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Bill Thayer

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On this webpage you can read a chapter of
Stories of Heroism

William Mace

published by
Rand McNally & Company
New York, 1909.

It's all right to copy it or use it any way you want.

I checked this page carefully for mistakes,
but if you find one, please let me know!


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 p1  The Period of Discovery and Colonization

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Leif Ericson Discovers America

The Northmen and the Most Famous Traveler in the Far East

Leif Ericson, who Discovered Vinland

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Leif Ericson

From a statue in Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, by Anne Whitney

1. The Voyages of the Northmen. The Northmen were a bold and hardy people who lived in northern Europe hundreds of years ago. Many of them left their homes, some going to one place and some to another.

Some of the very boldest sailed westward and settled in a country called Iceland. Here in this land of ice and snow, with its long winters and very short summers, they lived and raised their flocks and herds.

Among them with a brave, bold sailor named Eric the Red. He sailed one day on a voyage of discovery and did not come back to Iceland for two years.

When he did return, he told his friends and neighbors of a land they had never seen. He told them many wonderful stories of this new place, which was even more snowy than Iceland. It was called Greenland. Then many Northmen went to live in Greenland.

 p2  Once when some Northmen were out sailing, a great storm drove them far to the south. Here they saw a strange country. When they returned to Greenland they told of this unknown region they had seen.

Now, Leif Ericson, the son of Eric the Red, said he would go and explore this land. After sailing for many days to the southward, he finally reached the shores of this New World.

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A Viking Ship

This ship, found in a mound in 1880, held the body of a Viking, or Chief of the Northmen

Leif and his men landed and explored the country in all directions. It was a very strange place to them.

They had spent their lives among the mountains, where in winter the snow was so deep that even the summer did not take it all away. In this new land were great forests, where grew all kinds of beautiful flowers. Here birds sang gaily among the trees. The travelers were so delighted to find vines with grapes on them that they named the country Vinland, a country of grapes.

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Ruins of a church in Greenland

This church was built by the Northmen

Leif's discovery caused great excitement among his people, and ever after he was known as Leif the Lucky. After hearing his story of Vinland, some  p3 of them could hardly wait until the winter was over, and the snow and ice broken up, so as to let their ships go out once more.

This time, one of Leif's brothers, led the expedition. On reaching land, as they stepped ashore, he exclaimed: "It is a fair region and here I should like to make my home." Thorvald was killed in a battle with the Indians and was buried where he had wanted to build his home. Here, more than eight hundred years afterwards, was dug up a "skeleton in armor."

Longfellow, our most popular poet, made this the subject of a beautiful poem, in which he tells an interesting story of an imaginary Northman.

For eight or ten years the Northmen of Greenland came to the eastern coast of America. But finally the Indians, whom they called Skrellings, meaning savages, grew so hostile that the Northmen went away and never came again.

We learn about these Northmen and what they did from their old songs or legends, called sagas.

The exact place where they landed and settled for a time is not known, but is supposed to be somewhere in New England.

Marco Polo, the Man who Wrote a Book about the Far East

2. European Travelers in Asia. Many years ago the people of western and southern Europe carried on a long, hard war with the people of western Asia. In fact, the war was nearly two hundred years long. Thousands and thousands of soldiers went to Asia to fight.

Long before this struggle was at an end, the people of Europe were returning and were telling wonderful stories of the rich countries and the rich cities they had seen.

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The merchant flag of Venice

 p4  These stories made travelers and traders anxious to go to Asia and see for themselves. Two brothers, named Polo, living in Venice, were among the most famous of all the men who went to see those strange lands and yet stranger peoples.

The brothers had reached middle life when they went to Asia and visited the great ruler of China, named Kublai Khan.

A few years after their return home they made a second journey to visit this great king. This time they took along young Marco, a boy of seventeen and a son of one of the brothers. They traveled many, many days. In fact, they were more than three years in reaching again the city of the great king.

The king was glad indeed to see them once more, and he was greatly pleased with young Marco, who was now about twenty years old.

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Marco Polo's Route and Old Trade Routes to India

Marco was keen to learn all the languages he heard spoken. So well was the king pleased with him that he made a member  p5 of his great Council, which had to decide important questions about laws and customs in the kingdom. Marco was always helping the king, while the two brothers were going from one great city to another, busily trading and gathering together a rich store of precious stones.

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The Great Khan presenting a golden tablet or passport to the Polo brothers

After a miniature now in Paris, painted in the fourteenth century

For more than twenty years Marco Polo was with the great king going from one part of the country to another, and sometimes carrying messages to rulers of other lands.

Finally, the time came to go back to the old home in Venice. The Polos again traveled a great many days before they reached home. They had been gone so long that the people of Venice did not know them — not even their own kinsfolk knew them.

The two brothers were now very old, with gray beards and wrinkled faces. Marco Polo, who was a mere boy when they left home, was now a large and fine-looking man.

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Marco Polo

From a Venetian mosaic at Genoa

Finally, the brothers gave a great feast to which they invited many of their friends. At the feast they took their old coats, stained and soiled by long miles of travel, and began to rip and  p6 tear them open. Out rolled the precious stones of the Far East. Such stores of diamonds and emeralds and rubies and sapphires never had been seen before!

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The Polos' return to their home in Venice

From a medallion in Yule's Life of Marco Polo,
after a design by the editor

It became noised abroad in the great city of Venice what these men had done. The whole city gathered to do them honor, and in different ways to show them how much they admired such wonderful travelers.

And now, it came about that the city of Venice and the city of Genoa were at war with each other. Marco Polo joined the army of Venice to help fight for his native city. In the battle which followed he, with seven thousand other men, were taken prisoners by the Genoese.

In the prison at Genoa Marco Polo spent a large part of his time in writing a book. In it he told of all he did and saw and heard in Asia. He described countries, cities, products,  p7 animals, and people. From this book men who studied geography and made maps learned some things never before known.

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Marco Polo in prison
dictating an account of his travels

After a medallion in Yule's Life of Marco Polo

The famous old book was written in Columbus's own town of Genoa. It is true that it was written many years before Columbus was born, but he must have heard of this book, or have seen the effects of it in the better maps that were made and in the greater wish of the people to get the products of the East or to go to see the great cities which Marco Polo had seen.

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Arms of the Polo Family

Suggestions Intended to Help the Pupil

The Leading Facts. 1. The Northmen, bold sailors, settled Iceland and Greenland. 2. Leif the Lucky reached the shores of North America, and called the country Vinland. 3. For many years the Northmen came, but finally ceased to come on account of the Indians.

4. Traders went very early to the eastern part of Asia. 5. For twenty years Marco Polo visited the great king of eastern Asia. 6. When he came home he wrote a great book which contained all he did, heard, and saw.

Study Questions. 1. When the Northmen left their homes in what new countries did they settle before coming to America? 2. Tell the story of Eric the Red. 3. What kind of a country did Leif Ericson discover? 4. Tell the story of Thorvald and read Longfellow's poem, "The Skeleton in Armor."

5. What effects on Europe did the long wars have? 6. Who were the most famous travelers in that day and what part of Asia did they see? 7. Tell the story of Marco Polo. 8. What was done at the great feast? 9. What did Marco Polo's book contain? 10. What did this book do to help discover America?

Suggested Readings. The Northmen: Glascock, Stories of Columbia, 7‑9; Higginson, American Explorers, 3‑15; Old South Leaflets, No. 31.

Marco Polo: Brooks, Story of Marco Polo, Chapters 1, 2, 14, 20, 21; Knox, Travels of Marco Polo for Boys and Girls; Old South Leaflets, No. 32.

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Page updated: 11 Sep 06