Until within a recent period it was believed that Columbus and Cabot were the actual first discoverers of the American continent. Careful researches on the part of northern antiquaries, however, would seem to prove that portions of the American coast - some maintain as far south as what is now Long Island - were known to the seamen or sea kings of Norway as early as the 9th and 10th centuries. Newfoundland and Greenland were the regions best known to these rovers. In 1000 a Norwegian, with a crew of Icelanders, landed on the coast of Massachusetts, which he named Vinland. This party erected monuments on an island in Baffin bay, where they were discovered in 1824. They established colonies on the Greenland coast, which flourished for some years, making great gains by the fisheries, which they pursued as far as Lancaster sound, and even to Barrow strait. Greenland and Spitzbergen were for several centuries prosperous colonies. Iceland, then at the height of its prosperity, found here a fair field for the enterprise of its inhabitants, who not only followed commerce and the fisheries, but propagated their faith in the new land, and built up numerous churches and convents, whose ruins are still found along the Greenland coasts.
The Icelanders and Northmen, then, were the first arctic explorers. As the Greenland and Spitzbergen colonies perished, and the most important Icelandic expedition was lost and never heard from, while Iceland itself and the countries of the north were distracted by internal troubles, no trace of the discoveries made by these people was communicated to the rest of Europe. In 1380 two Venetian navigators, Zeni by name, voyaged to the north, and brought hack tidings of what they had seen. Their discoveries, however, resulted in nothing important. In 1497 the Cabots, John and Sebastian, landed in Labrador, and afterward projected a voyage toward the north pole. They penetrated as far as 67° 30' N., that is to say, about half way up Davis strait. They hoped to sail westward around the northern extremity of the American continent, and thus reach the much desired Cathay. These, then, were the first seekers for the northwest passage. The next explorers were the brothers Cortereal, who made in all three voyages, extending as far as 00° N., but resulting in nothing but disaster to the adventurers and loss of life.
This was in 1500-1502. In 1553 Sir Hugh Willoughby was sent out by the Muscovy company to find a northeast passage to Cathay and India. He penetrated to Nova Zembla, but was driven back by the ice as far as the mouth of the Arzina in Lapland, where he and his crew perished. In 1570-8 Martin Frobisher made three voyages to the northwest. He discovered the entrance to Hudson and Frobisher straits leading into Hudson bay. These were the first voyages on which we hear of scientific investigations being made. In 1578 Sir Humphrey Gilbert, a relative of Sir Walter Raleigh, received authority to make a voyage of discovery on the American continent; but this, too, was practically without result. Next followed (1585-7) Davis, who made more important accessions to a knowledge of the polar sea than any of his predecessors. He first fairly discovered the strait which bears his name, and surveyed portions of the coast of Greenland. These and other navigators, Danes, French, and Dutch, were stimulated to energetic efforts for finding a northern passage to India, in great part because Spain, then in her glory and power, monopolized the traffic across the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and dealt summarily with all intruders. - The Dutch persevered in their search for a northeast passage.
William Barentz made three voyages in this direction. 1594-'6. He and his crew suffered much, and, so far as the prime object of their expedition was concerned, accomplished nothing material. Barentz himself perished on the third voyage, when his crew were in boats near the Icy cape, a headland of Alaska, in the Arctic ocean. Henry Hudson set out in 1607, under the auspices of the Muscovy company, with orders to steer directly toward the north pole. He advanced beyond lat. 80°, steering due north between Greenland and Spitzbergen, and returned convinced that a passage in that direction was impossible. The following year (1608) he tried to discover a northeast passage to India, between Nova Zembla and Spitzbergen. He pushed forward as far as lat. 75°, and returned the same year. The next year he tried again, but, finding his way impeded by ice, returned and sailed westward, and, searching along the American coast for a passageway, discovered the bay of New York and the river which bears his name. In 1610 Hudson set sail upon a fourth expedition. He sailed up the strait named after him into the mouth of Hudson bay, penetrating several hundred miles further to the west than any one had ever gone before. The expedition wintered on one of the islands in the mouth of the bay.
Their progress in the spring was beset with storms, the provisions gave out, the crew mutinied, and finally a portion of the mutineers returned to England without Hudson, whom they set adrift to perish. - It was now supposed that Hudson bay was a great outlet into the Pacific waters, and sanguine expectations were entertained that here would be found the desired northwest passage. Within the next five years several expeditions were made into Hudson bay; and two important channels, Fox channel and Sir Thomas Rowe's Welcome, were partially explored. In 1616 Baffin explored the bay called after him, even entering the mouth of Lancaster sound. Baffin's survey was very exact, and for upward of 50 years after his explorations no navigator penetrated beyond him. Meantime, however, the Russians were seeking, by overland expeditions through Siberia, and by vessels through Behring strait, to establish the practicability of a passage to the northeast. On one of these expeditions the extreme variation of the magnetic needle was first closely remarked.