IN SEARCH of a PASSAGE
by: Lewis Lord
I N 1786, WHILE SERVING AS THE U.S. MINISTER IN PARIS, THOMAS JEFFERSON DINED WITH A TALKATIVE YOUNG YANKEE FROM CONNECTICUT WHO OUTLINED A PROPOSITION HE FOUND IRRESISTIBLE.
The young man, named John Ledyard, had an explorer’s bona fides, having sailed with James Cook on the famed captain’s third Pacific voyage. Now he had a plan to find a water connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific—the elusive Northwest Passage. Jefferson had believed since boyhood that such a link existed, either a single “Great River of the West” or a pair of streams separated by only a few miles of land. England, France, and Spain for centuries had sought the passage. The first nation to find it, Jefferson was sure, would rule North America. So he lent Ledyard money and wished him well—but not without misgivings. “He is a person of ingenuity,” Jefferson said of the Dartmouth dropout. “Unfortunately, he has too much imagination.”
What Ledyard imagined, and what Jefferson fell for, was the world’s longest hike. Ledyard and his two dogs would start at St. Petersburg in Russia, walk across Siberia, float across the Bering Strait to Russian-owned Alaska, and roam down the Pacific coast to what’s now Washington State or Oregon. From there, he would trek to Washington, D.C., looking all the way for a friendly water route from the Pacific. In reality, he had managed to trudge 3,000 miles into Siberia when he was arrested as a spy, and the plan collapsed.
But Jefferson didn’t give up.
A subsequent mission he created—the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which began 200 years ago this spring (March 2004)—ranks as one of America’s most significant adventures. It is remembered, while Ledyard’s fiasco merits barely a footnote, not because Meriwether Lewis and William Clark found the Northwest Passage. They failed at that, but they brought home news about something else of great importance: the vast, rich territory west of the Mississippi.
In fact, a good many of the world’s best-known pathfinders never found what they were looking for, be it fortune, sudden fame, or a new trade route to the Orient. But they all daringly cast a spotlight into the unknown, and together they mapped and helped conquer the Earth. Along the way, they destroyed geographic theories that had endured for ages. The most familiar example, of course, is Christopher Columbus. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea sailed west from Spain hoping to find Asia, and he went to his grave convinced that the Caribbean island he encountered in 1492 was actually near China or India. Many years passed before the Spanish realized Columbus had discovered a new world and not the old one.
Pearls. After sailing twice along the coast of Brazil, Florentine geographer Amerigo Vespucci in 1504 got it right: He concluded that the great land mass to the west was not Asia but another continent, which “it is proper to call a new world.” An excited German publisher honored him by creating a map that labeled the new world “America.” In 1513, Spain’s Vasco Nüñez de Balboa established what lay beyond. He crossed Panama and found oyster beds yielding giant pearls—news that caused almost as much of a sensation as his discovery of the Pacific Ocean.
Still, Europeans remained convinced that the new world was a narrow strip and that Asia was not far away. They continued to probe the Americas’ eastern coast, searching for a waterway to the silks and spices of the Orient . That’s how Jacques Cartier discovered Canada’s St. Lawrence River, which carried him more than 900 miles into what he called “New France.” And how Henry Hudson discovered New York’s Hudson River and claimed it for Holland.
At the other end of the Americas, Ferdinand Magellan did find a passage to Asia— but not with the result he expected. When he rounded South America through the stormy strait that would bear his name, he thought he was a short sail from his goal, the Spice Islands, now the Moluccas of Indonesia. But as Magellan was the first to learn, the Pacific was no pond. Only two of his five ships reached the Spice Islands, and only one, minus the slain Magellan, limped home at the end of the first voyage around the world.
Not every explorer was bent on reaching Asia. Ponce de Leon, seeking the fabled Fountain of Youth, discovered Florida. And a few—very few—found precisely what they craved.
U. S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT
February 23/2004. (Pgs. 52-53)
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