Famous Explorers

There have been many famous explorers throughout time whose achievements and bravery are worth noting. Their purposeful accomplishments and occasional accidental discoveries have helped to shape the course of history. Below is a list of some of the most notable explorers of all time.

Famous Explorers

Leif-Ericson Marco-Polo Zheng-He
Leif Ericson (970-1020)
Nationality: Norwegian
Known For: Considered the first European to reach North America
Explorer Leif Ericson is considered to be the first European to arrive in North America and he did so almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus. He created a Norse settlement in Vinland which was located on the far north tip of Newfoundland in present day Canada.
Marco Polo (1254-1324)
Nationality: Venetian
Known For: Explored China and the Mongol Empire
Marco Polo was a merchant traveler who made notes on his travels in the book Livres des merveilles du monde. His journeys through Asia lasted over 24 years and it is said that his story later inspired Christopher Columbus and many others.
Zheng He (1371-1433)
Nationality: Chinese
Known For: Led expeditions to the Middle East, East Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia
Zheng He was a great Chinese explorer, admiral, mariner and diplomat who led expeditions all across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. His connections and fame led him to become the leader of the southern capital Nanjing.
John-Cabot bortolomeu-dias Christopher-Columbus
John Cabot (1450-1498)
Nationality: Italian
Known For: First European to visit North America since the time of the Vikings
John Cabot was the first European since the Norse Viking Leif Ericson to travel to North America. It is believed that he initially landed on Newfoundland in 1497.
Bartolomeu Dias (1451-1500)
Nationality: Portuguese
Known For: First European to sail around the southern tip of Africa
Bortolomeu Dias commanded the ship Sao Cristovao down the West coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope. His discovery of this passage past the southern tip of Africa meant that Europeans would be able to trade with India directly without having to go through expensive middlemen in the Middle East.
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)
Nationality: Italian
Known For: Made first trips that started the Spanish colonization of the Americas
Christopher Columbus made four total trips across the Atlantic Ocean which greatly helped to start and increase Spanish colonization in the “New World.” Columbus’ voyages led directly to an influx in European exploration throughout the world.
Amerigo-Vespucci Vasco-da-Gama Francisco-Pizarro
Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512)
Nationality: Italian
Known For: Found that the “New World” was not Asia, but actually a fourth continent
Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian explorer who first discovered that the West Indies and Brazil were not part of Asia as initally thought, but rather a whole new continent. The new continent was named America, which is believed to be derived from his first name.
Vasco da Gama (1460-1524)
Nationality: Portuguese
Known For: First European to reach India by sea
Vasco da Gama commanded the very first ships that sailed nonstop from Europe to India. This voyage also made him the first European to get to India by sea. His finding of this route led to great increases in trade and boosted the Portuguese economy.
Francisco Pizarro (1471-1541)
Nationality: Spanish
Known For: Conquered the Inca Empire
Francisco Pizarro led expeditions to take over the Incan Empire. He was motivated by stories of riches in the region and after three attempts he successfully conquered the area.
Juan-Ponce-de-Leon Ferdinand-Magellan Hernan-Cortes
Juan Ponce de Leon (1474-1521)
Nationality: Spanish
Known For: Explored and named Florida
Juan Ponce de Leon was a famous conquistador and explorer. In his life he was the first Governor of Puerto Rico, he successfully explored and named Florida, and is closely tied to the notion of the Fountain of Youth being in Florida.
Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521)
Nationality: Portuguese
Known For: First circumnavigation of the Earth
Ferdinand Magellan’s crew was the first to successfully circumnavigate the world. The expedition lasted from 1519 to 1522. Magellan himself did not survive the journey as he was killed in a battle in the Philippines.
Hernan Cortes (1485-1547)
Nationality: Spanish
Known For: Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire
Hernan Cortes was an explorer and conquistador during the time when Spanish colonization of the Americas had just begun. The expedition that he led was essentially the main cause of the fall of the Aztec Empire. The result was that a large chunk of what is now Mexico fell under the power of the King of Castile.
Jacques-Cartier Hernando-de-Soto Francis-Drake
Jacques Cartier (1491-1557)
Nationality: French
Known For: Claimed what is now Canada for France. Mapped the Saint Lawrence River and gulf
Jacques Cartier is known for being the first European to take note of and map out the Saint Lawrence River shores and gulf. Most notably, he claimed what is present day Canada for France.
Hernando de Soto (1496-1542)
Nationality: Spanish
Known For: Led first European expedition far into what is now the United States
Explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto led the first deep European expedition into present day United States. He is known for being the first European to cross the Mississippi River and his group spent a lot of time looking for gold and silver, as well as a passage to China.
Francis Drake (1540-1596)
Nationality: English
Known For: Second circumnavigation of the Earth
Sir Francis Drake of England led the second successful circumnavigation of the globe. He was known as a hero in England, but considered a pirate by the Spanish. In fact, Spanish King Philip II put the up equivalent of a $6.5 million dollar bounty for Drake’s life.
Henry-Hudson Samuel-de-Champlain John-Smith
Henry Hudson (1565-1611)
Nationality: English
Known For: Searched for Northwest passage to China
Henry Hudson twice attmpted to find a Northwest Passage to China by taking routes north of the Arctic Circle. During his trips he ended up exploring the area of what is now present day New York City. The Hudson River is named after him.
Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635)
Nationality: French
Known For: Founder of Quebec City and New France
Known as the “Father of New France,” Samuel de Champlain is famous for helping to create settlements in present day Canada. He also made the first detailed map of the coastal regions of the area.
John Smith (1580-1631)
Nationality: English
Known For: Helped establish Jamestown, Virginia. Mapped Chesapeake Bay and New England
John Smith is famous for being an Admiral of New England. He established the initial permanent English settlement of Jamestown in North America and notably mapped New England and the Chesapeake Bay region. He is also known for his story of being saved by Pocahontas
James-Cook Daniel-Boone Lewis-and-Clark
James Cook (1728-1779)
Nationality: British
Known For: First European to reach Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. First circumnavigation of New Zealand
Over the course of three journeys, James Cook sailed over thousands of miles in uncharted waters and mapped the regions from Hawaii to New Zealand in the Pacific. During his trips he logged information about previously unknown stretches of coast and islands.
Daniel Boone (1734-1820)
Nationality: American
Known For: Exploring and settling what is now Kentucky
Daniel Boone is an American folk hero and is famous for his explorations west of the Appalachian Mountains in what is present day Kentucky. Over 200,000 Europeans traveled through the trail created by Boone to help settle this region.
Lewis and Clark (1774-1809),(1770-1838)
Nationality: American
Known For: Explored the Pacific Northwest of the United States
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery Expedition across the Western part of the United States under the orders of President Thomas Jefferson. The expedition went from May of 1804 to September of 1806 with a main goal of exploring and mapping this newly acquired area of the United States.
Sacagawea-photo Roald-Amundsen Jacques-Cousteu
Sacagawea (1788-1812)
Nationality: Native American
Known For: Explored Western United Stated with Lewis and Clark
Sacagawea played a key role in the expedition of Lewis and Clark where she was their gide and interpreter while they explored the Western United States. The journey took her from present day North Dakota to the Pacific from 1804 to 1806.
Roald Amundsen (1872-1928)
Nationality: Norwegian
Known For: First person to reach the South Pole
Roald Amundsen is known for exploring the polar regions of Earth. He was the first person to cross the Northwest Passage. In 1926 he became the first person to reach the North Pole. Amundsen dissappeared in 1928 while on a rescue mission.
Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997)
Nationality: French
Known For: Various underwater expeditions
Jacques Cousteau was a Frenchman who in known for his underwater exploration, innovations and marine conservation. Cousteau did a lot of underwater excursions in the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. He is also famous for developing the Aqua-Lung.
Edmund-Hillary Neil-Armstrong Reinhold-Messner
Edmund Hillary (1919-2008)
Nationality: New Zealander
Known For: First person to reach the top of Mount Everest
Sir Edmund Percival Hillary was a explorer and mountaineer. He, along with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, were the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Hillary was also the first person to get to both the North and South poles.
Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)
Nationality: American
Known For: First person to walk on the Moon
Neil Armstrong was a pilot, aerospace engineer, professor and astronaut. He became the first person to walk on the moon on July 21st, 1969. His famous first words when he stepped out onto the moon were “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Reinhold Messner (1944-present)
Nationality: Italian
Known For: First solo climb of Mount Everest without oxygen tanks
Reinhold Messner is widely regarded as the greatest climber in history. He has climbed all 14 mountains on Earth that are over 8,000 meters above sea level, also known as the “eight-thousanders.” He also made the first solo climb of Mount Everest without oxygen assistance.
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