Ferdinand Magellan Explorer (c. 1480–1521) Cool Fact

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Ferdinand Magellan 

Explorer (c. 1480–1521)

Cool Fact

While in the service of Spain, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan led the first European voyage of discovery to circumnavigate the globe


Ferdinand Magellan was born in Portugal circa 1480. As a boy, he studied mapmaking and navigation. By his mid-20s, he was sailing in large fleets and was committed in combat. In 1519, with the support of King Charles V of Spain, Magellan set out to circumnavigate the globe. He assembled a fleet of ships and, despite huge setbacks, his own death included, proved that the world was round.

Early Life

Ferdinand Magellan was born in Portugal, either in the city of Porto or in Sabrosa, circa 1480. His parents were members of the Portuguese nobility, so after their deaths, when he was just 10 years old, Magellan became a page for the queen. Magellan studied at Queen Leonora's School of Pages in Lisbon and spent his days poring over texts on cartography, astronomy, and celestial navigation—subjects that would serve him well in his later pursuits.

Navigator and Explorer

In his mid-20s, Magellan joined a Portuguese fleet that was sailing to East Africa. He soon found himself at the Battle of Diu, in which the Portuguese destroyed Egyptian ships in the Arabian Sea. He also explored Malacca, located in present-day Malaysia, and participated in the conquest of Malacca's port. It is possible that he sailed as far as the Moluccas, islands in Indonesia, then called the Spice Islands. The Moluccas were the original source of some of the world's most valuable spices, including cloves and nutmeg. The conquest of spice-rich countries was, as a result, a source of much European competition.

While serving in Morocco, Magellan was wounded, and walked the remainder of his life with a limp. After his injury, he was falsely accused of trading illegally with the Moors, and despite all of his service to Portugal, and his many pleas to the king, any further offers of employment were withheld him.

In 1517, Magellan moved to Seville, Spain, to offer his skills to the Spanish court. In the three years following his departure from Portugal, he had religiously studied all of the most recent navigation charts. He had also benefited from the mistakes and discoveries of several other explorers—Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of North America and Vasco Núñez de Balboa's march across the Panamanian isthmus to the Pacific Ocean were just two of the many events that inspired Magellan's bold quest for an all-water passage to farther-flung, spice-rich lands.

Final Years

Magellan devised a plan for circumnavigating the globe, and King Charles V of Spain gave it his blessing. On September 20, 1519, he set out with a fleet of five ships, beautifully named but hardly adequate to sail the distances he proposed. The fleet sailed first to Brazil and then down the coast of South America to Patagonia. There, an attempted mutiny took place, and one of the ships was wrecked. Despite the setback, the crew continued on with the four remaining vessels.

By October 1520, Magellan and his men had entered what is now called the Strait of Magellan. It took them over a month to pass through the strait, during which time the master of one of the ships deserted and sailed back home. In March 1521, the fleet anchored in Guam.

It is a lesser-known fact that Magellan became involved in a local war in the Philippines, where he was killed in battle on April 27, 1521. It's also largely unknown that it was the remaining members of his crew, namely Juan Sebastián del Cano, who actually completed the circumnavigation of the globe. The following year, on September 8, 1522, despite having almost lost their lives in their efforts, the remainder of Magellan's fleet returned to Spain, thus proving that the globe was in fact round.

Vasco da Gama 

Explorer (c. 1460–1524)

Cool Fact

Vasco da Gama was the first person to sail directly from Europe to India.


Explorer Vasco da Gama was born in Sines, Portugal, around 1460. In 1497, he was commissioned by the Portuguese king to find a maritime route to the East. His success in doing so proved to be one of the more instrumental moments in the history of navigation. He subsequently made two other voyages to India, and was appointed as Portuguese viceroy in India in 1524.

Early Years

Explorer Vasco da Gama was born into a noble family around 1460 in Sines, Portugal. Little is known about his upbringing except that he was the third son of Estêvão da Gama, who was commander of the fortress in Sines in the southwestern pocket of Portugal. When he was old enough, young Vasco da Gama joined the navy, where was taught how to navigate.

Known as a tough and fearless navigator, da Gama solidified his reputation as a reputable sailor when, in 1492, King John II of Portugal dispatched him to the south of Lisbon and then to the Algarve region of the country, to seize French ships as an act of vengeance against the French government for disrupting Portuguese shipping.

Following da Gama's completion of King John II's orders, in 1495, King Manuel took the throne, and the country revived its earlier mission to find a direct trade route to India. By this time, Portugal had established itself as one of the most powerful maritime countries in Europe.

Much of that was due to Henry the Navigator, who, at his base in the southern region of the country, had brought together a team of knowledgeable mapmakers, geographers and navigators. He dispatched ships to explore the western coast of Africa to expand Portugal's trade influence. He also believed that he could find and form an alliance with Prester John, who ruled over a Christian empire somewhere in Africa. Henry the Navigator never did locate Prester John, but his impact on Portuguese trade along Africa's east coast during his 40 years of explorative work was undeniable. Still, for all his work, the southern portion of Africa—what lay east—remained shrouded in mystery.

In 1487, an important breakthrough was made when Bartolomeu Dias discovered the southern tip of Africa and rounded the Cape of Good Hope. This journey was significant; it proved, for the first time, that the Atlantic and Indian oceans were connected. The trip, in turn, sparked a renewed interest in seeking out a trade route to India.

By the late 1490s, however, King Manuel wasn't just thinking about commercial opportunities as he set his sights on the East. In fact, his impetus for finding a route was driven less by a desire to secure for more lucrative trading grounds for his country, and more by a quest to conquer Islam and establish himself as the king of Jerusalem.

First Voyage

Historians know little about why exactly da Gama, still an inexperienced explorer, was chosen to lead the expedition to India in 1497. On July 8 of that year, he captained a team of four vessels, including his flagship, the 200-tonSt. Gabriel, to find a sailing route to India and the East.

To embark on the journey, da Gama pointed his ships south, taking advantage of the prevailing winds along the coast of Africa. His choice of direction was also a bit of a rebuke to Christopher Columbus, who had believed he'd found a route to India by sailing east.

Following several months of sailing, he rounded the Cape of Good Hope and began making his way up the eastern coast of Africa, toward the uncharted waters of the Indian Ocean. By January, as the fleet neared what is now Mozambique, many of da Gama's crewmembers were sick with scurvy, forcing the expedition to anchor for rest and repairs for nearly one month.

In early March of 1498, da Gama and his crew dropped their anchors in the port of Mozambique, a Muslim city-state that sat on the outskirts of the east coast of Africa and was dominated by Muslim traders. Here, da Gama was turned back by the ruling sultan, who felt offended by the explorer's modest gifts.

By early April, the fleet reached what is now Kenya, before setting sail on a 23-day run that would take them across the Indian Ocean. They reached Calicut, India, on May 20. But da Gama's own ignorance of the region, as well as his presumption that the residents were Christians, led to some confusion. The residents of Calicut were actually Hindu, a fact that was lost on da Gama and his crew, as they had not heard of the religion.

Still, the local Hindu ruler welcomed da Gama and his men, at first, and the crew ended up staying in Calicut for three months. Not everyone embraced their presence, especially Muslim traders who clearly had no intention of giving up their trading grounds to Christian visitors. Eventually, da Gama and his crew were forced to barter on the waterfront in order to secure enough goods for the passage home. In August of 1498, da Gama and his men took to the seas again, beginning their journey back to Portugal.

Da Gama's timing could not have been worse; his departure coincided with the start of a monsoon. By early 1499, several crewmembers had died of scurvy and in an effort to economize his fleet, da Gama ordered one of his ships to be burned. The first ship in the fleet didn't reach Portugal until July 10, nearly a full year after they'd left India.

In all, da Gama's first journey covered nearly 24,000 miles in close to two years, and only 54 of the crew's original 170 members survived.

Second Voyage

When da Gama returned to Lisbon, he was greeted as a hero. In an effort to secure the trade route with India and usurp Muslim traders, Portugal dispatched another team of vessels, headed by Pedro Álvares Cabral. The crew reached India in just six months, and the voyage included a firefight with Muslim merchants, where Cabral's crew killed 600 men on Muslim cargo vessels. More important for his home country, Cabral established the first Portuguese trading post in India.

In 1502, Vasco da Gama helmed another journey to India that included 20 ships. Ten of the ships were directly under his command, with his uncle and nephew helming the others. In the wake of Cabral's success and battles, the king charged da Gama to further secure Portugal's dominance in the region.

To do so, da Gama embarked on one of the most gruesome massacres of the exploration age. He and his crew terrorized Muslim ports up and down the African east coast, and at one point, set ablaze a Muslim ship returning from Mecca, killing the several hundreds of people (including women and children) who were on board. Next, the crew moved to Calicut, where they wrecked the city's trade port and killed 38 hostages. From there, they moved to the city of Cochin, a city south of Calicut, where da Gama formed an alliance with the local ruler.

Finally, on February 20, 1503, da Gama and his crew began to make their way home. They reached Portugal on October 11 of that year.

Later Years

Little was recorded about da Gama's return home and the reception that followed, though it has been speculated that the explorer felt miffed at the recognition and compensation for his exploits.

Married at this time, and the father of six sons, da Gama settled into retirement and family life. He maintained contact with King Manuel, advising him on Indian matters, and was named count of Vidigueira in 1519. Late in life, after the death of King Manuel, da Gama was asked to return to India, in an effort to contend with the growing corruption from Portuguese officials in the country. In 1524, King John III named da Gama Portuguese viceroy in India.

That same year, da Gama died in Cochin—the result, it has been speculated, from possibly overworking himself. His body was sailed back to Portugal, and buried there, in 1538.

Christopher Columbus 

Explorer (c. 1451–1506)

Cool Fact

Famed Italian explorer Christopher Columbus discovered the "New World" of the Americas on an expedition sponsored by King Ferdinand of Spain in 1492.


Explorer and navigator Christopher Columbus was born in 1451 in the Republic of Genoa, Italy. His first voyage into the Atlantic Ocean in 1476 nearly cost him his life. Columbus participated in several other expeditions to Africa. 1492, Columbus left Spain in the Santa Maria, with the Pinta and the Niña alongside. He has been credited for opening up the Americas to European colonization.

Early Voyages

Explorer and navigator Columbus was born in 1451, in the Republic of Genoa (Italy) to the son of a weaver. Columbus first went to sea as a teenager, participating in several trading voyages in the Mediterranean and Aegean seas. One such voyage, to the island of Khios, in modern day Greece, brought him the closest he would come to Asia.

His first voyage into the Atlantic Ocean in 1476 nearly cost him his life as the commercial fleet he was sailing with was attacked by French privateers off the coast of Portugal. His ship was burned and Columbus had to swim to the Portuguese shore and make his way to Lisbon, Portugal, where he eventually settled and married Felipa Perestrello. The couple had one son, Diego in about 1480. His wife died soon after and Columbus moved to Spain. He had a second son Fernando who was born out of wedlock in 1488 with Beatriz Enriquez de Arana.

Columbus participated in several other expeditions to Africa gaining knowledge of the Atlantic currents flowing east and west from the Canary Islands. Muslim domination of the trade routes through the Middle East makes travel to India and China difficult. Believing a route sailing west across the Atlantic would be quicker and safer, Columbus devised a plan to sail west to get reach the East. He estimated the earth to be a sphere approximately 63% its actual size and the distance between the Canary Islands and Japan to be about 2,300 miles. Many contemporary nautical experts disagreed, adhering to the second century BC estimate of the earth's circumference at 25,000 miles. This made the distance between the Canary Islands and Japan about 12,200 statute miles. While experts disagreed with Columbus on matters of distance, they concurred that a westward voyage from Europe would be an uninterrupted water route.

First Voyage to the New World

Rejected by the Portuguese king for a three-ship voyage of discovery, Columbus took his plan first to Genoa and then to Venice but was rejected there too. He then went to the Spanish monarchy of Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon, in 1486. Their nautical experts too were skeptical and initially, Columbus was rejected. The idea however, must have intrigued the monarchs, for they kept Columbus on a retainer. But their focus was on a war with the Muslims and Columbus would have to wait.

Columbus continued to lobby the royal court and soon after the Spanish army captured the last Muslim stronghold in Granada in January of 1492, the monarchs agreed to finance his expedition. In August of 1492, Columbus left Spain in the Santa Maria, with the Pinta and the Niña along side. After 36 days of sailing, Columbus and several crewmen set foot on an island in the present day Bahamas, claiming it for Spain. There he encountered a timid but friendly group of natives who were open to trade with the sailors exchanging glass beads, cotton balls, parrots and spears. The Europeans also noticed bits of gold the natives wore for adornment.

Columbus and his men continued their journey, visiting the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and meeting with the leaders of the native population. During this time, the Santa Maria was wrecked on a reef off the coast of Hispaniola. With the help of some islanders, Columbus' men salvaged what they could and built the settlement Villa de la Navidad ("Christmas Town") with lumber from the ship. Thirty-nine men stayed behind to occupy the settlement. Convinced his exploration had reached Asia, he set sail for home with the two remaining ships.

Subsequent Voyages

Returning to Spain in 1493, Columbus gave a glowing, somewhat exaggerated report and was warmly received by the royal court. That same year he took to the seas on his second expedition and explored more islands in the Caribbean Ocean. Upon arrival at Hispaniola, Columbus and his crew discovered the Navidad settlement had been destroyed with all the sailors massacred. Spurning the wishes of the queen, who found slavery offensive, Columbus established a forced labor policy over the native population to rebuild the settlement and explore for gold, believing it would prove to be profitable. His efforts produced small amounts of gold and great hatred among the native population. Before returning to Spain, Columbus left his brothers Bartholomew and Diego to govern the settlement on Hispaniola and sailed briefly around the larger Caribbean islands further convincing himself he had discovered the outer islands of China.

It wasn't until his third voyage that Columbus actually reached the mainland exploring the Orinoco River in present-day Venezuela. Unfortunately, conditions at the Hispaniola settlement had deteriorated to the point of near-mutiny with settlers claiming they had been misled by Columbus' claims of riches and complaining about the poor management of his brothers. The Spanish Crown sent a royal official who arrested Columbus and stripped him of his authority. He returned to Spain in chains to face the royal court. The charges were later dropped but Columbus lost his titles as governor of the Indies and for a time, much of the riches made during his voyages.

Convincing King Ferdinand that one more voyage would bring the abundant riches promised, Columbus went on what would be his last voyage in 1502, traveling along the eastern coast of Central America in an unsuccessful search for a route to the Indian Ocean. A storm wrecked one of his ships stranding the captain and his sailors on the island of Cuba. During this time, local islanders, tired of the Spaniards poor treatment and obsession with gold, refused to give them food. In a spark of inspiration, Columbus consulted an almanac and devised a plan to "punish" the islanders by taking away the moon. On February 29, 1504, a lunar eclipse alarmed the natives enough to re-established trade with the Spaniards. A rescue party finally arrived, sent by the royal governor of Hispaniola in July and Columbus and his men were taken back to Spain in November of 1504.

Mixed Legacy

In the two remaining years of his life, Columbus struggled to recover his lost titles and in May of 1505 did regain some of his riches, but his titles were never returned. He died May 20, 1506 still believing he had discovered a shorter route to Asia.

Columbus' legacy is a mixed one. He has been credited for opening up the Americas to European colonization as well as blamed for the destruction of the native peoples of the islands he explored. On the one hand, he failed to find that what he set out for - a new route to Asia and the riches it promised. However, in what is known as the Columbian Exchange, his expeditions set in motion the wide-spread transfer of people, plants, animals, diseases, and cultures that greatly affected nearly every society on the planet.

The horse from Europe allowed Native American tribes in the Great Plains of North America to shift from a nomadic to a hunting lifestyle. Foods from the Americas such as potatoes, tomatoes and corn became staples of Europeans and helped increase their populations. Wheat from Europe and the Old World fast became a main food source for people in the Americas. Coffee from Africa and sugar cane from Asia became major cash crops for Latin American countries.

The Exchange also brought new diseases to both hemispheres, though the effects were greatest in the Americas. Small pox from the Old World decimated millions of the Native American population to mere fractions of their original numbers. This more than any other factor made for European domination of the Americas. The overwhelming benefits of the Exchange went to the Europeans initially and eventually to the rest of the world. The Americas were forever altered and the once vibrant and rich cultures of the Native American civilizations were not only changed, but lost, denying the world any complete understanding of their existence.

Recent Discoveries

In May 2014, Christopher Columbus made headlines as news broke that a team of archaeologists may have found the Santa Maria off the north coast of Haiti. Barry Clifford, the leader of this expedition, told the Independent newspaper that "all geographical, underwater topography and archaeological evidence strongly suggests this wreck is Columbus' famous flagship the Santa Maria." Clifford intends to conduct a thorough excavation of the wreck to confirm his initial findings. 

Juan Ponce de León 

Explorer (1460–1521)

Cool Fact

While searching for the mythical fountain of youth, Juan Ponce de León founded the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico and discovered Florida.


Born in Spain in 1460, Juan Ponce de León led a European expedition to discover the mythical fountain of youth, instead finding the southeast coast of what would become the United States. He gave Florida its name and went on to become the first governor of Puerto Rico.

Early Years

Born into a noble family, Juan Ponce de León became a soldier, fighting in a notable campaign against the Moors in Granada. By various accounts, he began his exploration career as part of Christopher Columbus' second expedition to the New World (1493), after the war with the Moors ended.

Hispaniola and Puerto Rico

Years later, after suppressing an Indian uprising in Hispaniola (comprising modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Ponce de León was named the provincial governor of the eastern part of the country.

Hearing persistent reports of gold to be found on nearby Puerto Rico, in 1508 Ponce de León was officially sent by the Spanish crown to explore the island (there are account of him unofficially exploring it up to two years earlier on his own). He took 50 soldiers with him on a single ship and explored the island, settling near what is now San Juan. A year later, he returned to Hispaniola, having found much gold but running short on supplies, and was named governor of Puerto Rico.

The expedition was seen as a great success, and Ponce de León was instructed to continue the settlement of the island and step up his gold-mining efforts. So he returned to Puerto Rico, this time bringing his wife and children along.

The Fountain of Youth and the Discovery of Florida

The Spanish crown soon encouraged Ponce de León to continue searching for new lands, in hopes of finding yet more gold and expanding the Spanish empire. Also around this time, he learned of a Caribbean island called Bimini, on which there were rumored to be miraculous waters that could rejuvenate those who drank from them (the fountain of youth).

His interest piqued, in 1513 Ponce de León led a private expedition to Bimini from Puerto Rico. In a month's time, he and his men landed on the coast of Florida instead. He did not initially realize that he was on the mainland of North America and instead thought he had landed on another island. He named the region Florida because he discovered it at Easter time (Spanish:Pascua Florida) and because its vegetation was lush and floral.

After exploring the coast, he returned to Puerto Rico, which he found roiling with a native uprising.

Ponce de León soon left for Spain, where he was named military governor of Bimini and Florida and secured permission to colonize those regions. He was also ordered to organize an army to subdue the native uprising on Puerto Rico, which had continued in his absence. He left for Puerto Rico in May 1515 with his small fleet.

Return to Florida and Death

Accounts of the battle that ensued after his arrival are spotty, but in 1521, Ponce de León sailed again for Florida with two ships and 200 men, intent on settling the land. This time, though, he was wounded by an arrow during an Indian attack, after which he and his colonists sailed to Cuba, where he soon died of the wound.

Leif Eriksson 

Explorer (c. 1000–c. 1100)

Cool Fact

Norse explorer Leif Eriksson, the second son of Erik the Red, is regarded as the first European to reach North America.


The second son of Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson was on his way back home to Greenland, where Norway's King Olaf I had sent him to Christianize the natives, when he sailed off course and landed at what is now Nova Scotia, which he called Vinland. This account comes from the Icelandic Eiríks saga. Another account, the Groenlendinga saga, says he learned of Vinland from an Icelandic trader who had been there 14 years earlier. Regardless, Eriksson never colonized the land he discovered, and he would never return to it once he headed back to Greenland after the winter was over.


Leif Eriksson was a Norse explorer born shortly before 1000 A.D. Exploration was apparently in his family blood, as he was the second of three sons of Erik the Red, who was the founder of the first European settlement on what is now Greenland. Eriksson's story has been told in several accounts, but the veracity of any of them is not easily ascertained.

North America Awaits

By most accounts, Eriksson sailed from Greenland to Norway in 1000 and converted to Christianity under the guidance of the Norwegian king Olaf I Tryggvason.

The following year, Olaf commissioned Eriksson to proselytize across Greenland and spread Christianity to the settlers there. Eriksson made it to Greenland but, as one retelling has it, his ships went off course on the return voyage home, finding dry ground at last on the North American continent. What is now Nova Scotia is most likely where he disembarked, and he named this new land Vinland (perhaps because of the wild grapes his landing party saw there). Other accounts suggest that Eriksson had heard about "Vinland" from other seamen who had been there over a decade before, perhaps traders, and he headed there on purpose.

Whatever his motive (or lack thereof), he is generally regarded as the first European to set foot on the shores of North America, nearly five centuries before Christopher Columbus would arrive in 1492. According to 13th and 14th century Icelandic accounts of his life, and others that would follow, Eriksson was certainly a member of an early Viking voyage to North America, if not in fact the leader of that first expedition.

Return to Greenland and Legacy

Eriksson never colonized the region, however, and he left at the end of the winter and never returned. (Thorvald, one of Leif Eriksson's brothers, later revisited Vinland, as did the Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefni.) Back home in Greenland, Eriksson spent his efforts spreading Christianity. His mother became an early convert and built Greenland's first Christian church, at Brattahlid.

The exact location of Vinland is not known, but in 1963, ruins of a Viking-type settlement were discovered at L'Anse-aux-Meadows, in northern Newfoundland. The site has been labeled the oldest European settlement in North America, and more than 2,000 Viking objects have been recovered from it.

Amerigo Vespucci 

Explorer (c. 1454–c. 1512)

Cool Fact

America was named after Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine navigator and explorer who played a prominent role in exploring the New World.


Explorer Amerigo Vespucci was born March 9, 1451, in Florence, Italy. On May 10, 1497, he embarked on his first voyage. On his third and most successful voyage, he discovered present-day Rio de Janeiro and Rio de la Plata. Believing he had discovered a new continent, he called South America the New World. In 1507, America was named after him. He died of malaria in Seville, Spain, on February 22, 1512.

Early Life

Navigator and explorer Amerigo Vespucci, the third son in a cultured family, was born on March 9, 1451, in Florence, Italy. Although born in Italy, Vespucci became a naturalized citizen of Spain in 1505.

Vespucci and his parents, Ser Nastagio and Lisabetta Mini, were friends of the wealthy and tempestuous Medici family, who ruled Italy from the 1400s to 1737. Vespucci's father worked as a notary in Florence. While his older brothers headed off to the University of Pisa in Tuscany, Vespucci received his early education from his paternal uncle, a Dominican friar named Giorgio Antonio Vespucci.

When Amerigo Vespucci was in his early 20s, another uncle, Guido Antonio Vespucci, gave him one of the first of his many jobs. Guido Antonio Vespucci, who was ambassador of Florence under King Louis XI of France, sent his nephew on a brief diplomatic mission to Paris. The trip likely awakened Vespucci's fascination with travel and exploration.

Before Exploration

In the years before Vespucci embarked on his first voyage of exploration, he held a string of other jobs. When Vespucci was 24 years old, his father pressured him to go into business. Vespucci obliged. At first he undertook a variety of business endeavors in Florence. Later, he moved on to a banking business in Seville, Spain, where he formed a partnership with another man from Florence, named Gianetto Berardi. According to some accounts, from 1483 to 1492, Vespucci worked for the Medici family. During that time he is said to have learned that explorers were looking for a northwest passage though the Indies.

In the late 1490s, Vespucci became affiliated with merchants who supplied Christopher Columbus on his later voyages. In 1496, after Columbus returned from his voyage to America, Vespucci had the opportunity to meet him in Seville. The conversation piqued Vespucci's interest in seeing the world with his own eyes. By the late 1490s, Vespucci's business was struggling to make a profit anyway. Vespucci knew that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain were willing to fund subsequent voyages by other explorers. Then in his 40s, Vespucci, enticed by the prospect of fame, decided to leave his business behind and become an explorer before it was too late.


According to a letter that Vespucci might or might not have truly written, on May 10, 1497, he embarked on his first journey, departing from Cadiz with a fleet of Spanish ships. The controversial letter indicates that the ships sailed through the West Indies and made their way to the mainland of Central America within approximately five weeks. If the letter is authentic, this would mean that Vespucci discovered Venezuela a year before Christopher Columbus did. Vespucci and his fleets arrived back in Cadiz in October 1498.

In May of 1499, sailing under the Spanish flag, Vespucci embarked on his next expedition, as a navigator under the command of Alonzo de Ojeda. Crossing the equator, they traveled to the coast of what is now Guyana, where it is believed that Vespucci left Ojeda and went on to explore the coast of Brazil. During this journey Vespucci is said to have discovered the Amazon River and Cape St. Augustine.

On May 14, 1501, Vespucci departed on another trans-Atlantic journey. Now on his third voyage, Vespucci set sail for Cape Verde—this time in service to King Manuel I of Portugal. Vespucci's third voyage is largely considered his most successful. While Vespucci did not start out commanding the expedition, when Portuguese officers asked him to take charge of the voyage he agreed. Vespucci's ships sailed along the coast of South America from Cape São Roque to Patagonia. Along the way, they discovered present-day Rio de Janeiro and Rio de la Plata. Vespucci and his fleets headed back via Sierra Leone and the Azores. Believing he had discovered a new continent, in a letter to Florence, Vespucci called South America the New World. His claim was largely based on Christopher Columbus' earlier conclusion: In 1498, when passing the mouth of the Orinoco River, Columbus had determined that such a big outpouring of fresh water must come from land "of continental proportions." Vespucci decided to start recording his accomplishments, writing that accounts of his voyages would allow him to leave "some fame behind me after I die."

On June 10, 1503, sailing again under the Portuguese flag, Vespucci, accompanied by Gonzal Coelho, headed back to Brazil. When the expedition didn't make any new discoveries, the fleet disbanded. To Vespucci's chagrin, the commander of the Portuguese ship was suddenly nowhere to be found. Despite the circumstances, Vespucci forged ahead, managing to discover Bahia and the island of South Georgia in the process. Soon after, he was forced to prematurely abort the voyage and return to Lisbon, Portugal, in 1504.

There is some speculation as to whether Vespucci made additional voyages. Based on Vespucci's accounts, some historians believe that he embarked on a fifth and sixth voyage with Juan de la Cosa, in 1505 and 1507, respectively. Other accounts indicate that Vespucci's fourth journey was his last.

America's Namesake

In 1507, some scholars at Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in northern France were working on a geography book called Cosmographiæ Introductio, which contained large cut-out maps that the reader could use to create his or her own globes. German cartographer Martin Waldseemüler, one of the book's authors, proposed that the newly discovered Brazilian portion of the New World be labeled America, the feminine version of the name Amerigo, after Amerigo Vespucci. The gesture was his means of honoring the person who discovered it, and indeed granted Vespucci the legacy of being America's namesake.

Decades later, in 1538, the mapmaker Mercator, working off the maps created at St-Dié, chose to mark the name America on both the northern and the southern parts of the continent, instead of just the southern portion. While the definition of America expanded to include more territory, Vespucci seemed to gain credit for areas that most would agree were actually first discovered by Christopher Columbus.

Final Years

In 1505, Vespucci, who was born and raised in Italy, became a naturalized citizen of Spain. Three years later, he was awarded the office of piloto mayor, or master navigator, of Spain. In this role, Vespucci's job was to recruit and train other navigators, as well as to gather data on continued New World exploration. Vespucci held the position for the remainder of his life.

On February 22, 1512, Amerigo Vespucci died of malaria in Seville, Spain. He was just a month shy of 58 years old.

Hernando de Soto 

Explorer (c. 1500–1542)

Cool Fact

Hernando de Soto was a Spanish explorer and conquistador who participated in the conquests of Central America and Peru and discovered the Mississippi River.


Hernando de Soto was born c. 1500 in Jerez de los Caballeros, Spain. In the early 1530s, while on Francisco Pizarro's expedition, de Soto helped conquer Peru. In 1539 he set out for North America, where he discovered the Mississippi River. De Soto died of fever on May 21, 1542, in Ferriday, Louisiana. In his will, de Soto named Luis de Moscoso Alvarado the new leader of the expedition.

Early Life

Explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto was born c. 1500 to a noble but poor family in Jerez de los Caballeros, Spain. He was raised at the family manor. A generous patron named Pedro Arias Dávila funded de Soto's education at the University of Salamanca. De Soto's family hoped he would become a lawyer, but he told his father he would rather explore the West Indies.

In accordance with his wish, the young de Soto was invited to join Dávila, governor of Darién, on his 1514 expedition to the West Indies. An excellent horseman, de Soto was appointed captain of a cavalry exploration troop. Setting out from Panama to Nicaragua and later Honduras, de Soto quickly proved his worth as an explorer and trader, reaping large profits through his bold and commanding exchanges with the natives.

Conquest of Peru

In 1532, explorer Francisco Pizarro made de Soto second in command on Pizarro’s expedition to explore and conquer Peru. While exploring the country's highlands in 1533, de Soto came upon a road leading to Cuzco, the capital of Peru’s Incan Empire. De Soto played a fundamental role in organizing the conquest of Peru, and engaged in a successful battle to capture Cuzco.

In 1536 de Soto returned to Spain a wealthy man. His share of the Incan Empire's fortune amounted to no less than 18,000 ounces of gold. De Soto settled into a comfortable life in Seville and married the daughter of his old patron Dávila a year after returning from Peru.

Exploring North America

Despite having a new wife and home in Spain, de Soto grew restless when he heard stories about Cabeza de Vaca's exploration of Florida and the other Gulf Coast states. Enticed by the riches and fertile land de Vaca had allegedly encountered there, de Soto sold all his belongings and used the money to prepare for an expedition to North America. He assembled a fleet of 10 ships and selected a crew of 700 men based on their fighting prowess.

On April 6, 1538, de Soto and his fleet departed Sanlúcar. On their way to the United States, de Soto and his fleet stopped in Cuba. While there, they were delayed by helping the city of Havana recover after the French sacked and burned it. By May 18, 1539, de Soto and his fleet at last set out for Florida. On May 25 they landed at Tampa Bay. For the next three years de Soto and his men explored the southeastern United States, facing ambushes and enslaving natives along the way. After Florida came Georgia and then Alabama. In Alabama, de Soto encountered his worst battle yet, against Indians in Tuscaloosa. Victorious, de Soto and his men next headed westward, serendipitously discovering the mouth of the Mississippi River in the process. De Soto's voyage would, in fact, mark the first time that a European team of explorers had traveled via the Mississippi River.


After crossing the Mississippi de Soto was struck with fever. He died on May 21, 1542, in Ferriday, Louisiana. Members of his crew sank his body in the river that he had discovered. By that time, almost half of de Soto's men had been taken out by disease or in battle against the Indians. In his will, de Soto named Luis de Moscoso Alvarado the new leader of the expedition.

John Cabot 

Explorer (c. 1450–c. 1499)

Cool Fact

Explorer John Cabot made a British claim to land in Canada, mistaking it for Asia, during his 1497 voyage on the ship Matthew.


Explorer and navigator John Cabot was born Giovanni Caboto in Italy around 1450. By 1495, he had moved to Bristol, England, with his family. He made a voyage in 1497 on the ship Matthew and claimed land in Canada—mistaking it for Asia—for King Henry VII of England.

Early Years

Italian sailor and explorer John Cabot was born Giovanni Caboto around 1450. In 1497, Cabot traveled by sea to Canada, where he made a claim to land for England, mistaking the North American land for Asia.

Cabot was the son of a spice merchant, Giulio Caboto, in Genoa. At age 11, his family moved to Venice, where he learned sailing and navigation from Italian seamen and merchants. In 1474, John Cabot married a girl named Mattea and eventually became the father of three sons: Ludovico, Sancto and Sebastiano. Sebastiano would later follow in his father’s footsteps, becoming an explorer in his own right.

In 1476, Cabot officially became a Venetian citizen and began conducting trade in the eastern Mediterranean. Records indicate that he got into financial trouble and left Venice as a debtor in November 1488. During this time, Cabot became inspired by the discoveries of Bartolomeu Dias and Christopher Columbus. Like Columbus, Cabot believed that sailing west from Europe was the shorter route to Asia. Hearing of opportunities in England, Cabot traveled there and met with King Henry VII, who gave him a grant to "seeke out, discover, and finde" new lands for England.

North American Voyages

In early May of 1497, Cabot left Bristol, England, on the Matthew, a fast and able ship weighing 50 tons, with a crew of 18 men. Cabot and his crew sailed west and north under Cabot's belief that the route to Asia would be shorter from northern Europe than Columbus's voyage along the trade winds. On June 24, 1497, 50 days into the voyage, Cabot landed on the east coast of North America, though the precise location of this landing is subject to controversy. Some historians believe that Cabot landed at Cape Breton Island or mainland Nova Scotia. Others believe he may have landed at Newfoundland, Labrador or even Maine.

Though the Matthew's logs are incomplete, it is believed that John Cabot went ashore with a small party and claimed the land for the King of England. The ship sailed for England in July 1497 and arrived in Bristol on August 6, 1497. Cabot was soon rewarded with a pension of £20 and the gratitude of King Henry VII. In February 1498, he was given permission to make a new voyage to North America.

Mysterious Ends

In May 1498, John Cabot departed from Bristol with five ships and a crew of 300 men. The ships carried ample provisions and small samplings of cloth, lace points and other "trifles," suggesting an expectation of fostering trade with indigenous people. En route, one ship became disabled and sailed to Ireland, while the other four ships continued on. From this point, there is only speculation as to the fate of the voyage and John Cabot. For many years, it was believed that the ships were lost at sea. More recently, however, documents have emerged that place Cabot in England in 1500, laying speculation that he and his crew actually survived the voyage. Historians have also found evidence to suggest that Cabot's expedition explored the eastern Canadian coast, and that a priest accompanying the expedition might have established a Christian settlement in Newfoundland. What can be said with some certainty is that John Cabot claimed North America for England, setting the course for England's rise to power in the 16th and 17th centuries.
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