12 Early American Explorers

The following early American explorers sailed across unknown stretches of water in cramped, leaky ships no longer than a tennis court, were provisioned with food that would gag a starving pig, and had crews who were more than willing to cut the throats of their leaders if things went wrong.

When they reached the Americas, they wandered for months (sometimes years) through strange lands populated by people who, though not always hostile, were certainly unpredictable. And then they had to try to get home again to tell someone about what they’d found. Although their motives were rarely pure, these explorers displayed a lot of courage and determination.

  • John Cabot (England): An Italian, Cabot was commissioned by King Henry VII to explore the New World. Using the old Viking northern route, Cabot sailed to Newfoundland in 1497, saw lots of fish, and claimed the area for England.

    In 1498, he took a second trip with five ships, but only one ever returned to England. The other ships and their crews, including Cabot, disappeared. Even so, Cabot may have been the first non-Viking European to set foot on what’s now the continental United States, and he gave England its first real claim on America.

  • Vasco Nunez de Balboa (Spain): Balboa is credited with being the first European to see the South Seas from the New World. He named it the Pacific because it appeared to be so calm. He was later beheaded by his successor to the governorship of Panama.

  • Ferdinand Magellan (Spain): Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who was one of the greatest sailors ever, led a Spanish expedition of five ships in 1519. He was looking for a quick passage to the East from Europe. He sailed around the tip of South America and into the Pacific.

    Magellan was killed by natives in the Philippines, but one of his five ships made it back to Spain in 1522 — the first to sail around the world.

  • Giovanni Verrazano (France): Although born in Italy, Verrazano, an expert navigator, was hired by the French to find a quicker passage to the East than Magellan’s. In 1524, he sailed along the East Coast of America from what’s now the Carolinas to what’s now Maine, and he decided that the landmass was probably just a narrow strip separating the Atlantic from the Pacific.

    On a second voyage to the Caribbean, Verrazano was killed and eaten by Indians.

  • Jacques Cartier (France): He made two trips to the New World in 1534 and 1535, sailing up the St. Lawrence River. He went back in 1541 with a sizable expedition to look for gold and precious stones but returned to France with what turned out to be just a bunch of quartz. Still, his trips helped France establish a claim for much of what is now Canada.

  • Francisco Coronado (Spain): This guy led an incredible expedition in 1540 that went looking for the “Seven Cities of Cibola,” which were supposedly dripping with riches. Instead, in two years of looking for the elusive cities, Coronado’s group explored Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, and the Gulf of California, and discovered the Grand Canyon. But they never found gold.

  • Hernando de Soto (Spain): He marched around what are now the Gulf states before discovering the Mississippi River in 1541. He died of a fever on its banks.

  • Sir Francis Drake (England): One of the most famous swashbucklers in history, Drake sailed around the world from 1578 to 1580. During his trip, he explored the west coasts of South and North America as far up as present-day Washington State, stopping to claim present-day California before heading for the South Seas and eventually home to England.

    He returned with more than $9 million in gold and spices, most of it stolen from Spanish ships and cities. Queen Elizabeth I knighted him for it.

  • Sir Walter Raleigh (England): Raleigh inherited the right to establish an English colony from Gilbert, his half-brother. In 1584, Raleigh established a colony in what’s now Virginia, and he was knighted by Elizabeth I for his efforts. Unfortunately, 30 years later he was executed on the orders of Elizabeth’s successor, James I, for disobeying royal orders.

  • Juan de Onate (Spain): A conquistador (conqueror) who conquered the Pueblo tribes of the Southwest and established the territory of New Mexico in 1599, Onate was one cruel guy. In one conquered village, he ordered that a foot be cut off every male adult, and in others he required 25 years of “personal services” from all the inhabitants.

    But he did introduce the horse to the American Southwest: Mounts that escaped or were turned loose by his troops bred in the wild and were eventually domesticated by various Native American tribes.

  • Samuel de Champlain (France): A mapmaker, Champlain landed in the New World in 1603 and explored extensively in the northeastern part of the continent. He founded the colony of Quebec in 1608.

  • Henry Hudson (Netherlands): Hudson sailed up the bay and river that now bear his name in present-day New York in 1609. He was looking for a northwest passage to the Indies. Instead, he found an area rich in fur-bearing mammals and helped the Dutch lay claim to a piece of the continent. He was cast adrift by his crew in a mutiny in 1611 and was never heard from again.

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