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Christopher Columbus

Italian Cristoforo Colombo; Spanish Cristoval Colon. Genoese discoverer of America (1436?-1506) โ€” Webster, 1882

The time had come. Laura stood up. She did not know how she got to the platform. Somehow she was there, and her voice began. “America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa in Italy, had long sought permission to make a voyage toward the west in order to discover a new route to India. At that time Spain was ruled by the united crowns ofโ€”” -Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little Town on the Prairie, Chapter 24, “The School Exhibition”

At her school’s exhibition in De Smet, Laura Ingalls recited the first half of “the whole of American history, from memory,” while her friend and classmate, Ida Wright, was in charge of the rest. Laura began her recitation with the discovery of America.

Laura’s recitation was compiled from events outlined in her history book, Edward Taylor’s The Model History: A Brief Account of the American People, For Schools (George Sherwood and Company, 1878). In August 1879, Educational Weekly featured a list of the textbooks published by George Sherwood, and had this to say about The Model History: “This history deals with the elements of our national growth. Attention is called to inventions, industries, religious, humane, and educational enterprises. As much attention is given to the Arts of Peace as to War. The Chart of Events greatly aids pupils in learning the historical facts of the world.” Laura signed her name in the front of her book, and added the year it was purchased: 1882. The book’s cost was 75 cents.

Laura owned the first edition of The Model History, which was edited and revised in 1885, 1889, and 1897. You can browse or download a copy of the 1878 edition in its entirety HERE; the link will open in a new tab or window. The section about Christopher Columbus is transcribed below:


Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa, had been a sailor from boyhood. During all his life he was either making voyages or drawing charts. He was a man of originality and genius, and reflected much on the proposed route to Asia. The world was then thought to be only about eight thousand miles in circumference; and Columbus saw that if this was correct, the distance westward to the shores of Asia could not exceed four thousand miles. But for this lucky mistake Columbus would never have been the discoverer of America.

The mariner’s compass, which was then in continual use, and the astrolabe, a rude kind of quadrant, were the instruments of which made the navigation of pathless oceans possible. Columbus therefore thought the voyage could be made. He regarded himself as divinely chosen to open the new route to the opulent East, and to carry the blessings of Christianity to the people residing there.

Some direct evidence, as well as his theories, greatly interested him. His brother-in-law had seen a piece of strangely carved wood that had been washed on the shores of Portugal by a westerly storm. An old sailor had picked up the paddle of a canoe a thousand miles west of Europe. Strange plants, a canoe, and the bodies of two men very different in appearance from Europeans, had been washed from the westward to the shores of the Azores. These things, together with an encouraging letter from Toscanelli, so far confirmed him that he resolved to act.

Aid could only be obtained from the government. Columbus was a poor man and had no ships of his own. He first tried his countrymen, the Genoese, then the republic of Venice, and then the king of Portugal. He next turned to Spain. He had now become so poor that he was obliged to beg bread for himself and his little son, and to borrow suitable clothes to wear in his interview with the king. Ferdinand was engaged in a great war, and had no time to listen to a poor sailor whom every one laughed at. The very children mocked him as he passed in the streets, and put their fingers to their heads in ridicule. But he watched and waited.

Success came at last. Eighteen years had now passed since he conceived his great design, seven of which were spent waiting for the answer of Ferdinand. Saddened by his continual failures, he was leaving Spain, begging a little food at convent doors, and resolving to apply to the king of France. At a lonely mountain pass he was overtaken by a messenger from the queen, Isabella, asking him to return to her capital. Urged by a desire to spread the Catholic faith throughout the world, and to see Spain the mistress of lands in Asia, the queen had changed her mind. To the cold objections of Ferdinand she nobly answered, “I undertake the enterprise for my crown of Castile and will pledge my jewels to raise the necessary funds.” Thus the perseverance of one man and the enterprise of one woman triumphed over the ignorance and bigotry of the age.

Preparations began at once. The sacrifices of Isabella were not required. By a draft on the treasure for twenty thousand dollars, equal to six times that amount at the present day, three small vessels were equipped, and a crew of ninety men secured. These men were compelled to embark on the expedition. They were full of fear and very few had any faith in the theories of their leader or shared in his enthusiasm.

The voyage began Aug. 3, 1492, and the little fleet proceeded to the Canaries. On leaving them, Columbus sailed steadily westward for many days. The sailors became despairing and mutinous. The leader calmed their fears as well as he could, and exercised great patience with them. They even talked of throwing him overboard and returning to Spain. At length he promised them that if they did not see land within three days he would turn back. That very day the sailors were cheered by signs of approaching land. Flocks of land birds were seen overhead, singing their forest songs, sea weeds and tunny fish, seldom found far from shore, floated around the vessels; a cane, freshly cut, and a branch of red berries, were picked up, and the water was growing shallower. On the third evening at ten o’clock a light was seen glimmering across the water.

When the morning of October 12, 1492, dawned upon Columbus and his fleet, land was before them. There were gay flowers, strange trees, and tropical fruits. The shore was lined with copper-colored people who looked with wonder at the Spanish ships. They believed the strangers had come down from Heaven. Columbus landed, carrying the standard of Spain, kissed the earth, and with appropriate religious ceremonies took possession of the land in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella.

The land was found to be a small island, to which Columbus gave the name San Salvador – the Spanish words for Holy Saviour. It is now usually called Cat Island. Columbus did not doubt that he had discovered one of the seven thousand four hundred and forty islands which Toscanelli had declared to lie in the ocean east of Asia. As he supposed the people belonged to the Indies, he called them Indians.

Three other voyages were made by Columbus. In one of these he reached the mainland of South America. He never dreamed that he had discovered a new continent, and died supposing that he had opened the new route to Asia. His later years were saddened by persecution and neglect, and his labors and character were not appreciated till subsequent times.

The naming of the new world was a mistake caused by the ignorance of the times. An Italian explorer named Amerigo Vespucci visited the coast of South America a year after Columbus. He wrote an account of his four voyages, giving it the date when he started on his first, May 1497, which was a year before Columbus saw the mainland. After the death of Columbus, this account was published, and a German geographer suggested that the name “America” be given to the new lands. This was six years before the death of Vespucci, but he never disclaimed the honor. It is the judgment of most historians that he intended to wrong Columbus by planning the fraud and allowing it to go uncorrected. Hence we live in “America” instead of “Columbia.” โ€” Edward Taylor, The Model History: A Brief Account of the American People, For Schools (Chicago: George Sherwood & Company, 1878), 28-32.

In May 1949, a branch of the Detroit Public Library was named after Laura Ingalls Wilder. In 1967, the Wilder Branch Library was relocated to 7140 East Seven Mile. Unable to attend the dedication because of her age and Almanzo’s ill health, Laura sent handwritten manuscripts for two Little House books (The Long Winter and These Happy Golden Years) and other memorabilia to the library, including her history book.

Although celebrated in some fashion as early as 1792, Columbus Day (October 12) was declared a national holiday in the United States by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937. In 1971, Congress moved Columbus Day to the second Monday in October and established it as a federal holiday. In recent years, the celebration is often replaced by Indigenous People’s Day.

Note: Little Town on the Prairie cuts off Laura’s recitation opening mid-sentence. If you don’t know which “crowns” had been united and ruled Spain in 1492: the 1469 marriage of Heiress Isabella to King Ferdinand united the crowns of Castile and Aragon to become the Kingdom of the Spains.


Christopher Columbus (LTP 24)