Famous Explorers

Modern civilization is a function of economic growth, which until recently has been to a varying degree dependent upon exploration of new territories and land, the taming of wild frontiers, and the adaptation to new environments. Historically exploration has been government funded or aided, such as the Dutch East India Company amongst others. However certain individuals have made their name in history through their achievements. Below are a few of the more notable explorers of new lands.


Lewis & Clark

In May, 1804, Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark set out from St. Louis, Missouri, USA to explore the newly acquired land west of the Mississippi River known as the Louisiana Purchase, and to map a route to the west coast, preferably a water route. The expedition was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson and lasted more than two years. In addition to finding a route and establishing a presence in the area before other settlers could, the explorers intended to establish trade with American Indian tribes and catalog new plant and animal discoveries as well as mapping the geography of the area. To prepare for the journey, Lewis studied with experts on medicinal plants and read books and maps on the geography of North America, such as there were. Thirty-three men accompanied Lewis and Clark on the expedition along with a large quantity of advanced weaponry, various gifts for any American Indians they met, and supplies. Sergeant Charles Floyd was the only fatality; he died three months into the journey of acute appendicitis. The expedition established relationships with over two dozen indigenous tribes. The group did face hardships, including winter in the Rocky Mountains which they were largely unprepared for at the outset, as well as disagreements and few outright fights with natives. The expedition produced the first accurate maps of the territory and returned with more than one hundred and forty maps in all. Lewis and Clark discovered more than two hundred plant varieties that had been unknown to Europeans and Americans, though not unknown to American Indians. One aspect of the journey that has transcended into the world of myth is Lewis and Clark’s meeting with the aboriginal woman Sacagawea. A Shoshone Indian woman married to French fur trapper, Sacagawea acted as an interpreter for Lewis and Clark and helped ease diplomatic relations between different tribes. Her role in the expedition has been greatly exaggerated since she did little more than this. Lewis and Clark returned to St. Louis with maps, sketches, and plant and animal samples in September, 1806.


There are many myths surrounding Columbus, and they form a compelling story. There’s the Columbus no one believed in, who went to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1492; the king refused to help because of Columbus’ ridiculous belief that the Earth was round, not flat as most believed, but Isabella snuck her jewelry to Columbus to fund his expedition. As romantic as this sounds, it’s inaccurate; though Isabella did fund the expedition (openly, it should be added) the roundness of the Earth was common knowledge at this time thanks to many explorers including the Vikings. Another myth is the Columbus who sailed on (past the supposed edge of the world, ignoring the ignorant pleas of his crew who feared they’d fall over the edge or be eaten by sea beasts) discovered and landed on the eventually named shores of America, the brave discoverer hopelessly lost and confused mistakenly calls the inhabitants” Indians” thinking he’s in the East Indies. The reality is that Columbus landed in the already inhabited (and so, obviously discovered) Caribbean first and proceeded to enslave the populace before exploring some of Central America in subsequent voyages. He made further trips to plunder pretty much everything he could get his hands on. Columbus’ intent had been to reach Japan, but instead he reached the newly re-found North America, but refused to admit it (probably because he didn’t want to admit to the king and queen that he’d failed), even going so far as to refer to the inhabitants as “Indians.” Eventually, Columbus was arrested and dismissed as governor of Hispaniola because of charges of genocide and tyranny.

Marco Polo

Marco Polo was not actually the inventor of the popular swimming game that bears his name. He was, rather, an Italian textile merchant and traveler most well-known for his travels in Asia during the latter half of the Thirteenth Century. Polo’s father was a successful merchant who traveled so much that he didn’t actually meet his own son until Marco was fifteen. Two years later, Marco, his father, and brother, all set out to on a journey to Asia which would last twenty-four years. The impetus for this came from a meeting between Polo’s father and Kublai Khan, the Mongol Ruler. Khan requested European academics to come share European culture with him and his people. The elder Polo returned to Europe to gather these resources, and this is when he met his fifteen-year old son, partly because of a delay in acquiring scholars. The family then returned to fulfill Khan’s request and continue trading. Khan then wouldn’t allow the Polos to leave China, which caused some understandable concern, though eventually the Polos were allowed to travel with the Khan’s nephew. When Polo returned to Europe, he discovered that Venice was at war with Genoa. Unfortunately, Polo was imprisoned and dictated the memoir of his travels to a cellmate. The resulting book, The Travels of Marco Polo, was the first real introduction to Central Asian and Chinese cultures for many Europeans. Polo spent the rest of his life in Venice, after becoming a wealthy merchant, marrying, and fathering three children. Though Polo wasn’t the first European to travel to Asia, but his book did bring a clearer understanding of these Asian countries and cultures to the attention of Europeans. Polo had quite a legacy, including being commemorated in various ways from having a breed of sheep named for him to influencing future explorers such as Columbus.

Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese explorer known for organizing the first circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan’s expedition lasted three years, from 1519-1522 and was the first to cross the Strait of Magellan from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, which Magellan also named. Magellan’s goal was a westward route to Asia in order to find an easier trade route. Magellan didn’t complete the circumnavigation of the globe himself, since he died in the Philippines, though his crew continued successfully. Of the two hundred and thirty seven original crew members and five ships, one ship and eighteen men returned. Magellan’s voyage had many interesting and profound results. It sparked interest in colonization of newly discovered territories, which did lead to conflicts with some natives, especially in the Philippines. Many further voyages were less successful. Many undocumented animals were discovered by Magellan’s crew, including a black-skinned “goose” without feathers, which today we know as a penguin. One interesting result occurred when the crew returned and learned that their meticulously kept date was a day behind. This was because they’d crossed what would become the International Date Line, and a special envoy was sent to the pope to explain the discovery.

James Cook

Captain James Cook was a British explorer, navigator, and cartographer most well-known for charting the eastern coastline of Australia, circumnavigating New Zealand, and Hawaii. In his early career, Cook gained attention during the Seven Years War as a cartographer, specifically by charting the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Cook went on to make the first accurate, scientific survey map of the coast of Newfoundland. He then set out on a voyage to Tahiti to map the transit of Venus across the sun and continued to New Zealand, where he made fairly accurate maps of the coast. He then sailed west and became the first European known to encounter the eastern coastline of Australia. Cook encountered indigenous Australians soon afterwards, but encountered difficulties when he hit the Great Barrier Reef. Cook’s second voyage was intended to put to rest the myth of Terra Australis, a hypothetical southern continent theorized as a counterbalance for the heavy landmasses in the Northern hemisphere. Cook came very close to discovering Antarctica, but had to turn north. Later the name was given to Australia due to Cook’s failure to discover a larger continent. Antarctica, itself, wasn’t discovered until later. Cook made many very accurate charts of the Pacific Ocean using advanced new technology. On his third voyage, Cook became the first European to discover the Hawaiian Islands during an attempt to discover the fabled Northwest Passage through North America. Cook charted and mapped much of North America and attempted repeatedly to traverse the Bering Strait, but failed and returned to Hawaii. Cook died in a battle against natives in Hawaii in 1779 over a disagreement involving a small boat stolen from the British crew. Cook made many contributions to science due to his voyages. He discovered several new species and related valuable ethnographic information to Europeans, but his most notable contributions were his maps and charts.

Roald Amundsen

Roald Amundsen was a Norwegian explorer who led polar expeditions, most notably to reach the South Pole. In 1897-99, he took part in the Belgian Antarctic Expedition which became the first ship to winter in Antarctica after the ship became stuck in the ice. Amundsen learned a lot that would be of benefit to him in future expeditions regarding survival in the cold. He also was the first know to traverse the Northwest Passage in 1903-1906, which he accomplished by using a small, heavy ship. During this trip, Amundsen learned valuable survival skills from natives that would be of great use, later. From 1910-1912 he led an Antarctic expedition that discovered the South Pole in 1911. The trip was somewhat uneventful, compared to other trips by explorers such as Scott, who suffered great hardships. Amundsen and his men reached the pole fairly easily and then returned without event, though they lost most of their dogs. Much of Amundsen’s success was due to his careful preparations and focus only on primary objectives. For example, he eschewed cartography and was known to only take two photographs during this trek, whereas other explorers focused a great deal of energy on mapping. Later, he led an expedition which became the first to reach the North Pole in 1926. This expedition had a more scientific focus but was less successful for Amundsen due to desertion and other hardships. Later in life, Amundsen focused on flying over difficult terrain in order to explore. Amundsen became the first to fly undisputed across the Arctic. He disappeared in 1928 during a rescue mission. It was believed that his plane crashed in fog and Amundsen was killed. His body was never found, nor was the wreckage of his ship, other than a wing float and an improvised other wing float, which was found near the Tromso coast.


1. Top 10 Famous Explorers and Expeditions http://www.toptenz.net/top-10-famous-expeditions.php

2. Famous European Explorers http://www.famous-explorers.com/european-explorers/

3. The Greatest Explorers of All Time http://famous-explorers.org/

4. Most Important Explorers http://shareranks.com/5693,Most-Important-Explorers

5. Biography of Marco Polo http://geography.about.com/cs/marcopolo/a/marcopolo.htm

6. Christopher Columbus http://allaboutexplorers.com/explorers/columbus/

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