At this point, it’s well-known and accepted that Christopher Columbus was not the first explorer to reach the Americas. So who got there before him? There are various opposing arguments as to which European, Asian and African explorers may have reached the Americas prior to that fateful day in 1492. Here are ten of the most notable.
10. Lehi (Reached “Promised Land” About 589 BC)
The first alleged pre-Columbian explorer of the Atlantic Ocean is a prophet from The Book of Mormon. As such, his existence is something that you are only likely to believe in if you happen to be a Mormon.
According to the book, Lehi originally hailed from Jerusalem during King Zedekiah’s reign as the final King of Judah, before the Babylonians destroyed that kingdom and capture Jerusalem. In the aftermath of that destruction, Lehi then traveled down the Arabian Peninsula with his family and friends. They subsequently built a ship capable of traversing the ocean and managed to arrive in the Americas, setting the stage for much of the Mormon theological history of the Americas.
Nevertheless, non-Mormon archaeologists have found many anachronisms and historical errors in the Book of Mormon’s description of American flora and fauna among other things, although Mormon apologists have attempted to refute these criticisms. As such, only a minority of individuals out of the broader world population accept this particular possibility as plausible.
9. Saint Brendan (Possibly Reached The Americas Between 512 and 530 AD)
Perhaps a full thousand years later, Saint Brendan of Clonfert, also known as The Navigator, lived in Ireland. As a saint, he is the subject of hagiographic literature, the most fantastic of which suggesting he undertook a number of voyages straight out of a Jules Verne book. For example, he encounters a sea monster, while searching for the Garden of Eden with anywhere from seventeen to sixty fellow voyagers, using a boat made of skin or leather, known as a currach.
Whether they accomplished this fantastic voyage or not is uncertain and, as with Lehi, one must have faith to believe the story due to the various supernatural elements (God intervenes, for example, to save the crew from a sea creature.) Regardless, Brendan became a revered man whom Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Christians alike celebrate as the patron saint of boatmen, divers, mariners, sailors, travelers, whales, the diocese of Clonfert and the diocese of Kerr. Busy guy.
8. Erik the Red (Discovered Greenland by 985)
Eric The Red is known from Norse sagas of his exploits, but historians are far more convinced that he actually accomplished what is claimed in those sagas. This Norwegian is the first Viking to set up a settlement on Greenland, and thereby provided a major step in the process of Viking exploration further westward across the Atlantic Ocean.
Erik lived up to the reputation of a stereotypical Viking. He was first exiled from Iceland for murder around 982. So, he sailed to the then-mysterious and unknown island of Greenland, which he named as such because it had an appealing sound to it, and it might encourage subsequent settlers to follow him. To that end, despite his rough beginnings, he had set in motion a chain of events that would cause further Viking expeditions in the next few decades.
7. Bjarni Herjólfsson (Spotted North America In 985 or 986)
One such follow-up expedition to Erik came with Bjarni who had sailed to Iceland to visit his parents, only to discover that they had left with the exiled Erik. Bjarni, however, was determined to find his parents and set out with no map or compass. Unfortunately, he encountered a storm that blew him off course. He appears to have sighted North America but, due to his determination to find his parents in Greenland, did not make landfall on the new continent and instead journeyed to Greenland and then back to Norway, where he shared his tale of adventure.
6. Leif Erikson (Established A Norse Settlement In North America Around 1000)
Not everyone took notice of Herjolksson’s tales, but at least one man was quite intrigued: Leif Erikson, the son of famed Viking explorer Erik the Red. Hoping to go even further than his father, Erikson bought Bjarni’s ship and enlisted a crew of thirty-five to find this mysterious land. They apparently succeeded and, after discovering such places as Flat-RockLand and ForestLand, they ultimately established a settlement at Vinland. Now known as L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Vinland is the first undisputed European settlement in North America.
Leif became known as Leif the Lucky, and gradually became celebrated for his accomplishments. America Not Discovered by Columbus by Rasmus Anderson, a book published in 1874, helped to popularize the Viking accomplishments that were largely diminished among non-Scandinavians over the preceding centuries. As such, Leif has gained a bit of a following of admirers. He appeared on a United States stamp in 1968 and, in 1964, the United States Congress authorized a request that October 9th be henceforth known as Leif Erikson Day.
5. Madoc (Reached The Americas In 1170)
Whereas we are certain that the Vikings made it to the Americas, we have much less certainty about the supposed Welsh expedition that took place not all that long after the Viking colonization projects in the New World ended.
In this case, the Welsh prince in question was disillusioned by fighting back in his homeland, and so set out to find greener pastures. He reportedly not only made it to the Americas, but returned to Wales and then came back to the Americas with ten ships of both men and women. Along with these men and women, he attempted to set up a colony after landing somewhere along the Gulf of Mexico.
The main proponent for popularizing this particular story was none other than the Queen Elizabeth I who, in the sixteenth century, hoped to lay claim to the Americas. In order to do so, she hoped to suggest that people from her realm had reached them prior to explorers sailing under Spain’s flag. One of her supporters was the Welsh scientist John Dee, who suggested that not only did Madoc made it to America prior to Columbus, but the semi-legendary King Arthur did so as well, despite no definitive proof of such a wild claim.
4. Abu Bakr II (Explored The Atlantic Ocean In 1311)
Abu Bakr II, the Emperor of Mali, abdicated his power around 1311 to lead a massive expedition of 200 vessels of men and 200 vessels of supplies, to find the limits of the Atlantic Ocean that bordered his Empire. Despite never returning to Mali, the BBC named Abu Bakr “Africa’s greatest explorer” in an article from 2000. Some scholars, including one from Rutgers University, contend that Abu Bakr II actually made it across the ocean.
3. Henry I Sinclair (Explored Greenland And North America In The Late-1300’s)
Scottish and Norwegian nobleman Henry I Sinclair lived in the same century as the height of the Empire of Mali, albeit some decades after Abu Bakr II’s voyage. Various aspects of his life fall into the realm of conspiracy theories and unsolved mysteries, the two most notable examples being that he allegedly voyaged to the Americas, and allegedly had connections with the Knights Templar. Letters and a map composed by Venetian brothers purportedly reference Henry’s expedition, in addition to some other questionable evidence. The Templar allegation is tied into this alleged voyage in that he purportedly undertook the voyage on behalf of the order of knights.
Historians have disputed these claims, some going so far as to suggest that the letters were a hoax. However, given that we already have alleged instances of an Irishman and a Welsh explorer possibly undertaking pre-Columbian transatlantic voyages, we might as well have a Scotsman do so, so as to make sure just about every country from the British Isles had some legendary transatlantic explorer.
2. Zheng He (Possibly Discovered The Americas In 1421)
Zheng He, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, is without any doubt the most famous Chinese oceanic explorer. This eunuch toiled under the Ming Dynasty and gained the favor of the Yongle Emperor. From 1405 to 1433, he led seven voyages to explorer lands, predominantly along the Indian Ocean. His fleets included massive treasure ships (roughly the size of a football field) that utterly dwarfed the three ships of Columbus’s first voyage. On board his large and numerous ships were over 20,000 men, far more manpower than anyone else on this list.
He definitely reached at least as far as Africa, but how much further he traveled is disputed. In 2002, British author Rowan Menzies published the book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, in which he puts forth the thesis that Zheng visited the Americas before Columbus. In 2008, Menzies went even further by arguing in 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance that the Chinese later reached Italy, and even ignited the Renaissance. Not surprisingly, both books have received considerable criticism, but the “what if” possibilities are nevertheless intriguing.
1. Christopher Columbus (Reached Greenland or Canada in 1477)
Yes, Columbus is on a list of pre-Columbus explorers. The reason being: he may have actually reached the Americas before 1492.
We know that Columbus started out his professional career in Genoa. In 1476, he traveled with a convoy from Genoa to northern Europe. During this trip, he docked in England and Ireland, where some claim he was inspired by the stories of Brendan the Navigator. The next year, he possibly made it to Iceland, Greenland or even Canada, setting in motion his interest in conducting a more extensive and official voyage across the Atlantic. It took him nearly twenty years to officially make it across the Atlantic, but imagine if he had really participated in five trans-Atlantic voyages, as opposed to the generally accepted four.