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Goodbye, Columbus

<I>Hundreds</I> of Europeans had landed in the New World before 1492. So why is Chris Columbus still in the history books?
 
 
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Historian Glenn Morris says Christopher Columbus was "a murderer, a rapist [and] the architect of a policy of genocide that continues today." I think he's right, but that's not what's bugging me today.

I want to know why he's still credited as the first European to land in the Americas.

In a moment of boredom, I was leafing through a friend's kid's 9th grade history book the other day. And while it acknowledged that Columbus was a genocidal maniac by today's standards, it also stuck to the story that he was the first European to arrive.

Although we don't know exactly, Columbus probably led something like the 273rd European voyage to the Americas. Yuri Gagarin is celebrated as the first person in space. Can you name the 273rd? Do you give a rat's ass?

The history book was published in 2001, four decades after anthropologists discovered hard evidence that the Vikings had landed in Newfoundland, led by Leif Erikson. The voyages had been detailed in the Norse saga of Eric the Red (Leif's pop), but there was debate as to whether the sagas were actual accounts or fiction. But that debate ended in 1961, when remnants of a Viking camp were unearthed in Newfoundland.

Eric the Red had established a colony in Greenland and Leif traveled from Greenland around 984 CE. Over the next 300 years, those Scandinavians had explored Newfoundland (and islands around there), the Canadian coast and maybe parts of what is now New England (remains of a ship believed to have belonged to the Norse and consistent with the design of the period were discovered in Cape Cod, but they weren't suitable for carbon-dating).

White supremacists like to discuss Virginia Dare, supposedly the first European born in the New World (that's what that website Vdare is named for). But, according to the Smithsonian magazine:

Roughly 1,000 years ago, the story goes, a Viking trader and adventurer named Thorfinn Karlsefni set off from the west coast of Greenland with three ships and a band of Norse to explore a new land that promised fabulous riches. Following the route that had been pioneered some seven years before by Leif Eriksson, Thorfinn sailed up Greenland's coast, traversed the Davis Strait and turned south past Baffin Island to Newfoundland--and perhaps beyond. Snorri, the son of Thorfinn and his wife, Gudrid, is thought to be the first European baby born in North America.

The Vikings probably made hundreds of voyages to the New World. They set up winter camps, logged and hunted. They shipped timber, iron and perhaps venison and fish back to Greenland.

They came regularly for 300 years. Beginning a half millenium before that jerk Columbus.

So why are we still even talking about him?

Joshua Holland is a staff writer at Alternet and a regular contributor to The Gadflyer .