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North American exploration

Hudson meets natives of the New York area, 1609Hudson meets natives of the New York area, 1609When Christopher Columbus first made landfall in the Americas in 1492, he believed he had arrived in Asia, not an island in the Caribbean. After it became clear that a new continent and another vast expanse of ocean—the Pacific—lay between the Atlantic and Asia, other European expeditions set off to visit the "New World" looking for lands to settle and riches to plunder. The Spanish, who colonized Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean in the early 1500s, soon started to explore the lands to the north of their territory: Florida, the region of what is now the southeastern United States, the Gulf Coast and the American Southwest. They also ventured up the Pacific coast. The French sailed up the Atlantic coast north of Florida, eventually focusing on the region around the St Lawrence River, inland to the Great Lakes and south into the heart of the North American continent.

Columbus lands on a Caribbean island, 1492Columbus lands on a Caribbean island, 1492

Christopher Columbus

At the end of the 15th century, a number of expeditions were launched from European nations in search of a sea route to East Asia (or "the Indies" as the region was called). One was desperately needed now that the overland Silk Route had been closed off by the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The Genoese navigator Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) believed the east could be reached more easily by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean (most educated people of the time believed the world was round) than by taking the longer and hazardous route around the southern tip of Africa. But Columbus drastically underestimated the size of the Earth and, like all Europeans, he was unaware of the existence of the Americas—the Viking voyages to North America in the 10th and 11th centuries had been long forgotten. So when Columbus set foot on an island in the Bahamas in 1492, he was convinced that he had arrived in Asia, not in the Americas.

Toscanelli's map of the Atlantic, followed by ColumbusToscanelli's map of the Atlantic, followed by Columbus

In 1793, the Scottish explorer Alexander Mackenzie (1764–1820) was the first European to reach the Pacific Ocean by travelling overland. His was the first east to west crossing of North America north of Mexico. He found a way across the Rocky Mountains and descended the Bella Coola River in British Columbia to the ocean.

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