Contrary to a common misconception, most Europeans in the fifteenth century knew that the earth was spherical, which would mean that the “Orient” could be reached not only by sailing east, but also by heading in the opposite direction. However, most Europeans also thought that the earth was considerably smaller than it is. When this was combined with the mistaken belief that Eurasia was considerably wider than it is, this led to the erroneous conclusion that the east coast of Asia would be only about three thousand miles west of Europe (the actual distance is about 12,000 miles).
Columbus, of course, was looking for Asia (which he died thinking he had discovered), but the promised riches never appeared and it soon became obvious that the newly discovered lands were not the hoped for Orient. Initially these lands, which came to be known as the Americas, appeared to be conspicuously lacking in riches and so they were considered to be mere roadblocks on what was a hoped for, soon to be discovered, sea route to Cathay and the Indies.
Early in this voyage of discovery, Verrazzano came upon one of the barrier islands of North Carolina. He did not see any of the gaps between the islands, but did see what looked to be a vast body of water across what he took to be an isthmus of land. As the whole point of his exploration was to find a route past the Americas, the Pacific Ocean stayed always in the front of Verrazzano’s mind, and this caused him to jump to the conclusion that that body of water was the ocean. As he wrote in a letter to King Francis:
We called it Annunciato from the day of arrival, where was found an isthmus a mile in width and about 200 long, in which from the ship, was seen the oriental sea between the west [corrected from ‘east’ in the text] and north. Which is the one, without doubt, which goes about the extremity of India, China and Cathay. We navigated along the said isthmus with the continual hope of finding some strait or true promontory at which the land would end toward the north in order to be able to penetrate to those blessed shores of Cathay.”
It is ironic that over a century later these rapids were named “Lachine”—that is La Chine, or China. It seems that in 1669, Robert Cavelier de La Salle set off from this location on an expedition to seek the still sought-for route to China. After about a thousand miles of travel in the interior of the country, with no likely route in sight, about two dozen of La Salle’s men deserted, arriving back at their starting point three or four months after starting out. Supposedly the amused locals thus gave the rapids the ironic name of “La Chine.”
Turning back to the Sea of Verrazano, the first attempts to establish a colony in the American southeast was by the English, who in 1585 attempted to establish a “Virginia” colony in order to mine for gold and silver, harass the Spanish and look for the route to the Pacific Ocean still believed to lie close at hand in the area. This colony failed, but in 1606, King James gave a charter for another attempt, and this resulted in the settlement of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America.
At the top is of the map is “The Sea of China and the Indies,” which not only looks to be very close to the Atlantic coast, but is so indicated in a legend which states that its “happy shores” are “within ten days march...from the head of the James River.” An alternative, water route is shown with the source of the Hudson River separated only by a narrow land bridge from a river which flowed directly into the Pacific.
Further exploration by English and French colonists demonstrated that the Pacific Ocean was not near at hand. By the end of the seventeenth century, while there was still hope of finding a practical water route to the Orient, it was realized that it would no longer be by way of a river or body of water which originated near the east coast. Searches for a route to the Orient continued, but they started thereafter from the Great Lakes, not from the Atlantic Ocean.