Some historians like to bicker about whether the driving force in history is people or events, in other words, do individuals create historical events or do historical events create significant individuals through their reactions to those events?
Actually, when you get right down to it, history doesn’t seem to be much more than a series of accidents and mistakes that combine to form a historical context lurching from one catastrophe to another. If that might be a trend in history, then the history of North America has certainly seems to have followed it.
The New World’s accidental history began as soon as Christopher Columbus weighed anchor on the coast of Spain and headed west across the Atlantic. This week, we commemorated the results of that voyage, which proved catastrophic for millions of Indigenous people in North, Central, and South America while creating opportunities for downtrodden people elsewhere on earth for the next five centuries.
When Columbus finally sighted land at the end of his voyage 530 years ago this week, he was positive he had discovered either China or India. But as one historian noted, he hadn’t even discovered Indiana.
Instead, Columbus landed on an island off the coast of what became known as the Americas but was so convinced he had reached the mysterious East that he named the inhabitants of his new discovery Indians, a name not a few of them have been trying to live down ever since.
It seems to have been, in fact, a fortunate thing that Columbus never actually found North, Central, or South America, given his murderous proclivities. The first people Columbus stumbled across were the Tainos, a peaceful bunch in which Columbus immediately saw possibilities. “They should be good servants,” he wrote in his journal. After which he instituted a brutal regime of torture, rape, and murder against them in order to steal whatever gold, silver, or other valuables that might have had.
After establishing a colony on the island of Hispaniola during his second voyage to the New World—and in direct violation of his orders from the Spanish monarchy—Columbus figured the numerous indigenous people living there would make fine slaves, and so he began shipping hundreds of them back to Spain, and enslaving thousands more on Hispaniola allowing Spaniards serving under him to rape, pillage, and murder.
As historian Samuel Elliott Morrison put it: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”
Alarmed by the reports they were receiving about the brutality of Columbus towards not only the Native People, but also Hispaniola’s European colonists after Columbus’s fourth voyage, the Spanish crown ordered an investigation. That led to Columbus’s arrest and return in chains to Spain where the authorities stripped him of his titles.
Despite Spain’s initial decision to treat Native People with respect and kindness, when it apparently occurred to them they didn’t have to worry about reciprocal attacks from organized Indian or Chinese armies, the ethical gloves came completely off. And the Spanish quickly came to consider all the Indigenous People as surplus population. Five hundred years before the Germans perfected the method, the Spanish practiced the Final Solution on entire peoples living in North, Central, and South America.
Although Columbus thought he’d found India or China (he remained convinced until his death), it quickly became apparent to others that a) there seemed to be a major error in their calculations of the diameter of the earth and b) there further seemed to be a large mass of land taking up all that space between Europe and Asia. Due to those miscalculations of the Earth’s diameter, those early explorers thought that what turned out to be North, Central, and South America was a narrow island. Stories of rich nations and cities just beyond the horizon, some undoubtedly concocted by Native People eager to see murderous, greedy Europeans go elsewhere, became a staple of the colonization of the New World.
So, when the French landed in Canada and began exploring to the west, they were sure they would soon reach China. In fact, a series of rapids on the St. Lawrence River was named La Chine because early colonists were sure China was just up the river a few miles beyond the rapids. With that as a precedent, every time a French adventurer took possession of land as the boundaries of exploration were pushed ever farther westward, it was with one eye on the Chinese. For instance, when the French seized the Sault Ste. Marie rapids leading from Lake Superior just before 1620, the official doing the taking had brought along rich robes for the ceremony because he was sure a few Chinese potentates would show up for the festivities.
The conviction that rich Asian markets lay just beyond next hill to the west drove two centuries’ worth of searches for the non-existent Northwest Passage. And unlike those homicidal Spanish conquistadors, the French generally tended to be more benign in their colonial treatment of Native People.
French geographer Louis Jolliet and Jesuit missionary and linguist Father Jacques Marquette, who were sent to discover whether the Mississippi River was a sort of Southwest Passage to the Pacific, both had high hopes of finding the long-sought route. Instead, they discovered the Mississippi didn’t flow southwest. Rather, they found, it headed pretty much directly south or slightly southeast to end up emptying into the Gulf of Mexico and not the Gulf of California as had been hoped.
The Jolliet-Marquette expedition had began in 1673 when Jolliet was commissioned to find out exactly where the Mississippi went given Native People insisted it led to a huge body of water. He and a few companions left Montreal and paddled up the Ottawa River following the old trade route the Chippewa and Ottawa people had blazed and perfected centuries before.
The party crossed Rainy Lake and portaged into Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, eventually arriving at the French post of St. Ignace. There they picked up Father Marquette, who was added to the expedition for his linguistic skills.
The party then paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to the Fox River of Wisconsin that emptied into Green Bay. Paddling up the Fox, they portaged to the Wisconsin River at the site of today’s Portage, Wis., and then followed the Wisconsin down to its mouth on the Mississippi.
During their voyage down the Mississippi, Jolliet made navigational observations until, upon reaching the mouth of the Arkansas River, he realized the Mississippi had to flow into the Gulf of Mexico not the Gulf of California. In addition, at the mouth of the Arkansas, they were welcomed by an Indian village whose residents were using Spanish trade goods. That was alarming because Spain and France were quarreling at the time, creating a potentially unhealthy atmosphere for the French explorers.
So the expedition turned around and paddled back north. Reaching the mouth of the Illinois River, they were advised by some helpful Native People the smaller river was a shortcut to the Great Lakes, so they became the first Europeans to explore the Illinois River Valley. Both Jolliet and Marquette commented on the rich prairie land they saw during their voyage north, and both correctly predicted the territory would prove to be a productive farming region.
Father Marquette lived just one more year before dying on the lonely Lake Michigan coastline near modern Marquette, Mich.
Jolliet was within sight of Montreal when his canoe upset in some rapids and he lost all of the journals and maps he had made during the expedition. However, he reconstructed much of the information, and that eventually caught the attention of Robert René Cavalier, Seur de la Salle, who concocted a grand scheme for the settlement of the lands Jolliet and Marquette had first explored as well as lands along the south shore of Lake Michigan east of the Chicago River.
And so it came to pass that nearly 200 years after Columbus landed, LaSalle finally discovered Indiana.