A Guide to European Explorers

Early European exploration played a significant role in the development and evolution of our current world. Some of the reasons the European explorers searched the waters and lands outside of their borders were to discover new trade routes, spread the Christian faith, and dispel myths concerning the known world. For example, prior to the Middle Ages many people believed that the Earth was flat. Thanks to the philosophers and scientists of the Middle Ages this thinking soon shifted to a belief in a spherical Earth. This was proven when explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, and James Cook circumnavigated the globe. What these and other European explorers discovered on their journeys inspired a great many other would-be explorers to go out and investigate their world and beyond. Here are 26 famous European explorers and facts about their journeys.

Vasco da Gama – Portuguese explorer. 

  • Vasco da Gama is famous for discovering an ocean route from Portugal to the East. 

  • 1497: He commanded an expedition to find a sea route to the East Indies.

  • 1498: He reached his destination and arrived at the Indies and Calcutta, India. 

  • 1499: He returned to Portugal as a hero and became the Admiral of the Indian Ocean. 

  • 1519: Vasco da Gama was presented with the title of Count.

Francisco Pizarro – Spanish explorer.   

  • Francisco Pizarro is famous for conquering the Incas and for founding Lima, Peru.

  • 1513: He accompanied Nunez de Balboa across the Isthmus of Panama and subsequently discovered the Pacific Ocean.

  • 1522: He received his own funding and was able to make an expedition to explore the lands south of Panama.

  • 1529: He explored southern Columbia and reached Peru. 

  • 1532: He captured the emperor of the Incas.

  • 1535: He founded the city of Lima, Peru, and he also destroyed Cusco, the Incan capital.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado – Spanish explorer. 

  • Francisco Vasquez de Coronado is famous for being the first European to explore the Southwest of North America in Arizona and New Mexico.

  • 1540: He began exploring southwestern North America, looking for the mythical Seven Cities of Gold.

  • 1541: He reached Kansas and came across Quivira, another supposedly rich kingdom. What he found instead was just an impoverished native village of the Wichita. 

  • 1542: Francisco Vazquez de Coronado left for home, having failed to find the Seven Cities of Gold and other mythical wealthy kingdoms.

  • During his expeditions, the Grand Canyon was discovered. 

Sir Richard Hawkins – English explorer. 

  • Sir Richard Hawkins is famous for his voyages to South America. 

  • His uncle was Sir Francis Drake. 

  • 1588: He was given command of an English warship in order to fight the Spanish Armada. The English Navy subsequently destroyed the Spanish Armada. 

  • 1603: He was knighted by King James I. 

  • 1620: At 58 years old he led an expedition to the Mediterranean and fought Barbary pirates.

Hernando Cortes – Spanish explorer. 

  • Hernando Cortes is famous for being the Spanish conqueror of Mexico and the Aztec Empire.

  • 1511: Hernando Cortes accompanied Diego Velazquez on an expedition to Cuba, where it was quickly conquered. 

  • 1519: Cortes arrived in Mexico. He met a woman named Malinche. She later became his guide, interpreter, and mistress.

  • 1519: Montezuma II, the Aztec king, does not stop Cortes and his men from entering the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. They believed that he was their God-King whom they were waiting for.

  • 1521: Tenochtitlan fell to Cortes. 

  • 1533: On his final expedition he discovered Baja California.

Sir Humphrey Gilbert – English explorer. 

  • Sir Humphrey Gilbert is famous for founding St Johns, Newfoundland in 1583. 

  • His goal was to discover a Northwest Passage to the Orient. 

  • 1570: Humphrey Gilbert was knighted. 

  • 1576: He published his manuscript titled: “A discourse of a discoverie for a new passage to Cataia.” 

  • 1578: He began his search for the Northwest Passage.

  • 1582: He arranged for the settlement of English Catholics in America. 

  • 1583: He arrived in Newfoundland and claimed it for England. 

John Cabot – Italian-born English explorer. 

  • John Cabot is famous for exploring Canada’s coastline and subsequently colonizing Canada.

  • He was the second European to discover North America.

  • 1496: He was granted the right to sail under the English flag by King Henry VII. 

  • 1497: He embarked on his journey to find a Northwest Passage to the Indies and China. In mid-year he arrived at the New World.

  • 1498: He sailed along the east coast of America, past Newfoundland. He reached the east coast of Greenland, naming it Labrador's Land.

Jacques Cartier – French explorer. 

  • Jacques Cartier is famous for leading three expeditions to Canada. He named Canada "Kanata".

  • 1534: He led his first voyage to North America, reaching Newfoundland and exploring the coast of Labrador. He journeyed inland also, sailing 1,000 miles up the St. Lawrence River. 

  • 1535: He led a second voyage to Canada, this time exploring land in Montreal before wintering at Stadacona.

  • 1545: He published an account of his expeditions and voyages.

Jacques Marquette – French explorer. 

  • Jacques Marquette is famous for discovering the Mississippi River with Louis Joliet.

  • 1668: While on his first mission to teach local tribes, he learned about a great river, the Mississippi.

  • 1673: Marquette, Louis Joliet, and others set off for the north shore of Lake Michigan, then to Green Bay, then up the Fox River. Later they reached the Mississippi. Eventually, they came to realize that the Mississippi River did not lead to the Pacific Ocean but rather led into the Gulf of Mexico. Father Jacques Marquette mapped the lands through which they traveled and kept a diary of the voyage.

  • 1675: Father Jacques Marquette went on an expedition to make contact with Illinois Indians.

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca – Spanish explorer. 

  • Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca is famous for being the first European to explore Texas and Southwest America. 

  • 1528: Panfilo de Narvaez and Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca arrived in Florida near Tampa Bay. They claimed the land for Spain.

  • 1528-1536: Cabeza de Vaca and others spent eight years exploring Texas and Mexico, living and trading with native tribes.

  • 1536: He was welcomed to Mexico City by Hernando Cortes and Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain.

  • 1537: He became the governor of the La Plata regions of Argentina. He spent three years writing about his eight-year journey across Texas, describing his experiences, the land, and the native tribes. 

  • 1542: His book detailing his journeys was published. 

  • 1543: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca introduced new laws concerning fair treatment of native peoples.

Bartolomeu Dias – Portuguese explorer. 

  • Bartolomeu Dias is famous for being the first European to lead a 1487 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. 

  • 1486: He was appointed by King John II of Portugal to lead an expedition around the southern-most tip of Africa and make contact with Prester John, King of Ethiopia.

  • 1487: He embarked on his voyage of exploration around Africa to the Indies.

  • 1488: He returned to Lisbon after opening up trading routes from Europe to Asia.

  • 1497: He accompanied Vasco da Gama to India. 

  • 1500: He accompanied Pedro Alvares Cabral during an expedition where they discovered Brazil.

Amerigo Vespucci – Italian explorer. 

  • Amerigo Vespucci is famous for being the namesake of America.

  • 1497: King Ferdinand of Spain gave him permission to undertake an expedition of discovery. 

  • 1499: On his second voyage he crossed the Equator and explored the coast of Guiana and Brazil, discovering Cape St. Augustine and the Amazon River.

  • 1505: He became a naturalized Spaniard. 

  • 1507: Martin Waldseemuller, a German mapmaker, printed the first map that used the name America for the New World. 

  • 1508: Vespucci became the Piloto Mayor (chief pilot) of Spain.

Ferdinand Magellan – Portuguese explorer. 

  • Ferdinand Magellan is famous for leading the first voyage around the world. He studied the maps of Christopher Columbus.  

  • 1519: He was able to convince King Charles I of Spain to support his voyage to the Spice Islands. His fleet sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to South America and Rio de Janeiro. He then began to search for a passage to the Pacific Ocean. 

  • 1520: He entered the straits which were later named after him. He and his crew were the first Europeans to sail across the Pacific. 

  • 1521: Magellan reached the Equator and the Pacific island of Guam. Next, he discovered the Philippines.

Sir Walter Raleigh – English explorer. 

  • Sir Walter Raleigh is famous for discovering Guiana and establishing the Virginia colony of Roanoke Island in 1584. 

  • He is a distant relative of Sir Francis Drake. 

  • 1572: He witnessed the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. 

  • 1578: He sailed with his half brother to America.

  • 1584: He received a patent to explore and settle in North America. His fleet reached Roanoke Island in June. 

  • 1585: He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and made governor of the new territory. Raleigh named it "Virginia" in her honor. 

  • 1595: He left England for the New World, in search of the city of El Dorado.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo – Spanish explorer. 

  • Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is famous for being the first explorer to navigate the coast of present day California. 

  • 1519: He was documented as serving under Hernando Cortes. He joined him on his exploration of Mexico and the conquest of the Aztec Empire. He joined other expeditions in Guatemala, Mexico, and San Salvador. The Viceroy of New Spain selected him to establish a trading route between Central America and the Spice Islands.

  • 1540: Cabrillo's account of a destructive earthquake in Santiago is reportedly the New World’s first sample of secular journalism.

  • 1542: His expedition sailed from the port of Navidad. Cabrillo hoped to discover a route connecting the North Pacific to the North Atlantic. He also wished to discover the whereabouts of the mythical Seven Cities of Gold.

Christopher Columbus - Born in Italy. Lived in Portugal and Spain. 

  • Christopher Columbus is famous for discovering the New World, yet he died thinking he had reached the Indies.

  • The names of his ships were The Nina, The Pinta, and The Santa Maria.

  • 1492: King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain finally gave him funding and supplies. He began his voyage and landed in the Bahamas, West Indies. Columbus believed that he had arrived at the passage to India and China. He established the first Spanish settlement in this New World. 

  • 1493: He made his second voyage from Cadiz. Juan Ponce de Leon accompanied him. Columbus explored Hispaniola (Jamaica) and established a settlement in Haiti. 

  • 1498: He arrived at the Cape Verde Islands.

Juan Ponce de Leon – Spanish explorer.

  • Juan Ponce de Leon is famous for being the first European to step onto Florida soil. He discovered the Gulf Stream and searched for the "fountain of youth". He also established the oldest European settlement in Puerto Rico. 

  • 1493: He was one of the men who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage. 

  • 1494: He remained in Santo Domingo while Columbus returned to Spain.

  • 1508: He founded the first settlement in Puerto Rico.

  • 1513: He took possession of land which he called "Pascua de Florida" ( Feast of Flowers). 

  • 1514: He was granted power to settle Bimini Island and Florida.

Hernando de Soto – Spanish explorer. 

  • Hernando de Soto is famous for being the first European to explore Florida and Southeast America.

  • 1537: Charles V granted him the rights to conquer Florida.

  • 1538: His expedition left Spain for the Americas and landed at Santiago de Cuba. 

  • 1538/39: He had been given the title Governor of Cuba and spent months there preparing for the journey to Florida. 

  • 1539: He arrived on the west coast of Florida and spent four years exploring the area and searching for gold and silver.

  • 1542: After his death he was buried on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Sir Francis Drake – English explorer. 

  • Sir Francis Drake is famous for sailing around the world and helping to defeat the Spanish Armada. 

  • He is a distant relative of Sir Walter Raleigh. 

  • 1572: He was the first to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of South America.

  • 1577: He was picked by Queen Elizabeth to lead an expedition that was to sail around the world. 

  • 1579: He stopped near present-day San Francisco to repair one of his ships and claimed the land for England. 

  • 1581: He was knighted Sir Francis Drake by Queen Elizabeth. 

  • 1588: He was appointed Vice Admiral of the Navy, and led them to victory over the Spanish Armada.

James Cook – English explorer. 

  • He went on many expeditions to the Pacific Ocean, Antarctic, Arctic, and around the world. 

  • He was the first captain to prevent his sailors from developing scurvy by giving them fresh fruits. 

  • 1768-1771: During his first journey he mapped New Zealand and eastern Australia.

  • 1772-1775: On his second expedition he went to Antarctica and to Easter Island.

  • 1776-1779: He searched for a Northwest Passage across North America to Asia on his last expedition. 

Henry Hudson – English explorer.

  • Henry Hudson is famous for the discovery of the Hudson River. The Hudson River, Hudson Strait, and Hudson Bay are all named after him. 

  • 1607: He embarked on an expedition to search out a passage by the North Pole to Japan and China. At midyear he reached Greenland. 

  • 1608: He started on his second expedition, looking for a Northeast Passage through the waters north of Russia. He traveled past Norway and towards Russia. He received sponsorship from the Dutch for a third voyage to search for a Northeast Passage north of Russia.

  • 1609: Hudson signed a contract with the Dutch United East India Company. Sailing under the Dutch flag, he once again traveled towards Russia. He passed Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. He sailed into George's Harbor and made his first visit to the New World. He passed Jamestown and ventured on to Delaware Bay. He reached the mouth of the Hudson River, passing by Staten Island and Coney Island. Sailing under the Dutch flag, he claimed the land for Holland. Later in the year he was arrested for sailing under the Dutch Flag.

  • 1610: Hudson, backed by the Muscovy Company, led an expedition to again search for a passage to the Orient. He reached the Hudson Strait. He tried to enter it but was prevented by massive icebergs, and his ship became frozen in the ice. Hudson and his crew subsequently became the first Europeans to winter in the Canadian Arctic.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa – Spanish explorer. 

  • Vasco Nunez de Balboa is famous as the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from its eastern shore after crossing the Isthmus of Panama over land in 1513. 

  • 1500: He sailed with Rodrigo de Bastidas from Spain to explore Colombia, South America.

  • 1511: He was part of an expedition that founded the town of Santa Maria de la Antigua del Darien, which was the first European settlement in South America.

  • 1513: Balboa sailed with hundreds of Spaniards and Indians across the Gulf of Uraba to the Darien Peninsula. The famous explorer Francisco Pizarro, who later conquered the Incas of Peru, was in his party.

  • 1513: Balboa became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean from a peak in Darien, Panama. He traveled to the ocean and claimed it and all of the surrounding land for Spain.

Panfilo de Narvaez – Spanish explorer. 

  • Panfilo de Narvaez is famous for exploring Cuba and leading an expedition to Florida.

  • 1512: He joined Diego Velazquez de Cuellar’s expedition to Cuba. 

  • 1520: He was sent to Mexico to force Hernando Cortes to submit but instead was defeated, captured, and imprisoned in Vera Cruz. Later on his mission was to colonize the entire Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico. 

  • 1527: He left Spain from Cadiz. The expedition reached Hispaniola. From there, his expedition traveled to Santiago, Cuba, and then to Trinidad. 

  • 1528: He arrived in Florida near Tampa Bay. The land was claimed for Spain.

Juan de Onate – Spanish explorer.

  • Juan de Onate is famous for establishing the colony of New Mexico for Spain.

  • 1595: He received instructions from King Philip II of Spain to colonize the upper Rio Grande along with New Mexico.

  • 1598: He explored Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico, formally possessing New Mexico. Later that year he held a festival giving thanks for a safe passage across the Rio Grande. This was considered the first Thanksgiving feast in America.

  • 1605: He began his last expedition that went from the Colorado River to the Gulf of California.

Alonso Alvarez de Pineda – Spanish explorer. 

  • Alonso Alvarez de Pineda is famous for supposedly being the first European in Texas and for proving that Florida was not an island. 

  • 1518: He commanded a fleet on an expedition to discover if there was a link between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific that would enable a direct trade route with China. He first arrived on the southwest coast of Florida but later went up the Mississippi River. He spent some time exploring the river and later sailed around the Gulf of Mexico. 

  • 1519: He reached Texas but was continuously under attack by Aztec natives. He was believed to be the first European in Texas. 

  • Because of his explorations and mapping of the Florida coast to the Mississippi River, he was able to verify the claim by Ponce de Leon that Florida was not an island.

Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon – Spanish explorer. 

  • Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon is famous for being the first European colonizer of South Carolina and for discovering Chesapeake Bay.

  • 1521: He sent an expedition to Florida, looking to find the Northwest Passage. The expedition landed near Cape Fear in North Carolina. 

  • 1524: He followed the expedition and discovered Chesapeake Bay and the James River. After reporting the discoveries to King Charles V, he was granted the land.

  • 1526: He led a new expedition that founded San Miguel de Guandape (near Jamestown), the first colony in the United States that used black slaves.

Additional information on European Explorers can be found on these web sites:

An Informative listing of sites on Explorers

European Explorers of the New World

Explorers of the Millennium

Medieval Sourcebook on Exploration & Expansion

European Exploration of the Southwest & Caribbean