Francisco de Orellana’s Amazon River Expedition

Francisco de Orellana bust
Francisco de Orellana bust. (Ximénex/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1542, conquistador Francisco de Orellana led a group of Spaniards on an impromptu expedition down the Amazon River. Orellana had been a lieutenant on a larger expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro in search of the legendary city of El Dorado. Orellana became separated from the expedition and made his way down the Amazon River and out into the Atlantic Ocean: from there, he made his way to a Spanish outpost in Venezuela. This accidental journey of exploration provided a great deal of information and opened up the interior of South America for exploration.

Francisco de Orellana

Orellana was born in Extremadura, Spain, sometime around 1511. He came to the Americas while still a young man and soon signed on to the Peru expedition led by his kinsman, Francisco Pizarro. Orellana was among the conquistadors who sacked the Inca Empire and, as a reward, was given huge tracts of land in coastal Ecuador. He backed the Pizarros in the conquistador civil wars against Diego de Almagro and was rewarded even further. Orellana lost one eye in the civil wars but remained a tough fighter and seasoned veteran of the conquest.

Exploration of the Eastern Lowlands

By 1541, a handful of expeditions had set out to explore the lowlands to the east of the mighty Andes. In 1536, Gonzalo Díaz de Pineda had led an expedition to the lowlands to the east of Quito and had found cinnamon trees but no rich empire. A little further to the north, Hernán de Quesada set out in September of 1540 with a large party of 270 Spaniards and countless Indian porters to explore the Orinoco Basin, but they likewise found nothing before turning around and returning to Bogotá. Nicolaus Federmann had spent years in the late 1530s searching the Colombian plateaus, Orinoco Basin and Venezuelan lowlands searching in vain for El Dorado. These failures did nothing to discourage Gonzalo Pizarro from mounting yet another expedition.

The Pizarro Expedition

In 1539, Francisco Pizarro awarded the governorship of Quito to his brother Gonzalo. Gonzalo soon began plans to explore the lands to the east, searching for the legendary city of “El Dorado,” or “the gilded one,” a mythological king who clothed himself in gold dust. Pizarro invested a princely sum in the expedition, which was ready to depart by February of 1541. The expedition consisted of somewhere between 220 and 340 Spanish soldiers of fortune, 4,000 natives laden with supplies, 4,000 pigs to be used for food, a number of horses for the cavalrymen, llamas as pack animals and around 1,000 or so of the vicious war dogs which had proven so useful in previous campaigns. Among the Spaniards was Francisco de Orellana.

Wandering in the Jungle

Unfortunately for Pizarro and Orellana, there were no more lost, wealthy civilizations left to find. The expedition spent several months wandering around in the dense jungles east of the Andes Mountains. The Spaniards compounded their troubles by cruelly abusing any natives they came across: villages were raided for food and individuals were tortured to reveal the whereabouts of gold. The natives soon learned that the best way to get rid of these horrible murderers was to invent fanciful stories about wealthy civilizations not far away. By December of 1541, the expedition was in sorry shape: the pigs had all been eaten (along with many of the horses and dogs) the Indian porters had mostly died or run off and the men were suffering from hunger, illnesses and native attacks.

Pizarro and Orellana Split

The men had built a brigantine – a sort of river ship – to carry the heaviest of their gear. In December of 1541, the men were camped alongside the Coca River, starving and battered. Pizarro decided to send Orellana, his top lieutenant, to look for food. Orellana took 50 men and the brigantine (although he left most of the provisions) and set out on December 26: his orders were to return with food as soon as he could. Orellana and Pizarro would never see each other again.

Orellana Sets Out

Orellana headed downriver: a few days later, near where the Coca and Napo Rivers meet, he found a relatively friendly native village where he was given some food. Orellana intended to return to Pizarro with the food, but his men, not wishing to return upriver to their starved comrades, threatened him with a mutiny if he tried to force them to go. Orellana made them sign a document to this effect, thereby covering himself if he were later charged for abandoning the expedition. Orellana supposedly sent three men to find Pizarro and tell them that he was heading downriver but these men never made it: instead, the Pizarro expedition found out about Orellana’s treachery from Hernan Sanchez de Vargas, who had been left behind by Orellana for being a little too insistent that they all return.

The Amazon River

Orellana’s expedition left the friendly village on February 2, 1542, walking alongside the river while floating a new brigantine in the water. On February 11, the Napo emptied into a massive river: they had reached the Amazon. The Spaniards found little food: they did not know how to catch the river fish and at first native villages were few and far between. Dense woods on the riverbank made for tough going. In May they reached a part of the Amazon inhabited by the Machiparo people, who fought the Spanish along the river for two days. The Spanish did find some food, raiding turtle pens kept by the natives.

The Amazons

The mythological Amazons - a kingdom of fierce warrior-women - had fired European imaginations since the days of antiquity. Many of the conquistadors and explorers were on the constant lookout for legendary things and places: Christopher Columbus' claim to have found the Garden of Eden and Juan Ponce de León's search for the Fountain of Youth are but two examples. As they made their way along the river, Orellana and his men heard tell of a kingdom of women and decided they had found the legendary Amazons. They believed, based on accounts extracted from natives along the way, that the mighty kingdom of the Amazons was a few days inland and that the river villages were Amazon vassal states. On one occasion, the Spanish saw women battling alongside men in one of the villages they raided: these, they assumed, must be the Amazons. According to Father Gaspar de Carvajal, whose eyewitness account survives today, the women were nearly naked, fair-skinned warriors who fought fiercely and who shot a bow so hard as to drive an arrow deeply into the wood of the Spaniards' raft.

Back to Civilization

After they had passed through the "land of the Amazons," the Spaniards found themselves in the midst of a series of islands. Navigating through the islands, they stopped occasionally to repair their brigantines, which were in very poor shape by then. After the brigantines were fixed, they found that the sails would work now that they were in a wider part of the river. On August 26, 1542, they passed out of the mouth of the Amazon and into the Atlantic Ocean, where they turned to the north. Although the survivors became separated, they all met up at the small Spanish settlement on the Island of Cubagua by September 11. Their long journey was done.

Orellana and his men had taken a remarkable journey, over thousands of miles of unexplored terrain. The expedition, although a commercial failure, nevertheless did bring back a great deal of information. The story of the expedition was quickly dissimulated, aided by the fact that Orellana was made captive of the Portuguese for a time while returning to Spain.

Back in Spain, Orellana successfully defended himself against the charges of desertion leveled against him by Pizarro. Orellana had kept the documents signed by his companions which stated that they had given him no choice but to continue on downriver. Orellana was rewarded with a grant to conquer and settle the region, which was to be known as "New Andalusia." He returned to the Amazon with four ships full of supplies and settlers, but the expedition was a fiasco from the get-go and Orellana himself was killed by natives sometime in late 1546.

Today, Orellana and his men are remembered as explorers who discovered the Amazon River and who helped open up the interior of South America for exploration and settlement. This is true, although it's wrong to assign altruistic motives to these men, who were really in search of a wealthy native kingdom to plunder. Orellana has picked up a few honors for his role as leader of the exploration: Orellana Province in Ecuador is named after him, as are countless streets, schools, etc. There are some statues of him in prominent places, including one in Quito from where he set off on his trip, and a handful of postage stamps of various nations bear his likeness. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of his trip was assigning the name "Amazon" to the River and region: it certainly stuck, even if the mythical warrior women were never found.


  • Ayala Mora, Enrique, ed. Manual de Historia del Ecuador I: Epocas Aborigen y Colonial, Independencia. Quito: Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, 2008.
  • Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: the Ohio University Press, 1985.