Early America—European Exploration

1000 to 1682
Voyage of Leif Ericson to La Salle explores Mississippi

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—European Exploration

Viking expeditions to Canada—The first exploration of the American continents by Europeans that was definitely recorded in the historical records of the time is the voyage of Leif Ericsson, which occurred around 1000 A.D. The height of Viking exploration and expansion were the 9th through 11th centuries, during an extended period of "global warming", when the climates of Iceland, Greenland, and the Nordic countries are thought to have been considerably more temperate than they currently are. Leif Ericson's voyages occurred during this period, and he reported finding so many grapes and berries in the regions of Canada he discovered (probably the coast of Newfoundland), that he referred to the region as Vineland.

Although the Viking explorers found the harbors and climate of the new continent to their liking, the land was populated by hostile natives. Since they were greatly outnumbered, they abandoned the colony after a few years. Their journey, however, was recorded in the Icelandic Chronicles of the age.

De Soto
Spaniards in North America—The Spanish exploration of North America began with Christopher Columbus and for most of the 16th century, almost all serious exploration of the New World was conducted by Spaniards. For the first thirty years of Spanish colonization, the islands of Haiti and Cuba were the base of Spanish operations. From these islands, the Spaniards sent out dozens of ships to explore the mainland, but no wholesale conquest was attempted until Cortez's daring and unauthorized raid on the Aztec capital of Mexico. Pizarro's conquest of the Incan kingdom in the Andes soon followed, and due to the nearly unlimited riches in gold and silver found in Mexico and Peru, Spanish development from that time concentrated almost entirely in regions south of the United States.

The two most famous Spanish explorers of the southern United States were Ponce de Leon, and Hernando De Soto. Both were ambitious explorers, driven by prospects of riches and glory. Ponce de Leon was a governor of Puerto Rico, who led several expeditions to Florida in early 1500's supposedly in search of the "Fountain of Youth". Although it is certain he explored the regions, he encountered hostile natives, and failed to find either gold, or magical waters, and he was killed when one of his early settlements was attacked by natives.

Hernando de Soto was already a wealthy and famous conquistador when he undertook an ambitious expedition to the Southeast United States. He played a dramatic role in the conquest of Peru, but sought even more glory for himself, so in 1439, with a party of over 600 men, he embarked on an inland trek through what is now the southeast United States. He traveled for three years several thousand miles from Florida, through Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, before dying in Arkansas. Although he explored a great deal of territory, and is credited with discovering the Mississippi River, his expedition was considered a failure because he failed to find gold or other treasures. His party had many encounters with southeast Indian tribes, the most famous of which was his battle with Tuscaloosa.

Other early Spanish explorers in North America were Cabeza de Vaca, one of the few survivors of the disastrous Panfilo de Narvaez expedition; Pedro Menendez, founder of St. Augustine and first Spanish governor of Florida, and Juan Pardo, who led another disastrous Spanish expedition into the inland territories of the southwest. Far to the west, Francisco de Coronado led an expeditition through New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Although most of his followers returned alive, he failed to find significant cities, gold, or minerals that had been the object of his expedition. The Spaniards did not establish a permanent colony in the west for another fifty years, when Juan de Onate founded the city of Santa Fe.

French Explorers in North America—The first well-known French explorer of the Americas was Jacques Cartier , who led three voyages between 1534 and 1542. Cartier's primary goal was to explore the northern regions in search for a passage to Asia, and he avoided those regions already actively colonized by the Spanish. The first French settlers in America were Huguenots, who established a colony in Northern Florida that was soon destroyed by the Spanish. From that time, French colonization occurred far north of Spanish influence, primarily around the St. Lawrence Seaway, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River valley.

Whereas the early Spanish explorers sought gold and often enslaved natives to work on their mines or plantations, the French primarily sought to trade furs and developed positive relationships with the Indians. French Jesuits, such as Isaac Jogues, and other missionaries lived among the Indians and attempted to convert them to Christianity without disrupting their livelihood. In most of its wars with the British colonies in later years, the French depended heavily on the support of their Indian allies.

The most important French exploration and expansion in the New World occurred in the early 17th century. Samuel de Champlain founded the permanent settlements of Quebec and Montreal. Pere Marquette and Joliett explored the upper Mississippi and Great Lakes region, and Rene La Salle led an expedition from the Great Lakes to the mouth of the Mississippi, claiming the entire Mississippi Valley for France.

Henry Hudson
Early English Exploration in North America—The first permanent English colonies in America were not settled until the early 17th century, after England had established naval supremacy over Spain. Until that time, though English explorers frequently visited the New World, traded with the Indians, charted the northern seas, and searched for a "Northwest Passage" to the east, they did not establish any sort of permanent settlement.

The first explorer to sail to the New World under the English flag was John Cabot, who sailed for Henry VII only a few years after Columbus. He landed briefly in Newfoundland and claimed the territory for England, but further English exploration did not occur for another fifty years. The reign of Queen Elizabeth was the hey-day of English exploration, when English sailors such as Martin Frobisher, Humphrey Gilbert, and John Davis explored the northern regions of Canada, in search of a Northwest passage. Meanwhile Walter Raleigh and Richard Grenville worked unsuccessfully to establish a British colony at Roanoke in Virginia, and other famous sailors, such as Thomas Cavendish and Francis Drake, sailed around the southern tip of the Americas and harrassed the Spanish galleons in the region.

The most important English explorer of the age was Henry Hudson, after whom both the Hudson river in New York, and Hudson Bay in Canada, are named. He was a fearless explorer, but was killed when his crew mutinied, and cast him and his son adrift in Hudson Bay. By the time the English planted permanent colonies in the New World, a great deal of the coastline had been charted, trade with Indians had already been established and ambitious fishermen had already discovered the shoals of cod off the coast of Newfoundland.

Characters—European Exploration

Character/Date Short Biography

Viking Explorers

Erik the Red
Raised in Iceland, Eric discovered Greenland. His Son Leif Erikson discovered Newfoundland.
Leif Ericsson
Discovered Newfoundland and explored the seacoast of North America. Son of Erik the Red.

Spanish Explorers

Christopher Columbus
Genoan sailor, sponsored by Isabela of Spain, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the Americas.
Vasco Nunez Balboa
Helped establish a Spanish colony in Panama and discovered the Pacific Ocean.
Ponce de Leon
First Spanish governor of Puerto Rico. Explored inland regions of Florida while searching for the fountain of youth.
Hernando De Soto
Adventurer who aided in conquest of Peru, then explored Southwestern United States. Discovered Mississippi river.
Francisco de Coronado
Spanish explorer who was a governor in Mexico, and explored regions of the Southwest United States.

French Explorers

Jacques Cartier
Discovered the St. Lawrence Seaway and great lakes, while searching for Northwest Passage.
Samuel de Champlain
Founded French colonies in the St. Lawrence seaway and great lake region. Father of 'New France.'
Pere Marquette
French Missionary who explored the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes.
Rene La Salle
Dauntless adventurer who followed the Mississippi to its mouth, and claimed all for France.
Isaac Jogues
Heroic Jesuit missionary to Indians. Tortured by the Indians, but returned to preach the gospel.

English Explorers

John Cabot
First discoverer of North American Mainland. Sailed for England rather than Italy.
Humphrey Gilbert
Sea-faring adventurer. Founded the first English colony in Canada.
Francis Drake
Greatest sea adventurer. Sailed around the world, harassed Spanish ships. Fought in Armada.
Richard Grenville
One of Elizabeth's famous sailors. Involved in War with Spain and settlement of colonies. Died defending the Revenge.
Martin Frobisher
Explored much of Canada in seach of the Northwest Passage. Fought in the Armada.
Thomas Cavendish
Second Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, and first to intentionally do so.
John Davis
British explorer who sought the Northwest Passage through Canada.
Henry Hudson
Explorer who discovered Hudson Bay and other parts of North America.
William Baffin
Discovered Baffin Bay while on a quest to find the Northwest Passage.
Walter Raleigh
Courtier of Queen Elizabeth. Explorer, mastermind of the Jamestown colony in Virginia.

Timeline—European Exploration

AD YearEvent
1000 Leif Ericsson leads a Viking expedition to the coast of North America.

Spanish Exploration

1492 Christopher Columbus sails to the New Indies in his first voyage to America.
1513 Vasco Nunez Balboa crosses the ithmus of Panama and discovers the Pacific Ocean.
1513 Ponce de Leon makes his first expediton to Florida.
1519-22 Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigates the earth.
1521 Hernando Cortez conquers Mexico.
1521 Ponce de Leon is killed and his colony destroyed during his final expedition to Florida.
1527-28 Cabeza de Vaca is one of four survivors of the Navarez expediton to Florida, and wrote about his adventures.
1539-41 Hernando De Soto leads and expedition through the Southeast, discovers the Mississippi.
1540-42 Francisco de Coronado leads a Spanish expedition to New Mexico.
1565 St. Augustine Florida, the first permanent settlement in the U.S. is founded by Pedro Menendez.
1567-68 Juan Pardo founds a Spanish settlement in South Carolina, and leads an ill-fated expedition inland.
1598 Don Juan Onate founds the Spanish city of Santa Fe.

French Exploration

1534 French explorer Jacques Cartier discovers the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on his first voyage.
1562 Huguenouts under Ribault set up a temporary colony near Beaufort in South Carolina.
1564 Laudonniere, who sailed with Ribault on a previoius voyage, founds Fort Carolina on the St. John River.
1565 French colony at Fort Caroline is attacked by a Spanish fleet under Pedro Menendez.
1567 De Gourgues attacks a Spanish colony at St. Johns in retaliation for the Spanish raid on Fort Caroline.
1603 Samuel de Champlain explores the St. Lawrence seaway on the first of many expeditions to America.
1605 Port Royal, the capital of French Acadia is founded in Nova Scotia.
1608 Quebec City is founded by Champlain and becomes the capital of New France.
1611 Montreal is established as a trading post by Champlain.
1615 First French Catholic missionaries are sent to Canada to convert the Indians.
1646 Jesuit Priest Isaac Jogues is martyred after ministering to the Hurons.
1672-82 Count Frontenac governs New France and greatly expands the fur trade.
1673 Pere Marquette and Joliet explore the upper Mississippi Valley.
1682 Rene La Salle travels from the upper Mississippi to its mouth; claims Mississipi Valley for France.
1689 Almost 400 French settlers killed in the Lachine massacre, by Mohawks allied with the British.

English Exploration

1497 John Cabot, sailing for England, explores the Northeast coast of North America.
1508 Sebastian Cabot led expedition to North American, searching for the Northwest Passage.
1576-79 Martin Frobisher explores Northern Canada in search of a Northwest Passage.
1578-80 Francis Drake circumnavigates the earth, stopping in San Francisco Bay.
1583 Humphrey Gilbert attempts unsuccessfully to found a colony in Newfoundland.
1584 First English Expedition to Roanoake, Virginia is organized by Walter Raleigh.
1586 John Davis discovers Davis strait in search of a Northwest Passage to Asia.
1607-11 During three voyages, Henry Hudson discovers Hudson River and Hudson bay.
1615 William Baffin explores the artic circle region of Canada, in search of a Northwest Passage.
1670 Hudson Bay Trading Company is established by Royal Charter.
1793 Alexander Mackenzie reaches the Pacific Ocean, completing the first overland crossing of North America.

Recommended Reading—European Exploration

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments *

Guerber - Story of the Thirteen Colonies   Our Country Long Ago to Nothing but Smoke (22)
Guerber - Story of the Thirteen Colonies   Down the Mississippi to La Salle's Adventures (2)
Marshall - This Country of Ours   The Vikings Find New Lands to Sir Walter Raleigh (12)

Supplemental Recommendations

Evans - America First—100 Stories from Our History   Leif, the Lucky to Sir Walter Raleigh (6)
Pratt - American History Stories, Volume I   Long Ago to Sir Walter Raleigh (8)
Hutchinson - The Men Who Found America    entire book
Imlach - The Story of Columbus    entire book
Upton - Erik the Red and Leif the Lucky    entire book
Morris - Historical Tales, Vol I: American   Vineland and the Vikings to Champlain and the Iroquois (3)
Morris - Historical Tales: American II   The Fountain of Youth to La Salle and the Mississippi (3)
Drake - Indian History for Young Folks   Early European Intercourse with the Indians (1)
Ober - Ferdinand De Soto and the Invasion of Florida    entire book

Also Recommended

Southworth - Builders of Our Country: Book I   Leif the Lucky to La Salle (18)
Abbott - The Adventures of Chevalier de la Salle    entire book
Ober - Columbus the Discoveror    entire book
Ober - Juan Ponce de Leon    entire book

I: Introductory, II: Intermediate, C: College Prep