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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersAmerican Beginnings: 1492-1690
American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Contact, Resource Menu
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Contact
Text 1. First Impressions
Text 2. Europe's Literary Response
Text 3. Illustrating the New World (Pt. I)
Text 4. Atlantic Coast
Text 5. Pacific Coast
Text 6. Indians' Accounts
Text 7. Spanish Conquest

Reading Guide
Mare de Verrazana
"Mare de Verrazana"
Atlantic Coast
- Norse: Account of meeting the "Skrælingar" of Vinland, ca. 1005 (PDF)
- French: Verrazzano, Report to King Francis I, 1524, excerpts (PDF)

After the peopling of North America at least 11,000 years ago, the continent was probably "discovered" by numerous explorers before Columbus. But who? Did the Chinese monk Hwui Shan reach the west coast of North America around A.D. 500? Did Japanese sailors follow the Northwest Pacific Current down the west coast before A.D. 1000? What about adventurers who sailed west from Europe and Africa and were never heard from again, such as Ugolino and Vadino Vivaldi from Genoa (1291) and a king whose flotilla left Mali in 1311? Intriguing grounds for speculation.

For our purposes, though, we'll study the earliest documented accounts of exploration on the North American mainland, those along the Atlantic coast. We've read of John Cabot's and Gaspar Corte Real's voyages to Newfoundland and the Grand Banks (#1:FIRST IMPRESSIONS), but we have no accounts of these expeditions. For Thorvald Erikson and Giovanni da Verrazzano, however, we do.
  • THORVALD ERIKSON, brother of the Norseman Leif Erikson, sailed from a Viking settlement in Greenland about A.D. 1000 to explore the region his brother had named "Vinland" on the North American mainland. There he and his men encountered the native inhabitants, probably the Beothuk people. They attacked the Beothuk and in the skirmish Erikson himself was mortally wounded. This account derives from the Norse manuscript Greenlander's Saga written almost four hundred years later. Although the account predates Columbus and the start date for this Toolbox, it would misrepresent the continent's history to omit it, especially since the Vinland camp on Newfoundland is now archaeologically confirmed to be the first European settlement on the North American mainland (discovered so far).
    [Greenlander's Saga (Grælendinga Saga) in the Flat-Island Book (Flateyjarbók), ca. 1387]

  • GIOVANNI DA VERRAZZANO, an Italian sailing for France, explored the Atlantic coast of North America in 1524, sailing from the Outer Banks to Nova Scotia, going ashore to explore the natural surroundings and meet the inhabitants. The encounters of the Indians and Europeans range from welcoming to guarded to disdainful. Verrazzano's report to the king of France is the earliest first-hand account of European exploration of the North American mainland—a major document in your study.
    [Giovanni da Verrazzano, Letter to King Francis I of France, 1524]
Be sure to compare these first-encounter narratives with others in the Toolbox—a revealing mini-seminar in itself. (12 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How did the Europeans and the Indians respond to their initial encounters?
  2. How did each group try to approach and meet the other? What led to friendship or antagonism?
  3. How did the encounters end?
  4. How does an explorer's immediate report differ from an account written centuries later from oral tradition?
  5. What characterizes the Europeans who chose to tempt fate and head west to a new world?
  6. Compare these encounters with those in the next topic (Pacific Coast) and in the next section (Exploration). What are the commonalities? What explains the differences?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  How did Europeans interpret the "newe fonde londe" upon their first contacts?
  •  How did Indians respond to the Europeans?
  •  How did these initial encounters frame future Indian-European relationships?
  •  What did the "New World" signify to Europe in 1500? in 1550?

Norse account:  2
Verrazzano report: 10
12 pages
Supplemental Sites
Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, from the National Museum of Natural History [Smithsonian Institution]

Inuit and Norsemen in Arctic Canada, A.D. 1000-1400, from the Canadian Museum of Civilization

The Beothuk, from Library and Archives Canada

Pre-Columbian Trans-Oceanic Contact, from

Giovanni da Verrazano, from

The East Coast Explorations of Giovanni Verrazano (1524), from Athena Review

Voyage of John de Verazzano, full text of his 1524 report, in American Journeys

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Both texts on the website of the National Humanities Center.

Image: Michael Lok, polar map of North America and northwestern Europe, Illustri Viro, Domino Philippo Sidneo . . . , 1582, detail. Reproduced by permission of the British Library.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Contact | Exploration | Settlement | Permanence | Power

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