Columbus reaches the New World After sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sights a Bahamian island, believing he has reached East Asia. His expedition went ashore the same day and claimed the land for Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, who sponsored his attempt to find a western ocean route to China, India, and the fabled gold and spice islands of Asia. Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy, in 1451. Little is known of his early life, but he worked as a seaman and then a maritime entrepreneur. He became obsessed with the possibility of pioneering a western sea route to Cathay (China), India, and the gold and spice islands of Asia. At the time, Europeans knew no direct sea route to southern Asia, and the route via Egypt and the Red Sea was closed to Europeans by the Ottoman Empire, as were many land routes. Contrary to popular legend, educated Europeans of Columbus’ day did believe that the world was round, as argued by St. Isidore in the seventh century. However, Columbus, and most others, underestimated the world’s size, calculating that East Asia must lie approximately where North America sits on the globe (they did not yet know that the Pacific Ocean existed). With only the Atlantic Ocean, he thought, lying between Europe and the riches of the East Indies, Columbus met with King John II of Portugal and tried to persuade him to back his “Enterprise of the Indies,” as he called his plan. He was rebuffed and went to Spain, where he was also rejected at least twice by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. However, after the Spanish conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada in January 1492, the Spanish monarchs, flush with victory, agreed to support his voyage. Vikings set up colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland in the 10th century. During his lifetime, Columbus led a total of four expeditions to the New World, discovering various Caribbean islands, the Gulf of Mexico, and the South and Central American mainlands, but he never accomplished his original goal—a western ocean route to the great cities of Asia. Columbus died in Spain in 1506 without realizing the great scope of what he did achieve: He had discovered for Europe the New World, whose riches over the next century would help make Spain the wealthiest and most powerful nation on earth. 1997 John Denver dies in an aircraft accident To those who bought records like “Rocky Mountain High” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by the millions in the 1970s, John Denver was much more than just a great songwriter and performer. With his over sized glasses, bowl haircut and down vest, he was an unlikely fashion icon, and with his vocal environmentalism, he was the living embodiment of an outdoorsy lifestyle that many 20-something baby boomers would adopt as their own during the “Me” decade. There never was and there probably never will be a star quite like John Denver, who died on this day in 1997 when his experimental amateur aircraft crashed into Monterey Bay on the California coast. Born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr., in 1943, not in the mountains of Colorado but in Roswell, New Mexico, John Denver rose to fame as a recording artist in 1971, when “Take Me Home, Country Roads” rose all the way to #2 on the Billboard pop chart. In fact, Denver already had a share in a #1 hit as the writer of “Leaving On A Jet Plane,” a chart-topper for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1969. But it was his 1971 breakout as a performer of his own material that made him a household name. Over the course of the 1970s, John Denver earned five more top-10 singles, including the #1 hits “Sunshine On My Shoulders” (1974), “Annie’s Song” (1974), “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” (1975) and “I’m Sorry” (1975). Even more impressive, he released an astonishing 11 albums that were certified Platinum by the RIAA, making him one of the most successful recording artists of the 70s, and launching him into a successful career in film and television as well. By the 1990s, Denver was still a popular touring musician, though he was no longer recording new material with significant commercial success. Over the course of his career, he had become an accomplished private pilot with more than 2,700 hours on various single- and multi-engine aircraft, with both an instrument and a Lear Jet rating. On October 12, 1997, however, he was flying an aircraft with which he was relatively unfamiliar, and with which he had previously experienced control problems, according to a later investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. At approximately 5:30 pm local time, after a smooth takeoff from a Pacific Grove airfield and under ideal flying conditions, Denver apparently lost control of his Long-EZ aircraft several hundred feet over Monterey Bay, leading to the fatal crash. A movie star and political activist as well as a musician, John Denver was one of the biggest stars of his generation, and is credited by the Recording Industry Association of America with selling more than 32 million albums in the United States alone.