When Europeans first began sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, they were searching for new routes to China and the East, but what they found was more than they imagined: the New World.
Learn more about some of the history’s most famous explorers and their revolutionary discoveries:
Marco Polo was a Venetian explorer known for the book The Travels of Marco Polo, which describes his voyage to and experiences in Asia. Polo traveled extensively with his family, journeying from Europe to Asia from 1271 to 1295, remaining in China for 17 of those years. As the years wore on, Polo rose through the ranks, serving as governor of a Chinese city. Later, Kublai Khan appointed him as an official of the Privy Council. At one point, he was the tax inspector in the city of Yanzhou.
Around 1292, he left China, acting as consort along the way to a Mongol princess who was being sent to Persia. In the centuries since his death, Polo has received the recognition that failed to come his way during his lifetime. So much of what he claimed to have seen has been verified by researchers, academics and other explorers. Even if his accounts came from other travelers he met along the way, Polo’s story has inspired countless other adventurers to set off and see the world.
Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer and navigator. 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 ever come to Asia.
In 1492, he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain in the Santa Maria, with the Pinta and the Niña ships alongside, hoping to find a new route to India.
Between 1492 and 1504, he made a total of four voyages to the Caribbean and South America and has been credited – and blamed – for opening up the Americas to European colonization. Columbus probably died of severe arthritis following an infection on May 20, 1506, still believing he had discovered a shorter route to Asia.
America was named after Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine navigator and explorer who played a prominent role in exploring the New World.
On May 10, 1497, Vespucci embarked on his first voyage, departing from Cadiz with a fleet of Spanish ships. In May 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 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.
John Cabot was a Venetian explorer and navigator known for his 1497 voyage to North America, where he made a British claim to land in Canada, mistaking it for Asia. The precise location of Cabot’s 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.
After setting sail in May 1498 for a return voyage to North America, he disappeared and Cabot’s final days remain a mystery. It is believed Cabot died sometime in 1499 or 1500, but his fate remains a mystery. In February 1498, Cabot was given permission to make a new voyage to North America; in May of that year, he departed from Bristol, England, with five ships and a crew of 300 men. 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 Cabot.
While in the service of Spain, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan led the first European voyage of discovery to circumnavigate the globe. As a boy, Magellan studied mapmaking and navigation. In 1505, when Magellan was in his mid-20s, he joined a Portuguese fleet that was sailing to East Africa. By 1509, he found himself at the Battle of Diu, in which the Portuguese destroyed Egyptian ships in the Arabian Sea. Two years later, he explored Malacca, located in present-day Malaysia, and participated in the conquest of Malacca’s port.
In 1519, with the support of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Magellan set out to find a better route to the Spice Islands. In March 1521, Magellan’s fleet reached Homonhom Island on the edge of the Philippines with less than 150 of the 270 men who started the expedition. Magellan traded with Rajah Humabon, the island king, and a bond was quickly formed. The Spanish crew soon became involved in a war between Humabon and another rival leader and Magellan was killed in battle on April 27, 1521.
Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador who explored Central America, overthrew Montezuma and his vast Aztec empire and won Mexico for the crown of Spain. He first set sail to the New World at the age of 19. Cortés later joined an expedition to Cuba. In 1518, he set off to explore Mexico.
Cortés became allies with some of the Indigenous peoples he encountered in Mexico, but with others, he used deadly force to conquer Mexico. He fought Tlaxacan and Cholula warriors and then set his sights on taking over the Aztec empire. In their bloody battles for domination over the Aztecs, Cortés and his men are estimated to have killed as many as 100,000 Indigenous peoples. King Charles I of Spain (also known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) appointed him the governor of New Spain in 1522.
Sir Francis Drake
English admiral Sir Francis Drake was the second person to circumnavigated the globe and was the most renowned seaman of the Elizabethan era.
In 1577, Drake was chosen as the leader of an expedition intended to pass around South America, through the Strait of Magellan, and explore the coast that lay beyond. Drake successfully completed the journey and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I upon his triumphant return in 1580. In 1588, Drake saw action in the English defeat of the Spanish Armada, though he died in 1596 from dysentery after undertaking an unsuccessful raiding mission.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh was an English explorer, soldier and writer. At age 17, he fought with the French Huguenots and later studied at Oxford. He became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I after serving in her army in Ireland. He was knighted in 1585, and within two years became Captain of the Queen’s Guard.
An early supporter of colonizing North America, Raleigh sought to establish a colony, but the queen forbid him to leave her service. Between 1585 and 1588, he invested in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, attempting to establish a colony near Roanoke, on the coast of what is now North Carolina, and name it “Virginia” in honor of the virgin queen, Elizabeth. Accused of treason by King James I, Raleigh was imprisoned and eventually put to death.
James Cook was a naval captain, navigator and explorer. After serving as an apprentice, Cook eventually joined the British Navy and, at age 29, was promoted to ship’s master. During the Seven Years War (1756-1763), he commanded a captured ship for the Royal Navy. In 1768, he took command of the first scientific expedition to the Pacific.
In 1770, on his ship the HMB Endeavour, Cook charted New Zealand and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia. This area has since been credited as one of the world’s most dangerous areas to navigate. He later disproved the existence of Terra Australis, a fabled southern continent. Cook’s voyages helped guide generations of explorers and provided the first accurate map of the Pacific.
In 1513, Spanish explorer and conquistador Francisco Pizarro joined Vasco Núñez de Balboa in his march to the “South Sea,” across the Isthmus of Panama. During their journey, Balboa and Pizarro discovered what is now known as the Pacific Ocean, although Balboa allegedly spied it first, and was therefore credited with the ocean’s first European discovery.
In 1528, Pizarro went back to Spain and managed to procure a commission from Emperor Charles V. Pizarro was to conquer the southern territory and establish a new Spanish province there. In 1532, accompanied by his brothers, Pizarro overthrew the Inca leader Atahualpa and conquered Peru. Three years later, he founded the new capital city of Lima. Over time, tensions increasingly built up between the conquistadors who had originally conquered Peru and those who arrived later to stake some claim in the new Spanish province. This conflict eventually led to Pizarro’s assassination in 1541.