The Age of Discovery: Timeline & Explorers

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  • 0:01 Age of Discovery
  • 1:30 Early Exploration:…
  • 2:15 Race to Claim Land
  • 3:15 Explorers & Explorations
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will examine what is commonly called the Age of Discovery. We learn what it was and when it was, and we will look at some of the important explorers who lived during this dynamic time.

The Age of Discovery

age of exploration

The Age of Discovery is sometimes called the Age of Exploration, and the two terms are often used interchangeably. The Age of Discovery was a period of time between the 1400s and 1600s, when global exploration took place at an unprecedented level. While some scholars argue it began in 1492, others point toward earlier dates. The beginning and ending of the era are subject to debate, but most everyone agrees the Age of Discovery peaked throughout the 1500s. This time primarily involved exploration of the New World, although we must keep in mind there were also significant explorations taking place in other parts of the world.

Undoubtedly, Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World in 1492 was the single most important event of the Age of Discovery, and it helped pave the way for other explorations. Explorers like John Cabot, Ponce de Leon, Ferdinand Magellan, and Vasco de Balboa were important figures in the 'Age of Discovery.' The Portuguese and Spanish played a particularly important role in the Age of Discovery, but as time went on, other European countries began making contributions as well.

Initially the Age of Discovery was spurred by a desire to find a sea route to the East Indies for the purpose of trading for gold, silk, spices, and other exotic products. Once explorers realized that the land to the west was a new continent and not part of East Asia, exploration of the New World became a race among the European powers to lay claim to the land.

Early Exploration: Spain and Portugal

Throughout the 1400s, the Portuguese led the way in maritime exploration. The son of King John I of Portugal, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), became famous for his efforts to promote sea exploration through financing. Realizing the small neighboring country of Portugal was dominating exploration, Spain began sending out explorers of their own. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain commissioned a young, Italian sailor named Christopher Columbus to find an ocean route to India and bring back riches. In October 1492, Columbus landed on the island of San Salvador in the Caribbean Sea. Columbus did not realize he had discovered a new continent, but believed he was somewhere off the coast of India or Japan.

Race to Claim Land

Columbus' accidental discovery of the New World ushered in a massive European race to lay claim to the new land. Then, other countries, like France and England, wanted the land for colonization as well. In 1497, John Cabot landed somewhere in Northern North America (probably near Newfoundland) and claimed the region for England. French explorer Jacques Cartier also explored North America. He explored along the St. Lawrence River in 1534.

The Dutch were involved in New World exploration too, although their efforts came considerably later than the Spanish, French, and English and were not nearly as significant. They did, however, establish a colony on Manhattan Island in the early 1600s and conducted explorations throughout the Caribbean. While the English and French were primarily concerned with exploring the Northern part of North America, the Spanish focused on Southern North America and South America.

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