The history of global exploration can essentially be broken down into several compelling stories of men who had no idea where they were headed. Here are some of the most famous navigators whose lack of GPS inadvertently had a major impact on the modern world.
Christopher Columbus (1451–1506)
‘In the year 1492′, a popular nursery rhyme tells us, ‘Columbus sailed the ocean blue’. But given the stubborn Italian’s knack for incorrectly pinpointing his location, it’s a miracle he even found the ocean in the first place. Columbus made three famous voyages to the New World between 1492 and 1502. The first (and most famous) expedition reached Cuba and Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and his second journey explored other islands in the Caribbean; on both occasions, he returned to Europe convinced he had just visited the Chinese coast. His final voyage failed to yield discovery of the Indian Ocean—which makes sense, considering he landed in Central America. His Spanish financiers were not impressed with the explorer’s findings; he was stripped of his titles and died in poverty, still clinging to the idea that he was the world’s foremost expert on trade routes to China.
Juan Ponce de León (1460–1521)
So many explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries wanted to discover efficient shipping routes and establish trade with native peoples, but Ponce de León was preoccupied with visions of buried treasure and the Fountain of Youth. After an initial voyage to the Caribbean and successful dealings with the inhabitants of what is now Puerto Rico, the Spaniard returned to the area with a vast fleet in the hopes of building a sizeable settlement—and getting his hands on some gold. But he got sidetracked when locals told him about Bimini, an island blessed with a spring that granted eternal youth to all who drank from it. Well into his 50′s, Ponce de León gathered some men and set sail to this mythical isle in the hope of finding ever-lasting rejuvenation. Instead, they landed in Florida, which today boasts more retired Americans than any other US state. How’s that for irony?
John Cabot (1450-?)
Columbus wasn’t the only explorer to mistake North America for Asia; Englishman John Cabot did the exact same thing five years after Columbus’ first voyage. He believed the westward journey to Asia would be shorter from Northern Europe than by following Columbus’ route along the mid-Atlantic trade winds, never once considering that ‘eastward’ was literally the way to go. So when Cabot and his crew reached what is now the eastern coast of Canada (most likely Nova Scotia or Newfoundland), they promptly congratulated themselves on a voyage to Asia well done. The explorer received a hero’s welcome upon his return to England, and was later commissioned to make a second trip. Cabot and his men were never seen again; though historians long speculated that his ship went down at sea, new evidence suggests he and his surviving crew may have actually made it to their destination after all, where they presumably celebrated by consuming some of that fine ‘Asian’ cuisine they enjoyed so much during the first voyage.
Giovanni de Verrazzano (1485–1528)
By the early 1500s, Europeans were growing accustomed to the idea that the New World was, in fact, not Asia—but many financiers were still convinced there was a trade route that connected the Atlantic and Pacific. Francis I of France commissioned Giovanni de Verrazzano to explore the North American coast in the hope of locating this mythical passage. He visited areas of what is now Florida, North Carolina, New York, and Rhode Island, encountering various Native peoples and probably confusing the hell out of them in his search for a strait that simply wasn’t there. He returned to France with a lot of knowledge about indigenous American life—but little else. So, Francis I sent de Verrazzano back to the New World, where he explored the Gulf of Mexico and various islands in the Caribbean before meeting a gruesome fate at the hands of cannibals near what is now Jamaica.
Jacques Cartier (1491–1557)
After de Verrazzano failed to locate a New World Passage to Asia, the undeterred King Francis sent fellow Frenchman Jacques Cartier to locate the non-existent route. Cartier made it further inland than many of his predecessors; he sailed into what is now the Gulf of St. Lawrence during his voyage (thereby ‘discovering’ Prince Edward Island), and established contact with Iriquois tribes as far west as the St. Lawrence River during the second trip. Cartier was much more imaginative than other explorers of his time; he returned to France and promised the king that ‘vast riches’ lay further west, as well as a massive river rumored to stretch 2,000 miles in length that most likely led to Asia. Of course, we now know this river (the Mississippi) actually flows to Louisiana, but hindsight is 20/20. Cartier did succeed in royally pissing off the Iriquois, and his testy relationship with the tribe set the precedent for settler-Native dealings for centuries to come.
Henry Hudson (1570?-1611?)
This famous Englishman was among the first Europeans to extensively explore the eastern coast of North America. He and his crew established trade with indigenous peoples of Nova Scotia, traveled up the then-unexplored river that now bears his name, and recorded sightings of large whale pods off the coast of Greenland that later proved instrumental to the whaling industry. However, Hudson’s three voyages were still a disappointment; his ultimate goal was to locate a ‘Northeast Passage’ that directly connected European trading vessels to the Asian mainland, which he was unable to find for one simple reason: it didn’t exist. The Arctic Ocean proved impassable due to large blocks of ice and the Panama Canal was a few centuries away. As for Hudson, his crew had quite enough of this ‘Northeast Passage’ rubbish after the third go-round and staged a mutiny; the explorer paddled off in a rowboat with his son and seven other crewmen, and they were never seen again.
William Clark (1770–1838) and
Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809)
The Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific was mostly successful, but the explorers did manage to get lost near the Missouri River. Their routes were largely based on the accounts of fur traders, but certain stretches relied on anecdotal information from local Native guides. Naturally, some of their directions were better than others. After heading east from Mandan settlements, Lewis and Clark reached a previously unmentioned fork in the river, and the dilemma of deciding which fork was actually the Missouri proved time-consuming. After a week of scouting reports and probably a good deal of campfire bickering, the explorers chose the southern fork—which, as it turned out, was the correct assessment.