Who First Traveled the Length of the Amazon?
A party of Spanish explorers led by Francisco de Orellana became in 1541 the first Europeans to travel the length of the Amazon River. The journey followed a meeting in Peru between Orellana and Gonzalo Pizarro, half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conqueror. Gonzalo Pizarro, who was governor of Quito, was about to lead an expedition into the unexplored eastern region.
Orellano was appointed his lieutenant and sent ahead of the main party by boat with 50 men to search for food. When he reached the junction of the Napo and Maranon rivers, his desire to explore on his own account led him to desert Pizarro’s expedition. He pressed on with his party and followed the huge river system down to the Atlantic Ocean, which he reached on August 26, 1542.
It is said that he named the river after a tribe of fighting women whom he encountered near the mouth of the tributary Trombetas and who reminded him of the battling Amazons of Greek mythology.
Orellana’s expedition left the friendly village on February 2, 1542, walking alongside the river while floating a new brigantine in the water. On February 11, the Napo emptied into a massive river: they had reached the Amazon. The Spaniards found little food: they did not know how to catch the river fish and at first native villages were few and far between. Dense woods on the riverbank made for tough going. In May they reached a part of the Amazon inhabited by the Machiparo people, who fought the Spanish along the river for two days. The Spanish did find some food, raiding turtle pens kept by the natives.
Today, Orellana and his men are remembered as explorers who discovered the Amazon River, although it’s wrong to assign altruistic motives to these men, who were really in search of a wealthy native kingdom to plunder. Orellana has picked up a few honors for his role as leader of the exploration: Orellana Province in Ecuador is named after him, as are countless streets, schools, etc.
There are some statues of him in prominent places, including one in Quito from where he set off on his trip, and a handful of postage stamps of various nations bear his likeness. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of his trip was assigning the name “Amazon” to the River and region: it certainly stuck, even if the mythical warrior women were never found.
The Amazon is the greatest river in South America, flowing from its source in the glacier-fed lakes of central Peru for 4,000 miles across Peru and Brazil to enter the Atlantic at the equator. This journey of exploration provided a great deal of information and opened up the interior of South America for exploration.