Explorers and Discoverers

Trailblazers, Navigators and Pioneers

Map of Amerigo Vespucci's Journey to America
Fototeca Storica Nazionale. / Getty Images

After Christopher Columbus blazed a trail to the New World in 1492, many others soon followed. The Americas were a fascinating, new place and the crowned heads of Europe eagerly sent explorers to look for new goods and trade routes. These intrepid explorers made many significant discoveries in the years and decades after Columbus' monumental journey.

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Christopher Columbus, Trailblazer to the New World

Christopher Columbus. Painting by Sebastiano del Piombo

Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus was the greatest of the New World explorers, not only for his accomplishments but for his tenacity and longevity. In 1492, he was the first to make it to the New World and back and returned three more times to explore and establish settlements. Although we must admire his navigation skill, toughness, and tenacity, Columbus had a long list of failures as well: he was the first to enslave New World natives, he never admitted that the lands he found were not part of Asia and he was a terrible administrator in the colonies he founded. Still, his prominent place on any list of explorers is well-deserved.

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Ferdinand Magellan, the Circumnavigator

Ferdinand Magellan
Ferdinand Magellan. Artist Unknown

In 1519, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set sail under a Spanish flag with five ships. Their mission: to find a route through or around the New World to get to the lucrative Spice Islands. In 1522, one ship, the Victoria, limped into harbor with eighteen men aboard: Magellan was not among them, having been killed in the Philippines. But the Victoria had accomplished something great: it had not only found the Spice Islands but had gone all the way around the world, first ever to do so. Although Magellan only made it halfway around, his is still the name most commonly associated with this mighty feat.

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Juan Sebastian Elcano, First to Make it Around the World

Juan Sebastian Elcano
Juan Sebastian Elcano. Painting by Ignacio Zuloaga

Although Magellan gets all the credit, it was Basque sailor Juan Sebastian Elcano who was the first to make it around the world and live to tell the tale. Elcano took over command of the expedition after Magellan died fighting natives in the Philippines. He signed on the Magellan expedition as ship's master on board the Concepcion, returning three years later as captain of the Victoria.  In 1525, he attempted to duplicate the feat of sailing around the world but perished en route to the Spice Islands.

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Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, Discoverer of the Pacific

Vasco Nunez de Balboa
Vasco Nunez de Balboa. Artist Unknown

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was a Spanish conquistador, explorer and adventurer best remembered for his early explorations of the area now known as Panama while serving as governor of the settlement of Veragua between about 1511 and 1519. It was during this time that he led an expedition to the south and west in search of treasure. Instead, they fund a great body of water, which he named the "South Sea." It was actually the Pacific Ocean. Balboa was eventually executed for treason by a subsequent governor, but his name still remains attached to this great discovery.

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Amerigo Vespucci, the man who named America

Amerigo Vespucci
Amerigo Vespucci. Artist Unknown

Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) was not the most skilled or accomplished explorer in the history of the New World, but he was one of the most colorful. He only went to the New World twice: first with the Alonso de Hojeda expedition in 1499, and then as leader of another expedition in 1501, financed by the King of Portugal. Vespucci's letters to his friend Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici were collected and published and became an instant hit for their fascinating descriptions of the lives of the New World natives. It was this fame that caused printer Martin Waldseemüller to name the new continents "America" in his honor in 1507 on published maps. The name stuck, and the continents have been the Americas ever since.

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Juan Ponce de Leon

Ponce de Leon and Florida
Ponce de Leon and Florida. Image from Herrera's Historia General (1615)

Ponce de Leon was an early colonizer of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico and is given credit for officially discovering and naming Florida. Still, his name is forever associated with the Fountain of Youth, a magical spring that could reverse the aging process. Are the legends true?

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Minster, Christopher. "Explorers and Discoverers." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/latin-america-explorers-and-discoverers-2136447. Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 27). Explorers and Discoverers. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/latin-america-explorers-and-discoverers-2136447 Minster, Christopher. "Explorers and Discoverers." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/latin-america-explorers-and-discoverers-2136447 (accessed March 22, 2023).