There are many people throughout history who had the spirit of an adventurer and decided to explore the unknown. In some cases, they risked their lives to make their contributions recognized by the world. From Columbus’ discovery of the Americas to Hillary’s quest up Mount Everest, the names of these great pioneers will remain important for centuries to come as the most famous explorers of all time. Read our list below, which is organized in order of prominence and importance, to find out more about what these seekers contributed for the sake of humankind.
|Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)
Famous For: First to walk on the moon
1969, the whole world heard these words, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Neil Armstrong holds the distinction of being the first man to walk on the moon. Before becoming an astronaut with NASA, he was a Naval Aviator, officer in the US Navy, and a test pilot.
| Marco Polo (c.1254-1324)
Famous For: Explored Asia and first European to meet Kublai Khan
The name of Venice native Marco Polo is forever linked to the world of exploration. In a book entitled The Travels of Marco Polo, the adventures and journey of the man is detailed. Marco explored the continent of Asia where he met Kublai Khan.
|Vasco da Gama
Famous For: Role in the Age of Discovery
Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama was commander of one of the sailing ships that ventured into India from Europe. As one of the pioneers of the Age of Exploration, he became Governor of India in 1524.
| Christopher Columbus
Famous For: Discovery and colonization of the Americas
Although Italian by birth, maritime explorer Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the Americas under the Spanish emperor’s name. During his first voyage, he led three Spanish galleons, the Niña, Pinta, and the Santa Maria. All in all, between 1492 and 1503, Columbus sailed between Spain and the Americas.
Famous For: First circumnavigation expedition
Ferdinand Magellan was the first sailor to circumnavigate the seas from the Atlantic Ocean and cross the Pacific Ocean. He discovered the Philippines where we was also killed in what is known as the Battle of Mactan. His name has been associated to not just things explored during his voyages, but to the stars and galaxies above us as well.
| Hernan Cortes (1485-1547)
Famous For: The fall of the Aztec empire
Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes conquered and colonized parts of South America. Cortes was successful in reaching Mayan territory along the Yucatan Peninsula, leading to his conquest of Mexico. Most notably, he is known for his overthrow of the Aztec empire. It must be noted that Cortes used his own money for the expeditions he undertook, leaving him heavily in debt.
|Lewis and Clark
Famous For: The exploration of the western United States
US Army volunteers Second Lieutenant William Clark and Captain Meriwether Lewis led the Corps of Discovery Expedition in 1804. This took place just after the United States completed of the Louisiana Purchase. They explored the western United States beginning in Missouri through the Mississippi to the Pacific coast.
| John Smith (c.1580-1631)
Famous For: Exploring Virginia and Chesapeake Bay rivers
One of the men responsible for establishing the earliest settlement for the English in North America. As an explorer, John Smith navigated the rivers between the Chesapeake Bay and Virginia. He also helped map out the areas of New England and Chesapeake Bay.
|Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512)
Famous For: His name being translated to “America”
Amerigo Vespucci is the man from whom the word “America” comes from. Not only was this Italian man an explorer, he was a cartographer and navigator. He was able to show that Brazil was not part of Asia.
| Francisco Pizarro (c.1471 or 1476-1541)
Famous For: His conquest of the Incan empire
Another Spanish conquistador whose main claim to fame is his expedition to South America and the overthrow of the Incan empire. He ventured to cross the Atlantic in search of the riches that the “New World” promised, even to find the riches of El Dorado.
|James Cook (1728-1779)
Famous For: Discovery of the Hawaiian Islands
An English captain who circumnavigated around the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. He made contact with the inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and around the Indian Ocean back to the Atlantic. He died while serving the Crown in Hawaii.
| John Cabot (c.1450-1499)
Famous For: Being the first European to explore North America
His name does sound very Anglo, but this Italian explorer contributed to the Age of Discovery. His real name is Zuan Chabotto, and under the auspices of King Henry VII of England was instrumental in the discovery of sections of North America. Cabot was instrumental in exploring a Northwest Passage in North America.
|Jacques Cartier (1491-1557)
Famous For: Exploring North America what is now Canada
One of the earliest French explorer’s, Jacques Cartier mapped and provided a description of the Saint Lawrence River. He claimed what is now Canada for France. Cartier attempted to find a crossing to reach Asia through the Northern passage and instead discovers Canada.
| Daniel Boone (1734-1820)
Famous For: Blazing the Wilderness Road
Daniel Boone was a man, a real man… so at least the song goes. In reality, Boone was an explorer, frontiersman, and pioneer who blazed the trail from Virginia to Kentucky through the Appalachian Mountains. He fought during the American Revolution, elected to the Virginia Assembly, and of course became a legend in his own time.
Famous For: Traveling as guide with the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Native American Sacagawea came from the Lemhi Shoshone tribe and was helpful as guide and interpreter during the exploration of Lewis and Clark. Sacagawea joined the expedition from North Dakota all the way across to the Pacific Ocean which took them roughly two years. The spelling and pronunciation of her name have varied over the years, one thing is certain, her role in the exploration of the Western United States cannot be underestimated.
| Henry Hudson (c.1560s/1570s-1611)
Famous For: Exploring New York area and has a river named after him, the Hudson River
English Commander Henry Hudson tried to establish a passage through the New World to reach China. The Dutch East India company financed his voyage in search of that route. Instead, he found himself establishing a Dutch Colony in what is today New York City. He and his son perished when some of his men mutinied against him.
|Jacques Cousteau (1910-1997)
Famous For: His study and exploration of life under the sea
As a French Naval officer, Jacques Yves Cousteau blazed a trail and captured the imagination of people when it came to exploring life under the sea. Not only was he an officer and explorer, he was also a conservationist, filmmaker, photographer, and scientist. He had a ship named Calypso which was retro-fitted to meet his exploratory demands and also a TV program that became famous during the late ’60s through the early 70s, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.
| Francis Drake (c.1540-1596)
Famous For: Circumnavigating the world the 2nd time
English Vice Admiral Sir Francis Drake is known for several exploits during his time. He is best known for being the second man to circumnavigate the world between 1577 and 1580. The other things Drake is known for other than being a captain, he was a navigator, politician, a privateer, and slave trader.
|Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635)
Famous For: Being the “Father of New France”
Samuel de Champlain explored North America in the early 17th century. Born in France and with his family being mariners, de Champlain helped found Quebec City and New France in what is today located in Canada. He was a skilled cartographer which allowed him to make an accurate map of the Canadian coastline that aided in the establishment of French settlements. This earned him the title, “Father of New France”.
| Zheng He (1371-1433)
Famous For: Expeditionary voyages throughout Asia, Middle East, and East Africa
As one of the earliest known Chinese explorers, Zheng He (Cheng Ho) led voyages that brought him through Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. His exploits are written in book entitled Biography of Our Homelands Great Navigator, Zheng He, by author Liang Qihao in 1904.
|Juan Ponce de Leon (1474-1521)
Famous For: The search of the Fountain of Youth and discovery of Florida
Spanish conquistador and explorer Juan Ponce de Leon and the legendary fountain of youth have been linked to one another up to this day. He was the man who led an expeditionary journey into what is today Florida, and became Governor of Puerto Rico. In search of the fountain of youth, de Leon accidentally discovered Florida.
| Hernando de Soto (c.1496/1497-1542)
Famous For: Being the first European to cross the Mississippi River
In search of gold and silver, along with trying to find a short cut to China, Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto ends up exploring the Southeastern portion of the United States and thereby crossing the Mississippi River ending up in Texas.
|Reinhold Messner (1944)
Famous For: His solo climb of Mount Everest and all fourteen eight-thousanders
Explorers come in all forms, Reinhold Messner is one for the ages. He successfully climbed Mount Everest in 1978 with no oxygen to supplement his climb. He is also the first man to climb fourteen mountains that are at least 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) high. The lowest mountain he climbed was Gasherbrum II at the China-Pakistan Karakoram range, its height, 8,034 meters (26,358 feet).
| Leif Ericson (c.970-1020)
Famous For: First man to set foot on North America
Vikings and Norse explorer Leif Ericson are forever linked to one another. Ericson is the first European to set foot on North America, even before Christopher Columbus who did it 500 years after Leif had done so. One of the earliest North America settlements that this Norwegian helped establish was on what is today Newfoundland, Canada.
|Bartolomeu Dias (c.1451-1500)
Famous For: First European to sail around the southern tip of Africa
Portuguese explorer and navigator Bartolomeu Dias was the first man to captain a ship that sailed to the southern tip of Africa. King John (Joao) II of Portugal commissioned him to find a trade route that would lead to India. Following the coastline of Western Africa, and encountering the Cape of Storms, or better known as the Cape of Good Hope.
| Roald Amundsen (1872-c.1928)
Famous For: discovery of the South Pole
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen led an expedition that brought them to the Antarctic and thereby his discovery of the South Pole in 1911 and years later leading another team to the North Pole. In addition, Roald is known to have been the first to go through the Northwest Passage, a route that begins in the Arctic Ocean and ends in the Pacific Ocean. Amundsen is one of four men considered leader of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
|Edmund Hillary (1919-2008)
Famous For: Being the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest
New Zealander Edmund Hillary and fellow mountaineer Tenzing Norgay were the first known and confirmed climbers ever to make it to the peak of Mount Everest in 1953. Other notable feats that Hillary accomplished in addition to his Mount Everest adventure is that he also reached both the North and South Pole, which made him the first man to ever reach all three landmarks. During World War II, Hillary was part of the New Zealand Air Force working as a navigator.
| Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968)
Famous For: First man to go into outer space
Gagarin, a cosmonaut under the Soviet Union has the distinction of being the first man to travel into outer space. He orbited the earth on his Vostok spacecraft in April 1961.
| Ibn Battuta (1304-1369)
Famous For: His travels to Islamic countries throughout the world
The stories of Ibn Battuta’s adventures is chronicled in a book entitled Rihla which means “Journey.” In a course of more than 30 years, Battuta visited various parts of the Asian and African continent which include China, South Asia, Horn of Africa, and the Middle East to name a few. Ibn also visited parts of Eastern Europe.