Exploration of America

November 27, 2012 1:55 pm

For most of history, North and South America were unknown to the rest of the world. Then explorers arrived from Europe. They weren’t looking for America. They hoped to find Asia!
The Vikings were the first European adventurers to arrive in America. The Vikings sailed from Greenland. Around ad 1000, they landed at Vinland (now Newfoundland and Labrador) in Canada.
The Vikings quarreled among themselves and with Native Americans. Their settlement in North America did not survive, and their journey was soon forgotten.
Sailors from Portugal pioneered daring voyages on the Atlantic Ocean in the late 1400s. They were searching for a sea route to Asia. Spices came from Asia. Before refrigeration, Europeans used spices to hide the taste of rotting food. Europeans also prized silk, pearls, and precious stones from Asia. But bandits and wars made it dangerous to travel to Asia overland.
In 1488, Portuguese ships sailed around the southern tip of Africa. The rich lands of Asia could be reached by this sea route. But the journey was still long and dangerous.
One man—Christopher Columbus—believed there must be a quicker, easier route. He wanted to sail west to reach the Indies! Back then, Europeans called eastern Asia the Indies. Columbus persuaded Spain—Portugal’s great rival—to pay for his voyage.
Columbus reached America in 1492. He landed on an island in the Bahamas, but he thought he was in the Indies. He called the natives Indians.
Columbus was a hero when he got back from Spain. He made several more trips to the Americas, landing farther south each time. But he never found the sea route he was looking for.
News of Columbus’s voyages spread. Explorers hurried to investigate the wonderful “New World” he had seen. In 1499, Amerigo Vespucci from Italy explored the northern coast of South America. In 1513, Juan Ponce de León of Spain reached Florida. The same year, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, also from Spain, marched across Panama. Balboa became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean.
Exploration was exciting, but very risky. Juan de Díaz Solís was eaten by cannibals in South America in 1516. Ferdinand Magellan sailed round the tip of South America in 1520, and then began a dreadful voyage across the Pacific Ocean. To avoid starvation, his crew ate leather, ropes, sawdust, and rats. After his ships reached the Philippines in 1521, Magellan was killed in a fight with a native tribe.
Spanish explorers were eager to conquer territory in America, and they fought with native peoples. Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico and overpowered the Aztec Empire in 1521. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro smashed the Inca Empire in Peru. Pizarro’s conquest gave Spain control of the world’s most valuable silver mines.
Hernando de Soto landed in Florida in 1539. He battled his way west and reached the Mississippi River in 1541. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado traveled north from Mexico in 1540 and explored the Grand Canyon. He claimed the surrounding land for Spain. By around 1750, Spain ruled a vast empire in America. It extended from Chile in the south to California in the north.
Portugal owned gold mines and sugar plantations in Brazil in South America. African slaves worked on the plantations.
Other Europeans wanted American land, fish, and furs. European explorers still wanted to find a sea passage to Asia. They hoped to go around North America. European countries sent fur trappers and settlers to America’s East Coast, and founded rival colonies.
John Cabot, an Italian sponsored by England, crossed the Atlantic in 1497 in search of a sea route to Asia. He reached Newfoundland instead, and claimed it for the king of England. In 1534, Jacques Cartier of France sailed down the St. Lawrence River and explored the Great Lakes. He hoped he was on his way to China.
Henry Hudson of England tried to reach Asia by way of the Arctic Ocean in the early 1600s. He ran into ice on his freezing journeys. His crew set him adrift in a small boat, and he died.
Samuel de Champlain came to Canada from France in 1608. Champlain founded a trading post at Québec on the St. Lawrence. It became the capital of New France, the French colony in North America. England founded its first successful settlement in America in 1607, at Jamestown, Virginia.
Dutch settlers also came to America. In 1616, they founded New Netherland in what is now New York state.
From around 1750 on, Americans investigated their own vast homeland. Explorers like Daniel Boone opened trails that helped Americans move west. Alexander MacKenzie of Canada was the first to make an overland journey across North America. He reached the Pacific coast in 1793.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark journeyed along the Missouri River and across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean from 1804 to 1806. The Lewis and Clark Expedition mapped the Louisiana Territory, which the United States had bought from France, and collected scientific information.
The first explorers came to America by accident, hoping to find Asia. They opened up two continents—North and South America—to European settlement. The settlers largely destroyed Native American cultures. But they laid the foundations for many new nations, including the United States.
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