Giovanni da Verrazzano – Italian Explorer of the North American Coast

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1685
Giovanni da Verrazano

In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazzano’s first voyage explored the northeast coast of, what would later become, the United States.

After Christopher Columbus returned from his voyage to the “New World,” other explorers and countries were eager for more discoveries and still hoped to find a passage to the Far East. Giovanni da Verrazzano (sometimes spelled Verazzano or Verrazano) secured financial backing from bankers and merchants and with the support of Francis I, King of France, in 1524, Verrazzano spent six months exploring the northeast coast of America.

Verrazzano in Dieppe, France

Born in 1485 of two noble families in the Chianti region of Florence, Italy (in the region of Tuscany), a young Verrazzano furthered his education through travel to Egypt, Syria, and other countries east of Italy. Because of the political turmoil in Florence, by 1508, he had moved to Dieppe, France, a busy port town on the English Channel. Dieppe was a popular seaport, and later became home to a school of mapmaking, with cartographers producing elaborate maps.

In Dieppe, Verrazzano’s interest in exploration put him in contact with ship owners, sailors, and others who made a living from the sea. He sailed for France in expeditions and as a privateer, and began to plan his expedition to find a shorter route to the Far East. With Spain, Portugal, and England staking claims to the New World, the king of France agreed to provide Verrazzano with the equipment he needed to make the voyage.

The Dauphine at Sea

Verrazzano’s voyage to America set sail from Dieppe in early January 1524. He started with four ships, but shortly after departing two were destroyed during a storm, and Verrazzano returned to port with the remaining two ships in need of repair. On January 17th, Verrazzano left port for his historic voyage on the Dauphine, well equipped for war, and carrying a crew of fifty men and provisions for eight months. Knowing that the Spaniards had claimed land in the south, and the land north was declared Newfoundland for the English, Verrazzano maintained a fairly westward route.

In late February, the ship survived a violent storm, and in March, land was sighted. Seeking a passage Verrazzano sailed south—along what is now the coast of South Carolina—and seeing the coast extending further south with no signs of a waterway or a safe harbor, he turned the ship around and sailed back north to where he first sighted land, somewhere in the vicinity of Southport, North Carolina.

Exploring the Northeast Coast of America

The Dauphine was anchored off the coast and a small boat was sent to shore. Verrazzano made contact with the natives and provided a detailed account of his findings with specific descriptions of the land, plants, people, and animals in a letter he sent to King Francis I, dated July 8, 1524. He continued north along the coast, anchoring somewhere between the present-day borders of North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland; and again taking a smaller boat to the mainland to explore.

Verrazzano’s next discovery was New York Harbor; the Dauphine was anchored and he took a small boat into, what is now, Upper New York Bay. An approaching storm shortened his visit, and the Dauphine continued along the south coast of Long Island, traveling east, then north to Narragansett Bay, an estuary between Rhode Island and Massachusetts. He stayed for fifteen days, and then followed the coast, rounding Cape Cod and heading north for Maine. Verrazzano wrote about his encounters with the natives; all were friendly, except for those the furthest north.

After sailing past Maine and entering Newfoundland, Verrazzano and his crew headed back to Dieppe, France. While onboard the Dauphine, he penned his letter of findings and observations to King Francis I, and concluded with a recommendation for other expeditions.

An Italian Explorer

Verrazzano sailed twice more for France; from 1526 to 1527, traveling south along the coast of Brazil, seeking a passage to the Far East. He was not able to complete the voyage and picked up a load of brazilwood—a tree valued for producing red dye—before returning to France. His next voyage in 1528 was to combine his search for a Far East Passage with harvesting more brazilwood, but he died before completing the expedition.

Verrazzano was an educated and experienced navigator who sailed, under the French flag, along the northeast coast of America in 1524, and provided descriptive accounts of the land, fauna, flora, and people. He made two voyages to South America and died during his third expedition.

Resources:

  1. Centro Studi Storici Verrazzano (Center Historical Studies Verrazzano)
  2. The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano, 1524-1528 by Lawrence C. Wroth
  3. The Mariner’s Museum
  4. Italian Historical Society of America