The Age of Discovery: 12 Adventurers Who Explored North America

Portrait of a Man said to be Christopher Columbus 1513. Public Domain

2. Christopher Columbus 1492-1504

Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer from the Republic of Genoa. Determined to find a shorter passage from Europe to the Indian Spice Trades in the Pacific, he asked numerous monarchs to fund his exploratory voyages. Finally, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, the Catholic Spanish monarchs, agreed to finance Columbus in exchange for claiming any new lands for Spain.

Columbus embarked on a total of four voyages. The first and the most famous happened in 1492. When his three ships left Spain, it took them three weeks to traverse the Atlantic. In October, the group sighted land—Columbus claimed he spotted land first—in the present-day Bahamas. This first voyage opened the door to an entirely new world and brought fame to Christopher Columbus.

The second voyage left Europe in September 1493. After seeing gold adornments on natives, Columbus demanded that the natives take him to their gold. When they refused he took some natives hostage, mutilated them, and then forced them into slavery. As the Europeans searched for gold, they also explored the coastal and inland areas of Hispaniola and Cuba. Through their quests, new information was sent to Spain’s mapmakers.

In May 1498, Columbus left for his third voyage. During the transatlantic voyage, Columbus discovered compass variation between the magnetic north pole and the North Pole star. To remain on track to land in what is known as South America, he had to make adjustments. Documenting his changes due to compass variation became an important navigational advancement.

His fourth voyage was fraught with problems. Not only had he lost his governorship due to his own brutality and incompetency as a leader, he suffered from arthritis that forced him to remain bedridden for weeks. As he explored the coast of Central America in search for the Strait of Malacca, hurricanes damaged his ship and he was stranded in present-day Jamaica for a year. He returned to Spain in November 1504 and died in 1506 at age 55.

In the process of searching for an oceanic route to the Spice Trades, Columbus claimed millions of acres of land for Spain including animals, plants, and people. Because of Columbus, Spain became a powerful empire with an enormous sphere of influence that lasted until the early 20th century.