8 Explorers Who Changed History by Getting Lost

Juan Ponce de Leon

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.