Exploration and Settlement

Hernando De Soto

Were the Spaniards the first Europeans to reach North America after the Vikings?

No, that distinction goes to explorer John Cabot (c. 1451–1498), who in 1497 sailed westward from Bristol, England, in search of a trade route to the East. Cabot’s story began in 1493, when Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) returned to Spain from his New World voyage, claiming to have reached Asia. From the accounts of the trip, Cabot, who was himself a navigator, believed it was unlikely that Columbus had traveled that far. He did, however, believe it was possible (as did subsequent explorers) to find a route—a northwest passage—that ran north of the landmass Columbus had discovered, and by which Asia could be reached. In 1495 the Italian Cabot, born Giovanni Caboto, took his family to England, and the following year, in March, appealed to King Henry VII (1457–1509) for his endorsement in pursuing the plan. For his part, the king, who was well aware of the claims made by the Spanish and Portuguese who had sponsored their own explorations, was eager to find new lands to rule. And so he granted a patent, authorizing Cabot’s expedition.

Later that year, 1496, Cabot set sail, but problems on board the ship and foul weather forced him to turn back. The following spring, on May 20, 1497, he sailed again, in a small ship that had been christened Matthew. The crew of 20 included his son, Sebastian. On June 24, they sighted land and Cabot went ashore. While he saw signs of human habitation, he encountered no one. From reports of the trip, scholars believe Cabot had reached the coasts of present-day Maine, Nova Scotia, and probably Newfoundland. He then sailed home, returning to England on August 6. He reported to the king six days later and was given a reward, as well as authorization for a more sizeable expedition, which he undertook in May 1498. This time Cabot set sail with five ships in his command. But the expedition was not heard from again.


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