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26 June, 2013
The Great Republic by the Master Historians
On the Origin of the Americans
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The written history of America begins with the year 1492, the date of the first voyage of Columbus to its previously-unknown shores. Yet there pertains to the preceding period a considerable variety of interesting material of a semi- historical character, -- is part traditional, legendary, and speculative, in part based on researches into the languages, race-characteristics, customs, and antiquities of the American aborigines. Some attention to the abundant literature relating to this earlier epoch seems desirable as a preface to the recent history of America. This literature is in no proper sense American history, yet it is all we know of the existence of man upon this continent during the ages preceding the close of the fifteenth century. It is far too voluminous, and, as a rule, too speculative, to be dealt with otherwise than very briefly, yet it cannot properly be ignored in any work on the history of the American continent. The more speculative portion of this literature has been fully and ably treated by Hubert H. Bancroft, in his "Native Races of the Pacific States," from which we make our opening Half-Hour selection, lack of space, however, forbidding us from giving more than some brief extracts from his extended treatise on the subject.]

When it first became known to Europe that a new continent had been discovered, the wise men, philosophers, and especially the learned ecclesiastics, were sorely perplexed to account for such a discovery. A problem was placed before them, the solution of which was not to be found in the records of the ancients. On the contrary, it seemed that old-time traditions must give way, the infallibility of revealed knowledge must be called in question, even the Holy Scriptures must be interpreted anew. Another world, upheaved, as it were, from the depths of the sea of darkness, was suddenly placed before them. Strange races, speaking strange tongues, peopled the new land; curious plants covered its surface; animals unknown to science roamed through its immense forests; vast seas separated it from the known world; its boundaries were undefined; its whole character veiled in obscurity. Such was the mystery that, without rule or precedent, they were now required to fathom.

When, therefore, the questions arose, whence were these new lands peopled? how came these strange animals and plants to exist on a continent cut off by vast oceans from the rest of the world? the wise men of the time unhesitatingly turned to the Sacred Scriptures for an answer. These left them no course but to believe that all mankind were descended from one pair. This was a premise that must by no means be disputed. The original home of the first pair was generally supposed to have been situated in Asia Minor; the ancestors of the people found in the New World must consequently have originally come from the Old World, though at what time and by what route was an open question, an answer to which was diligently sought for both in the sacred prophesies and in the historical writings of antiquity.

Noah's ark, says Ulloa, gave rise to a number of such constructions, and the experience gained during the patriarch's aimless voyage emboldened his descendants to seek strange lands in the same manner. Driven to America and the neighboring islands by winds and currents, they found it difficult to return, and so remained and peopled the land. He thinks the custom of eating raw fish at the present day among some American tribes was acquired during these long sea- voyages. That they came by sea is evident, for the north--if indeed the continent be connected with the Old World--must be impassable by reason of extreme cold. Ulloa, though he would not for a moment allow that there could have been more than one general creation, does not attempt to account for the presence of strange animals and plants in America; and I may observe here that this difficulty is similarly avoided by all writers of his class. Lescarbot cannot see why "Noah should have experienced any difficulty in reaching America by sea, when Solomon's ships made voyages lasting three years." Villagutierre, on the contrary, thinks it more probable that Noah's sons came to America by land; an opinion also held by Thompson, who believes, however, that the continents were not disconnected until some time after the flood, by which time America was peopled from the Old World.

[Many other writers have advocated this theory, basing their belief on the numerous deluge-myths which exist among the traditions of the American tribes, and which bear a certain resemblance to the Biblical story of the deluge, even in some cases describing the subsequent building of a tower of refuge, and the disconcertion of the builders in their impious act by the gods, or by the Great Spirit. Yet most modern writers consider these myths to have been of local origin.]

Let us now turn from these wild speculations, with which volumes might be filled, but which are practically worthless, to the special theories of origin, which are, however, for the most part, scarcely more satisfactory.

Beginning with eastern Asia, we find that the Americans, or in some instances their civilization only, are supposed to have come originally from China, Japan, India, Tartary, Polynesia. Three principal routes are proposed by which they may have come, -- namely, Bering Strait, the Aleutian Islands, and Polynesia. The route taken by no means depends upon the original habitat of the immigrants: thus, the people of India may have immigrated to the north of Asia, and crossed Bering Strait, or the Chinese may have passed from one to the other of the Aleutian Islands until they reached the western continent. Bering Strait is, however, the most widely advocated, and perhaps most probable, line of communication. The narrow strait would hardly hinder any migration either east or west, especially as it is frequently frozen over in winter. At all events, it is certain that from time immemorial constant intercourse has been kept up between the natives on either side of the strait; indeed, there can be no doubt that they are one and the same people. Several writers, however, favor the Aleutian route.

The theory that America was peopled, or at least partly peopled, from eastern Asia, is certainly more widely advocated than any other, and, in my opinion, is moreover based upon a more reasonable and logical foundation than any other. It is true, the Old World may have been originally peopled from the New, and it is also true that the Americans may have had an autochthonic origin; but, if we must suppose that they have originated on another continent, then it is to Asia that we must first look for proofs of such an origin, at least so far as the people of northwestern America are concerned.

"It appears most evident to me," says the learned Humboldt, "that the monuments, methods of computing time, systems of cosmogony, and many myths of America, offer striking analogies with the ideas of eastern Asia, -- analogies which indicate an ancient communication, and are not simply the result of that uniform condition in which all nations are found in the dawn of civilization."

[Closely similar opinions are expressed by Prescott, Dr. Wilson, Colonel Smith, Dupaix, Tschudi, Gallatin, and other writers. In addition to the theory of a Chinese settlement in the fifth century, which we shall consider subsequently, there are theories of Mongol and Japanese settlement.]

In the thirteenth century the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan sent a formidable armament against Japan. The expedition failed, and the fleet was scattered by a violent tempest. Some of the ships, it is said, were cast upon the coast of Peru, and their crews are supposed to have founded the mighty empire of the Incas, conquered three centuries later by Pizarro. Mr. John Ranking, who leads the van of theorists in this direction, has written a goodly volume upon this subject, which certainly, if read by itself, ought to convince the reader as satisfactorily that America was settled by Mongols, as Kingsborough's work that it was reached by the Jews, or Jones's argument that the Tyrians had a hand in its civilization. That a Mongol fleet was sent against Japan, and that it was dispersed by a storm, is matter of history; but that any of the distressed ships were driven upon the coast of Peru can be but mere conjecture, since no news of such an arrival ever reached Asia.

A Japanese origin, or at least a strong infusion of Japanese blood, has been attributed to the tribes of the northwest coast. There is nothing improbable in this; indeed, there is every reason to believe that on various occasions small parties of Japanese have reached the American continent, have married the women of the country, and necessarily left the impress of their ideas and physical peculiarities upon their descendants. Probably these visits were all, without exception, accidental; but that they have occurred in great numbers is certain. There have been a great many instances of Japanese junks drifting upon the American coast, many of them after having floated helplessly about for many months. Mr. Brooks gives forty-one particular instances of such wrecks, beginning in 1782, twenty-eight of which date since 1850. Only twelve of the whole number were deserted. In a majority of cases the survivors remained permanently at the place where the waves had brought them. There is no record in existence of a Japanese woman having been saved from a wreck. The reasons for the presence of Japanese and the absence of Chinese junks are simple. There is a current of cold water setting from the Arctic Ocean south along the east coast of Asia, which drives all the Chinese wrecks south. The Kuro Siwo, or "black stream," commonly known as the Japan current, runs northward past the eastern coast of the Japan Islands, then curves round to the east and south, sweeping the whole west coast of North America, a branch, or eddy, moving towards the Sandwich Islands. A drifting wreck would be carried towards the American coast at an average rate of ten miles a day by this current.

We may now consider that theory which supposes the civilized peoples of America to be of Egyptian origin, or, at least, to have derived their arts and culture from Egypt. This supposition is based mainly on certain analogies which have been thought to exist between the architecture, hieroglyphics, methods of computing time, and, to a less extent, customs of the two countries. Few of these analogies will, however, bear close investigation, and, even where they will, they can hardly be said to prove anything..

Turning now to western Asia, we find the honor of first settling America given to the adventurous Phoenicians. The sailors of Carthage are also supposed by some writers to have first reached the New World; but, as the exploits of colony and mother-country are spoken of by most writers in the same breath, it will be the simplest plan to combine the two theories here. They are based on the fame of these people as colonizing navigators more than upon any actual resemblance that have been found to exist between them and the Americans. It is argued that their ships sailed beyond the Pillars of Hercules to the Canary Islands, and that such adventurous explorers having reached that point would be sure to seek farther. The records of their voyages and certain passages in the works of several of the writers of antiquity are supposed to show that the ancients knew of a land lying in the far west..

Diodorus Siculus relates that the Phoenicians discovered a large island in the Atlantic Ocean, beyond the Pillars of Hercules, several days' journey from the coast of Africa. This island abounded in all manner of riches. The soil was exceedingly fertile; the scenery was diversified by rivers, mountains, and forests. It was the custom of the inhabitants to retire during the summer to magnificent country-houses, which stood in the midst of beautiful gardens. Fish and game were found in great abundance. The climate was delicious, and the trees bore fruit at all seasons of the year. The Phoenicians discovered this fortunate island by accident, being driven upon its coast by contrary winds. On their return they gave glowing accounts of its beauty and fertility, and the Tyrians, who were also noted sailors, desired to colonize it.

[Several authors have believed these "Fortunate Islands" to be America, but in all probability they were the Canary Islands.]

The theory that the Americans are of Jewish descent has been discussed more minutely and at greater length than any other. Its advocates, or at least those of them who have made original researches, are comparatively few; but the extent of their investigations, and the multitude of parallelisms they adduce in support of their hypothesis, exceed by far any we have yet encountered.

Of the earlier writers on this subject, Garcia is the most voluminous. Of modern theorists, Lord Kingsborough stands pre-eminently first, as far as bulky volumes are concerned; though Adair, who devotes half of a thick quarto to the subject, is by no means second to him in enthusiasm--or rather fanaticism--and wild speculation.

[The idea advanced is that America was settled by the ten lost tribes of Israel, in support of which a multitude of similarities between American and Jewish customs and characteristics are adduced, yet none of them sufficient to influence any cool-headed critic.]

We now come to the theory that the Americans, or at least part of them, are of Celtic origin. In the old Welsh annals there is an account of a voyage made in the latter half of the twelfth century by one Madoc, a son of Owen Gwynedd, prince of North Wales. The story goes, that after the death of Gwynedd his sons contended violently for the sovereignty. `Madoc, who was the only peaceable one among them, determined to leave his disturbed country and sail in search of some unknown land where he might dwell in peace. He accordingly procured an abundance of provisions and a few ships, and embarked with his friends and followers. For many months they sailed westward without finding a resting-place; but at length they came to a large and fertile country, where, after sailing for some distance along the coast in search of a convenient landing-place, they disembarked and permanently settled. After a time Madoc, with part of his company, returned to Wales, where he fitted out ten ships with all manner of supplies, prevailed on a large number of his countrymen to join him, and once more set sail for the new colony, which, though we hear no more about him or his settlement, he is supposed to have reached safely..

Claims have also been put in for an Irish discovery of the New World. St. Patrick is said to have sent missionaries to the "Isles of America," and early writers have gravely discussed the probability of Quetzalcoatl [the Mexican white deity] having been an Irishman. There is no great improbability that the natives of Ireland may have reached, by accident or otherwise, the northeastern shores of the new continent in very early times, but there is certainly no evidence to prove that they did.

[The evidences in favor of the several theories described by Mr. Bancroft, as presented by the many writers upon these subjects, are given by him in considerable detail, and their probability discussed, with the final conclusion that none of the theorists have succeeded in proving that the Americans were of Old-World origin, and that "no one at the present day can tell the origin of the Americans: they may have come from any one or from all the hypothetical sources enumerated in the foregoing pages, and here the question must rest until we have more light upon the subject."

A brief reference to the Atlantis theory, omitted in our extract from Bancroft, is here in place. The story of a land that formerly lay in or beyond the Atlantic, and was subsequently submerged, is mentioned by several Greek writers, and is said by Plutarch to have been communicated to Solon by the priests of several Egyptian cities. According to Plato, these priests declared that the events related to Solon had taken place nine thousand Egyptian years previously. In the Platonic version the priestly story was to the effect that beyond the Pillars of Hercules there was an island larger than Asia Minor and Libya combined. From this island one could pass to other islands, and thence to a continent which surrounded the sea containing them. In the island of Atlantis reigned three powerful kings, whose dominion extended to some of the other islands and to part of the continent, and reached at one time into Africa and Europe. Uniting their forces, they invaded eastern Europe, but were defeated and their army destroyed by the Athenians, independence being gained by all the subject countries east of the Pillars of Hercules. Afterwards, in one day and night, earthquakes and inundations overwhelmed Atlantis and sunk it beneath the sea, which became impassable on account of the mud which the sunken island left in its place.

The theory that there actually existed such an island, extending to the vicinity of, or perhaps continuous with, the American continent, has been held by several writers, principal among them being the Abbe Brasseur de Bourbourg. The recent advocacy of the theory is based on the fact that traditions and written records of cataclysms similar to that described by the Egyptian priests have been found among the American nations. Yet the story is in all probability one of those fabulous statements of which many can be found in the works of ancient writers.]

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