The Age of DiscoveryColumbus Sails WestLatin AmericaThe Search for Fabled RichesScientific ExplorationUnited States and CanadaSpain in the South and SouthwestFrance, England, and Holland in the NortheastThe West
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In 1492 the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean islands—a momentous event in world history. Although Europeans would not realize it for several years, he had accidentally “discovered” the Americas. The Americas are the continents of the Western Hemisphere: North America (which includes Central America and the Caribbean islands) and South America. Europeans called these continents the “New World,” because at the time they were wholly unknown to people of the world’s other continents. This article discusses the European discovery and early exploration of the Americas, including the great era of maritime exploration known as the Age of Discovery or the Age of Exploration. For information on the European settlement of the Americas, see Americas, colonization of the.

The first peoples to explore and settle the Americas, however, were not Europeans but the ancestors of the American Indians. These early explorers were members of nomadic hunter-gatherer cultural groups. They moved from Asia to North America during the last ice age, when thick ice sheets covered much of northern North America. As the ice sheets absorbed water, the sea levels dropped and a land bridge emerged along what is now the Bering Strait. From about 30,000 to 12,000 years ago, this land bridge connected northeastern Asia to what is now Alaska. Some peoples came to North America by following the Pacific coast southward. They may have combined walking with boat travel. Others walked across a glacier-free area through the center of what is now Canada.

Continued melting of the ice gradually opened up the land, allowing people to spread out across North America and down into South America. No single person made any large part of the long journey; one group after another continued the march over many centuries. The first Europeans did not arrive in the Americas until many thousands of years later. By that time, the Indians had explored and settled all portions of the “New World.”

Early European Explorers

It is not known for certain when the first Europeans reached the Americas. Legends tell of early visitors from Ireland and Wales. According to an epic tale, St. Brendan and other Irish monks made an astonishing journey westward through the Atlantic Ocean in the 6th century ad. They are said to have reached a large landmass. It has been speculated that this land could have been North America or the Canary Islands. Although St. Brendan was a real person, the tale of his Atlantic journey was likely fiction.

Another legendary traveler, Madog ab Owain Gwynedd of Wales, was said to have reached North America in the 12th century ad. He supposedly sailed to Ireland and then westward. Some people have believed that Madog and his party became the ancestors of a group of American Indians who were said to speak Welsh. However, most anthropologists believe that the story of Madog is not true.


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In the 9th century ad the Vikings of Norway, or the Norsemen, arrived in Iceland, which had already been settled by Irish colonists. Irish refugees from Iceland, fleeing before the advance of the Vikings, may have been the first Europeans to arrive in Greenland and Newfoundland (now in northeastern Canada), though this is mere surmise. Greenland, a large island in the North Atlantic Ocean, is considered part of North America.

The Vikings of Norway are the first Europeans known to have visited North America. A Viking named Gunnbjörn Ulfsson sailed near Greenland in the 10th century ad. The Viking known as Erik the Red (because of his red hair and beard) was the first to colonize the island. In about 980 Erik was banished from Iceland after he killed a neighbor in a quarrel. He decided to spend his exile exploring Greenland. Erik sailed in 982 with his household and livestock and established a colony on the southwest coat of Greenland. During Erik’s three-year exile, the settlers encountered no other people, though they explored to the north.

Erik returned to Iceland in 986. He wanted to persuade the Norse people there to help him colonize the land he had explored, so he gave the icy island a favorable name—Greenland. His descriptions of the territory convinced many people to join a return expedition. By the year 1000 there were an estimated 1,000 Scandinavian settlers in the colony.


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From Ridpath"s Universal History, Vol. V, by John Clark Ridpath, 1896

The first Europeans to land on the mainland of North America were the Viking explorer Leif Eriksson and his party. Leif was one of Erik the Red’s sons and had accompanied him to Greenland. The exploits of Erik and Leif are the subjects of Norse sagas, which are stories or histories in prose. According to one of the sagas, a man named Bjarni Herjulfsson was blown off course while sailing from Iceland to Greenland in about the year 1000. He was carried far to the southwest, where he saw an unknown shore, and then returned to tell his tale. Leif Eriksson and about 30 other people set out in 1001 to explore this land. They probably reached the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador (now in northeastern Canada). Modern archaeologists have found evidence of Viking settlements there from about Leif’s time.

The expedition continued southward, reaching a warmer wooded land where “wine berries,” or grapes, grew. They named this place Vinland, meaning “Wine Land,” though the fruit they found may actually have been cranberries. Vinland may have been in what is now Maryland or Virginia, in the southern United States, or perhaps the lands around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in southeastern Canada.

Leif and the other members of the expedition built houses in Vinland and explored the region before returning to Greenland. Later Viking expeditions tried to establish colonies, but within a few years their trade with the local Indians had turned to warfare. The colonists gave up and returned to Greenland. In about 1013 Erik the Red’s daughter Freydis led an unsuccessful expedition to Vinland. So ended the Norse visits to the Americas as far as the historical record is concerned. Little knowledge of these first discoveries came down to the next European explorers to reach the Americas, hundreds of years later.

The Age of Discovery


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John Anthony/Bruce Coleman Ltd.

Europeans “rediscovered” the Americas during the great period of maritime exploration known as the Age of Discovery (or the Age of Exploration), in the 15th and 16th centuries. During this period, Europeans also explored the coasts of Africa, sent ships directly to India and Southeast Asia, and sailed completely around the globe.


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The effects of the Age of Discovery were diverse and profound worldwide. European exploration ushered in globalization—the development of economic and cultural links throughout the world. Europeans conquered and colonized distant lands, establishing vast empires. In the Americas, violent conquest and diseases accidentally brought over by the Europeans killed enormous numbers of Indians. Smallpox, yellow fever, malaria, influenza, and measles were among the diseases spread to the New World. Indian populations further decreased as Europeans forced them to work on plantations and in mines under harsh conditions. Europeans later imported black African slaves to the Americas to replace the Indians as a labor source. Meanwhile, gold and silver poured back to Europe from the mines, enriching European economies.


European exploration led to the exchange of plants, animals, germs, technologies, and ideas across continents, in what is now called the Columbian Exchange (after Christopher Columbus). A significant portion of the crops now used to feed the world’s population originated in the Americas and were spread as a result of the Age of Discovery. Potatoes, corn (maize), tomatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, cassava, cacao (the source of chocolate), hot peppers, peanuts (groundnuts), pineapple, and tobacco were among the crops introduced to Europe, Africa, and Asia from the Americas. New food sources from more productive crops led to population booms in the Old World. Europeans introduced domesticated animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, and pigs to the Americas. The Europeans also brought new crops such as wheat, rice, oats, bananas, olives, sugarcane, and coffee to the Americas and introduced steel and guns. Sugar and cotton began to be produced in great quantities on New World plantations, which led to the creation of sugar processing and cotton textile industries in Europe. In addition, the capitalist system of Europe grew and spread. Missionaries from Europe introduced Christianity far and wide.

Advances Fostering Exploration


National Library of Sweden (accession no. 3276974)

The Viking discoveries were little known to other Europeans of the Middle Ages. Most medieval Europeans were ignorant of other places in the world. Maps of the time generally showed only a broad strip of land and water reaching from Greenland south to the Mediterranean coasts of Europe and Africa and far eastward to China’s Pacific shore.

Several events and developments in the years preceding the Age of Discovery served to increase Europeans’ curiosity about the world. Christians from Europe had been fighting in wars, called the Crusades, in western Asia. The Crusaders had brought wonderful products home from Asia. People were also excited by the story of Marco Polo, which told of his trip to China in the 1200s and the great wonders there.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Alexandrine Sinsheimer, 1958 (59.534.23), www. metmuseum.org

Ships called caravels, which were small, light, and quick, came increasingly into use in the early 15th century. They were propelled by sails and were steered by a rudder. Caravels were often equipped with lateen (triangular) sails, rather than square sails. The ancient square sail permitted sailing only before the wind—that is, with the wind generally behind the ship. The lateen sail was a major advance because it allowed the ship to sail close to the direction from which the wind blew.

When explorers began making longer voyages, a ship called the carrack or nao proved better than the caravel. The carrack was a rounder heavier ship, more fitted to cope with ocean winds. It had both square and lateen sails. The carrack also had more room to store provisions for longer journeys as well as the spices and other trade goods the explorers acquired.

Discoveries in the science of the stars—astronomy—helped sailors navigate their ships better. Many people knew that Earth is round. Part of the new knowledge came from the long-forgotten writings of great thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome. This rebirth of interest in ancient learning was called the Renaissance.

The rediscovery of an important ancient Greek work—Ptolemy’s Guide to Geography—greatly increased interest in cartography, the art and science of mapmaking. Developments in printing and engraving helped make maps more widely available. Geographers were also able to make maps more and more accurate, partly because better instruments were being used for astronomical observation and navigation of ships.


The Newberry Library, Ayer Fund, 1920

The magnetic compass had reached Europe in the 1100s. Within a hundred years or so sea captains learned to rely on it for direction-finding. In addition, navigators began using devices known as the cross-staff and the astrolabe to determine a ship’s latitude (north-south position). Little by little it became safer for sailors to venture into unknown seas. Sailors made discoveries that allowed cartographers to make better maps that showed more of the world; these maps in turn inspired and aided further voyages of exploration.

The Desire for New Trade Routes

European explorers found the New World by mistake; they were not looking to find new continents but new sea routes. Europeans mainly wanted to find better trade routes to China, India, and Southeast Asia. They valued many products from Asia, including cloves, pepper, and other spices that were used to make food taste good and to keep it from spoiling. Also in demand were such luxuries as sheer, colorful silken cloths, rich carpets, and sparkling jewelry. The wealth of the East had been trickling into western Europe mainly by overland routes. Asian merchandise was thus both scarce and expensive in Europe. Goods changed hands many times before they reached the consumer, and at each exchange the cost increased. The merchandise was transported by camel or horse caravans, with each animal carrying only a comparatively small load. Ships could carry goods more cheaply and in greater quantity. The Italian port cities were satisfied with their monopoly of the old trading routes. On the other hand, Portugal, Spain, England, and France wanted to find new sea routes to Asia in order to import goods directly.

The older trading routes were also becoming less useful. While the Mongols controlled a vast empire in China and Central Asia, traders had been able to travel the overland routes safely. Toward the end of the 14th century the empire began to break apart, and Western merchants were no longer assured of safe-conduct along the land routes. In addition, the Ottoman Turks, who were hostile to Christians, were gaining power. They blocked the outlets to the Mediterranean Sea and thus to the ancient sea routes from the East. The Ottomans also effectively closed the land routes.

The Portuguese Find the Eastern Route


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Henry the Navigator, prince of Portugal, initiated the first great enterprise of the Age of Discovery—the search for an eastern sea route to China. Although Henry is called “the Navigator,” he did not sail on voyages of discovery; he sponsored them. He had several reasons for promoting exploration. He was curious about the world. He was also interested in new navigational aids and better ship design and was eager to test them. Moreover, Christian Europe was still fighting the Crusades against Islamic powers. Henry hoped to challenge Arab power in North Africa. The desire to establish profitable trade was yet another motive.

The eastern sea route to China involved first sailing south along the west coast of Africa. In the 15th century Portuguese sea captains made ever-lengthening voyages of discovery down this coast. Bartolomeu Dias first reached the cliffs of the Cape of Good Hope at Africa’s southern tip in 1488. In 1497–98 Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape and reached India by sea, successfully finding the eastern route. He brought back a cargo of spices that netted a huge profit. Portugal occupied key cities on the sea lanes between China and the Red Sea. Its wealth became the envy of western Europe. (See also Eurasia, exploration of; Africa, exploration of.)

Columbus Sails West


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On the morning of Oct. 12, 1492, the master navigator Christopher Columbus stepped ashore on an island in the Americas. The arrival of his ships in the Western Hemisphere was one of the pivotal events in world history. Columbus’ voyages opened the way for European exploration, exploitation, and colonization of the Americas. They also led to the near total annihilation of numerous American Indian cultures. Ironically, Columbus had landed in the New World by accident. He was seeking a western sea route from Europe to Asia. When he sighted land, he believed that he had reached his goal. To the day he died, he still believed that he had reached Asia. Although Columbus was mistaken, he still ranks as a highly skilled navigator and a courageous and persistent explorer. Few other navigators of his time would have dared to sail far west into the unknown, without proof that the winds would allow them to return.

It is not known when the idea originated of sailing west to reach China. Many sailors searched for islands in the west. Educated people knew that the world was round and that the east could be reached by sailing west. To believe, however, that it would be practical to make such a voyage was an entirely different matter. Columbus was one of the most optimistic advocates of the western route. His studies led him to believe that Earth’s circumference was much smaller than it actually is and that Asia extended much farther east than it does. He believed that Asia lay only a few thousand miles west of Europe, across the open sea.

Columbus was probably originally from Genoa, Italy. In about 1476 he settled in Lisbon, Portugal. He and his brother worked as mapmakers there, but Columbus was mainly a seagoing businessman. He sailed to Ireland, Iceland, and a Portuguese settlement in West Africa, gaining knowledge of Portuguese navigation and the Atlantic wind systems.

In 1484 Columbus first began seeking support from King John II of Portugal for a voyage west to Asia. He was not able to convince the king that his idea was worth backing. Columbus next tried to obtain sponsorship from France and England. By 1486 he was in Spain, asking for patronage from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. After at least two rejections, he at last obtained their support in January 1492. They probably argued that the cost of equipping the expedition would not be very great. If it failed, the loss could be borne. If the expedition should succeed, however, the gain would be enormous—it might divert to Spain all the wealth of Asia.

Ferdinand and Isabella also hoped that such an enterprise would gain them greater status in Europe, especially against their main rival, Portugal. Then, in alliance with the pope, they might hope to take the lead in the Christian war against Islamic powers. Spanish soldiers had just recaptured the last foothold of the Muslim Moors in Spain earlier that month. Columbus himself hoped to amass riches for his family and to join the ranks of the nobility of Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella promised that if he succeeded, he would be made “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and that he would receive 10 percent of any profit. Columbus and later his descendants would be appointed the governor of any lands he discovered. Columbus was also a devout Christian, and he hoped that his voyage would lead to the conversion of the Chinese to Christianity.

The historic first voyage
Kean Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On his first voyage, Columbus took three ships and a total crew of about 90 Spaniards. The Niña and the Pinta were small, speedy caravels. Vicente Pinzón commanded the Niña, while his brother Martín Pinzón was captain of the Pinta. Columbus commanded the Santa María, the flagship. At about 117 feet (36 meters) long, it was more than twice the size of the caravels. The Santa María was probably a carrack, or nao. Some of the funding for the voyage came from the Spanish monarchs. A group of Italian bankers in Seville, Spain, also contributed a large sum of money.


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The little fleet set sail from Palos, Spain, on Aug. 3, 1492. Columbus’ navigational genius showed itself immediately. The fleet sailed southward to the Canary Islands, off the northwest African mainland, rather than sailing due west to the islands of the Azores. The westerlies (winds blowing from the west) prevail in the Azores. These winds had defeated previous attempts to sail to the west. In the Canaries the three ships could pick up the northeast trade winds. Supposedly, they could trust to the westerlies for their return.

Only three days out of Palos, the Pinta lost its rudder. The Spaniards repaired the ship in the Canary Islands and set sail again on September 9. Steady trade winds from the northeast drove them on their course due west. As they sailed westward, Columbus kept two records of progress. One was the distance he thought they had actually traveled. The other was a much shorter estimate that he showed the crew to quiet their fears at being so far from home.

For the most part the passage was smooth and the winds were steady. As the days passed, however, the men could not see how they could sail home against winds that had blown them steadily west. On October 8 and 9 the men were ready to rebel. Columbus said that he would turn back if land was not sighted within three days. They found land just in time. On the night of October 11, Columbus thought he saw lights in the distance. At 2 am on October 12, Rodrigo de Triana, a seaman aboard the Pinta, cried loudly the first sight of land. The voyage from the Canaries had taken 33 days.


L.Prang and Company/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZC2-1687)

The small Spanish fleet had unknowingly reached not Asia but the Caribbean islands that are now The Bahamas. The islands are part of North America, lying between Florida on the U.S. mainland and the island of Cuba. Columbus named the first land that the expedition sighted San Salvador. This island may have been the one now called San Salvador or perhaps Samana Cay. The expedition landed and was met by a group of Taino people. Carrying the royal banners of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spaniards took possession of San Salvador for Spain.

The Taino were friendly and helpful to the Spaniards. Columbus believed that he had reached the “Indies”—East and Southeast Asia. He thus called the people he encountered there Indians. The Caribbean islands are today known as the West Indies, to distinguish them from the East Indies of Asia.

Sailing on with Indian guides, Columbus stopped at islands he named Santa María de la Concepción (now Rum Cay), Fernandina (Long Island), and Isabela (Crooked Island). He then sailed south to Cuba, reaching its north coast on October 28. He thought that Cuba might be Japan, but he later convinced himself that it was actually the Chinese mainland.

Everywhere the Spaniards asked the Indians where gold could be found. On Dec. 6, 1492, the explorers reached an island called Ayti (Haiti) by its Taino inhabitants. On December 6, Columbus renamed the island Hispaniola (now divided politically into Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Previously he had found small trinkets of gold, but on Hispaniola he found at least enough gold and prosperity to save him from ridicule on his return to Spain.

On December 25 the Santa María ran aground off the north coast of Hispaniola and had to be abandoned. From its timber Columbus built a small fort, La Navidad, with the help of a Taino chief named Guacanagarí. The Spaniards left 39 crewmen behind at La Navidad as colonists.

On Jan. 16, 1493, the Niña and the Pinta began the return voyage. They carried gold, colorful parrots, other strange animals and plants, spices, and some Indian cloth and ornaments. They also carried several Indians, whom they had captured to show to Ferdinand and Isabella. The journey back was a nightmare. The westerlies did indeed direct the ships homeward. In mid-February, however, a terrible storm engulfed the fleet, and the ships were separated. Columbus, on the damaged Niña, eventually limped to port in Lisbon for repairs. The Pinta made port at the Spanish town of Bayona, to the north of Portugal. With repairs completed, Columbus set sail, reaching Palos on March 15, 1493. Ferdinand and Isabella welcomed Columbus at Barcelona, Spain, with great honor. All the titles and privileges promised to him were confirmed.

Later voyages

The wealth and human captives that Columbus displayed for the Spanish rulers convinced all of the need for a rapid second voyage. Columbus, now an admiral, was at the height of his glory. He led at least 17 ships out from Cádiz, Spain, on Sept. 25, 1493. The ships carried about 1,500 men and supplies to enable them to found permanent colonies. The expedition also included a group of friars, who hoped to convert the Indians to Christianity.

Sailing again via the Canary Islands, the fleet took a more southerly course than on the first voyage. The Spaniards reached Dominica in the Lesser Antilles on November 3. After sighting the Virgin Islands, they arrived at Hispaniola on November 23. There they found that La Navidad had been burned and the 39 men slain. The Spaniards started a new colony, named La Isabela for the queen. Columbus then explored the coasts of Jamaica, Cuba, and Hispaniola. Doubts seem to have arisen among some of the Spaniards as to the identity of the islands. In June 1494 Columbus forced his men to swear a declaration that Cuba was indeed the Chinese mainland. The following year he began to conquer Hispaniola, spreading devastation among the Taino. The Spaniards forced many of them to work in gold mines and shipped others to Spain as slaves. Columbus left his brothers in charge of La Isabela and returned to Spain, arriving at Cádiz on June 11, 1496.

Columbus set out on his third voyage with a smaller fleet of six ships on May 30, 1498. He planned to explore to the south of his earlier discoveries and hoped to find a strait from Cuba to India. After stopping at Trinidad, he entered the Gulf of Paria and planted the Spanish flag on what is now Venezuela, in South America. He realized that the great torrents of freshwater flowing into the Gulf of Paria meant that he had discovered another continent. But of course he did not find a strait to India.

When Columbus returned to Hispaniola, he discovered that both the Taino and the European colonists resented the rule of his brothers. Dissatisfied colonists had complained to the Spanish rulers. A new governor was sent to replace Columbus. He arrested Columbus and his brothers and shipped them back to Spain in chains. Ferdinand and Isabella released the brothers but did not reappoint Columbus governor.

Columbus’ fourth and final expedition was the most disappointing and unlucky of all his voyages. He set sail on May 9, 1502, with only a small fleet of four ships. The Spanish rulers had by then lost much of their confidence in him. He explored the coast of Jamaica, the southern shore of Cuba, and the east coast of Central America, searching for gold and a strait to India. The fleet lost two ships. The two remaining ships, in poor condition, ran aground on Jamaica in June 1503. Columbus sent messengers by canoe to Hispaniola, but the governor was in no hurry to send help. Meanwhile, Columbus correctly predicted an eclipse of the Moon from his astronomical tables, thereby frightening the local peoples into providing food for the Spaniards. Rescue ships from Hispaniola finally arrived in June 1504.

The admiral returned to Spain broken in health and spirit. He was not received at court, and the king refused to restore his privileges and honors. He was, however, far from poor.

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Over the hundreds of years since Columbus sailed to the Americas, there has been a major shift in how he has been perceived. In the older perspective, Columbus has been celebrated by people of European descent as a hero for “discovering” the Americas. His four voyages to the New World were the means of bringing great wealth to Spain and other European countries and of opening up the Americas to European settlement. More recent approaches have emphasized the destructive effects of his voyages. They stress the disastrous impact of the slave trade and the ravages of the diseases the Europeans accidentally brought with them on the peoples of the Americas.