The Americas were eventually an economic boon for Europe, but at the time they were a barrier to Asia. Columbus tried to find a way around the Americas, as did John Cabot sailing for the English in 1497. Cabot wanted to find the Northwest Passage, a water route to Asia through or around North America. He explored the Northeast coast, but found no way to the Pacific. It was another 110 years before the English established a permanent colony in North America.
Over the years many explorers looked for the Northwest Passage. Henry Hudson explored the Hudson River and then Hudson Bay, where his men mutinied and set him adrift and out of the pages of the history books. Marquette and Joliet, French missionaries along Lake Michigan, headed down the Mississippi River, which they thought flowed into the Pacific Ocean (it did not). Lewis and Clark wanted to find the headwaters of the Missouri River to determine how close it came to a river that flowed west into the Pacific. They found the Rocky Mountains between the two river systems and gave up on the Northwest Passage.
Is there a Northwest Passage? There is the manmade Panama Canal, but there is also a natural way around North America. Unlike the South Pole, located on the continent of Antarctica, the North Pole and most of the Arctic Circle is ice not land. Ships can head around the north of Canada through islands then back south through the Bering Strait and down to Asia.
The problem with the Northwest Passage is it is ice bound much of the year, and no ship completed the journey until the Twentieth Century. It is easier with ice breaking ships, but if the polar ice caps continue to melt, we may all be able to cruise around Canada year round.
Editors Note: Travis Childs is a history instructor at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla. He is a graduate of Midway High School and lives in Bluegrove. He is currently president of the Clay County Historical Society.