Exploration of America, Early

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Early Developments

For centuries there were claims suggesting that the earliest voyages of exploration to North America were made by Irish monks (St. Brendan), Welshmen (Prince Madoc) and others, but these have never been supported by credible evidence. Late tenth-century Norsemen (Vikings) sailing west from Scandinavia and Iceland colonized the west coast of Greenland, and then in about 1001 moved on to Baffin Island, southern Labrador, and finally the northern tip of Newfoundland. There, at a site now known as L'Anse aux Meadows, they made an abortive effort to establish a colony which they called Vinland. Several attempts to stabilize the infant settlement followed, but the enterprise did not prosper. Repeated attacks by hostile natives (known to the Vikings as Skrellings) may have contributed to its ultimate failure.

Over the ensuing five centuries, some Europeans heard of the Norsemen's efforts, but a number of factors precluded any new attempts at exploration. Most European trade continued to center on the Mediterranean region, there was little impetus and few resources available for sailing westward into uncharted waters, and new over-land trade routes to the Far East were established. But in time, a variety of factors affecting Europeans, including population growth, the gradual evolution of nation-states, innovative developments in shipbuilding and navigation, and fresh intellectual initiatives born of titanic religious quarrels, created renewed incentives for exploration.

In the 1500s, the Catholic Church's centuries-long control over religious thought and practice began to crumble. Controversies over church reform engendered by the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation inspired a new growth of learning and individual initiative. Much of the financial and political power formerly held by the Catholic Church was transferred into the hands of kings in some European nation-states, notably Spain, Portugal, France and England. Larger ships better equipped to carry their crews longer distances, coupled with new devices such as the sextant, came into general use. At the same time, much of the increasingly lucrative overland trade with Asia was controlled by merchants residing in northern Italian city-states, such as Venice, Genoa, and Florence. From the late fourteenth century, however, this commercial activity was increasingly hampered by intermittent warfare with the Ottoman Empire, and the nations bordering the Atlantic began to consider alternative routes to Asian markets.

From the early Christian era, ancient geographers had strongly influenced European thinking about distances between various points on the globe. Maps drawn by Claudius Ptolemy (a.d. c. 73–151), for example, depicted the expanse of Eurasia as being a third wider than its actual size. Other ancient writers, notably Eratosthenes, Strabo, and Marinus of Tyre, further exaggerated the distance from Western Europe to Eastern Siberia, or implied that well-supplied mariners heading west across the Atlantic from the coast of Europe might have no great difficulty reaching China or the Indies. The existence of the Americas was not then suspected.

Portuguese and Spanish Exploration

Catholic Portugal and Spain, relatively untroubled by religious strife and located on the Iberian Peninsula jutting southwest into the Atlantic, were ideally situated to explore the various avenues by sea. Religious and commercial zeal fueled much of their activity into the early modern period. Portugal's Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460) established a school of navigation at Cape St. Vincent, that made significant improvements in shipbuilding and navigation, including vastly better charts, compasses, and quadrants. He dispatched a number of voyages to the south down the West African coast, setting the stage for later expeditions that rounded South Africa and crossed the Indian Ocean. King John II subsequently encouraged the search for a water route to India, and Vasco da Gama (1469–1524) successfully completed the first such round-trip voyage in 1497–1498. In 1498, King John dispatched Duarte Pacheco Pereira (?–c. 1530) in a westerly direction, and Pacheco's later account suggests that he may have encountered parts of the South American continent. Pacheco's description of his voyages of exploration, Principio do Esmeraldo de Situ Orbis, was not released for many years by the Portuguese government because of the information it could provide rival mariners travelling to India, and because it contained much valuable geographic data. In 1500, King Emmanuel I sent Pedro Alvarez de Cabral (1460–c. 1520) to establish trade with the Indies. The long-held view that Cabral was the first to sail (or be blown) west instead of south and onto the coast of Brazil is now at least open to question. In 1500–1501, a Portuguese exploratory expedition of three vessels led by Gaspar Corte-Real (c. 1450–1501) may have seen the southern tip of Greenland en route to Labrador. It is believed that they hugged the coast of Labrador and rounded Newfoundland, continuing as far as Cape Sable, Nova Scotia. There his brother Miguel returned to Portugal with two ships, while Gaspar continued further south and was never heard from again.

Queen Isabel of Spain, having with her husband Ferdinand subjugated the Moors early in 1492, was able to turn her attention to other matters. The Genoese-born Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) had for years advocated voyaging west across the Atlantic to Asia, and Isabel provided him with money and a patent of nobility, the latter to enhance his authority when in Asia. Columbus departed Palos in August 1492 and arrived, possibly at Watling Island (one of the Bahamas) in mid-October. But as historian S. E. Morison has noted, "America was discovered by accident, not wanted when found, and early explorations were directed to finding a way through or around it." Early discoverers and explorers also sought precious metals, principally gold and silver, but few found them. For much of the next ten years, which included

three more trips to various parts of the Caribbean region between 1494 and 1502, Columbus remained convinced that he had been navigating the Indian Ocean. Increasingly, however, many of his contemporaries did not agree, contending that a new continent had been discovered, and that the traditional view of world geography needed drastic revision.

In 1493, at the request of Spain, Pope Alexander VI established a longitudinal line one hundred leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde Islands. Spain was granted an exclusive right to discoveries west of that line not already held by other powers as of Christmas Day, 1492. The Portuguese, unhappy with this decision, urged that this line be moved much further to the west. Some historians have reasoned that this revision was demanded because Portugal may have already been aware of the existence of Brazil, although as previously noted, its official discovery did not take place until 1500. The Treaty of Tordesillas, promulgated on 7 June 1494, established the new line 370 leagues west of the Azores. Portugal was given license to explore and settle everything in the New World east of this line, and Spain, as before, granted everything to the west.

Florentine-born Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512), who by 1495 was directing the Seville branch of a Florentine banking and ship chandlery firm, helped to outfit Columbus's third voyage in 1498. Vespucci subsequently participated in several voyages during which he reconnoitered portions of the Brazilian coast. Vespucci's Lettera to his friend Piero Soderini, and his Mundus Novus, a briefer document printed in 1506, prompted Martin Waldseemüller, a young cartographer at the cloister of Saint-Dié, Lorraine, to designate the southern portion of the New World as "America" in a book and map published in 1507. This designation was later extended to both North and South America. In 1508, Vespucci was appointed Pilot Major of Spain, with responsibilities for opening a school of navigation and preparing charts for navigators. He held this post until his death in 1512.

In 1513 and 1521, Juan Ponce de Leon (1460–1521) discovered and explored Florida. In 1513, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475–1519) discovered the Pacific Ocean by crossing the Isthmus of Panama. Between 1519 and 1521, Hernán Cortéz (1485–1547), landing on Mexico's east coast, marched inland with several hundred soldiers, and, allying himself with many smaller groups of indigenous Central Mexican peoples, brought about the destruction of the Aztec Empire. He later (1530) discovered lower California. In 1535, Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490–c. 1557) explored what is now the American Southwest, and five years later, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (1510–1554) discovered the Grand Canyon. Other Spaniards, notably Portuguese-born Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo (?–1543), explored the California coast as far north as Monterey Bay. His chief pilot, Bartoleme Ferrelo, continued north to what is now the southwest coast of Oregon in February 1543. Other Spanish ship captains subsequently investigated the North Pacific coast, reaching the southern shores of Alaska in the eighteenth century.

The Catholic priests who accompanied Spanish conquistadors felt justified in converting Native Americans wherever possible, and in their view, this imperative warranted the slaughter of many of those who resisted Christianity. In addition, numerous natives died from the introduction of unfamiliar European diseases, and from being compelled to work on Spanish colonial estates (haciendas) or to mine for precious metals.

British Exploration

The first British-sponsored explorer to visit the New World in the late fifteenth century was probably Genoese-born Giovanni Caboto, also known as John Cabot (1450–c. 1498). He was commissioned by King Henry VII to make several voyages in 1497 and 1498, during which he reached the Cape Breton and Baffin Islands, Newfoundland, and Greenland, though Cabot was lost at sea during his second voyage. Cabot's expeditions revealed that the waters off Newfoundland and New England were alive with marketable fish. Various authorities have suggested that vessels based in Bristol, England, possibly captained by Cabot or others, may have reached some land mass west of the Azores as early as 1480 or 1481, though the available evidence needs verification through further research. What is known is that dynastic and religious quarrels largely prevented the English Crown from again pursuing any American ventures until the late sixteenth century.

Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603) encouraged mariners such as Sir Martin Frobisher (1535–1594) and John Davis (1550–1605) to explore the islands north of Canada for a Northwest Passage in the 1570s and 1580s. Sir Humphrey Gilbert (1539–1583), half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, made several voyages to explore and colonize eastern Canada. His first effort failed in 1579, but on his second attempt in 1583, he established St. John's, Newfoundland, the first British colony in North America.

An expedition authorized by the Queen and sent out by Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) in 1583 explored the coast of North Carolina and Florida. A second initiative established the Roanoke Colony in 1585, but war with Spain prevented Raleigh from sending another expedition in support of the first, as he had planned. The colony failed, but several historians have contended that some of the colonists and their children may have intermarried with the Indians and survived with their aid until the early 1600s. The first two successful efforts at colonization in what is now the continental United States were made at Jamestown in Virginia (1607), and at Plymouth in Massachusetts Bay (1620). Thereafter, the pace of English colonization increased, fueled by various motives including adventure, greater religious freedom, and opportunities for individual economic advancement.

French Exploration

Religious wars during the sixteenth century were the principal preoccupation of France's rulers, but French mariners were not altogether inactive. Giovanni da Verrazzano (1485–1528), a Florentine, was employed to seek a Northwest Passage. Unsuccessful in that effort, he explored the Atlantic coast from North Carolina north to Cape Breton, discovering New York Harbor and Narragansett Bay. Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) made three expeditions to Canada between 1534 and 1542, discovering the St. Lawrence River and sailing up to the point where Montreal now stands. However, his attempts at colonization were unsuccessful.

In the mid-sixteenth century, France briefly competed with Spain for control of what is now the southeastern United States. Jan (or Jean) Ribault (1520–1565), sailing under a commission from the French Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, established a short-lived colony at Port Royal, South Carolina in 1562, but it was soon abandoned. A second effort (1564) by Coligny was led by René Goulaine de Laudonnière, but his settlement on the St. Johns River in Florida was destroyed by the Spanish the following year. Ribault made another attempt to support French settlers in Florida, but his fleet foundered in a storm, and he was captured and killed by the Spanish late in 1565. The French then concentrated on exploring lands further to the north and west.

Louis Jolliet (1645–1700), selected by the authorities in French Canada to investigate a great river reported by Indians, went down the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi, which he first saw in June 1673. He rafted along it as far south as the mouth of the Arkansas River, reporting his findings to his superiors in Quebec in 1674. Joillet and Père Jacques Marquette (1637–1675), a Jesuit missionary-explorer, returned along the Illinois River to Lake Michigan. Marquette's journal of their travels was published six years after his death.

Sieur Robert Cavalier de La Salle (1643–1687) traveled to Canada and settled in Montreal in 1668. He may have discovered the Ohio River the next year, and then following further explorations in what is now the American Midwest, he sailed down the Mississippi River to its mouth in 1682. Named French Viceroy of North America, La Salle returned to the Caribbean in 1684, but through errors in navigation, missed the Mississippi and landed instead at Matagorda Bay in Texas. While returning east to the Mississippi, he was murdered by his men.

Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635) accompanied an expedition of explorers and fur traders to the Gulf of the St. Lawrence in 1603, then visited Port Royal and other points in Nova Scotia and New England over the next four years. Appointed lieutenant governor of the French mainland possessions, he founded Quebec in 1608, then explored to the south as far as the present Lake Champlain in 1609. He reached and explored the Great Lakes in 1615, and was named governor of New France in 1633–1635. Finding no gold or other precious metals within their new domains, the French instead developed a thriving fur trade and fishing industry. But efforts at colonization led by several private trading companies with royal charters were not as remunerative as the French crown had wished. King Louis XIV initially turned over the administration of the colony to a newly created Company of New France, but the crown subsequently exercised direct control.

Dutch Exploration

The resourceful Dutch, having finally achieved their independence from Spain, became very active in North America at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Sailing under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company, English-born Henry Hudson (c. 1565–1611) first explored Greenland (1607) and then the Arctic seas north of Russia. In 1609, in search of a sea Passage to Asia, he traveled up the river which today bears his name, as far as present-day Albany. In 1610, Hudson undertook another voyage, again in search of a Northwest Passage. He sailed through what is now Hudson Strait, spent the winter of 1610–1611 in James Bay, and then discovered Hudson's Bay. There, in June 1611, his mutinous crew marooned Hudson, his son, and six loyal crewmen and they presumably died. Because Hudson had claimed much of what is now New York, the Dutch established a settlement on Manhattan Island in 1624. It was taken over by the English four decades later.

Subsequent Efforts to Find a Northwest Passage

Following hard on Hudson's effort, the newly formed "Governor and Company of the Merchants of London" made a number of attempts to find a Northwest Passage. During two voyages between 1610 and 1616, Thomas Button (?–1634), and Robert Bylot (fl. 1610–1616) with his pilot William Baffin (1584–1622), thoroughly surveyed the previously unexplored western and northern reaches of Hudson's Bay, but without success. In 1616, Bylot and Baffin reached Smith Sound, at the northern end of what became Baffin Bay. No other mariner would get this far north again until 1853. An unsuccessful Danish effort led by Jens Munk in 1619–1620 resulted in the death of all but three of his men. In a vessel loaned by King Charles I of England, Luke Fox (1586–c. 1635) reached a point just south of the Arctic Circle in 1631, and demonstrated conclusively that sailing north from Hudson's Bay would not lead to a Northwest Passage. Thomas James (c. 1593–c. 1635) made one final attempt to find a passage in 1631–1632. Thereafter, English efforts to find the elusive passage were abandoned for nearly two centuries. Benjamin Franklin and other Philadelphia investors did mount one exploratory effort in 1753–1754, led by Charles Swaine, which had little success. It was not until 1905 that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, in his privately funded vessel, the Gjoa, finally succeeded in navigating a passage where so many of his predecessors had failed.

Activities of Other Nations

Colonization efforts were mounted by several Scandinavian nations. An expedition mounted by the Swedish West India Company in 1638 established a colony near the present site of Wilmington, Delaware, but this land was seized by the Dutch in 1655. A Danish West India Company settled on St. Thomas, St. John, and several of the other Virgin Islands after 1666, and the Danes maintained their presence in the Caribbean until 1917.

Russian expeditions, underwritten by several tsars and led by Danish mariner Vitus Bering (c. 1681–1741), established in 1728 that a strait existed between Siberia and Bolshaya Zemlya (now Alaska). Bering's second expedition of 1731–1741 made a grueling overland trip from St. Petersburg, and then set sail from Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula early in 1741. In July 1741, Bering landed on Kayak Island, east of Prince William Sound, then briefly tarried on one of the Aleutian Islands (September 1741), before turning back for Siberia. In a second vessel, Aleksey Chirkov (1703–1748), Bering's subordinate, reached a point off the Alexander Archipelago, west of what is now Ketchikan, but could not land owing to the loss of his ship's boats. On the return trip, Bering's vessel foundered on what became Bering Island, in the Komandorskyies. There, he and thirty-one of his men died during the winter of 1741–1742. Bering's survivors and leaders of later Russian expeditions reported the presence of valuable fur animals, several of which were subsequently hunted to near extinction.


Columbus, Christopher. Four Voyages to the New World: Letters and Selected Documents. Edited and translated by R. H. Major. Secaucus, N. J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1992.

Francis, Daniel. Discovery of the North: The Exploration of Canada's Arctic. Edmonton, Canada: Hurtig, 1986.

Quinn, David B. England and the Discovery of North America, 1481–1620. New York: Knopf, 1974.

Quinn, David B. Explorers and Colonies: America, 1500–1625. London: Hambledon Press, 1990.

Mirsky, Jeannette. To the Arctic: The Story of Northern Exploration from Earliest Times to the Present. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Morison, Samuel E. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages,a.d.500–1600. New York: Oxford, 1971.

Morison, Samuel E. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages,a.d.1492–1600. New York: Oxford, 1974.

Skelton, R. A., Thomas E. Marston, and George D. Painter. The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1964.

Steller, Georg W. Journal of a Voyage with Bering, 1741–1742. Edited by O. W. Frost. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Waldman, Carl, and Alen Wexler. Who Was Who in World Exploration. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Williamson, James A. The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery Under Henry VII. Cambridge, U.K.: The Hakluyt Society, 1962.

Keir B.Sterling

See alsovol. 9:Life and Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon ; Message on the Lewis and Clark Expedition ; The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition .

Early Exploration of America

views updated Jun 11 2018

Early Exploration of America


Portugal. The country responsible for opening the Age of Exploration was Portugal. Positioned on the west coast of the Iberian peninsula and lying at the crossings of the Mediterranean and Atlantic shipping lanes, the country was well situated to lead a revolution in European navigation. Under the sponsorship of King John I, Dom Henrique, also known as Prince Henry the Navigator, sent sea captains out into the ocean to find passageways to Africa and India so that seaborne Portuguese merchants might undercut the land caravans of Arab traders. Borrowing hull and sail designs and navigational equipment from their Arab rivals, Portuguese sailors soon acquired mastery of the seas and explored the coast of Africa. The trade they opened with the African kingdoms revolved around gold and slaves and stirred the interest of other nations. Building supply stations along the coast of Africa, Portuguese sailors such as Bartholomeu Días and Vasco da Gama gradually worked their way around the Cape of Good Hope, up to the Horn of Africa, and over to the Indian mainland, where they entered the spice trade. To the west they reached Newfoundland in 1500 and attempted to found a colony on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, in 1520.

Spain. While the Portuguese focused on Africa and the Indian trade, the Spanish turned their attention westward. The first step in what would culminate in Christopher Columbuss voyage was the conquest of the Canary Islands and the extermination of the Guanche natives in the early 1400s. But before money could be spent on further overseas exploration and colonization, the Catholic kingdoms of what would become Spain had to expel the Moors from Africa who had invaded and occupied their land. When in the late fifteenth century Ferdinand and Isabella united the crowns of Castile and Aragon and laid the foundations for the modern nation of Spain, they set into motion the final phase of the reconquista, the expulsion of the Moors. The last Moorish stronghold in Grenada fell in 1492, and that year Columbus set sail for the West.

New World. Columbus was born in Genoa, a port on the Italian peninsula that produced many of the finest sailors of the day. He had been employed in the Portuguese slave trade and, based on his experiences, believed he could find a route to India by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean. He sought royal patronage in several courts before finding a sympathetic ear in Queen Isabella, who agreed to finance his expedition. His ships set sail in August 1492, and two months later Columbus made landfall on an island he named San Salvador. Thinking at the time that he was in Asia, he and his crew spent the next several months exploring the nearby islands in search of the emperor of China. Needless to say they never found the emperor, but they did acquaint themselves with two native tribes whom they erroneously called Indiansthe Arawaks and the Caribs. Columbus left behind a small settlement he called Navidad on the island of Hispaniola, but upon his return the next year the site had been abandoned. In 1499 he and his brothers, who had governed the newfound lands, were arrested for mismanagement and sent back to Spain in irons. Columbus died in 1506, still firm in the belief that he had found Asia.

First Contact. Columbuss experience with the people he believed were Indians shaped much of the subsequent history between Europeans and Native Americans. Welcomed by the friendly Arawaks on the island of Hispaniola, Columbus deemed them indios pacificos, friendly Indians who were kind, trustworthy, and generous to their Spanish visitors. In contrast the Carib Indians who had a reputation for cannibalism and perfidy were indios bravos, bad Indians. In the narratives sent back to Spain by Columbus and others the dichotomy between the good and bad Indians shaped European expectations and justified all the more easily the brutal subjugation of Indians who were deemed innately bad and children of the devil.

Rights of Discovery and Conquest

When Europeans arrived in the New World, they had to establish and maintain a claim to the land they had seen that would be respected by the other European powers. One legal doctrine, the Right of Discovery, conveyed to European monarchs the right to claim lands discovered in his or her name so long as they had not already been claimed by another Christian people. As such the Pope was an important adjudicator of disputes between Christian peoples, such as happened in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). When the French began exploring the New World, they challenged the Iberian kingdoms Rights to Discovery and claimed that the right did not pertain to land that had not actually been explored. The French and the English proposed an alternative theory called the Right of Conquest. Only by conquering native populations and by building permanent settlements, they argued, could a monarch receive a rightful claim to the land. Legal principles based on use of the land rather than discovery of the land fundamentally changed the game of imperialism because they forced Europeans to colonize their holdings and to attack the colonies of their rivals in order to protect their imperial interests.

Sources: Colin M. MacLachlan, Spains Empire in the New World: The Role of Ideas in Institutional and Social Change (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988);

Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europes Conquest of the New World, 14921640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Treaty of Tordesillas. A year after Columbuss landfall, Pope Alexander VI issued a bull that divided the New World between the two Catholic powers, Spain and Portugal. In 1494 the two nations refined the papal decree in the Treaty of Tordesillas, so named after a small outpost in South America. According to the treatys stipulations the Portuguese received a title to all unclaimed lands east of Tordesillas, present-day Brazil, and

Africa. The Spanish received title to the rest of the Americas.


David Traboulay, Columbus and Las Casas: The Conquest and Christianization of America, 14921566 (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1994);

John Ure, Prince Henry the Navigator (London: Constable, 1977).

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