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European Explorers of North America

The first known European explorers to arrive on the continent, Vikings from Scandinavia led by Leif Eriksson (c. 970–1020), appeared around 1000 C.E. and established a temporary settlement in the present-day Canadian province of Newfoundland. After that, there were no known European explorations of the New World until the Spanish-sponsored Italian navigator Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) arrived in 1492.

Native Americans have been living in and exploring the vast territory that makes up the present-day United States for tens of thousands of years. Many tribes traded far and wide and had a vast knowledge of the continent’s geography.

Early European explorers

Trade was the major incentive in the burst of European exploration that began in the fifteenth century. Once European countries, particularly Italy, had developed trade relations with the Middle East (a vast region of the world encompassing North Africa and Southwest Asia), goods from Asia were in high demand. European governments began to sponsor navigators (people who set the courses for ships) to explore new routes to the mysterious regions beyond the borders of Europe.
The Portuguese were the first to find routes around the Horn of Africa (a peninsula in northeastern Africa) to India in 1498. Portugal then reaped huge profits in trade in Asia and Africa. In 1492, Columbus convinced the Spanish queen that he could reach Asia by taking a westward course across the Atlantic. He famously located the New World when he landed in the islands of the Caribbean Sea.
Thinking he had arrived in Asia, he called the islands the “West Indies” and their people, “Indians.” Columbus went to explore and create colonies for Spain in the islands. Italian explorer John Cabot (c. 1450–c. 1499) was living in England when he learned of Columbus’s voyages. He convinced the English king to sponsor him in an expedition to the New World to seek the Northwest Passage, a fabled sea route cutting directly through the New World that would provide easy passage to Asia. (Though none of the early explorers of the American continent would ever find the Northwest Passage, it was actually discovered in the Arctic Ocean in 1903.)
In 1497, Cabot made a thirty-one-day voyage across the Atlantic. The exact spot where he landed is uncertain, but it was probably either Cape Breton Island (in the present-day Canadian province of Nova Scotia) or Newfoundland. He explored the coast for a month and returned to England. His reports, along with Columbus’s discoveries, changed the shape of the world in European understanding.

European Explorers: The Spanish explorers 
The first Spaniards to arrive in the New World found gold and silver there. News of possible riches brought many more explorers and Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) to the American continents in the first half of the sixteenth century. In 1499 and 1500, Italian navigator Amerigo de Vespucci (1454–1512) led a Spanish-sponsored expedition that first discovered the mainland of the American continents; the name “America” is derived from his name. In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1519) became the first European to find the eastern shores of the Pacific Ocean. That same year, Juan Ponce de León (1460–1521) led the first European expedition into Florida, which he claimed for Spain.
From 1519 to 1521, Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) explored central Mexico and conquered the powerful Aztecs, taking over their principal city and establishing the headquarters of New Spain in Mexico City. From 1519 to 1521, Ferdinand Magellan, or Fernão de Magalhães (c. 1480–1521), a Portuguese navigator financed by the Spanish king, became the first known person to circumnavigate (go all the way around) the world. Most Spanish exploration efforts were spent on regions in Central and South America, but there was interest in the lands to the north as well. Spain played the leading role in exploration of vast areas of what is now the southern section of the United States. In 1527 and 1528, Pánfilo de Narváez (c. 1478–1528) led a disastrous expedition to Florida and the Texas shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico.
Although Narváez and most of his crew were killed, the expedition contributed greatly to the knowledge and history of the southern United States. One of the expedition’s members, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490–c. 1560), managed to survive the eight-year ordeal, and he published an eyewitness account, La Relación (1555; The Account). From 1539 to 1542, Hernando de Soto (c. 1496–1542) led a goldseeking expedition through present-day Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. His was the first European expedition to encounter the Mississippi River. From 1540 to 1542, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (c. 1510–1554) explored present- day New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Around the same time, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, or João Rodriguez Cabrilho (d. 1543), a Portuguese explorer in the service of Spain, became the first explorer of the California coast, including San Diego Bay and Monterey Bay.
After these initial explorations, the hard work of exploring Spanish territory north of present-day Mexico fell to Spanish conquistadors and colonizers such as Juan de Oñate (c. 1550–1630), who explored and colonized present-day New Mexico, and Gaspar de Portolá (c. 1723–c. 1784), who led an overland expedition of explorers, colonists, and missionaries into present-day California. Spanish missionaries played a huge role in the exploration. (See Spanish Missions). Eusebio Francisco Kino (1645–1711) established a network of missions that extended from Mexico far into present-day Arizona, and Junípero Serra (1713–1784) explored California and set up the first nine missions in a network that would become twenty-one missions spanning the California coast.
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French Explorers


European Explorers: The French explorers

France, too, wished to find trade routes to Asia and establish colonies in the New World. In 1524, the French king sponsored an expedition to the New World seeking the elusive Northwest Passage. The expedition was led by Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano (c. 1485–c. 1528), who explored the East Coast of the present-day United States from what is now North Carolina up to Nova Scotia, Canada. He reported on the New York and Narragansett Bays upon his return. From 1534 to 1541, Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) made three voyages to Canada, discovering the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River.
In 1603, French explorer Samuel de Champlain (c. 1567–1635), who became known as the “father of New France” (which later became Canada), first set out for the North American coast. Upon his return, he convinced the French king that North America had potential for settlement and commercial development, particularly in fur trading. In his many journeys to New France, Champlain established the settlement of Quebec. He explored the Atlantic coast from present-day Nova Scotia down to Massachusetts, as well as Vermont, northern parts of New York, and the Great Lakes region.
In 1672, explorer Louis Jolliet (1645–1700) led a French-Canadian expedition to explore the Mississippi River and to discover whether it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean. French Jesuit missionary Jacques Marquette (1637–1675) was chosen to go along as the expedition’s interpreter because he spoke several Indian languages fluently.
Jolliet’s account of the expedition was lost in a canoe accident, and Marquette’s journal became the only first-person record of the historic trip. In 1682, explorer Sieur René Robert Cavelier de La Salle (1643–1687) navigated the Mississippi River all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico and claimed for France the vast territory known as Louisiana.
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