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Content: Explorers in North America
Although Marco Polo never stepped foot in North America, he is credited with motivating the European explorers who eventually did. In the 1260s and 1270s, Polo traveled to the Far East with his father and uncle, who were Venetian merchants. When he returned, he wrote extensively about the wealth he found there. His travelogues inspired other Europeans to seek trade routes to Asia. It was believed at the time that Asia could be reached by sailing due west from Europe. What people didn't realize was that a vast continent, with its own wealth of natural resources, lay in the way.

While some explorers were motivated by natural curiosity (and emboldened by technological advances in shipbuilding and navigation), others were in it for the money. Almost all were financed by rival European governments, who sought to capitalize on the rich resources of Asia. The search for a sea route to Asia stimulated much of the exploration in the fifteenth century. And it resulted in the discovery by Europeans of lands that had already been inhabited for thousands of years by indigenous peoples -- the Americas.

In the sixteenth century, the desire to trade furs and other commodities available in North America fueled the search for other water shortcuts to Asia. The Northwest Passage was the name given to the route that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the icy waterways of northern Canada. The Northeast Passage was the route that connected the Atlantic and Pacific via the waters north of Asia. The search for the Northwest and Northeast Passages resulted in the exploration of vast areas of the northern and eastern parts of the North American continent.

In short, the economic dreams that inspired European rulers to seek trade routes to Asia led to many unanticipated results -- political, cultural, and economic. Three "worlds" -- Europe, Asia, and Africa -- would be forever influenced by a fourth -- North America -- in ways that even the dreamers never imagined. What follows is a brief description (in chronological order) of the major explorers in North America, including what they were looking for and what they found.

Students giving a presentation.Christopher Columbus
Sponsored by the king and queen of Spain, this Italian explorer set out in 1492 to find a sea route to Asia by sailing west. Over the course of four voyages, spanning 1492 to 1504, Columbus explored the islands of the Caribbean and the coasts of Central and South America. He never did reach Asia, although he continued to believe until his death that he had. Today he is credited with opening the age of exploration to the Americas.

John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto)
Italian-born Cabot explored for King Henry VII of England. In 1497 he sailed westward in hopes of finding Asia, but instead landing in present-day Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, Canada, which he believed to be northeastern Asia. He claimed the region on behalf of Henry VII, and returned to England to receive a large sum of money. In 1498, he organized a second voyage and sailed north to Greenland until his crew forced him to turn back south because of the cold weather. He returned to England because of a lack of supplies, and died soon after.

Ferdinand Magellan
In 1519 this Portuguese explorer and his fleet of five vessels left Spain in an attempt to reach the East Indies (Southeast Asia) by sailing west. He sailed around the tip of South America (through what is now called the Straits of Magellan) and reached the Pacific Ocean. (He named it "Pacific" because it was so calm.) He landed in the Philippines in 1521, and died there. Only one of his ships completed the voyage back to Spain, carrying a valuable cargo of cloves. Magellan is credited with being the first to circumnavigate the globe, even though he did it over the course of several voyages.

Jacques Cartier
While seeking a northwest passage to China in the mid-1500s, this Frenchman became the first European to explore the St. Lawrence River. He reported an abundance of animals in the area for trapping and fur trading, and his explorations led France to claim large portions of what is now Canada.

Samuel de Champlain
By the early 1600s, hope was fading for finding a sea route to Asia. So in 1603, French fur companies hired Samuel de Champlain to settle the region of eastern Canada known as Acadia (today called Nova Scotia). He made several trips to North America, explored the Bay of Fundy, established the settlement we now call Quebec, and established a trading post in Montreal. Champlain became known as "the father of New France;" he was governor of New France from 1633 until his death in 1635.

Henry Hudson
In 1607, English navigator Henry Hudson undertook the first of three voyages to find a northeast passage to Asia. An English company sponsored his first two trips, which ended unsuccessfully. His third trip, in 1609, was financed by the Dutch East India Company. After enduring weeks of cold weather and rough water in the Barents Sea, Hudson's crew mutinied and forced him to turn the ship southwest. They passed Nova Scotia and ended up in New York Bay. Hudson spent the next few months exploring the river that now bears his name. He established settlements at present-day New York City and Albany, New York, and became involved in the fur trade. Hudson undertook a fourth voyage in 1610, this time to find a northwest passage to Asia. While exploring what we call the Hudson Bay, his ship became frozen in ice and his crew once again mutinied. Hudson and several others were set adrift in a small boat and were never seen again.

Robert Cavelier La Salle
In 1666, La Salle immigrated to Canada from France and became a trader and an explorer. In 1682, together with Italian explorer Henri de Tonty, he claimed the lands of the Mississippi Valley for France, naming the region "Louisiana," after the French king, Louis XIV. Soon after, he was named viceroy of North America, but in 1687, while traveling back to Canada, he was killed by a mutinous crew near the Trinity River.

Cuddi and student talking.Teaching Strategy: Essential Questions
Essential questions are an instructional strategy teachers use to engage students and encourage in-depth study. Essential questions are often used to make connections between units of study and can lead to the integration of disciplines. They sometimes are linked to other essential questions, and can also help focus assessment efforts.

Essential questions have the following characteristics:

  • They are broad in nature.
  • They are central to the content of the unit or subject.
  • They have no one correct or obvious answer.
  • They invite higher-order thinking, including analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating.
  • They provoke student interest and allow students to draw from experience.

The essential questions asked in this lesson include the following:

  • What has been the impact of various explorers on American history?
  • What role have foreign governments played in American history?
  • What role does economics play in American history?
  • How have various population shifts impacted the environment throughout American history?

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