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Who Discovered America Before Columbus

Updated on June 12, 2017
Nathanville profile image

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.

The Matthew ship in Bristol, sailed by John Cabot when he discovered Newfoundland
The Matthew ship in Bristol, sailed by John Cabot when he discovered Newfoundland
Who Discovered America?
Who Discovered America?

This book looks at the murky waters of who really discovered America, unearthing historical events and facts dating back from Christopher Columbus in 1492, the Vikings settling in Newfoundland centuries before, the Chinese and back over to 40,000 years with the arrival of the first Native Americans; and in doing so the book demonstrates there are no simple answers to this very fundamental question.


A Gentle Poke at Classical History

All too often classical history, as taught in schools, claims to be factual and purports to portray history as it was, when in fact large chunks of related history are not taught giving an incomplete and misleading picture of historical events; Christopher Columbus being a case in point.

A subject, in being Bristolian, I have some knowledge on and which I have some historical interest in; in particular, Bristol's tie with America as a result of the famous voyage by John Cabot to America in the Matthew that set sail from Bristol in 1497.

I also have some personal genealogy interest in that my great-great grandfather lived in America between about 1844 and 1857 and while there made some good friends from Washington DC whom he kept in touch with when he finally returned home to Bristol in 1857.

Almost all the relevant information on this subject is accurately and objectively reported in Wikipedia, albeit not in one article.

Who Was Christopher Columbus

He Was Born in What is Now Part of Italy

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was born in what is now of Italy. He made four voyages between 1492 and 1503 across the Atlantic Ocean for the Spanish Monarchs. It was these voyages that led to the awareness of the American continents only in that these voyages took him to the islands between North America and South America; but not the actual main mainland continent of North America. Having made his discovery of new land Columbus made efforts to establish permanent settlements on the island of Hispaniola which initiated the Spanish colonization ahead of the European colonization of the 'New World'.

Did Columbus Discover America

Christopher Columbus 1451-1506

Yes Christopher Columbus did discover America but not the mainland America, just the islands between North and South America.

Although he was not the first nor was he the last to discover America, all too often the classical history books forget to mention the obvious; that the Native Americans (indigenous population) discovered America long before Columbus. Latest archaeological evidence points to the native American peoples sweeping across the mainland continent in three waves between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago; with the last major population migration being that of the Na-Dene speaking people who arrived in North America around 10,000 years ago and slowly migrated across the continent reaching the Pacific North West by about 7,000 years ago.

Often overlooked in classical history (as we know it from our school days) is that The Norse (Vikings) led by Leif Ericson discovered America 400 years before Columbus when in the 11th century they reached land in the Americas which they named Vinland, now known as Newfoundland. Leif Ericson (c970-c1020) was most likely born in Iceland.

In 1421, I understand China discovered America during a major voyage of discovery; but this is one area I haven’t read much about yet so I can’t say much on this event in history.

Also rarely mentioned in the history books, and never taught at school, is the discovery of an island off the North coast of America now known as Newfoundland, Canada by John Cabot in 1497; and only just five years after Columbus discovered the islands between North and South America. So although Christopher Columbus may have piped John Cabot to the post by five years, John Cabot’s maiden voyage and discovery of islands off the coast of Canada is a significant page in history.

John Cabot (Profiles in American History) (Profiles in American History (Mitchell Lane))
John Cabot (Profiles in American History) (Profiles in American History (Mitchell Lane))

This book is about the discovery of America by John Cabot, an Italian navigator who sailed from Bristol to become the first European of his day to discover the North American continent when he made his landing on New Found Land in 1497; now known as Newfoundland.


Who Was John Cabot

John Cabot (1450-1499) was an Italian (his Italian name being Giovanni Caboto). In the late 15th century King Henry VII of England commissioned John Cabot to find new lands, the letters of authority reading:-

"to seek out, islands, countries, regions or providences of the heathens and infidels in whatever part of the world they be, which before this time have been unknown to all Christians."

To make his voyage which led to the discovery of Newfoundland in 1497, John Cabot sailed from the port of Bristol in the Matthew, the principle owner of the Matthew being Richard Ameryke, the Bristol Sheriff at the time.

For having discovered Newfoundland John Cabot was paid 10 from the Privy Purse (The kings Finances) and granted an annuity of 20 a year to be paid from the customs and duties collected from goods brought into the port of Bristol; as the Bristol Sheriff Richard Ameryke authorised these payments. In 1897 an ancient manuscript was found among the muniments (legal term for documents that indicates ownership of an asset) the Customs Rolls of the Port of Bristol from 1496 to 1499 which recorded two payments of 20 each paid to John Cabot on behalf of King Henry VII from the Collectors of Customs of the Port of Bristol, the monies being handed to John Cabot by the senior official, Richard Ameryke.

Some argue that it is from these associations of Richard Ameryke with John Cabot (and from other evidence that has since been lost) that John Cabot named America after Ameryke. The more accepted view is that America is named after Martin Waldseemuller, a cartographer who put his Latin name, Amerigo Vespucci, on his world map published in 1507; Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) was Italian.

So is America named after Ameryke or Amerigo, both Italian?

Ameryke and Amerigo Are Both Italians

Having read the article Which Italian do you think America was named after?

See results

John Cabot's Discovery of America

The Matthew Was Sailed by John Cabot

When He Discovered Newfoundland in 1497

The Matthew (a small 50 tons ship) sponsored by Richard Ameryke (Bristol Sheriff) on behalf of King Henry VII of England left the port of Bristol in May 1497 with a crew of 18 and reached North America on 24 June 1497; Cabot and his crew arrived back in Bristol on the Matthew on 6 August of that year.

A full size replica of the Matthew was constructed in 1996 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Cabot's voyage; and the following year the replica set sail from Bristol making the same epic voyage arriving in the port of Bonavista, Newfoundland on 24 June 1997 where she welcomed by Queen Elizabeth II.

So the Matthew now takes pride and place in Bristol. During the winter months she is moored in Bristol Harbour and open to the public as a living museum, and taking short cruises around the harbour. And during the summer she is out and about exploring the seas around the British isles and Northern Europe.

The Matthew Replica of John Cabot's 1497 Ship at Bristol

Bristol - Brigstowe

Bristol, from where Cabot set sail in 1497 in the Matthew to discover Newfoundland in America was first settled by the Anglo-Saxons; at the time it would have been little more than marshland through which a tidal river (the River Avon) flowed. Avon is the Saxon word for 'river' so consequently there are lots of River Avon's in England. The first Anglo-Settlement quickly built a wooden bridge across the river and named their settlement Brigstowe, which is Saxon for 'Bridge Place'; hence the birth of a new settlement which today is known as Bristol and from where, centuries later, an Italian would sail in the Matthew, financed by Ameryke to discover North America (Canada).

Bristol Harbour
Bristol Harbour
A History of US: The First Americans: Prehistory-1600 A History of US Book One
A History of US: The First Americans: Prehistory-1600 A History of US Book One

The First Americans recreates the lives and history of the first American settlers, the true Native American, thousands of years before it was re-discovered only a few centuries ago by Columbus and John Cabot.


History in the Image of the Victor

And History Embellished with Colour

Usually history is re-written by the victor as is the case when the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, describing the then native Britain's (Celts) as uncivilised heathens, when in fact archaeological evidence (and other historical documents) show the Celts were a civilised race that had been trading with Europe for a millennia and had a social family structure that placed great importance on the health and wellbeing of women and children, with women having the same rights and opportunities as men. A number of women warrior Celtic burials have now been unearthed by archaeologists. The most famous of all the women Celtic Warriors being Boadicea and her daughters. They were Romanised; Boadicea's husband (Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni tribe) being an independent ally of Rome. However, although Presutagus left his kingdom jointly to his daughters and the Roman Emperor, when he died around 60 AD his will was ignored and his kingdom annexed by Rome; As a consequence Boadicea turned on the Romans and with her daughters led the iceni tribe in the sacking of London (burning it to the ground); needless to say the revolt failed.

Another common problem with the reliability of Historical Accounts is its embellishment with colour; taking old stories passed down through the centuries, rumours of local events and legends of old; adding adventure to them and even turning them into fairy tales and fantasies for entertainment. Medieval Historians had a particular flair for this, re-creating history in their own image. The prime example being the legend of King Arthur, his castle and his knights, not to mention his round table and the famous sword of King Arthur; all fiction of course that was created in the 12th century Medieval Britain to portray events that are supposed to have taken place in 5th century Britain during the Dark Ages. When in reality very little is known of the Dark Ages, a period in Britain between the collapse of Rome and the Romans withdrawing in the 5th and the invasion of Britain by the Normans in 1066. After the withdraw of the Romans the Angles and Saxons both Germanic tribes (of German origin) along with the Jutes (probably from Jutland, Denmark) invaded and occupied England; this is known as the Dark Ages primarily because little was recorded during this period, most information and stories being passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. It was in the 5th century, at the start of this period that stories started to spread across the land of a warrior leader who fought in some battles against the invading Saxons; the only written account of these events (to my knowledge) is that of a 7th century monk who made a brief mention of it.

Bristol Statue of John Cabot
Bristol Statue of John Cabot

My Ties with America

George Burgess

My great-great-grandfather, George Burgess, who was born in Bristol on 12 June 1829 travelled to America in 1844 (when he was 15) to continue his apprentice in stone cutting; first studying in Baltimore, Maryland and later finishing his apprentice in Philadelphia. He had to return to England three times to visit his ailing mother, the third and last time being 1857; never to return to America, and ever regretting it (as stated in his diary). While in America during those formative years he learnt the subject of Phrenology and in 1861 set up his own Phrenologist practice in the shopping Arcades, Bristol where he continued to practice his trade of Phrenology until his retirement in 1901.

He developed his personal views on life in America, and being influenced by American ideology became a teetotaller. He also met good friends including Catherine Margaret Middleton from Washington DC, born 1828. George Burgess and Catherine (aka Maggie Middleton) remained good friends all their lives; Maggie sent him family photos of herself, her husband Richard Middleton (aka Dick Middleton) and daughter, Selina Middleton. George named his second daughter (Catherine Middleton Burgess, born 1872) after her and in 1894 dedicated a poem to her entitled 'The Days Gone Bye'. Her husband, Richard Middleton served in the Union Army, Regiment 50 N.Y. Engineers, Company M, Rank as Captain (film #551, Roll 96).

George Burgess and the Middleton Family from America - American Ties with Bristol

Click thumbnail to view full-size
George Burgess, born Bristol 1829 who spent about 12 years living in America between 1844 and 1857.George Burgess 1899, aged 70The writings of George Burgess, his diary, poems and other thoughts.The Middleton Family in Washington D.C. who remained close friends with George Burgess.
George Burgess, born Bristol 1829 who spent about 12 years living in America between 1844 and 1857.
George Burgess, born Bristol 1829 who spent about 12 years living in America between 1844 and 1857.
George Burgess 1899, aged 70
George Burgess 1899, aged 70
The writings of George Burgess, his diary, poems and other thoughts.
The writings of George Burgess, his diary, poems and other thoughts.
The Middleton Family in Washington D.C. who remained close friends with George Burgess.
The Middleton Family in Washington D.C. who remained close friends with George Burgess.
Click thumbnail to view full-size
Caroline Maggie Middleton, born in America c1828Richard Middleton, Captain in Union Army and wife, Catharine Margaret Middleton born Washington 1828
Caroline Maggie Middleton, born in America c1828
Caroline Maggie Middleton, born in America c1828
Richard Middleton, Captain in Union Army and wife, Catharine Margaret Middleton born Washington 1828
Richard Middleton, Captain in Union Army and wife, Catharine Margaret Middleton born Washington 1828

Relevant Sources for Further Reading - External Websites

To verify the facts yourself and to help you make your own informed, or just for further reading in the event you find this subject gripping.

So who do you think discovered America?

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    • Nathanville profile imageAUTHOR

      Arthur Russ 

      2 years ago from England

      Thanks for your feedback Felicitas and Glenn; and thanks Glenn for that insight into Columbus, it doesn't surprise me, and as you indicated it's the sort of thing that tends to get left out of the history books e.g. history is written by the victor.

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 

      5 years ago from Long Island, NY

      The other thing that was not taught in school was that Columbus killed a large portion of the Indian population. He and his shipmates were very cruel people.

      The part you mentioned about the Indians coming across the United States over 12,000 year period is very interesting. I learned this when I visited an Indian reservation in the Poconos. They taught us how their ancestors came from Russia, literally walking over the Bering Straits, which was possible back at that time. And then generation after generation traveled Eastward for thousands of years. I find this part of history extremely interesting.

    • Felicitas profile image


      5 years ago

      Fascinating stuff. Makes me want to do some time travelling.

      Almost certainly the Native Americans.


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