For Kids & Teachers
People become explorers for many reasons. Some like adventure. Some are scientists. Some are looking for riches. Some want to make new discoveries. Some are missionaries. Whatever their reason, explorers have some important things in common - they face the unknown, they suffer hardships, and some never make it back to tell their tales. Here are some famous explorers, each who experienced quite an adventure!
New World Explorers
Leif Eriksson: One famous Norse (Viking) explorer was Leif Eriksson. You might call Leif a teen idol. He was tall and blonde and young and brave. He loved adventuring. Lief and a small band of men sailed across the sea and landed in North America 500 years BEFORE Columbus. The Vikings established a settlement on the coast of North America. But the Viking settlers missed their homeland, and returned home. Learn more about the Vikings.
Christopher Columbus: Columbus was an Italian explorer. He is credited with discovering America, even though Lief Erickson discovered it about 500 years earlier, and Native Americans found it much earlier than that. The round trip, including his adventures in the New World, took Columbus eight months. He was well paid for his trip. Columbus was highly respected and, thanks to his adventures, he was also quite wealthy. He was happily married. He had a couple of kids. He was incredibly stubborn. To the day he died, he never once admitted that he had found a New World. He insisted that he had, in fact, discovered the back door to China.
Amerigo Vespucius: Vespucius was an Italian explorer. He sailed thousands of miles along the Atlantic shore of the New World. It was a map maker in Germany who named the New World after Amerigo (Americus) Vespucius. He named it America. The name quickly caught on and spread through Europe. Most historians today agree that Vespucci had nothing to do with the New World being named America in the 1500s. Still, for many years, some people accused Vespucius of trying to steal this discovery from Columbus. When the topic came up in his hearing, Columbus took every opportunity to point out that he did not find a New World; he found a back door to China. (So stubborn!) Columbus did not mind at all that the New World was named after his good friend, and fellow explorer, Amerigo (Americus) Vespucius.
John Cabot: Cabot was an Italian explorer. His family moved to England when he was a kid. In 1497, five (5) years after Columbus, Cabot sailed away from England, looking for a back door to China, just as Columbus had done. He landed in the New World. He claimed land in what would become Canada for England, because England paid for the cost of trip. But, like Columbus, Cabot thought he had successfully discovered a back door to China. He was not as stubborn as Columbus. He soon realized his mistake, and enjoyed many adventures exploring the New World, and much fame at home.
Francisco Pizarro and the Incas: Pizarro was a Spanish explorer. Pizarro and his band of 167 soldiers arrived in the Inca capital city, high in the Andes Mountains of South America, looking for riches. Pizarro knew they were in trouble the minute he entered the city. There was gold everywhere. There were people everywhere. There were temples and beautiful art. This was a civilization, and an organized one. Although their welcome was warm, they were worried they would be killed. It was a very real worry. Pizarro and his men planned all night how to escape. They knew they had very little chance of success. They got lucky! Read the story of Francisco Pizarro and the Incas to find out how.
Hernan Cortes & the Aztecs: Cortes was a Spanish explorer. In the 1500s, when the Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes, entered Aztec territory (Mexico) with a small band of his men, the Aztecs misunderstood why they were there. The Aztecs thought these men had been sent by their god, Quetzalcoatl. But the Spanish were looking for people to convert to the Catholic religion, as well as gold to capture. The Aztecs soon became suspicious. Cortes and his men were lucky to leave unharmed.
Vasco Balboa - Balboa was a Spanish explorer, a swordplay teacher, a pig farmer, husband of an Indian princess, and the first to see the eastern shore of Pacific Ocean. He named it Mar del Sur. Later on, Magellan renamed it Mar Pacifica, because when Magellan first saw the Pacific Ocean, the Ocean was especially calm that day. And Magellan's name stuck.
Sir Walter Raleigh: Raleigh made several trips to the New World. He was a soldier, an explorer, a writer, and a favorite with the Queen of England. In 1587, Raleigh sent English colonists to establish a Roanoke Island Colony in the New World. When that didn't work, he claimed land near Roanoke Island, and called it Virginia.
Jacque Cartier: This French explorer made three trips to the New World, looking for a back door to China. He gave the country of Canada its name. Cartier misunderstood the Iroquois word for village - kanata - and thought it meant the region.
Samuel de Champlain: This French explorer discovered Lake Champlain in what is now Canada, and founded the city of Quebec. The people in Quebec today still speak both French and English.
Henry Hudson: Hudson was hired to find a route to China and India. Instead, like Columbus and Cabot, he ran into the New World instead, and explored the Hudson River.
Hernando De Soto, a Spanish explorer, explored the southeastern part of the New World. He discovered the Mississippi River.
Father Jacques Marquette: Marquette was a French missionary. He explored the Great Lakes Region of North America. Marquette did a lot of exploration with his good friend and fellow explorer, Louis Joliet, a Canadian. They also explored quite a ways down the Mississippi.
Rene Robert de La Salle, a French explorer, also explored the Mississippi. He was the first to navigate all the way down to the mouth of the river. He claimed all the land he discovered for France. Later, after the Revolutionary War, the new government of the United States purchase that land from France. We refer to this as the Louisiana Purchase.
Juan Ponce de Leon led the first Spanish exploration to Florida. He was searching for the legendary fountain of youth. Ponce de Leon sailed with Columbus the second time Columbus came to America.
Ferdinand Magellan: Magellan, a Portuguese explorer, was the first man to attempt to sail around the globe. He died on the way, and never got to finish the trip, but his men finished it for him.
Vasco da Gama: Vasco da Gama was a Portuguese explorer during the Age of Exploration. Vasco da Gama was the first explorer to sail around the tip of Africa and reach India. Dias, another explorer, had rounded the cape, but his men wanted to turn back because they had already spent so much time at sea, so he never reached India. Vasco da Gama loved adventuring, and he didn't mind being out to sea for long periods of time. King John of Portugal appointed Vasco da Gama to try again to round the tip of Africa and reach India. It was under King Manuel of Portugal that the voyage was actually made in 1497-1499. King Manuel provided four specially designed ships for the trip, along with enough salted beef and wine to last for years! Vasco da Gama had planned on replacing vegetables and fresh water as needed, with quick stops along the coast of Africa. He brought a great many trinkets with him to trade with the natives. But he couldn't find many places along the African coastline to safely land his boats, and when he could, the natives were not often friendly. Many men died of scurvy from lack of fruit and vegetables on the trip. But, Vasco da Gama did reach India. He brought back jewels and spices to prove it, much to the delight of King Manuel of Portugal.
James Cook & Australian Explorers: Explored the South Pacific and Australia
Bartolomeu Dias: a Portuguese explorer, was the first European to voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, the southern most tip of Africa
Francis Drake: Drake was the first English explorer to sail around the world. He did make it home. The Queen was so pleased with him that she named him Sir Francis Drake.
Marco Polo: Marco Polo was an Italian explorer. He traveled all over Asia in search of knowledge in the Middle Ages. His journal about his travels made many people want to go exploring as well.
Lewis and Clark: Pushed west across America, and explored the Louisiana Purchase. Join the adventure!
Games & Interactives for Explorers, Sailing Ships, Sea Monsters, and more!
Lesson Plans listed under each explorer above