Top 10 Famous Explorers and Expeditions


History is filled with brave explorers who tirelessly sought to fill out the edges of our known world. Often these expeditions have taken years of determined wandering into uncharted territory. Here is a list of the top 10 famous explorers who have returned as heroes, whose names echo out in history as the greatest explorers of their time:

10. Roald Amundsen’s Search for the Northwest Passage

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Roald Amundsen was born into a family of Norwegian ship owners.  Despite promising his mother that he would become a doctor, he joined the family business after her death. His first expedition was the Belgian Antarctic Expedition of 1897-1899, where he was the first mate to Adrien de Gerlache. The first expedition that Amundsen led was a search for the North West Passage in 1903. The elusive North West Passage had been sought after for many years by many men, starting in 1539 when Hernan Cortez commissioned Francisco Ulloa to sail along the peninsula of Baha, California.

Amundsen began his journey with six crewmen in a 47-ton steel seal hunting ship named Gjoa. They began in Baffin Bay and made their way to Resolute and then to Gjoa Haven, where they were forced to winter but instead stayed a whole year. Next they sailed around the southern coast of Victoria Island and along the northern coast of Canada and Alaska before landing in Eagle City, Alaska. On December 5, 1905, while staying in Eagle City, Amundsen wired a message of success. Forced to spend the winter in Eagle City, they arrived in Nome in 1906, where Amundsen received news that Norway had become independent of Sweden. He sent a message to the new King, Haakon VII, that his success “was a great achievement for Norway.” Amundsen later went on to become the first person to reach the South Pole and the first person to fly over the North Pole.

The Guides

During his time in Gjoa Haven (which he called the finest little harbor in the world) he learned survival skills from the local Nattilik people. He was taught how to use sled dogs and to wear animal skins instead of woolen parkas. Also, during this time he made several observations about magnetics.

9. Hernan Cortes and the Fall of the Aztec Empire

The Conquest of Tenochtitlán

The Conquest of Tenochtitlán

Hernan Cortes was born in 1485 in Medellin, in what was then the Kingdom of Castile in Spain. He went to the University of Salamanca when he was fourteen but soon grew tired of his studies and returned to Medellin, just as news of Columbus’ discovery was reaching Spain. Cortez left Spain for the New World in 1504 where he planned to be a colonist of the island Hispaniola (a large Caribbean island, now the location of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he registered as a citizen when they arrived.

Cortes took part in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba in 1506 and was rewarded with a large estate and Indian slaves. In 1518 he led an expedition into Mexico. When the governor who sent him on the expedition changed his mind (because of a rivalry between them), Cortes went anyway. He left in February 1519 with 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses and a handful of canons. When he arrived in the Yucatan Peninsula he burnt his ships, thus committing himself to the conquest. Cortes moved inland to the city Tenochitlan, befriending thousands of Indians who were tired of the Aztec domination of the area along the way. When he reached the city, Cortes was welcomed by the Emperor Montezuma II, who believed that Cortes was the returning god Quetzalcoatl (this eventually led to his imprisonment).

The conquest was short lived, and when Cortes heard that a group of Spanish forces from Cuba had come to relieve him of his command, he left Tenochitlan with a captain and rode off to defeat his opposition. When he returned victoriously, the city had revolted and he led his forces away from the city. He returned in 1521 and this time conquered not only the city, but the entire Aztec Empire.

The Guides

When he first landed in Mexico, Cortes met Geronimo de Anguilar, a Spanish priest who had survived a shipwreck and captivity in a Mayan village. It was during his captivity that he learned Mayan and he became a translator for Cortes. After winning a battle at Tabasco, Cortes was given 20 young women, one of which, La Malinche, would become his mistress and bear him a child, Martin. But La Malinche was more than just his lover, she knew both the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs and Mayan, and became his interpreter and counselor.

8. Charles Darwin’s Journey on the HMS Beagle

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Charles Darwin was born in 1809.  Even before attending school, Darwin was already showing a great interest in natural history and collecting. He later attended the University of Edinburgh Medical School but soon began neglecting his studies to learn taxidermy from John Edmonstone, who had joined Charles Waterton on his journey into the South American rainforest. In his second year of studies he joined the Plinian Society, a student natural history group, where he learned the classification of plants and animals.

When he returned home from his studies he found a letter from John Stevens Henslow (a botany professor and close friend), that proposed Darwin would be a suitable gentleman naturalist to accompany captain Robert FitzRoy to chart the South American coastline on the HMS Beagle. Their journey began on December 27, 1831 and would last almost five years. Darwin spent most of his time in those years on lands investigating geology and making natural history collections. Their route took them from Portsmouth, England; to St. Jago, now called Santiago, Cape Verde; Brazil; Punta Alta in Patagonia; Chile; the Galapagos Islands; the southern coast of Australia; the Cocos (Keeling) Islands; and Cape Town, South Africa.

Darwin encountered thousands of species during the voyage and when he was back home cataloguing his collections, he began to form the basic ideas which later became On the Origin of Species and his Theory of Evolution, which would become his defining work and would secure his place in the history books.

The Guides

Guides did not accompany Darwin on his expedition. However, he was guided by the works of several notable naturalists and geologists. During his time at University, Darwin was influenced by Robert Edmund Grant, William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, John Stevens Henslow, Alexander von Humbolt’s Personal Narrative and John Herschel. On the voyage itself he studied a volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, and while in Capetown he had the opportunity to meet Hercshel.

7. Ferdinand Magellan and the First Circumnavigation of the Earth

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Magellan was born in 1480 in Sabrosa, Portugal. His parents both died when he was ten and young Ferdinand became a page to Queen Leonor. His young adulthood was spent fighting throughout Egypt, India and Malaysia. Despite his service he was not favored by the crown and in 1517, accompanied by cosmographer Ruy Faliero, he offered his services to the Spanish court in Seville.

At the time, the Treaty of Tordesillas had divided the New World: Portugal held Brazil to the East Indies and Spain held western Brazil to the 134ºE meridian. Magellan wanted to test the assumption that the Spice Islands (Molucca Islands) belonged to the Spanish side. King Charles V of Spain endorsed the expedition, so Magellan led five ships from Spain on September 20, 1519. They sailed to Brazil and then down the South American coastline to San Julian, Patagonia where they wintered. While in San Julian, there was an attempted mutiny- one mutinous leader was beheaded, others marooned.

Other guilty crewmembers worked in chains. Afterwards, three of the five shops passed cautiously through the Strait of Magellan. Next, they landed in Guam and then sailed to Cebu in the Philippines, where Magellan decided to fight in a war in an attempt to gain favor with a local ruler. Magellan’s brother-in-law Duarte Barbosa and the commander of one of the ships, Joao Serrao, were killed in battle. Most of the rest of crew became sick and the few survivors were forced to destroy one of the ships. Magellan died in battle during a raid when the ship officers delayed assistance, hoping that he would be killed in battle. Juan Sebastian del Cano, a former mutineer, completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth, reaching Seville on September 8, 1522.

The Guides

Magellan’s voyage was unguided as he was the first to make such a journey. He was however accompanied by a crew of 234 men from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and France.

6. The Travels of Marco Polo

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The earliest famous explorer on this list, Marco Polo, inspired many of the other explorers. He was born in Venice around 1254. His father, Niccolo and his uncle Matteo were wealthy merchants who traded with the Middle East. Niccolo was away when Marco was born and the two finally met when he was fifteen. They spent two years together in Venice before the three of them set out for Cathay (what is now China) in 1271. They were sent with letters from Pope Gregory X to Kublai Khan, whom the older Polos had met on their previous trip.

Their journey took them through Armenia, Persia, Afghanistan, over the Pamir mountains, along the Silk Road, through the Taklamaken and Gobi desert, all the way to Cambaluc (Beijing). The journey that took more than three years. Marco Polo spent the next seventeen years at Khan’s court, holding several government positions including Ambassador to Khan and Governor of the City of Yangzhou. He also led missions into areas of China, India and Burma that would not be seen again until the last century. In 1292 he escorted a Mongol princess to her wedding to a Persian King but had to wait as her intended husband had died before they arrived.

Marco joined the army when he returned to Venice and he was captured in 1298. During his imprisonment he met the romance writer Rustichello da Pisa, who helped him write down the tales of his travels. The work was later published as Il Milione (The Million Lies), and soon became one of the most popular books in Medieval Europe. The book later became known as The Travels of Marco Polo.

The Guides

Marco Polo was accompanied by his father and uncle. They had been to Cathay before and had already built up a rapport with the Great Khan. Khan and the members of his court taught him the Mongol language and customs.

5. Stanley’s Search for Livingstone

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Dr. David Livingstone was a missionary who had been sent to Africa in 1841. He set out to explore the African interior when the Kolobeng Mission where he had been working, closed. He discovered Victoria Falls and became one of the first westerners to make a transcontinental journey across Africa. He then grudgingly set his sights on finding the source of the Nile, a mystery more than three thousand years old.

His journey took him from Zanzibar, up the Ruvuma River to Lake Malawi and then to Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. By the time he reached Ujiji he was practically alone, most of his supplies had been stolen and he had fallen ill. He sent word to Zanzibar for more supplies and continued to Lake Mweru and Lake Bangweulu with slave traders. He found the Lualaba River and, believing it was in fact the source of the Nile, he returned to Ujiji, where he found that his fresh supplies had been stolen. By then rumors of his death had been swirling throughout Europe and America for a few years and caught the attention of a young American journalist by the name of Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley was born John Rowlands in Wales and was orphaned at an early age. He came to America when he was eighteen years old and began working for a trader named Henry Stanley.

When Stanley died, John took his name and joined the Confederate Army. After the Civil War he became a journalist working for the New York Herald. The newspaper funded his expedition to find Livingstone- he began in Zanzibar in 1871. He followed the same route as his predecessor and faced many of the same challenges such as desertion and tropical diseases like malaria and dysentery. Stanley found Livingstone on October 27, 1871 in Ujiji. He was standing in the midst of a group of Arab slave traders and Stanley approached him and uttered the famous greeting “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

The Guides

Stanley’s expedition was guided by 200 experienced porters, most of whom deserted the expedition or died of disease along the way. So many porters tried to leave that Stanley began flogging them. Livingstone, on the other hand, had set out with a team consisting of freed slaves, twelve Sepoys and two loyal servants from his previous expeditions. When Livingstone died in 1873 it was these two servants, Chuma and Susi, that brought his body and his journal to the coast so it could be taken back to England.

4. Lewis and Clark and the Expansion into the West

Painting Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia (Height: 24 ? (60.9 cm); Width: 28 ? (71.1 cm) ) by Charles Marion Russell; Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper Painting Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia (Height: 24 ? (60.9 cm); Width: 28 ? (71.1 cm) ) by Charles Marion Russell; Opaque and transparent watercolor over graphite underdrawing on paper

In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase turned America’s attention to the west. The American government had no idea what it had bought from France, so President Thomas Jefferson got Congress to set aside $2,500 for an expedition, just weeks after the transaction was completed. It was to be led by US Army Captain Mariwether Lewis, who selected William Clark as his partner. They left St. Louis in May 1804 with 3 sergeants and 22 soldiers, as well as volunteers, interpreters and Clark’s slave. They began by heading up the Missouri River and wintering at Fort Mandan (now the site of Bismark, North Dakota).

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In the spring they continued to the headwaters of the river and then crossed the Continental Divide before following the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia Rivers west to the Pacific. At the mouth of the Columbia they built Fort Clatsop, which later became Astoria, Oregon. On their return journey, they split into three groups after crossing the Rockies to map more land. They reunited near where the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers converged and continued together to St. Louis. They arrived in St. Louis to a heroes’ welcome on September 23, 1806. Their 28-month journey proved that there was no transcontinental water route and they brought back a treasure trove of information, including maps of their route, descriptions of Plains Indian culture and observations of the environment.

The Guides

Lewis and Clark were guided from Fort Mandan (Bismark) by a young Shoshone Indian woman named Sacagawea. She guided the expedition thousands of miles carrying her infant son, Jean Baptiste on her back. Her knowledge and her relationship with her people were an invaluable addition to their mission.

3. Sir Edmund Hillary and the First Successful Everest Expedition

Hillary and Norgay

Hillary and Norgay

Edmund Hillary was born in Auckland, New Zealand on July 20, 1919. He studied mathematics and science at the University of Auckland. He then became a beekeeper with his brother Rex,  climbing several peaks during his spare time. When World War II broke out, he joined the Air Force but withdrew his application before it could be considered. Later under conscription he would join the RNZAF as a navigator. In 1953 he set his sights on the world’s highest peak. At the time the route to Everest was closed through Chinese Tibet and the Nepalese government only allowed one expedition per year, so he had to wait for the British attempt in 1953. John Hunt, the leader of the expedition, named two teams for the ascent: Tom Bourdillion would be with Charles Evans and Edmund Hillary would be paired with Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay.

The total expedition included 362 porters, 20 Sherpa guides and 10,000 lbs. of baggage. Bourdillion and Evans were the first pair to attempt to reach the summit- they came within 100m of the apex before turning back because of exhaustion. Hillary and Norgay began their assault two days later on the South Col Route. On May 29, 1953 at 11:30am local time the pair reached the summit with Hillary placing his foot on the summit first. They stopped to take photos of their achievement and buried some sweets and a small cross before making the descent.

The first person to greet them was George Lowe, Hillary’s lifelong friend, who had climbed up to bring them hot soup. Hillary met Lowe with the words “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.” For their efforts Hillary and expedition leader John Hunt were both knighted and Norgay was awarded the George Medal by Queen Elizabeth II. Hunt was made a life peer in Britain and Hillary was a founding member of the Order of New Zealand.

The Guides

Born into a Sherpa tribe in 1914, Tenzing Norgay proved to be an invaluable member of the 1953 Everest team. This wasn’t his first trip to the top of the world’s largest peak, he had been on six previous expeditions up Everest. Norgay had originally joined the expedition as a Sherpa guide but when he saved Hillary from falling to his death in a crevasse, Hillary began to think of him as the perfect climbing partner for his ascent.

2. Christopher Columbus’ Discovery of the New World

First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, W.I., Oct. 12th 1492 First landing of Columbus on the shores of the New World, at San Salvador, W.I., Oct. 12th 1492

One of the most famous explorers in the world, Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, Italy in 1451. Columbus grew up helping his father at his cheese stand. In 1470 the family moved to Savona and later that same year he became a seaman in the Portuguese merchant marine. In 1492 Columbus was sponsored by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain to try to reach Asia by a westward route. He departed from Palos, Spain on August 3, 1492 with three ships, The Santa Maria, The Nina and The Pinta. He made his way to the Castile owned Canary Islands, where he restocked his ships and continued for five weeks across the Atlantic Ocean. They sighted land at 2am on October 12, 1492.

When they reached the island Columbus named it San Salvador (they were in the Bahamas although it is not known exactly which island it was). He explored Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) where he founded the settlement of La Navidad. During his expedition he encountered Lucayan, Taino and Arawak Indians. When he returned to Spain, he kidnapped 10-25 Indians to bring with him (only seven or eight survived). He arrived in Palos on March 15, 1493 and was named Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Governor General of all the lands he had discovered and would discover in the future. Columbus would make another three journeys to the New World, filling in more and more of what we now call the Caribbean.

The Guides

The land that Columbus discovered was so foreign to the Western world at the time that no one could have possibly guided him to it. However, Columbus wasn’t looking for America, he was looking for Asia. He would have used The Travels of Marco Polo, Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi, and Ptolemy’s estimation of the circumference of the earth as guides.

1. Neil Armstrong’s First Steps on the Moon

Armstrong was born on August 5, 1930 in Wapakoneta, Ohio.  At an early age, he was fascinated by airplanes. On his sixteenth birthday, Armstrong was issued a pilot’s license and he even built a small wind tunnel in his basement where he did experiments on model planes. After two years at Purdue University he was called to active duty with the Navy where he flew 78 combat missions during the Korean War. When he returned from the war he completed his degree in aeronautical engineering.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S flag on the Moon (mission time: 110:10:33). His fingertips are visible on the far side of his faceplate. Note the well-defined footprints in the foreground. Buzz is facing up-Sun. There is a reflection of the Sun in his visor. At the bottom of Buzz's faceplate, note the white 'rim' which is slightly separated from his neckring. This 'rim' is the bottom of his gold visor, which he has pulled down. We can see the LEC straps hanging down inside of the ladder strut. In the foreground, we can see the foot-grabbing loops in the TV cable. The double crater under Neil's LM window is just beyond the LM shadow.

Buzz Aldrin salutes the U.S flag on the Moon (mission time: 110:10:33). His fingertips are visible on the far side of his faceplate. Note the well-defined footprints in the foreground. Buzz is facing up-Sun. There is a reflection of the Sun in his visor. At the bottom of Buzz’s faceplate, note the white ‘rim’ which is slightly separated from his neckring. This ‘rim’ is the bottom of his gold visor, which he has pulled down. We can see the LEC straps hanging down inside of the ladder strut. In the foreground, we can see the foot-grabbing loops in the TV cable. The double crater under Neil’s LM window is just beyond the LM shadow.

He then became a test pilot at the NCAA High Speed Flight Station at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In September 1962, Armstrong became America’s first civilian astronaut and began training in Houston, Texas. He was an alternate command pilot for the Gemini 5 and was command pilot for Gemini 8 in 1966 where he fixed a malfunction that made the vehicle go out of control, landing within 1.1 nautical miles of the intended landing point. He went back to his training and was an alternate for Gemini 11 but he impressed those who would choose the first crew to go to the moon. In January 1969 he was chosen as commander of the Apollo 11 mission that would land on the moon. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center at 9:32am on July 16, 1969.

Their successful journey took four days and they landed on the moon on July 20 with the world watching and listening on TV and radio. At 10:56pm Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, saying “That’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and Aldrin spent two hours walking on the moon, deploying a seismograph and wind particle collector and collecting rock and soil samples.

The Guides

Armstrong and the other members of the Apollo 11 team were guided from the ground by a group of hundreds of flight controllers, each of whom responsible for a single operation of the vehicle. They were headed by Flight Director, Gene Kranz, who was also the Flight Director for Gemini 4 and odd-numbered Apollo missions, most notably he was responsible for bringing Apollo 13 home safely.

Did we leave off any famous explorers? Leave a comment and set us straight.

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  1. Hans Tau Hatlestad on

    You left out Leiv Eriksson, the first non native to discover and settle in America, or Vinland that is.

  2. You really need James Cook in here. He basically reinvented cartography and was the first (of any people) to determine there was no Terra Australis Incognito. No one had circumnavigated the globe to the extend and meticulous detail that he had done. He should be at least no. 2.


  3. And not even a peep about James Cook – probably the most important explorer of them all outside of Christopher Columbus.

  4. Google Earth on

    Now we have many apps to use with GPS and maps with Android apps and others, Technology facilitates humans to investigate and learn

  5. You can digitally experience the explorations of Roald Amundsen, Hernan Cortes, Charles Darwin, Marco Polo, H.M. Stanley, Lewis and Clark, and over 20 other famous explorers in Google Map at MyReadingMapped. There you can zoom in close to see the actual villages, forts, ruins, pyramids, etc. and read the eBook written by the explorer, or historian, that is page-referenced and quoted within the map on a location by location basis in order to prove the accuracy of the map. In addition, you can use the associated Google Earth KML files to digitally walk the path the explorer traveled from location marker to location marker.

  6. hi, i am really really really really confused who is the first guy ever to land on the moon? because u searched on google + you-tube + BBC they all say that Apollo and Neil strong both landed on the moon in the same year? did they both have a race to the moon then have a tea party? if so then why is there only one foot print on the moon it cant be both of them who went =S

    • Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were both part of the same crew (Apollo 11). Buzz was the second man to walk on the moon, getting out after Neil.

      And the reason there is only one footprint we know of is because that was the best picture of one they had, so it’s the one NASA used in press releases and such. Follow me?

  7. What!?! Land of the Lost should have been #1, everyone loves Marshall, Will & Holly.

    Great list BTW, very fun to read.

  8. Cortez did not burn his ships, the materials and fittings were much too valuable for that. He dismantled them and reused everything. Also this happened in a small bay in the state of Veracruz, about 800 miles west of where he first landed, Isla Cozumel.

  9. Stanley found Livingstone on May 27, 1876 in Ujiji. He was standing in the midst of a group of Arab slave traders and Stanley approached him and uttered the famous greeting “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

    When Livingstone died in 1873?

    According to the text, seems that Stanley was speaking to a dead & mummified & propped up Livingstone?

    • Sorry about that, the date has been corrected. Now where did my site editor go? 😉

      Stanley found Livingstone in the town of Ujiji on October 27, 1871. And he was quite alive at the time.