, nearly a month after the reading of the ordinance impounding the caravels, Their Highnesses sent a stern letter to the Palos authorities ordering Columbus’ ships manned by any means necessary. And they sent an officer of the royal household named Juan de Penalosa to see that the order was carried out. At the same time the alcaide (governor) of the castle was summarily ousted and replaced by the corregidor (royal magistrate), Juan de Cepeda, who armed it to repel any rebellion.


These drastic measures only hardened the passive resistance of the villagers. The boycott was complete.

The reader may well wonder whatever happened to the understanding Columbus had reached with Pinzón. The question has never been satisfactorily answered. There is only one reasonable conclusion: with the mandates of the sovereigns in hand, Columbus had decided he had no need for Pinzón’s collaboration, no necessity to share the glory and profits of the expedition. Professor Manuel Sales Ferre of the University of Seville, who did extensive research in the transcripts of the Pleitos , believes the boycott was actively abetted by a resentful Pinzón, who used his powerful influence in the community to thwart Columbus at every turn. Thus the enterprise was caught in a riptide of contention between two stubborn wills—the one armed with the authority of the Crown, the other with Pinzón’s moral authority in the comarca .

In the end Columbus had to go to Pinzón. Father Pérez was probably an active mediator in the impasse. Once Columbus had accepted the reality that all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put together a crew for him, there remained the task of winning Pinzón to a reconciliation. This probably was not as difficult as it might seem. Pinzón was now fifty years old, well past the life expectancy of those days. Undoubtedly he yearned for one more great adventure to crown his distinguished maritime career. Even more compelling, perhaps, was his longing to escape from his unhappy household.

It is not difficult to imagine the scene as the two protagonists faced each other, Columbus now conciliatory and expansive in his promises, Pinzón dour and still suspicious as he stated his conditions for undertaking the voyage. What were those conditions? No one knows for sure. If there was a written agreement, it has not survived. However, there was considerable testimony by witnesses in the Pleitos on this point.

The import of the sworn evidence is that the two partners agreed to share equally the rewards of the expedition. Obviously such an understanding could relate only to the material profits and not to grants of high office made to Columbus by the sovereigns.

The eldest of the Pinzón sons, Arias Pérez and Juan Martín, testified that Columbus had pledged half. So did Diego Hernández Colmenero, who after the voyage married Pinzón’s daughter Catalina. Their testimony might be considered suspect because of their close relationship. On the other hand, unless one makes the gratuitous assumption that they were lying, who would be in a better position to know the facts than the immediate members of the Pinzón family?


However, there was strong corroboration from other witnesses. Alonso Gallego of Huelva said he heard Columbus tell Pinzón: “Señor Martín Alonso we will go on this voyage and if God grants that we discover land, I promise you … I will share with you as I would my own brother.” Gallego added that he heard Columbus make that pledge “many times.” Francisco Medel, regidor (alderman) of Huelva, testified that “Martín Alonso Pinzón said to this witness that Columbus agreed … to give him all that he asked for and wanted.”

Father Las Casas, who was strongly partial to Columbus, nevertheless has left a fair assessment of the situation. “Christopher Columbus began his negotiation with Martín Alonso Pinón,” Las Casas wrote in the Historia de las Indias ,

begging that he come with him and bring along his brothers and relatives and friends and without doubt he made some promises because no one is moved except in his own interest… . We believe that Martín Alonso principally and his brothers aided Christopher Columbus greatly …

because of their wealth and abundant credit, mainly Martín Alonso Pinzón who was very courageous and well experienced in seamanship …

… And as Christopher Columbus had left the court in a very needy condition … it appears from accounts of expenses made before a notary public in the said town of Palos that the said Martín Alonso … himself advanced to Christopher Columbus a half million maravedis], or he and his brothers …

With the decisive intervention of Pinzón, most of Columbus’ difficulties vanished. Time was short if the expedition was to sail that summer, and the energetic Pinzón went all out in organizing the voyage. He discarded the embargoed caravels and substituted two of his own choice, the Pinta and the Niña , for a third vessel he and Columbus chartered a somewhat larger ship from the Bay of Biscay that happened to be in the Palos harbor with her owner, Juan de la Cosa of Santona. Columbus chose her for his flagship. Although she has gone down in history by the name Santa María , Columbus himself never referred to her by that name in his Journal of the First Voyage , invariably calling her La Capitana , or “the flagship.”

With the ships in hand, Pinzón began the task of manning them. His recruiting was little short of spectacular. He had a vast reservoir of friends and relatives in the comarca , most of them seamen. When word got out that the Pinzón brothers themselves would sail on the voyage, many volunteers came to the recruiting table.

But Pinzón didn’t leave it at that. He went up and down the little main street and the waterfront of Palos, exhorting his fellow citizens with all the fervor of a street evangelist. “Friends, you are in misery here; go with us on this journey,” he exclaimed to the men who gathered around him. “We will, with the aid of God, discover land in which, according to report, we will find houses with roofs of gold and everything of wealth and good adventure.”

This lively eyewitness account of Pinzón’s recruiting was given in a deposition by Fernan láñes Montiel of Huelva. Alonso Gallego testified that Pinzón advanced money out of his own pocket to some of the families of the sailors he induced to go on the voyage so they would not be in need.

In the faint light of predawn on August 3, 1492, the little fleet glided slowly down the Tinto toward the wide ocean and its rendezvous with history. Columbus commanded the flagship, Martín Pinzón the Pinta , and Vicente Pinzón the Nióa , smallest of the three.

Twice during the outward crossing Pinzón again came to the rescue of the expedition. As the voyage grew longer and longer a crisis occurred on the flagship. A disgruntled and fearful crew openly threatened a mutiny.

Testimony concerning this episode is copious and explicit, much of it bearing an air of credibility. The consensus is that it was Martín Pinzón who silenced the grumblers and encouraged Columbus to continue the voyage. One of the most circumstantial of the many witnesses was Hernán Pérez Mateos, a veteran pilot of Palos and a cousin of the Pinzóns, who said:

… Having sailed many days and not discovered land those who came with the said Colon wanted to rebel … saying they would be lost and the said Colñn told the said Martín Alonso what went on and asked what he should do and the said Martín Alonso Pinzón responded: “Señor, your grace should hang a half dozen or throw them into the sea and if you do not venture to do so I and my brothers will come alongside and do it for you, that the fleet which left with the mandate of such exalted princes should not return without good news.”

Probably Pinzón bellowed his advice from the rail of his own ship in the hearing of everyone on the flagship. Whatever threat of mutiny may have existed promptly subsided. Mateos added that he had the story of the crisis from the Pinzóns themselves.

Perhaps even more important was the testimony of Francisco Garcia Vallejos of Palos, who was a seaman on the Pinta .

“The said Admiral conferred with all the captains,” Vallejos explained, “and with the said Martñn Alonso Pinzón and said to them ‘What shall we do?’ (This was the sixth day of October of 92) ‘Captains, what shall we do since my people complain so bitterly to me? How does it appear to you that we should proceed?’ And then said Vicente Yáñez [Pinzón]: ‘We should keep on, Señor, for two thousand leagues and if by then we have not found what we have come to seek, we can turn back from there.’ And then responded Martín Alonso Pinzón ‘How, Señor? We have only just left and already your grace is fretting. Onward, Señor, that God may give us the victory in discovering land; never would God wish that we turn back so shamefully.’ Then responded the said Admiral: ‘Blessings on thee.’”

After the crisis had ended on the flagship and the Pinta had resumed her usual position far in advance of the other ships, Pinzón wondered if their due westerly course along the 28th parallel was the right one. Then, as sunset approached on October 6, there came a clear indication: birds.

They were land birds that foraged at sea by day and nested on shore at night, and they were flying over the caravel on what appeared to be a homing course—but not in the direction in which the ship was going. They were on the port side, headed southwesterly.

Pinzón reduced sail and waited for the flagship to catch up. As Columbus came alongside, Pinzón shouted his advice for a change of course toward the south. Columbus demurred and that night stubbornly adhered to his westerly course. But the next day he changed his mind and signaled a divergence toward the southwest. Columbus’ journal entry for October 6 mentions Pinzón’s advice and his rejection of it. The October 7 entry records the change of course, but characteristically it is now Columbus’ own idea.

Pinzón’s initiative in urging a change of course was confirmed by Seaman Vallejos of the Pinta in his testimony later in the Pleitos . Vallejos’ version differs in minor detail from that of Columbus:

He [the witness] knows and saw that [Pinzón] said on the said voyage: “It appears to me and my heart tells me that if we deviate toward the southwest we will find land sooner” and that then responded the said admiral don xtóbal colon “Be it so … that we shall do” and that immediately as suggested … they changed a quarter to the southwest …

Within five days after the change of course the fleet made its landfall on the tiny island of Guanahani in the outer Bahamas.

Had it continued due west along the 28th parallel, the voyage would have required many more days to reach the coast of what is now Florida. There is a good question whether the crews’ patience would have endured that long.

Pinzón was mortally ill when the fleet returned to Palos on March 15, 1493. He was borne from his ship to the Pinzón family estate near Moguer, where he could rest in seclusion. But he wanted to spend his last days in the sacred precincts of the monastery of La Rábida among his friends the monks. Sorrowing relatives and friends bore him to the sanctuary of his wish, and there he died in the waning days of March.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.