Southern Explorers

Over the years many people have been interested in exploring the South from the times of the early Spanish arrival to even the readers and adventurers today who are interested in learning more about the people, places and history of the South.  This is an overview of a few of people who were interested in exploring the South.

Most people are familiar with the legend of Ponce De Leon and his legacy of the discovery and claim of Florida for the Spanish.  Though the lands of Florida were already inhabited by many native nations, De Leon is credited for giving Spanish names to many places in Florida and these are still in use today.  His travels around Florida in 1521 set the stage for many other explorers.   His legends of Florida influenced Desoto’s expedition into the South.  De Leon was part of the 1493 Columbus expedition to the Caribbean.  In 1513 he decided to explorer the area, north of the Caribbean and came upon a land he thought was an island. Because of the time of year of its discovery near Easter and the bounty of flowers that he found he named the land Florida.

Narváez was another explorer that tried to explorer Florida and the South but failed horribly in his attempt. In 1527, Narváez set sail from Spain and after a stop in Cuba the expedition landed in an area around present day Tampa.  Under his command was Cabeza de Vaca who was part of the land expedition of Florida. After running into trouble with the many native peoples, they were pushed into the swamp lands of Northern Florida by the Appalachees. The remaining explorers were forced to eat their horses from starvation and made rafts in an attempt to return to Cuba. Unfortunately they never made it there but washed ashore on an island near the Texas-Louisiana border.  Only a few members of the group survived this far and had to depend upon the local native people to survive.  Yet, now the former conquistadors became the slaves to the native people in order to survive. Cabeza de Vaca made it all the way back to Spain and wrote about his saga.

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A map of journey of Cabeza and the failed Narváez expedition

Desoto was the earliest explorer to explorer the areas past the coastlines of the South.  He arrived in the area near Tampa in 1539 with hundreds of men, horses, pigs and dogs. DeSoto and his army laid destruction in their path and were on the search for treasures and riches like those they had found in Central and South America.  There are many different versions of the path that DeSoto took through the South; no one really knows the exact path he took.   Below is a version of a map put out by the National Park Service that shows a general idea of the path he took.

desoto map

The oldest city in North America which is St. Augustine was established in 1539. Since the early explorers had gotten an overview of the people and areas of the South these former explorers were now establishing settlements and trade with the native groups.  So essentially these explorers turned into traders and missionaries over the next few centuries.  This was done by establishing forts, missions, and trading posts to stake claim over the lands that the country had established as well as to trade with the native peoples and to get them to accept new religions.  All along the coastline, new European groups were creating settlements to stake their claim in this new world.

After colonies and settlements were established across the South there emerged a new type of explorer, one that was not interested in wealth or conquering news lands. This was the explorer of nature in that these gentlemen were interested in the native biology and plant life throughout the South.  These naturalists spent time exploring the South and collecting samples and creating records of the people, places, and sites they encountered.  William Bartram was one of these early naturalists; he explored some of the coastal Southern areas including Florida with his father in 1765. He later embarked on his most famous exploration, in 1773 which was a four year journey across the South deep into Native areas alone without a guide.

william bartrum map

A map of the Florida coast by William Bartram

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A sketch of an Alligator Hole by William Bartram

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A sketch of a Seabird by William Bartram

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A sketch of the Florida landscape

After the Civil War, when many would think there was not much to explore in the South. Yet, there were still naturalists who were interested in more than the politics of the day. Once such a man was John Muir, who was one of the founding naturalists of a movement to save important natural treasures in the United States.    In 1867 Muir decided to take a 1000 mile walk to the Gulf to explorer the South. Before his walk Muir had been injured and almost lost his vision, after regaining his sight he decided to “be true to himself” and follow his dream of exploration and study of plants. He started his walk in Indiana and wandered through the Southern states till he ended up in Cedar Key, Florida.

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A sketch by John Muir of Cedar Key, Florida


John Muir’s explorations across the South

So like these Southern Explorers of the past, we hope that you continue to explore the lands, history and culture of the South. Get out there and make your own adventures and journeys across the South.


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