Hundreds of years ago, explorers enjoyed a degree of fame equivalent to our modern-day athletes and movie stars. Beginning with Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the new world in the late 15th century and continuing for the next several hundred years, explorers set sail or took off overland in search of undiscovered territory and new routes around the unmapped globe. Many did not return, lost forever at sea. The legendary explorers we remember today returned from their voyages with precious metals and other treasures and were treated as heroes, often guaranteed lucrative royalties for their discoveries.
But many did not retire rich and famous. Often, they took one voyage too many, made a careless mistake, or made the wrong enemy, resulting in their death. Here are the top 10 explorers who met cruel fates.
10. Ferdinand Magellan
If youths today recognize Magellan’s name at all, it’s probably because of the GPS company named in his honor. But the Portugese native is one of history’s most notable explorers, best known for his expedition that in 1520 crossed from the Atlantic Ocean into the uncharted Pacific Ocean, so named by Magellan for its calm manner. Magellan’s voyage continued through the Pacific and eventually became the first expedition to circle the globe. Unfortunately, Magellan didn’t survive the trip. He was killed during a battle with natives in the Philippines in April 1521.
9. Vasco Nunez de Balboa
A Spanish explorer and conquistador, Balboa achieved fame in 1513 when he led an expedition across the Isthmus of Panama and discovered the “South Sea,” what we now know as the Pacific Ocean. The discovery earned Balboa a measure of fame, but he had little time to enjoy it. In 1519, after years of political squabbling with colonial rulers in what is now Central America, he was arrested on conspiracy charges. He was found guilty and decapitated.
8. Sir Walter Raleigh
While some European explorers killed thousands of natives in the new world, Walter Raleigh left a far deadlier legacy. The Englishman was instrumental in popularizing a North American plant, tobacco, for tens of thousands, if not millions, of Europeans, with the obvious ramifications years later. Raleigh is best known for his efforts to colonize the area now known as North Carolina and Virginia, although his results were poor — he established the infamous colony on Roanoke Island that disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the 1580s.
Raleigh was knighted in 1585 and served in parliament, but the rest of his life resembled a modern-day soap opera. He fell out of favor in 1592 after he impregnated and then secretly married one of Queen Elizabeth I’s young attendants. He was imprisoned, quickly released, then a few years later charged with conspiracy in a plot against King James. This time, he was sentenced to death and imprisoned for 13 years in the Tower of London. He was released in 1616 to go on another expedition, this time to South America. There, men under Raleigh’s command attacked a Spanish settlement in what is now Venezuela. Spanish officials contacted King James, who had Raleigh arrested upon his return to England. The original death penalty was reinstated, and Raleigh was beheaded in 1618 at age 66.
7. Hernando de Soto
De Soto was another Spanish conquistador who spent time in Central and South America, but he is primarily remembered for being the first European to extensively explore much of what is now the southern United States. Landing on the west coast of Florida near present-day Bradenton, Florida, in 1539, de Soto set out with an expedition of more than 600 men. In the next several years, he led the expedition on a serpentine course through the southern U.S. in search of fabled treasure. In 1541, he became the first European explorer to cross the Mississippi River.
De Soto’s run ended a year later, in May 1542, when he fell ill and died. Although de Soto avoided the fate of decapitation, cannibalism or some of the other cruel deaths that befell other famous explorers, he got a pauper’s burial. Because de Soto and his men had convinced local natives that he was a deity and therefore immortal, his death was concealed. His body was weighted down and dumped in the Mississippi River in the dead of night.
6. Juan Ponce De Leon
De Leon is the rare explorer who is better known for what he did not discover — the fabled “Fountain of Youth” — than what he did discover: Florida and the Gulf Stream. After discovering Florida in 1513, De Leon returned to Puerto Rico, where he served as the island’s first government. But in 1521, De Leon returned to Florida, intending to help colonize the land. However, the colonists were attacked by Calusa Indians and De Leon was struck by a poison arrow and died soon after.
5. Francisco Pizarro
Compared to the other explorers on this list, Pizarro lived a long, full life, dying in his late 60s in 1541. But despite his advanced age, the Spanish conquistador met a bad fate in the end. Pizarro is remembered fondly in Spain, not so fondly in South America for his conquest of the Incan Empire. After defeating the Incas in Peru, Pizarro founded the capitol city of Lima. While serving as governor of the new territory, Pizarro was assassinated by the son of one of his former rivals.
4. Robert F. Scott
Scott is certainly the most tragic figure on this list. Despite some minor discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, the British Royal Navy captain failed in his primary mission, to become the first explorer to reach the South Pole. Scott and four fellow explorers reached the South Pole on Jan. 17, 1912, only to find another expedition, led by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, had reached the pole five weeks earlier. As Scott noted in his diary, “Great God! This is an awful place.” Scott and his men, completely dispirited, turned around for an 800-mile march back to safety. They made it halfway before running out of food and freezing to death. Their bodies were discovered a few months later. On an ironic note, Amundsen died at the North Pole, perishing in 1928 in the crash of a rescue plane.
3. Giovanni da Verrazzano
Some 200,000 motorists travel the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge each day between Brooklyn and Staten Island, with most undoubtedly unaware the bridge takes its name from Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who in 1524 became the first European explorer to sail into New York Harbor. His exploration of the harbor and the Hudson River completed his history-making journey north along the East Coast of the United States. Verrazzano was a prime example of an explorer who took one voyage too many. In 1528, while exploring an island in the Lesser Antilles, he was killed and eaten by natives.
2. Meriwether Lewis
Lewis was found dead under very mysterious circumstances in 1809. The mystery surrounding his death stands in sharp contrast to his well-publicized accomplishments in life, especially his 1804-1806 exploration of the Louisiana Purchase territory with partner William Clark. As most schoolchildren learn, Lewis and Clark became the first U.S. explorers to travel overland to the Pacific Ocean, exploring vast portions of what is now the western and northwestern United States. After returning from the journey, Lewis was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory by President Thomas Jefferson. Lewis still occupied that role two years later on Oct. 10, 1809, when he stopped at a Tennessee inn on his way to Washington, D.C. Lewis was observed acting strangely that night, and the innkeeper reported hearing several gunshots late at night. Lewis’ servants found him gravely injured from several gunshot wounds, including one to the head. He died that morning.
While some historians believe Lewis committed suicide, there is sufficient doubt about the circumstances that some of the Lewis family’s descendants spent almost 20 years, from 1993 to 2010, in an unsuccessful attempt to have his body exhumed for further examination.
1. Captain James Cook
James Cook left behind humble beginnings to join the British Royal Navy in his 20s, where he earned renown for his work mapping the coast of Newfoundland and the area around the St. Lawrence River. Those efforts earned him command of his own expedition, which set off in 1768 for some astronomical observations in the Pacific Ocean. The celestial aspect of that voyage has been long forgotten, but Cook made history during the expedition by mapping the coastline of New Zealand and leading the first known European voyage to reach the eastern coast of Australia. Cook’s second voyage, a few years later, was not as successful, as he was sent in search of a non-existent continent believed to exist in the southern Pacific.
Cook’s journeys earned him fame, and a promotion, to captain. Not satisfied with the offer of retirement, he set off on a third expedition. After becoming the first Europeans to visit the Hawaiian Islands, the expedition left the islands in 1778 in search of the mythical Northwest Passage. Once again, Cook’s crew made history, charting the unexplored coast of North America from present-day Oregon north to the Bering Strait. Frustrated by their inability to find a way through the strait, the expedition returned to Hawaii. It was there, in 1779, that Cook was stabbed to death by natives during a dispute. Today, more than two centuries after his death, Capt. Cook remains a popular figure, with devoted fans throughout the world.