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Bridger, James (17 March 1804–17 July 1881), fur trapper and trader, explorer, and scout, was born in a tavern near Richmond, Virginia, the son of James Bridger, a surveyor and innkeeper, and Chloe Tyler, a barmaid. Bridger and his family moved in about 1812 to a farm near St. Louis, where, on being orphaned five years later, he became a blacksmith’s apprentice. In 1822 he responded to an advertisement calling for a hundred able-bodied young men to join a fur-trapping expedition, lasting from one to three years, up to the headwaters of the Missouri River. The organizers of the expedition were ...

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Samuel de Champlain. From an engraving by John G. Shea, 1878. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-11763).

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Champlain, Samuel de (c. 1567-1570–25 December 1635), explorer and colonizer, probably, was born at Brouage, Saintonge (Charente-Maritime), France, the son of Anthoine de Champlain, allegedly a naval captain, and Dame Margueritte Le Roy. Champlain may have been baptized a Huguenot, but if so he was early converted to the Church of Rome. Little is known of his early years except that he acquired the skills of a draftsman and cartographer. In 1632 he declared that he had served in Brittany for several years (until 1598) with the army of Henri IV against the Catholic League in the French Wars of Religion. Yet, when the Spanish army occupying Britanny returned to Spain at the end of those wars, Champlain went with them, for in 1601 he was in Cadiz. In 1603 he accompanied François Gravé Du Pont on a fur-trading venture up the St. Lawrence River to Tadoussac at the mouth of the Saguenay. It had become the customary summer rendezvous for European traders and the Montagnais Indians, who provided furs in exchange for metal goods, cloth, and trinkets....

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William Clark. Reproduction of a watercolor based on a painting by Charles Willson Peale. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-10609).

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Clark, William (01 August 1770–01 September 1838), explorer, Indian agent, and governor of Missouri Territory, was born in Caroline County, Virginia, the son of John Clark III, a planter, and Ann Rogers. Although he was informally educated, Clark acquired the refinement and intellectual development usually reserved for those who had been exposed to formal study. His family noted of him that at a young age he demonstrated leadership skills as well as an intellectual curiosity about the natural phenomena of his native Virginia....

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Hernando de Soto. Engraving from Herrera's Historia General, 1615. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ6-674).

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de Soto, Hernando (1500?–21 May 1542), Spanish conquistador and explorer, was the son of Francisco Mendez de Soto, an important landowner in Jerez de los Caballeros, Badajoz Province, Spain, and Doña Leonor Arias Tinoco, a noblewoman from a family prominent in the city of Badajoz. De Soto usually gave his birthplace as Jerez de los Caballeros and considered it the seat of his family line....

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Gist, Christopher (1705–25 July 1759), explorer, surveyor, and Indian agent, was born in Baltimore Country, Maryland, the son of Richard Gist, a judge, and Zepporah Murray. His grandfather was Christopher Guest, but the surname was changed to Gist around 1700. Gist was highly educated for his time and place. During his youth in Maryland he acquired literacy and other skills that enabled him to develop a vocation as a cartographer and explorer in the service of the Ohio Company. In 1750, while he lived in North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley (where he knew ...

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Luna y Arellano, Tristan de (1514?–16 September 1573), explorer and colonizer of La Florida, was born in Borovia, Soria province, Spain, the son of Don Carlos de Luna y Arellano, marshal of Castile and lord of Ciria and Borobia, and his second wife, Doña Juana Dávalos. Nothing is known of his childhood or education. Luna first went to New Spain in 1530 in the retinue of Hernán Cortés, whose wife, Doña Juana de Zuñiga, was Luna’s cousin. Returning to Spain, Luna next voyaged to New Spain in 1535 with another cousin, Don Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of Mexico. When Mendoza organized the ...

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Narváez, Pánfilo de (1478?–1528), Spanish conquistador and accidental explorer of Florida, was born in Valladolid, Spain, the son of noble parents. Nothing is known of his youth. He sailed to the Caribbean in about 1500 and served in the conquests of Jamaica and Cuba. As a reward for his service in Cuba, he received grants of land and ...

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Neighbors, Robert Simpson (03 November 1815–14 September 1859), explorer and Indian agent, was born in Charlotte County, Virginia, the son of William Neighbours, a college professor, and Elizabeth Elam. Both parents died of pneumonia when Robert was four months old. Robert, the last of seven children, spent his youth with court-appointed guardian Samuel Hamner. Before Neighbors left Virginia, he received at least one year and nine months of formal schooling paid for by Hamner. Christened Samuel Robertson Neighbours, the nineteen-year-old youth reworked his name when he traveled to Louisiana. While working as a clerk Neighbors heard about the fall of the Alamo. He volunteered and arrived in Texas in the spring of 1836, fighting in the battle of San Jacinto in Captain Hayden Arnold’s company. Back in Louisiana he joined the Masonic Lodge at St. Albans....

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Smith, Jedediah Strong (6 Jan. 1799?–27 May 1831), fur trader and explorer, was born (some say on 24 June 1798) in Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York, the son of Jedediah Smith, probably a farmer and possibly a part-time tailor. His mother’s name is unrecorded. Raised and educated in elementary schools in Pennsylvania and Ohio, young Smith became a clerk on a Lake Erie trading vessel. In 1822 he joined the fur-trading venture of General ...