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Who Discovered America?

america, 1492, christopher columbus, columbus, Amerigo Vespucci
Some people still like to debate who discovered the Americas. (Image credit: Ufo13 | Dreamstime.com)

We all learned that Columbus sailed the ocean blue ... and then American history gets very murky.

Though much happened before Christopher Columbus' famous journey (such as Leif Ericsson's landing in North America about five centuries prior), it remains a significant event in history and is generally deemed by historians as the start of the Colonial Period (1492-1763).

The epic journey was not exactly without its problems.

Early in the morning on Oct. 12, 1492, a sailor looked out to the horizon from the bow of Columbus' ship, the Pinta, and saw land. After 10 weeks at sea, from the port of Palos, Spain, Columbus and his crew had arrived ... somewhere.

Columbus thought he'd found the East Indies. Truth was, he was in the Bahamas. He did a little more exploring and then returned to Spain, possibly taking syphilis with him.

By 1502, the Florentine merchant and explorer Amerigo Vespucci had figured out that Columbus was wrong, and word of a New World had spread throughout Europe. America was later named for Vespucci.

And, as researchers now recognize, neither man was actually the first to discover the Americas. There were, of course, the natives already here. There was Ericsson. And there were others. Even the Chinese lay claim to sailing to the New World first.

Columbus is credited with jumpstarting Spanish colonization that preceded the broader European colonization of the New World. In his diary, he noted that the natives "must be good servants and very intelligent, because I see they repeat very quickly what I tell them." And so he enslaved them to help in his quest for gold and spices. Neither venture panned out, but in subsequent voyages thousands of natives died, and Columbus managed to hang some of his own settlers who defied his authority.

His arrival "marked the beginning of one of the cruelest episodes in human history," as historian Kenneth C. Davis puts it.

More than a century would go by before colonization got serious. The first colony was founded at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. The Pilgrims, founders of Plymouth, Massachusetts, did not arrive until 1620.

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Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.