Verrazano, Giovanni da

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Verrazano, Giovanni da

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Tuscany, Italy


Guadeloupe, West Indies

Italian explorer, first European to sight eastern North America

" . . . we reached a new country, which had never before been seen by any one, either in ancient or modern times. . . . "

Giovanni da Verrazano.

Giovanni da Verrazano (also Verrazzano) was an Italian explorer commissioned by the king of France to chart the eastern coast of North America, from Florida to Newfoundland. His main goal was to find a passage to Asia via the Pacific Ocean. Although Verrazano did not fulfill this mission, in 1524 he became the first European to sight New York Harbor as well as Narragansett Bay and other points along the northeastern Atlantic shore. Verrazano did not start any permanent settlements, yet he opened the way for Europeans who came to America in the early seventeenth century. For example, in 1624 the Dutch West India Company established New Amsterdam around New York Harbor and on Manhattan Island (see Peter Stuyvesant entry), and in 1636 English religious dissenter Roger Williams (see entry) founded Rhode Island on the mainland off Narragansett Bay. Verrazano also gave one of the earliest existing accounts of Native American life in North America. (The Viking explorer Erik the Red is credited with providing the first description of Native Americans when he discovered Greenland in 986.) The name Verrazano is familiar to North Americans today because of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island.

Sails to North America

Giovanni da Verrazano was born in 1485 into an aristocratic (ruling class) family in the Chianti region of Tuscany, Italy. Pursuing a career as a seaman, he moved in 1506 or 1507 to Dieppe, a port on the northwestern coast of France. From Dieppe he sailed to the eastern Mediterranean and may have traveled to Newfoundland in 1508. For the next fifteen years he worked his way up from seaman to navigator. In 1523 a group of Italian merchants in the French cities of Lyons and Rouen convinced the French king, François I, to sponsor Verrazano's voyage to North America. They hoped to find a more direct sea route to Asia, which was becoming a profitable trading partner for Europeans. Accompanied by his younger brother Girolamo, a mapmaker, Verrazano embarked from Dieppe in early 1524 on the ship La Dauphine. After crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Verrazano sighted land on March 1, 1524, at or near the site of present-day Cape Fear, North Carolina.

The Verrazano expedition sailed southward for a short distance and then turned back north. The ship landed near what is now Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks, a sand bar separated from the mainland by Pamlico Sound. Unable to see the mainland from this vantage point, Verrazano assumed that the body of water on the other side of the sandbar was the Pacific Ocean. He concluded that he had found the route to China because Girolamo's maps incorrectly showed North America as a vast continent tapering to a narrow strip of land near the coast of North Carolina.

Discovers New York Harbor

Unable to find a passage through what he thought was an isthmus (a narrow strip of land connecting two large land areas), Verrazano sailed north along the coast, probably stopping at the present site of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where he encountered a group of Native Americans. He continued north but missed the entrance to both the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. On April 17, however, Verrazano sailed into the upper reaches of present-day New York Harbor, which he described in his journal:

We found a very pleasant place, situated amongst certain little steep hills; from amidst which hills there ran down into the sea a great stream of water, which within the mouth was very deep, and from the

"the greatest delight on beholding us"

Following his expedition along the eastern coast of North America in 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano wrote a letter to King François I of France about his discoveries. The letter is considered an important document in the story of the exploration of North American. In his account Verrazano gave one of the earliest firsthand descriptions of Native peoples living in North America. The excerpt below describes his party's initial encounter with Native Americans, near Cape Fear, North Carolina.

Captain John de Verrazzano [Giovanni da Verrazano] to His Most Serene Majesty, the King of France, Writes:

[Around January 18, 1524] we reached a new country, which had never before been seen by any one, either in ancient or modern times. . . . we perceived, by the great fires near the coast, that it was inhabited . . . we drew in with the land and sent a boat on shore. Many people who were seen coming to the seaside fled at our approach, but occasionally stopping, they looked back upon us with astonishment, and some were at length induced, by various friendly signs, to come to us. These showed the greatest delight on beholding us, wondering at our dress, countenances and complexion. They then showed us by signs where we could more conveniently secure our boat, and offered us some of their provisions. That your Majesty may know all that we learned, while on shore, of their manners and customs of life, I will relate what we saw as briefly as possible. They go entirely naked, except that about the loins they wear skins of small animals like martens [carnivorous animals related to the weasel] fastened with a girdle of plaited grass [a type of belt made with braided grass], to which they tie, all around the body, the tails of other animals hanging down to the knees; all other parts of the body and the head are naked. Some wear garments similar to birds' feathers.

The complexion of these people is black, not much different from that of the Ethiopians; their hair is black and thick, and not very long, it is worn tied back upon the head in the form of a little tail. In person they are of good proportions, of middle stature, a little above our own, broad across the breast, strong in arms, and well formed in the legs and other parts of the body; the only exception to their good looks is that they have broad faces, but not all, however, as we saw many that had sharp ones, with large black eyes and a fixed expression. They are not very strong in body, but acute in mind, active and swift of foot, as far as we could judge by observation. In these last two particulars they resemble the people of the east [Asia], especially those the most remote. We could not learn a great many particulars of their usages on account of our short stay among them, and the distance of ship from the shore. . . .

Reprinted in: Elliott, Emory, ed. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1991, pp. 48–49.

sea to the mouth of same, with the tide, which we found to rise 8 foot, any great vessel laden may pass up.

Verrazano was referring to the Hudson River, which was explored by Henry Hudson (see entry) in 1609.

Verrazano anchored La Dauphine at the narrows (entrance), which was later named in his honor. Leaving the harbor, he sailed up the coast to the entrance of Narragansett Bay. He found some islands in the bay and named one of them Rhode Island because it had the shape of Rhodes, the Greek island in the eastern Mediterranean. More than a hundred years later, Roger Williams (see entry) would take the name Rhode Island for the new English colony he founded on the mainland off Narragansett Bay. Verrazano then anchored his ship in present-day Newport Harbor, giving his crew a rest for two weeks. Exploring parties from the ship went as far inland as the site of Pawtucket. From Rhode Island, Verrazano led his expedition up the coast of Maine, proceeding north around Nova Scotia to Newfoundland before returning to Dieppe on July 8, 1524.

Meets death in West Indies

Immediately after landing in France, Verrazano wrote a report of his expedition for King François I. In his report he gave one of the earliest firsthand descriptions of the eastern coast of North America and the Native Americans who lived there. Verrazano's next expedition in 1527 was sponsored in part by Philippe de Chabot, admiral of France, because the king was preparing for war in Italy and could not spare any ships. On this trip Verrazano traveled to the coast of Brazil and brought back a valuable cargo of logwood for use in making textile dyes.

In 1528 Verrazano undertook another voyage to North America to renew his search for a passage to the Pacific, which he still thought could be found just south of Cape Fear. Leaving France in the spring of 1528, his party apparently reached the West Indies, where they followed the chain of islands northward. After landing at one of the islands, probably Guadeloupe, Verrazano was captured and killed by members of the hostile Carib tribe. His ships then sailed south to Brazil, where they obtained another cargo of logwood and returned to France.

For further research

Elliott, Emory, ed. American Literature: A Prentice Hall Anthology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991, pp. 48–49.

"Giovanni Verrazano." Available July 13, 1999.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Wroth, Lawrence C. The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano, 1524–1528. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1970.

Giovanni da Verrazano

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Giovanni da Verrazano

The Italian navigator and explorer Giovanni da Verrazano (ca. 1485-ca. 1528) made a voyage to North America in 1524-1525, in the service of France, during which he explored and charted the Atlantic coast of North America.

Following the Spanish discovery of rich Indian civilizations in Mexico and Peru, other European powers also sought footholds in the New World. The English and the French actively pursued an empire in the northern half of the Western Hemisphere. Francis I, King of France, was anxious to put out an exploratory expedition before his European competitors had claimed all of the New World. In January 1525 he authorized an expedition of four ships. Giovanni da Verrazano, a Florentine navigator, was chosen as pilot of one of these ships, the Dauphine. The expedition also had a second mission. Shortly after leaving France, three of the ships broke away and engaged in pirating expeditions against Spanish treasure ships. Only the Dauphine, under Verrazano's command, actually undertook a mapping and exploring expedition along the Atlantic coast of North America.

Although Verrazano's most significant discoveries were along the middle Atlantic coastal region, his ship traveled as far north as Cape Cod and Nova Scotia. The Dauphine spent most of the winter months of 1525 off the shores of North America. It was during this time that Verrazano sighted Chesapeake Bay. He mistook the bay to be an opening through the North American continent to China. He recorded in his diary: "From the ship was seen the ocean of the east." He made no effort to cross that sea, which became known as Verrazano sea. His mistake influenced cartographers for many years. They subsequently drew maps of the New World in the shape of an hourglass, with the Verrazano Sea forming the narrow waist.

After his discovery of this bay, Verrazano continued his coastal explorations farther north. By spring he had charted Delaware Bay and had entered New York Bay. He sailed into the Hudson River, taking notes about the appearance of the natives observed along the way.

Verrazano continued his journey up the coast into Narragansett Bay and past Cape Cod. He proceeded as far north as Nova Scotia. His original mission, that of establishing some precedent for French claims in North America, was completed. He then headed back to France, after an absence of nearly seven months.

The rest of Verrazano's career is somewhat obscure. There is evidence that he made a second and possibly even a third trip back to America. His final voyage occurred in 1528, the year when he left France to search for a Central American passage to the Orient. Verrazano never returned from that journey; he was likely the victim of either a storm or unfriendly natives.

Further Reading

For information on Verrazano's part in the exploration of North America see John Bartlet Brebner, The Explorers of North America, 1492-1806 (1933); Harold Lamb, New Found World: How North America Was Discovered and Explored (1955); and J. H. Parry, The Age of Reconnaissance (1963). □

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