|Six Europeans Explore the Americas
By 1492, Europeans had established trade with countries in Asia. The Asians had silk, a kind of material used to make clothing, and many spices, used to flavor and preserve food. The Europeans wanted to participate in trade with Asia and bring these items back to use in their own countries. The trip from European countries such as England, France, and Spain took many months over land, and was very dangerous. Some people thought that they could head the other direction by sea and reach Asia quicker and more safely. Those dreamers started an age of European exploration.
Christopher Columbus was from Portugal. He was someone who thought he could reach Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean. He convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to pay for an expedition by sea to see if he was right. The King and Queen wanted to make money from the gold and spices they thought Columbus would find. Columbus set off on his expedition in 1492 with three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, and about 90 men. He had no map of where he was headed, but used newly-discovered tools for navigation such as the astrolabe, which told them how far north or south they were from home, and a compass, which told them which direction they were headed.
A few months later, on October 12, 1492, they saw land. The ships landed on an island which is now a part of the Bahamas. But Columbus thought he had found Asia and had landed near India. He therefore named the islands the West Indies and the people he found there, the Native Americans, he called Indians. He thought the East Indies were not far away, but he never reached them, because he was not, in fact, in Asia.
No one in Europe at that time realized that in between Europe and Asia was another large land mass, which we now call North and South America. Europeans from Iceland and Greenland called Vikings had actually sailed to what is now Canada around the year 1,000, much earlier than Columbus. But word of what they had found did not spread widely in Europe at that time.
So, Columbus and his crew were in the Americas, but thought they were in Asia. They were not the first people there; those were the Native Americans. They were not the second people there; those were the Vikings. But they were the first Europeans in the Americas who went back home and told enough people so that the word spread about this land.
Columbus and his crew traded with the Native Americans they met, and visited several islands. They went back to Spain, but Columbus returned three more times and later established a permanent residence for Europeans called a settlement. They brought supplies and planted crops and raised animals to eat. They wanted the land for Spain and also wanted to be able to search for gold.
They also brought diseases with them, common in Europe, but ones that the Native Americans had never experienced. This caused an epidemic among the Native Americans. Many Native Americans died of these diseases that were new to them. Columbus eventually returned to Spain and died in 1506, soon after he returned from his last voyage.
John Cabot was an Italian, but he thought there was a faster way to Asia than the one found by Columbus. He left with his crew in 1497 and sailed further north than Columbus had sailed. He landed in what is now Newfoundland, Canada, although he thought he was in Asia just as Columbus had before him. Cabot’s route across the Atlantic Ocean was in fact faster than Columbus’ route. He didn’t find gold, but he did find a rich fishing area that others came to use in later years. He returned to England and began a second expedition in 1498. Cabot, his ship, and his crew were lost at sea in this second expedition.
Around the same time as Cabot’s expeditions, an Italian named Amerigo Vespucci sailed to the Americas. On his expedition in 1501-1502, he and his crew became convinced that this land was not Asia, but a new land. A mapmaker, later drawing up what Vespucci had learned about this new land, named the land “America” in honor of Amerigo Vespucci.
Juan Ponce de Leon
Spain continued to send explorers to Spain. Juan Ponce de Leon, a Spanish explorer and conquistador, may have been on Columbus’ second expedition, but definitely was in this New World in 1503 when he explored the island of Puerto Rico, looking for gold. Ponce de Leon became the first governor of Puerto Rico.
Then Ponce de Leon heard that on the island of Bimini there was a fountain of youth. He went in search of this fountain, as well as looking for land and gold for Spain. He landed on the coast of Florida in 1513, near what is now St. Augustine. He was the first European to ever set foot in Florida. He named the area “La Florida” because it was Easter Season, and in Spain they celebrated the Festival of Flowers at this time, called Pascua Florida in Spanish. He also discovered the Gulf Stream, a warm ocean current that helped later sailors going between Europe and the New World. He claimed the land of Florida for his country of Spain.
Ponce de Leon went back to his home in Puerto Rico, but returned to Florida in 1521. He and his men battled with the Native Americans. Ponce de Leon died in Cuba of wounds sustained in that battle.
Vasco Nunez de Balboa
Vasco Nunez de Balboa was another Spanish explorer and conquistador. He came to the New World not long after Ponce de Leon, in 1500, and lived on the island of Hispanolia, which is now made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He worked there as a farmer. Later, in 1510, Balboa helped establish the community of Darien, which was the first stable Spanish settlement in the Americas, and is a part of the present country of Panama. As Balboa and his fellow explorers encountered Native Americans, they did not show much tolerance for them, their beliefs, and their way of life. Balboa and his men believed that everyone should believe what the Spanish believed.
He explored many countries around Darien, looking for gold and land to take for Spain, and in 1513, he and his team were the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean, which they called the South Sea. This was proof that the Americas were separate from Asia. He later returned to Darien, became a political enemy of the new governor of Darien, and was put on trial and sentenced to death. He died in 1519.
Jacques Cartier was an explorer from the country of France. He was seeking two things on his expedition. One was gold, and the other was the “Northwest Passage.” Once Europeans realized that the New World was not Asia, they hoped to find a river (or a series of connecting rivers) take them across the New World so they could continue their path to Asia. They called this hoped-for river route the “Northwest Passage.”
Cartier’s first voyage was in 1534. He discovered what is now Prince Edward Island, in Canada. Then he made a second voyage in 1535. On this voyage he sailed up the St. Lawrence River in what would later be Canada. Cartier actually named Canada, because when the Iroquois Indians he met used their word “kanata,” meaning village, he thought it meant the whole area. Cartier did not find a river path through to the Pacific Ocean.
Cartier’s third voyage was in 1541. On this trip he was to help another Frenchman who was establishing a colony for France in the New World. Instead of helping, he took what he thought were valuable minerals back to France. They turned out to be fool’s gold and quartz, which were not valuable at all. He lived in France for the rest of his life and died there in 1557.
Like John Cabot before him, Henry Hudson explored for England. On his first and second voyages, in 1607 and 1608, Hudson was looking for an ice-free path to the North Pole, which would be a shorter route to Asia. On his third voyage, in 1609, he sailed further south to look for the Northwest Passage. He sailed up a “great river,” located in present-day New York, which would later be called the Hudson River in his honor.
On Hudson’s fourth voyage, he found a large body of water, which at first he thought might be the Pacific Ocean, but later turned out to be a large bay, which was named the Hudson Bay after its European explorer. His crew became angry at Hudson on this voyage, and set him and a few of his crew members afloat in a small, open lifeboat. They were never heard from again.
There were many other European explorers during this time and later on, but what is important is that starting with Columbus, Europeans first thought that they were sailing west to find Asia. When they realized it wasn’t Asia but in fact a new land, they still wanted to find gold and claim land for their countries. They also still wanted to reach Asia, and thought they could find a Northwest Passage across the Americas so they could continue to Asia. Some of the explorers came and left the Americas, but other people stayed, including people from England, France, and Spain.