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Columbus Day
Nature Bulletin No. 651   Oct6ober 14, 1961
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
John J. Duffy, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

October 12th, 1492, was a great turning point in history. On that day Christopher Columbus, with 87 men in three small sailing vessels, sighted the low hills of a little island in the West Indies which he named San Salvador. Although he made three more voyages across the Atlantic he never realized that, instead of a route to the Orient, he had discovered a whole New World.

With favorable winds they had sailed westward from the Canary Islands for 33 days and nights without sighting land. As they ran before the wind day after day into unknown seas the crews began to grumble that they would starve before they could make their way back to Spain. On the 6th day a brilliant meteor was an ill omen to the superstitious sailors. To quiet their fears somewhat, Columbus kept two ship's logs: a private record of his own showing the true distances traveled, and a second one -- for the crew -- in which each day's run was reduced.

In his daily journal Columbus repeatedly mentioned birds seen from one or another of his ships. On the 9th day a great flock of birds were seen from the Pinta and, next day, two brown pelicans lighted on the Santa Maria. Almost daily after that others came aboard -- including "three little land birds that perched in the rigging and sang merrily. " Near sunset the kinds that sleep on land were seen to fly away toward the west and southwest. Columbus followed them because he recalled that most of the islands found by Portuguese navigators were located by watching the flight of birds. During October 11 they saw floating cane stalks, a carved stick, land weeds and a branch with berries. Then, at 10 p.m., Columbus and several of his men saw a faint flickering light on the horizon. That was San Salvador.

After exploring among the West Indies for a week he wrote: "All the other things and lands of these islands are so lovely that I do not know where to go first, and my eyes never weary of looking at such lovely verdure so different from that of our own land. I believe, moreover, that here there are many herbs and many trees which will be of great value in Spain for dyes and as medicinal spices, but I do not recognize them and this causes me much sorrow . . . "

"The flocks of parrots darken the sun, and there are large and small birds of so many different kinds and so unlike ours, that it is a marvel. There are, moreover, trees of a thousand types, all with their various fruits and all scented. .

For almost three months he cruised the coasts of Cuba, Haiti, San Domingo and other islands trading beads, little bells and clothing for balls of cotton yarn, food and a little gold, but he failed to find among the natives any large supply of that precious metal. He described pumpkins, yams, beans, maize and a root from which bread is made The natives, whom he called "Indians", were seen puffing on "firebrands" or inhaling into their nostrils smoke from the smoldering leaves of an herb through a hollow forked reed called a "tabaco". Their only domestic animals were dogs that did not bark.

Anxious to return to Europe with news of his achievement, he set sail on January 4, 1493, and reached the Azores on February 18. In April he entered Barcelona in a triumphal procession and exhibited before their Spanish majesties -- the spoils of the new-found lands -- ornaments of gold, bright-feathered birds, animal skins, strange plants, and six painted savages.

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