What was the European Age of Exploration?

We know of many explorers and travelers from the Middle East, Africa, and China before the 1400s. But during the fifteenth century, advances in exploration occurred in a relative backwater of the world—western Europe.

the european age of exploration

At the dawn of the 1400s, most Europeans tilled the soil and had little knowledge of the world beyond their villages. The coasts of Africa were uncharted. The continents of North and South America were unknown to Europeans. China, Japan, and India were mysterious lands described in leg­end and song. Except for generations of secretive fisher­men, sailors dared not venture into the dark and unmapped seas, where many people believed that monsters lurked and the sea boiled.

But over a period of 100 years, from about 1450 to 1550, a handful of European explorers would encounter and chart much of the world—the coasts of Africa and Asia, North America, South America, and the vast Pacific Ocean, dotted with islands. The medieval map was replaced with the globe inscribed with the rough outlines of the continents.

What caused the European Age of Exploration?

Several technological developments and changes in atti­tude spurred the Age of Exploration—better ships, improved navigation, a new ambition to learn more about the world. But most important, Europeans wanted exotic spices to enliven their meals and preserve their meats, which spoiled quickly without refrigeration.

Since Roman times, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper had been brought to Europe from the lands of the East, where most spices flourished in the warm and moist climate. The trade route over land was long, arduous, and dangerous. Spices were carried by Arab traders through the mountains and deserts of the Middle East and transported by ship over the Mediterranean Sea to Italian ports, especially Venice. Each time the spices were handed to another carrier, they increased in price. By the time they arrived in European cities, the spices were extremely expensive. Pepper was measured in silver and nutmeg was as valuable as gold. To win the wealth of the trade routes for themselves, Europeans began searching for a water route to the “Indies.”

What were the Indies?

Japan, China, India, and the hundreds of islands scat­tered among them were lumped together under the name “Indies” by Europeans.

Who was Christopher Columbus?

Little is known about Columbus’s early years, except that he was born in 1451 and raised in the Italian city of Genoa. Genoa was a busy port, where the docks bristled with ship masts and the streets were crowded with sailors and sea captains. Columbus went to sea with the small fleets that carried goods from Genoa to the rest of Europe.

In 1476, his ship was attacked by French and Portuguese men-of-war. After his ship sunk, Columbus swam six miles to the coast of Portugal. The disaster turned out to be the luckiest event in Columbus’s life. He traveled to Lisbon, a Portuguese port city that was the center of ocean explo­ration and trade. There Columbus learned mathematics, navigation, and astronomy, and joined several sailing expe­ditions. In the 1480s, Columbus pondered a radical idea. Knowing that Earth was a sphere, he reasoned that the Indies could be reached by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean. Until then, European sailors pointed their ships

What did Columbus find on his discovery?

For weeks, the three tiny ships sailed west. As the sea stretched on, the crews began to grumble and whisper of mutiny. Columbus alternately encouraged, exhorted, and threatened them. On October 12, 1492, after six weeks at sea, a lookout on the Pinta spotted a sliver of beach glow­ing in the moonlight. Land! Columbus named the island San Salvador—”Holy Savior.”

After dawn, Columbus and his companions marched onto the beach and planted a staff of banners into the sand, claiming the land for Spain. Convinced he had indeed found the Indies, Columbus named the people of the islands “Indians,” a name the native people of North and South America have carried for centuries afterward. Columbus spent the next two months exploring the Bahama Islands and the coasts of Cuba and Hispaniola. He captured six Indians and stowed on his ships a collection of gold trinkets, colorful parrots, and other evidence of his discoveries. Then he set sail for Spain. When he arrived in March, he was greeted as a hero and news of the discovery spread through Europe.

Who was the first European explorer to find a sea route to the Indies?

While all of Europe discussed Columbus’s discoveries with excitement, the Spanish began to regard Columbus as a failure. They were unimpressed by Columbus’s descriptions of the gorgeous, unspoiled land. They wanted gold and spices, and even after four voyages, Columbus could only report of lush jungles and villages of mud huts.

While Spain concentrated on sailing west, a group of Portuguese explorers ventured south, feeling their way along the coast of Africa. Estevao da Gama was given command of an expedition but died before the voyage began. The commission passed to his son, Vasco da Gama, a captain who successfully had fought the French off the coast of Guinea. In 1497, da Gama led four ships around the stormy southern tip of the continent and into the Indian Ocean.

In May 1498, da Gama landed in Calicut, the richest and most powerful port near the southern tip of India. Da Gama had discovered a sea route to the Indies. To his delight, the warehouses of Calicut were filled with gold, silver, rubies, pearls, sap­phires, fine silks, and sacks of spices. The king of Calicut received da Gama with great ceremony and wrote a mes­sage on a palm leaf for his journey back to Europe. “My country is rich in cinnamon, cloves, ginger, pepper, and precious stones,” he wrote. “That which I ask of you in exchange is gold, silver, corals, and scarlet cloth.”

Da Gama returned to Portugal with his ships crammed full of goods. His stores of pepper alone fetched 27 times the price he had paid in India. The Venetians and Arab traders were stunned, but their monopoly on spices was decisively broken. Da Gama, like Columbus in Spain, was hailed as a national hero. His navigation instruments, maps, and logs of the voyage were locked up and kept under close guard. Portugal had no intention of sharing the riches of eastern trade with its European rivals. The other European powers would have to find the sea route to India for themselves.

What was the Treaty of Tordesillas?

Spain and Portugal were soon disputing each other’s claims in the New World. In 1493, Pope Alexander VI approved a borderline stretching from the North Pole to the South Pole. It ran about 300 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. All claims to the west of the line were ceded to Spain. Everything to the east was Portugal’s. The two countries signed the treaty on June 7, 1494. In 1506, the Portuguese declared that the treaty was unfair, and the line was moved about 1,000 miles west of Cape Verde, allowing the Portuguese to found a colony in Brazil, South America. None of the other seafaring countries—England, France, Sweden, or Holland—recognized the treaty.

Who was John Cabot?

Little is known about the early years of John Cabot. By 1461, Cabot had become a Venetian citizen and worked for a trading firm. He gained knowledge of the sea by traveling between Venice and the eastern Mediterranean region, even venturing as far as Mecca, the great Muslim center in Arabia. Some historians believe that Cabot was thinking about reaching the Indies by sailing west when Columbus returned from his first voyage in 1493. Cabot reasoned that sailing farther north would be a shorter trip due to the cur­vature of the earth.

In March 1496, the English king Henry VII, eager to catch up to Portugal and Spain in exploration, authorized Cabot to pursue his plan. In May 1497, Cabot left Bristol in a tiny ship with his son, Sebastian, and 20 sailors. About a month later, Cabot sighted land, possibly the northern tip of Newfoundland, the giant island off the coast of Canada. He went ashore with his men—the first English on North American soil—and claimed the land for King Henry VII.

Convinced that he had discovered the Indies, Cabot returned to England in triumph. He reported that the land was covered with timber and the seas filled with fish. He called the territory “Newfounde Lande.” Excited by his suc­cess, Cabot planned another voyage, this time with five ships and more than 200 men. He was determined to reach Japan. Little is known about this second voyage except that it left sometime in 1498 and that one ship stopped in Ireland for repairs. The other four ships, with Cabot aboard one of them, never returned.

How did John Cabot’s son, Sebastian, continue exploration?

Sebastian did not accompany his father on the disas­trous voyage in 1498. But in 1508, Sebastian led an English expedition to North America. Following the route of his father, Sebastian reached Newfoundland and sailed north, searching for a passage through North America to the Indies. He found a giant strait that led west, but winter ice forced him to return to England in early 1509. There, the new king, Henry VIII, showed little enthusiasm for explo­ration. Frustrated, Cabot went to Spain, where he stayed for the next 30 years.

In 1526, he led a Spanish expedition to find a shorter route around the world than the route made by Ferdinand Magellan’s sailors, who completed the jour­ney in 1522. But Cabot only got as far as Brazil, where he heard reports of a wealthy kingdom inland. He abandoned his mission and sailed up rivers into Paraguay. He found nothing and returned to Spain, unsuccessful and in dis­grace.

After his failure, Cabot returned to England and led two more voyages to North America. Again, he failed to find a passage to the Indies. In his last journey, he tried to sail north around Finland to reach Russia. He was forced to turn back, but his persistence earned him the title “the elder statesman of the Age of Discovery.”

Who was Ferdinand Magellan?

The Portuguese controlled the trade routes around Africa and to India, forcing the Spanish to seek a westward route to the Indies. By the early 1500s, they realized that Columbus had not landed in China or the Spice Islands but on a whole new continent with a vast ocean on the other side. Vainly, they tried to find a river or strait that led through the landmass.

Hoping to discover the western route to the Indies, the Spanish king Charles I approved an expedition led by a Portuguese captain, Ferdinand Magellan. Magellan was born in 1480 in Sabrosa, Portugal. At age 12, Ferdinand was sent to the School of Pages, where he learned music, sword technique, dance, and how to conduct himself in the royal court. The school also taught Ferdinand astronomy, navigation, and mathematics.

Magellan dreamed of exploring the seas. At age 24, he joined a Portuguese armada as a common sailor. The armada sailed to the Indies, where it attacked Arab traders and ports in an attempt to destroy their role in the spice trade. Magellan’s bravery in battle was noticed by his officers. But for a reason not known today, Magellan was hated by King Manuel of Portugal, and his plans for exploration were frustrated.

Finally, Magellan traveled to Spain and offered his services. Magellan persuaded King Charles that a western passage­way to the Indies existed through South America. Delighted by the chance to extend Spanish rule, King Charles agreed to sponsor Magellan’s voyage.

How did Magellan circumnavigate the world?

In September 1519, five ships manned by 250 sailors left Spain to the thunderous salutes of cannon. Magellan’s ship took the lead. “Follow my flag by day and my lantern by night,” he ordered the other captains. The expedition crossed the Atlantic Ocean and probed the coast of Brazil, searching for a passage. But the coastline, thick with jun­gle, stretched southward without break.

As they contin­ued south, ice formed on the rigging, and the crew began to mutter among themselves that the voyage was doomed. Some men rebelled. Magellan crushed the mutiny and refused to turn back. For six months during the winter (which lasts from May to October in the Southern Hemisphere), the miserable crew huddled together on the southern tip of Argentina.

In November 1520, the ships finally rounded the tip of South America and entered a new body of water. Magellan, marveling at the calm waters, called it the Pacific, meaning “peaceful.” By this time, only three of the five ships remained. One had been wrecked and the other had fled home.

For the next two months, the three ships sailed across the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Food ran danger­ously low and the sailors began to starve and die from dis­ease. Finally, after 97 days, the ships landed on Guam, where the crew eagerly feasted on fresh fruits and meat. On April 27, 1521, Magellan led a party ashore on the Philippines and was ambushed by warriors.

As the men scrambled back to the ships, Magellan was struck down and killed. Mourning their fallen leader, the surviving sailors burned one ship and continued on in the remaining two. But one ship began to split apart and was left behind for repairs. The sole surviving ship and crew continued on to Africa, rounded the southern tip of the great continent, and arrived in Spain on September 8, 1522. The Spanish were shocked by the arrival, almost three years after the voyage began.

Of the 250 men who began the voyage, only 18 gaunt survivors returned. The Spanish king hon­ored the surviving captain, Juan Sebastian del Cano, as the first man to circumnavigate the globe. But many historians say that Magellan, who had previously voyaged to the Indies, was indeed the first man to circle the globe.

Who was Giovanni da Verrazano?

Giovanni da Verrazano was born about 1485 into an aristocratic family that owned estates south of Florence, Italy. In 1506, Verrazano left his privileged life and moved to Dieppe, France, to learn the ways of the sea. He gained experience on commercial voyages and became a captain of a French war vessel.

In 1524, the French king provided Verrazano with four ships to lead a voyage of exploration to North America. Shortly after leaving France, two ships were wrecked and a third returned to France with riches plundered from Spanish merchant vessels. With 50 sailors aboard La Dauphine, Verrazano pushed on, eventually reaching Cape Fear off North Carolina. Verrazano, like most explorers, was search­ing for a water route through North America.

Long, narrow sandbars run along the North Carolina coast. Verrazano looked at these sandbars and saw the sea behind them. He did not see the mainland of the giant continent, and he assumed that the water was the Pacific Ocean, meaning he had found the sea route. Fearing the hostile Spanish to the south, Verrazano sailed north. He encountered several American Indians, whom he described as “well fashioned” and “well favored.” On April 17, 1525, Verrazano entered a broad channel leading to a well-protected harbor.

Today the strait—the entrance to New York City—is named after Verrazano. Verrazano continued north to Massachusetts and Maine. There, he encountered Indians—Abnaki—who shot arrows at the French. In disgust, he named the area “Land of the Bad People.” When he reached Newfoundland, Verrazano turned east and returned to France. Verrazano made two more voyages, one to Brazil and another to Florida and the Leeward Islands. After landing at one, prob­ably Guadeloupe, Verrazano was seized, killed, and report­edly eaten by cannibals.

Who were the conquistadors?

During the 1500s, Spanish explorers, called conquista­dors, plundered the native Indian civilizations of North and South America of their gold and silver and enslaved the inhabitants. They were brave, hard, and ruthless men who were quick to use their swords, having honed their skills during years of fighting Muslims in Spain. The conquista­dors put millions of Indians under Spanish rule. Ships, heavily loaded with bars of gold and silver, sailed back to Spain, making it the richest nation on earth. The Spanish Empire would endure 300 years.

Who was Vasco Nunez de Balboa?

Balboa was a daring conquistador who discovered and claimed the Pacific Ocean for Spain in 1513. Born in 1475, Balboa grew up in a family of low-ranking nobility. In 1501, he left Spain and traveled to Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic today) to make his fortune. He ran a plantation and tried to raise hogs, but he fell into debt and fled his creditors by hiding in a cask aboard a supply ship.

Bound for the Spanish colony San Sebastian, today in Colombia, the ship was wrecked and the crew later rescued by another famous Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. When the crew learned that San Sebastian had been destroyed by an Indian attack, Balboa convinced his shipmates to sail on to Panama, a more peaceful area. They agreed, and Balboa and his compan­ions established a settlement at Darien.

Local Indian stories told of a rich empire to the south and a vast “South Sea.” When Balboa asked the Spanish king Ferdinand II for an army to find and conquer this empire, Ferdinand agreed. But he appointed someone else as commander. Furious, in September 1513 Balboa led his own force of about 190 Spaniards into the jungles of Panama in search of the empire and “South Sea.”

After several weeks of travel through swamps and jungles, Balboa reached a mountain plateau and gazed south. Stretching to the horizon was the vast Pacific Ocean. On that day, September 25, Balboa held a thanksgiving ser­vice and claimed the surrounding lands for Spain. The expedition reached the beach and Balboa waded into the waters with the Spanish flag, claiming the entire body of water for Spain.

Balboa returned to Darien, only to find that a governor from Spain had taken control. Balboa and the new governor waged a long, jealous feud for power. Balboa led another expedition to the Pacific in 1517 and explored the Gulf of San Miguel. But in 1519, the gover­nor had Balboa beheaded for treason.

Who searched for the Fountain of Youth?

American Indians told the Spanish on Hispaniola about a magical fountain on islands to the west. Whoever drank the fountain’s waters, they said, would become young again.

A Spanish conquistador named Juan Ponce de Le6n heard the miraculous story and in 1513 launched an expedition to find it. De Leon was an experienced explorer. In 1493, he reportedly accompanied Columbus on his second expedition to the Americas and became gov­ernor of the western half of Hispaniola. In 1508, he colo­nized Puerto Rico.

On March 27, 1513, de Leon spotted a lush, green land on the western horizon. The Spanish landed—the first Spanish to set foot on North America. Since the date fell on Easter (called Pascua Florida in Spanish) and the vegetation was so beautiful, de Leon named the region “Tierra La Florida”—”land of the flowers.” The Spanish spent the next five months sailing down Florida’s eastern coast, around the key islands, and north again along the west coast. Florida, de Leon realized, was a giant peninsula.

When de Leon returned to Spain in 1514, he was knighted by the king and given permission to colonize Florida. De Leon returned to Florida in 1521, where he and his men were attacked by Seminole Indians. De LeOn was wounded by an arrow, and the Spanish withdrew to Havana, Cuba. De LeOn died of the wound in July 1521. De Le6n never dis­covered the mythical Fountain of Youth, but he spread Spain’s claims in North America.

How did Cortes encounter the Aztecs?

Hernan Cortes was born in Spain in 1485, and he grew up in a family with “little wealth, but much honor.” Like many other Spanish noblemen, Cortes looked to the Americas for adventure and riches. At age 19, he sailed for Hispaniola. Over the next decade, Cortes took part in the conquest of Cuba and gained political power.

In February 1519, Cortes led 11 ships loaded with more than 500 sol­diers and 16 horses on an expedition to the coast of Mexico. Cortes had heard rumors of fabulous riches in the unknown land, and he dreamed of finding gold and silver and returning to Spain in triumph. In March, the expedi­tion landed on what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and fought a battle with Indians. The Indian war­riors fought bravely to repel the invaders, but they were no match for Spanish swords and guns. When the Spanish cavalry attacked, the Indians, who had never seen horses before, believed horse and rider were actually a single beast. They fled in terror.

News of the Spanish victory spread through the coun­try, finally reaching Montezuma, ruler of the Aztec Empire. The Aztec Empire covered most of what is now Mexico. In the magnificent capital city of Tenochtitlan, Montezuma pondered the significance of the white men’s arrival. A religious prophecy declared that an Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, would return as a bearded, fair-skinned man in the year 1519.

But Montezuma remained uncertain whether the white men should be slaughtered as invaders or welcomed as gods. Montezuma sent them magnificent gifts—two large gold and silver disks, pearl and turquoise ornaments, and jeweled robes. Cortes was delighted by these signs of wealth. He saw these gifts as confirmation of the Aztec Empire’s incredible riches, and he resolved to win them for himself.

How did Cortes conquer the Aztecs?

In July 1519, Cortes deliberately burned and sank, or scuttled, his ten ships. Cortes knew that the impending campaign would be difficult, and he didn’t want any of his men to mutiny and try to flee on their own. His mes­sage sent, Cortes led an army of 1,000 Spanish and Indian allies into the mountains and jungles.

As Cortes’s army defeated Indian warriors and sacked several towns, Montezuma sent gifts, promising to pay tribute if the Spanish left the Aztec Empire. Cortes defied the emperor and by November, Cortes and his ragged army stood before the gates of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital and home to more than 60,000 people, a population larger than that in any Spanish city at the time.

At first, Montezuma and Cortes exchanged cordial greetings. Cortes and his men were stunned by the magnificence of the city, but they were also horrified by the Aztec religion, which sacrificed humans in rituals. When one of Montezuma’s chiefs attacked a Spanish garrison, Cortes took Montezuma prisoner and forced him to acknowl­edge the Spanish king as his lord. When Cortes tried to change the Aztec temples into Christian churches, warfare broke out.

Montezuma was killed, and Cortes and his men were forced to flee Tenochtitlan. Cortes raised an army and returned to lay siege to the great city. On August 13, 1521, the Aztecs, starving and weakened by disease introduced by the Europeans, surrendered. Cortes was made governor and captain general of Nuevo Espana (New Spain), and established Mexico City on the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

How did Pizarro conquer the Incans?

Little is known about the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro before he arrived in Hispaniola in 1502. He joined an expedition into Colombia and earned the rep­utation as a quiet, brave fighter. In 1519, he became the mayor of Panama and made a small fortune. He stayed for several years before deciding to take a bold gamble.

In autumn 1532, Pizarro set off with 106 infantry and 62 cavalry into the peaks of the Andes mountains to conquer the Incan Empire of South America. The Incan emperor, Atahualpa, learned of the Spanish party and sent a note welcoming them, but he did not plan to let the Spanish stay. When the Spanish arrived in the Incan city of Cajamarca, they found it deserted. Atahualpa, encamped with a giant army, waited nearby. Pizarro and Atahualpa exchanged greetings again, and Atahualpa promised to meet the Spaniard in the town square the next day.

When Atahualpa arrived with 6,000 warriors, the Spanish soldiers waited in ambush. Suddenly, they swarmed out of their hiding places and began slaughtering the surprised warriors. Terrified by the horses, the Indians were routed, leaving more than 2,000 dead. Atahualpa was taken prisoner and Pizarro demanded a room filled with gold and two chambers filled with silver in ransom.

To save their king, Incans across the empire tore gold and silver from their temples and their homes and sent it to Pizarro. In May 1533, Pizarro’s men built nine forges to melt the metal into bars. Thousands of priceless artworks were lost. When the Spanish finished, they counted 13,265 pounds of gold and 26,000 pounds of silver. Realizing that a free Atahualpa could rally his peo­ple, Pizarro ordered him executed by strangulation in August 1533. With his death, the Incan Empire fell under Spanish control.

Who was Hernando de Soto?

Around 1500, Hernando de Soto was born to a family who intended him for a career in law. But all of Spain spoke of the discoveries, adventures, and conquests in South America, and de Soto decided to become a con­quistador instead. As a teenager, de Soto trained with Spanish captains in Latin America, where he learned the arts of war. He traveled in the advance guard of Pizarro’s army when it entered South America and conquered the Incans.

De Soto returned to Spain, wealthy and honored, but his desire for glory was still unsatisfied. In May 1539, de Soto led ten ships filled with 1,000 men and 350 horses from Havana, Cuba, on an expedition to conquer the ter­ritory of La Florida in North America. De Soto hoped to discover a civilization as rich and powerful as those of the Aztecs and Incans.

After almost two weeks at sea, de Soto and his men landed near what is now Tampa, on the western side of the Florida peninsula. They built a base and moved north. If any Indians acted unfriendly, de Soto destroyed their vil­lage and either massacred or enslaved the inhabitants. The Indians told de Soto of a rich, gold-filled empire to the north called Cofitachequi.

The Spanish marched northeast into present-day Georgia and Tennessee. Still, the men discovered no gold. Local Indians, however, hoping to get rid of the Spanish as soon as possible, insisted that the wealthy empire they sought was nearby. The expedition moved into Alabama and northern Mississippi.

On May 8, 1541, the expedition reached the Mississippi River, becom­ing the first Europeans to see the great river. By then, de Soto’s men were exhausted and low on both food and ammunition. They traveled, during a brutal summer drought, down to Arkansas. After winter, the Spanish trav­eled into Louisiana. There, de Soto fell ill with a fever and died on May 21, 1542. The men weighted his body with stones and sank him in a river, so the local Indians would not discover his death. The survivors built boats and sailed into the Gulf of Mexico, finally reaching Spanish colonists in Tampico, Mexico, in September 1543. They had traveled more than 4,000 miles.

Who searched for the Seven Cities of Gold?

News of the astounding wealth in South America fired the ambition of other Spanish explorers. Rumors told of seven cities that shimmered with gold to the north of Mexico in a legendary land called abola. In February 1540, Spanish nobleman Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led an expedition of 336 soldiers and 1,300 Indians northward out of Mexico and into what is today the American Southwest. Guided by a priest named Fray Marcos, the Spanish trav­eled slowly through the deserts in Arizona.

In June, the half-starved Spanish army reached Hawikuh, an Indian city in what is now New Mexico. But instead of a dazzling city of gold, the Spanish found squat structures built from adobe clay. Worse, the Indians did not welcome the Spanish, but instead shot arrows and hurled stones at their approach. Coronado was knocked unconscious before the Spanish soldiers seized the village and eagerly feasted on the corn and chickens they found there. The Spanish soon learned that the Seven Cities of Cibola did not exist. Disgusted, Coronado sent Marcos home in disgrace.

How did Coronado continue his exploration?

After listening to Indian tales of a great river, Coronado ordered a search party to travel northwest of Hawikuh. They did but were halted by a massive canyon—the Grand Canyon. The Colorado River flowed at its distant bottom. The following spring, Coronado and the army set off again, this time toward the east, where rumor told of gold.

The men marched across the dusty plains of Texas and Kansas, stunned by the enormous buffalo herds, but they found only cities of huts and buf­falo hides. Coronado was shocked to learn that his Indian guide had deliberately led the Spanish into the Plains in the hopes that they would die of hunger and thirst. Coronado had the man executed immediately. In the spring of 1542, Coronado and his weary men returned to Mexico, with nothing to show after two years of exploration.

Who was Estevanico?

In the early 1500s, Estevanico, a Moor, was captured in his homeland of Morocco and sold as a slave in Spain. He became the servant of Andres Dorantes, who commanded a company of Spanish infantry. In 1528, Dorantes and his men joined an expedition to Florida led by Panfilo de Narvaez. About 400 men and 42 horses survived the trip to Florida. Estevanico was among them.

Narvaez led the party into the interior in search of, gold but found little. Instead, they traveled through swampy terrain and began to die of disease. Near Tallahassee, the group was attacked by Seminole Indians. By September, the weak and hungry men decided to build five rafts and attempt to sail from Florida to a Spanish settlement in Mexico. The voyage was a disaster. Some rafts were shattered on the coast. Another, with Narvaez aboard, was pulled out to sea and never seen again. Two rafts, including the one occupied by Estevanico, were shipwrecked near what is now Galveston, Texas. By spring 1529, only 15 men still lived.

The group decided to cross Texas to the safety of Mexico. They were captured by Indians and spent the next six years enduring harsh treatment and labor. At the end of 1535, Estevanico and three companions escaped. As they traveled west through Texas, their strange appearance caused Indians to believe that they possessed magical healing powers.

Word of the healers spread rapidly, mak­ing their journey much less dangerous. They reached Mexico City in July 1536. Because of his experience and ability to speak several Indian languages, Estevanico became a guide for Coronado’s expedition. Estevanico traveled several days ahead of the main party and, as he had done in Texas, offered his healing powers. In May 1537, Estevanico reached the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh. There, the chief was not impressed by Estevanico’s claim to be a medicine man. The chief forced Estevanico to leave the village and the next day ambushed him with a group of warriors, killing him.

Who was Sir Francis Drake?

Francis Drake was born about 1540 in Devonshire, England. He grew up in poverty, living in the hull of a ship moored in the Thames River. At age 13, Drake became a seaman’s apprentice on a ship that traded among the North Sea ports. At age 23, now skilled in seafaring, Drake joined an expedition to the West Indies. His bravery and superb seamanship were noticed by his superiors, including the English queen Elizabeth I.

At the time, Spain and England were competing for power in Europe, and the queen authorized Drake to attack and plunder Spanish shipping.The Spanish transported spices and cloths of the East Indies across the Pacific Ocean to Latin America. Spanish warehouses in Panama brimmed with the riches of trade and con­quest. Gold and silver were collected and loaded onto galleons for the slow journey across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain.

Drawn by the tempting targets, Drake led five ships across the Atlantic and down the coast of South America in December 1577. Drake executed one man for conspiring to mutiny and was forced to scuttle two vessels. In August 1578, the remaining ships entered the treacherous strait at the tip of South America, which had been named for Magellan. The English sailors shivered in the bitter cold as Drake carefully maneuvered the fleet through the channel.

Finally, in September, Drake and his men joyfully entered the Pacific Ocean. But a storm pounded the fleet soon afterward, and one ship vanished with all its sailors. Just one week later, the remaining two ships were separated. Drake and his crew aboard the Golden Hind continued up the coast of Chile alone.

How did Drake circumnavigate the world?

Off the west coast of South America, Drake raided Spanish ships and ports, seizing silver, gold, wine, and jewels. He continued north as far as what is now Oregon, where he was forced to halt due to “most vile, thick, and stinking fogs.” Drake now faced a dilemma. His ship already overflowed with plunder, so he dared not try to sail through the hostile and alert Spanish in the south. The only way to return to England, he boldly decided, was to follow Magellan’s route across the Pacific.

For the next 68 days, the Golden Hind sailed west, steadily slicing through the waves of the Pacific Ocean. Finally, the ship stopped at several islands that dot the giant ocean. On one, the natives took whatever they could grab. Drake called the place “Island of Thieves.” At the Spice Islands, Drake loaded more valuable cargo before sailing across the Indian Ocean, around the tip of Africa, and north to England. After two years and ten months at sea, Drake and the crew of the Golden Hind returned safely to England. The Spanish king, furious with Drake, ordered Queen Elizabeth I to cut off Drake’s head. Instead, Elizabeth knighted him, and he became a hero.

What was the Northwest Passage?

The northern European countries—England, Holland, and France—watched the Spanish and the Portuguese grow wealthy from trade with a mixture of envy and resentment. Unable to challenge the Spanish in the south­ern Atlantic, the northern European explorers searched to the west and north for a sea route to the Indies. They were blocked by a giant landmass—North America. But the French and English were convinced that a channel ran through the continent to the Pacific Ocean and the Spice Islands. Whoever discovered this channel, called the “Northwest Passage,” would grow rich from trade. Today, we know that a usable such passage doesn’t exist. But the explorers would brave the frigid waters of the North Atlantic to find it. Their attempts failed, but their explo­ration of the coast of North America opened it to European settlement.

Who was Henry Hudson?

English navigator Henry Hudson was obsessed with discovering the Northwest Passage. Between 1607 and 1611, he sailed farther north than any other European explorer, venturing to the top of the world and braving the icy arctic waters for a passage that did not exist. In his first voyage, Hudson sailed toward Greenland and was blocked by ice. The next year, Hudson tried again, this time sailing along the coast of Norway in an effort to sail around Asia. Again, he was forced to turn back. After two failures, Hudson lost support in England but he found financial backing from Dutch merchants.

In April 1609, Hudson and a 16-man crew set sail in the Half Moon. Hudson sailed up the coast of Norway. Temperatures plummeted and ice coated the rigging. The crew refused to go farther. Hudson gave in, but instead of returning to Holland, he ordered the ship westward toward North America. By mid-July, Hudson sighted the coast of Maine. The Half Moon made its way down the coast to Virginia and returned north.

On September 2, Hudson dis­covered a giant, beautiful bay at the mouth of a vast river. Excited that this river might be the Northwest Passage, Hudson and the crew sailed north. Indians spotted the giant ship and paddled canoes out to greet it. The Indians “seemed very glad at our coming . . . and are very civil,” noted a sailor in a diary, “we durst not trust them.” Hudson continued 150 miles before realizing that the river had grown too shallow and narrow to be the passage. Disappointed, Hudson left the river that to this day bears his name. The Dutch claimed the Hudson River Valley and founded a city called New Amsterdam, known today as New York.

How did Henry Hudson’s explorations end?

After Hudson returned to Europe, he reasoned that the Northwest Passage must exist farther north. In April 1610, Hudson received English support and led another ship, the Discovery, into the North Atlantic. He rounded the tip of Greenland and made his way along the northern coast of Canada. Picking his way through fog and sheets of ice, Hudson sailed into a giant bay. He was jubilant. Here was a sea that seemed to stretch all the way to the Pacific. But the bay ended in the frigid Canadian wilderness.

With the landscape locked in snow and ice, Hudson ordered the crew to wait out the winter. Blasted by the arctic cold and depressed by the long nights, the crew spent six miserable months on the desolate shores of what became known as Hudson Bay. Rations dwindled and the men faced starva­tion. In June 1611, the crew mutinied. Hudson, his son, and seven sailors were forced into a small boat and set adrift into the bleak waters of Hudson Bay. They were never seen again. The Discovery returned to England, where the leaders of the mutiny were punished.

Who was Jacques Cartier?

French explorers also sailed across the North Atlantic in the vain hope of finding the Northwest Passage. Fishermen of Portugal and France, who had followed schools of cod­fish into the North Atlantic, found great bays and inlets along the coast of North America. Hoping one of them might lead to the Northwest Passage, French explorer Jacques Cartier led two ships into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 1534.

From the gulf, the giant St. Lawrence River disap­peared into the interior of North America. Surely, thought Cartier, this was the passage. He returned two years later, sailed up the St. Lawrence River, and was halted at impass­able rapids. Still hopeful that he would eventually break through to the Indies, he named the rapids La Chine, or China.

Who was Samuel de Champlain?

Champlain, a Frenchman, gained experience in naviga­tion on voyages to the West Indies and Central America in the late 1500s. Champlain’s skill drew the notice of the French king Henry IV. Invited by the king, Champlain accompanied a French expedition up the St. Lawrence River in North America in 1603.

In 1608, Champlain returned and founded a trading post called Quebec. Using the post as his base, Champlain traveled on foot and by canoe into the mountains to the south, gazing upon the giant lake in north­ern New York that bears his name today—Lake Champlain. In 1615, Champlain traveled through the rugged forests to the west and paddled across the first of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario. Champlain’s routes were followed by French trappers eager to trade with Indians. As a result, French set­tlements gradually grew in Canada.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.