A Timeline of North American Exploration: 1492–1585

Illustration of Christopher Columbus landing in North America

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Traditionally, the age of exploration in America begins in 1492 with the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. Those expeditions began with a desire to find another way to the East, where the Europeans had created a lucrative trade route in spices and other goods. Once the explorers realized they had discovered a new continent, their countries began to explore, conquer, and then create permanent settlements in America.

However, it's best to recognize that Columbus wasn't the first human to put a foot in the Americas. Before about 15,000 years ago, the vast continents of North and South America had no human beings on them whatsoever. The following timeline covers the key events of the exploration of the New World.

Pre-Columbus Explorations

~13,000 BCE: Hunters and fishers from Asia that archaeologists call Pre-Clovis entered the Americas from eastern Asia and spend the next 12,000 years exploring the coastlines and colonizing the interiors of North and South America. By the time the Europeans arrived, the descendants of the first colonists have populated all of both American continents.

870 CE: The Viking explorer Erik the Red (ca. 950–1003) reaches Greenland, begins a colony, and interacts with the local people he calls "Skraelings."

998: Erik the Red's son Leif Erikson (c. 970–1020) reaches Newfoundland and explores the region from a small settlement called L'Anse aux Meadows (Jellyfish Cove). The colony collapses within a decade.

1200: Polynesian sailors, descendants of the Lapita Culture, permanently settle Easter Island.

1400: Descendants of Easter Islanders land on the Chilean coast of South America and hobnob with the local residents, bringing chickens for dinner.

1473: Portuguese sailor João Vaz Corte-Real (1420–1496) explores (perhaps) the coast of North America, a land he calls Terra Nova do Bacalhau (New Land of the Codfish).

Columbus and Later Explorations (1492–1519)

1492–1493: Italian explorer Christopher Columbus makes three voyages paid for by the Spanish and lands on islands off the coast of the North American continent, not realizing he has found a new land.

1497: Italian navigator and explorer John Cabot (ca. 1450–1500), commissioned by Britain's Henry VII, sights Newfoundland and Labrador, claiming this area for England before sailing south toward Maine and then returning to England.

1498: John Cabot and his son Sebastian Cabot (1477–1557) explore from Labrador to Cape Cod.

Spanish explorer Vicente Yáñez Pinzón (1462–ca. 1514) and the (possibly) Portuguese explorer Juan Díaz de Solís (1470–1516) sail into the Gulf of Mexico and visit the Yucatan peninsula and the coast of Florida.

1500: Portuguese nobleman and military commander Pedro Álvares Cabral (1467–1620) explores Brazil and claims it for Portugal.

Yáñez Pinzón discovers the Amazon River in Brazil.

1501: Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512) explores the Brazilian coast and realizes (unlike Columbus) that he has found a new continent.

1513: Spanish explorer and conquistador Juan Ponce de León (1474–1521) finds and names Florida. As legend has it, he searches for the Fountain of Youth but doesn't find it.

Spanish explorer, governor, and conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1519) crosses the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean to become the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean from North America.

1516: Díaz de Solís becomes the first European to land in Uruguay, but most of his expedition is killed and perhaps eaten by local people.

1519: Spanish conquistador and cartographer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda (1494–1520) sails from Florida to Mexico, mapping the gulf coast along the way and landing in Texas.

Conquering the New World (1519–1565)

1519: Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) defeats the Aztecs and conquers Mexico.

1521: Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, funded by Charles V of Spain, sails around South America into the Pacific. Despite Magellan's death in 1521, his expedition becomes the first to circumnavigate the globe.

1523: Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez (1485–1541) becomes governor of Florida but dies along with most of his colony after dealing with a hurricane, attacks by Indigenous groups, and disease.

1524: In a French-sponsored voyage, Italian explorer Giovanni de Verrazzano (1485–1528) discovers the Hudson River before sailing north to Nova Scotia.

1532: In Peru, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro (1475–1541) conquers the Inca Empire.

1534–1536: Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (1490–1559), explores from the Sabine River to the Gulf of California. When he arrives in Mexico City, his tales reinforce ideas that the Seven Cities of Cibola (aka Seven Cities of Gold) exist and are located in New Mexico.

1535: French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491–1557) explores and maps the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

1539: French Franciscan friar Fray Marcos de Niza (1495–1558), sent by the Spanish governor of Mexico (New Spain), explores Arizona and New Mexico searching for the Seven Cities of Gold and foments rumor-mongering in Mexico City that he has seen the cities when he returns.

1539–1542: Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto (1500–1542) explores Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, meets the Mississippian chiefdoms there and becomes the first European to cross the Mississippi River, where he is killed by the locals.

1540–1542: Spanish conquistador and explorer Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (1510–1554) leaves Mexico City and explores the Gila River, the Rio Grande, and the Colorado River. He reaches as far north as Kansas before returning to Mexico City. He too searches for the legendary Seven Cities of Gold.

1542: Spanish (or possibly Portuguese) conquistador and explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (1497–1543) sails up the California Coast and claims it for Spain.

1543: Followers of Hernando De Soto continue his expedition without him, sailing from the Mississippi River to Mexico.

Bartolomé Ferrelo (1499–1550), the Spanish pilot for Cabrillo continues his expedition up the California coast and reaches what is probably present-day Oregon.

Permanent European Settlements

1565: The first permanent European settlement is founded by Spanish admiral and explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles (1519–1574) at St. Augustine, Florida.

1578–1580: As part of his circumnavigation of the globe, English sea captain, privateer and trader of enslaved people Francis Drake (1540–1596) sails around South America and into San Francisco Bay. He claims the area for Queen Elizabeth.

1584: English writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer Walter Raleigh (1552–1618) lands on Roanoke Island and calls the land Virginia in honor of Queen Elizabeth.

1585: Roanoke in Virginia is settled. However, this is short-lived. When colonist and governor John White (1540–1593) returns two years later, the colony has disappeared. An additional group of settlers is left at Roanoke but when White returns again in 1590, the settlement has yet again disappeared. To this day, mystery surrounds their disappearance.

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Kelly, Martin. "A Timeline of North American Exploration: 1492–1585." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/timeline-of-exploration-1492-1585-104281. Kelly, Martin. (2023, April 5). A Timeline of North American Exploration: 1492–1585. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-of-exploration-1492-1585-104281 Kelly, Martin. "A Timeline of North American Exploration: 1492–1585." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-of-exploration-1492-1585-104281 (accessed May 31, 2023).