Exploration Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Before 1492, the Americas were a largely unexploited region, full of resources that promised opportunity and prosperity. Early European explorers were often motivated by curiosity about unknown and undiscovered lands, but most great exploration ventures were essentially business trips, in which the search for new resources, new trade routes, and new trading partners were the paramount goals. Even modern exploration of the land and sea benefits business in many ways. As new techniques for exploration are developed, new biological and mineral resources are being found beneath the ground and beneath the coastal waters.

More than thirteen millennia ago, a land bridge connected North America and Asia across what later became the Bering Strait, and the first immigrants into the Western Hemisphere crossed from Siberia. The first explorers of North America, these people were primarily hunters who followed the moving herds of big game. Over the ensuring millennia, they spread into South America, becoming isolated tribes with individual customs and languages. Though often separated by large distances, many of these societies communicated with one another through trade; they had common currencies and special trade languages.Exploration

The first European exploration of the Americas was accomplished by the Vikings, who reached the northeast shores of Canada around the year 1000. The Vikings may also have explored inland as far as the Great Lakes, though the evidence is considered tentative. They are thought to have made their explorations more for the sake of finding new lands to settle than for trade. However, their explorations had no lasting impact on North America, which would remain outside world trade routes until the sixteenth century.

The voyages of the Italian navigator Christopher Columbus, ChristopherColumbus finally opened the Western Hemisphere to the rest of the world during the 1490’s. Columbus, like many of the explorers who came later, was motivated primarily by a desire to find a shorter route to East Asia’s spice markets. Following his discoveries, many expeditions were sent to the new lands, both in pursuit of trade with the presumed Asian spice merchants and later for the purpose of taking gold and other valuables, including territory, from the native residents.

The Englishman Henry Hudson, HenryHudson was a remarkably competent and adventurous early seventeenth century explorer whose voyages were primarily business-oriented. His two most famous voyages, the 1609 exploration of the Atlantic coast and the Hudson River and his 1610 voyage to northern Canada and Hudson’s Bay, were searches for a trade route to the Far East. Hudson’s 1609 voyage was sponsored by the Dutch East India Company because Hudson could not find an English company to back him. Afterward, he was put under house arrest in England for working for the Dutch company. His 1610 exploration was sponsored by the English East India Company, which arranged for his release so that he could find a new route to East Asia. Neither of Hudson’s voyages found the elusive Northwest Passage, but they opened up some of the best fur-trading regions of the New World. Some historians believe that Hudson’s trip to Hudson’s Bay was possibly less aimed at the discovery of a Northwest Passage and more oriented toward exploration of mineral resources in the Canadian north. Hudson’s own views on that question are unknown; he died after the crew of his ship mutinied and set him, his son, and some loyal crew members adrift on a small boat on the huge Canadian bay that now bears his name.

Colonial Exploration and Westward Expansion

The settlers of Britain’s North American colonies were primarily confined to the Atlantic coast and did not penetrate deeply into their colonies’ hinterlands. Deeper exploration of the interior regions was accomplished mostly by French traders and missionaries from the north and from the Mississippi River Valley, Spanish conquerors and seekers of gold in the Southwest and the Pacific coast, British seagoing explorers on the northwest coast, and Russians in Alaska. Their activities sowed the seeds of continental business and trade, which at first was centered on extracting new resources in the vast and thinly populated mid-continent and the West.

After President Thomas Jefferson purchased the vast Louisiana TerritoryLouisiana Territory from France for the United States in 1803, he realized the importance of exploring it to learn about its characteristics and its resources. Lewis and Clark expeditionHe appointed his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, MeriwetherLewis, and wilderness-savvy William Clark, WilliamClark to lead an exploratory expedition through the Louisiana Territory and thence on to the Pacific Ocean. The success of their journey is well known. Lewis and Clark explored and mapped an immense territory, enabling the young United States to lay claim to all the land between the Mississippi and Columbia Rivers, thereby ensuring American access to the wealth of much of the continent.

Jim Bridger was an explorer and scout.

(Courtesy,Denver Public Library)

With the return of Lewis and Clark and the publication of their journals, other frontiersmen followed, exploring the many large areas not covered by Lewis and Clark’s route. A colorful example of the overland explorers was the famous outdoorsman Jim Bridger, JimBridger, who ranged widely over the American West, establishing several routes through the Rockies and the Sierras that are still in use, such as that followed by Interstate Highway 80. He also explored the remarkable area that became Yellowstone National Park. Bridger’s various routes across the plains and mountains were important keys to the development of trade, especially the fur trade and the establishment of mining activities throughout the West.

Mineral Exploration

From the business point of view, an important kind of exploration is the discovery and recovery of natural Mineral resourcesmineral resources. This work depends heavily on the techniques used in geological research. Whether the materials sought are hard-rock minerals, such as gold, silver, and iron; liquids, such as petroleum and water; or gases, such as natural gas and helium, the locations of these resources are found by hard-rock geology, as in prospecting, or by the study of geological maps or the results of remote sensing.

Much modern mineral exploration takes advantage of geophysical and geochemical techniques. Geophysical exploration allows the geologist to explore the properties of subsurface materials. Instruments can measure the magnetic properties of the rocks, their density, conductivity, and resistivity, revealing clues about the location and nature of possible veins or layers of desirable materials. For uranium and other radioactive minerals, Geiger counters and related instruments are used. Frequently the geophysical exploration for minerals is carried out from low-flying aircraft, which allow large areas to be surveyed quickly.

Satellite-borne instruments are powerful tools for mineral exploration, especially when infrared spectroscopy provides information of the mineral composition of land masses. This method can be used to search for key spectroscopic signals anywhere on the earth where surface materials are sufficiently free of vegetative cover.

Geochemical techniques are also important in the discovery of mineral deposits that are contained in ground-level samples. Traditionally, the geochemist analyzes a sample of surface material to search for either traces of the mineral being sought or for tracers (called pathfinder elements), which are often associated with the mineral. A very old example of the geochemical technique is to search for microscopic particles of gold in streambeds that indicate the presence of gold-bearing veins higher up. Also a person can test a sample for the presence of arsenic, which is a pathfinder for gold, as they are often found together. Using geochemical tools requires that the geologist have access to the rocks or to soil that has been formed by erosion from the rocks.

The final act in mineral exploration is often drilling, in some cases to bring up rock cores that can be analyzed in the laboratory, or in the case of oil or water, to determine the depth and volume of the resources. When deposits are evaluated and found to be both economically and physically feasible to be extracted and to pass various environmental tests, the owners can proceed with extraction.

Further Reading
  • Dennen, W. H. Mineral Resources: Geology, Exploration and Development. London: Taylor and Francis, 1989. Overview of mineral exploration that gives useful information with an emphasis on the economic aspects of the field and discusses the modern ways of ensuring financial success.
  • Hayes, Derek. America Discovered: A Historical Atlas of Exploration. Vancouver, B.C.: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004. Through a collection of historical and contemporary maps, this book presents a history of the discovery and exploration of America. It includes sections of diaries and narratives that illuminate the maps and reveal how the exploration of the coasts, the rivers, the mountains, and the resources brought about the development of the continent.
  • Isserman, Maurice, and John S. Bowman, eds. Across America: The Lewis and Clark Expedition. New York: Facts On File, 2004. Comprehensive reference work on the Lewis and Clark expedition.
  • Lewis, Meriwether, and William Clark. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Edited by Bernard DeVoto. Boston: Mariner Books, 1997. The 1804-1806 expedition of Lewis and Clark was one of the world’s great explorations, and the journals kept by the two explorers make fascinating reading. Their journey into the little-known lands of the Louisiana Territory and the unknown lands of the Far West paved the way for American claims to the vast lands of present-day Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.
  • Moon, Charles J., Michael K. G. Whateley, and Anthony M. Evans, eds. Introduction to Mineral Exploration. 2d ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006. This basic book covers all aspects of exploration for mineral resources, from coal to diamonds. It gives details of procedures for initial selection of areas to explore and for methods of exploration, including direct sampling as well as remote sensing. Several case studies are included.

Black Hills gold rush

California gold rush

Coal industry

Fur trapping and trading

Jewelry industry

Lewis and Clark expedition

Mineral resources

Pike’s western explorations

Space race

Categories: History Content