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European Explorations

Updated on September 10, 2015
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Dias, Columbus, Da Gama

For hundreds of years, the people of Europe had little contact with the rest of the world. Then, in 1271, Marco Polo set off from Italy with his father and his uncle. They went by land and sea to the Far East, visiting China, Japan, and other parts of Asia. Not until 1295 did they get back to Italy. Marco Polo wrote a book about the trip. His book and the jewels, silks, spices, and other wonderful things the Polo’s brought back made Europeans want to find a fast way to reach the Far East.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to seek a water route to Asia. Their idea was to sail south, hoping to go around Africa. In 1488, Bartholomeu Dias found Africa’s southern tip. He wanted to go on, but his crew was too afraid. Dias returned to Portugal, having shown it was possible to around Africa.

Christopher Columbus thought he knew a shorter, faster route to the Far East. He would sail west, he told the Portuguese, and reach Asia by crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese would not back Columbus. He went to Spain, where he won the backing of Queen Isabella. In 1492, Columbus left Spain, sailed across the Atlantic, and found islands he thought were close to China. He made three more voyages, but Columbus never did find the Far East.

The first man to go from Europe to Asia completely by sea was the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama. In 1498, he followed the route of Dias, going around the southern tip of Africa. He continued on into the Indian Ocean, finally reaching India.

Vespucci, Balboa, Magellan

Columbus always thought he had landed in Asia. He called the native people ”Indians” because he thought he was in Indonesia.

Amerigo Vespucci was interested in what Columbus had found. In 1499 and again in 1501, Vespucci sailed across the Atlantic Ocean. He went far down the coast of South America. At times, he went ashore to look around. He looked carefully at the plants and animals and native people. He compared what he saw to what he had read about Asia. Then he wrote to a friend that the land Columbus had found was not part of Asia at all. It was a “New World”—a place Europeans had not known existed.

Young Spanish men rushed to the New World. These were the conquistadores—conquerors. One was Vasco Nunez de Balboa. In 1513, Balboa crossed what is today the country of Panama. He became the first European to gaze upon the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean—the body of water between the New World and Asia.

Six years later, in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set out to prove that Europeans could reach Asia by sailing west. After crossing the Atlantic, he looked for a way around the New World. He found it near the southern tip of South America—the Strait of Magellan. Then having sailed across the Pacific Ocean, Magellan died in the Philippines. His crew continued on, crossing the Indian Ocean and circling around Africa. When they finally got back to Spain, Magellan’s crew had proved that the world was round and that it was possible to sail completely around it.

Coronado, De Soto, Cabot

In 1528, some Spanish men decided to search for gold in what today is Florida. They did not find it, and they lost their ships during the search. They tried to make their way to Mexico, but only four of the 400 who started out made it back alive.

These four told tales they had heard from Indians about “cities of gold” to the north. In 1540, Francisco Coronado led a small army in search of treasure. Coronado’s group crossed what are the new states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. They saw no cities of gold. They saw only poor Indian pueblos and other villages. They returned empty-handed to Mexico.

At about the same time, Hernando de Soto led another group of Spaniards to Florida. For three years, this group explored what are today the states of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. When de Soto died, his men buried him in the Mississippi River. Then they returned to Mexico with little to show for their effort.

Failing to find treasure, the Spanish lost interest in the land north of Mexico. It would be the English who would settle this area. English interest in the New World began in 1497 when John Cabot went looking for a way to get through America to get to Asia. He did not find it, but he did explore part of Canada. The next year, 1498, he returned and explored what is today the northeast coast of the United States. Because of Cabot’s discoveries, the English could later lay claim to North America.

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