To John Cabot and his three sons, Lewis, Sebastian and Sancto, must be bestowed the honor of first discovering the mainland of North America, and viewing the shores of Virginia. Some doubt has been expressed as to Lewis and Saneto having accompanied their father, but it is known that Sebastian, the second son, made the voyage.
Cabot sailed under commission of Henry VII of England, and was a native of Genoa (as was Columbus) though he had spent most of his life as a citizen of Venice. He settled at Bristol, England, in 1472.
The adventurers were supplied with a ship by the King, and four small vessels accompanied, (furnished by merchants of Bristol) to act as consorts. The commission was dated March 5, 1495, and Cabot was directed "to discover and occupy isles or countries of the heathern or infidels, unknown to Christians; accounting to the king for a fifth part of the profit upon return." He was commanded to "plant the English banner on the walls of their castles and cities and to maintain with the inhabitants a traffic exclusive of all competitors."
Cabot did not set sail from Bristol until 1497. Sailing northwest-he first arrived at Davis Straits. Thence, turning southward, Cape Breton Island and Nova Scotia were sighted on June 24. Nova Scotia was given the name of Prima Vista (First View). Sailing onward he discovered a large island which he called Newfoundland, and in the waters near by first observed the immense schools of cod, which still abound in that section of North America. He reported that the cod were so numerous "they sumtymes stayed his shippes." The voyagers continued along the coast until they reached the Capes of Virginia, possibly going as far south as the Carolina Coast. Victuals running low, Cabot landed and trafficed with the nativesobtaining supplies for use while returning to England. As a result of this traffic turkeys were first introduced into England.
Some writers claim the voyage to Virginia was made while on a second expedition, one year later, but John Cabot died in England in 1498.
The fickle Henry had turned his attention toward war with Scotland and had also commenced negotiations for the marriage of his son, Prince Arthur, to Catherine, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. He had lost interest in the Cabot enterprise and had no wish to antagonize the claims of the Spanish sovereigns, who asserted proprietary rights to the New World through the prior discoveries of Columbus.
Sebastian Cabot entered the service of Spain, and made a number of voyages to South America, but never returned to Virginia.
It was while Sebastian Cabot was in the service of Spain that the German schoolmaster, Woldseemuler, who had transformed his name into Hylacomlyus, proposed to members of the Academy that the new continent be called "America," in honor of his friend Amerigo Vespucci, the false claimant to been the first discover of the continent.
Does it not appear a singular coincidence that Columbus, in the service of Spain; Cabot in the service of England, and Americus Vespucius, were Italians, and that another Italian, in the service of France, should be the next explorer to visit Virginia?
Giovanni Verrazano (born 1480, died 1572) a Florentine, in the service of Francis L, of France, on a voyage along the eastern coast of North America, landed near Cape Charles in 1524, 27 years after the visit of Cabot. He explored the peninsular and expressed the opinion that the Chesapeake was an arm of the Pacific Ocean. He makes mention of this conclusion on a map he drafted 'at the time. Verrazano captured a number of Indian children and carried them to France as proof of his discovery, but before returning to Europe he sailed as far north as Newfoundland, and en route visited New York harbor and Narragansett Bay, also explored the Neighboring Coast. Claiming right of prior discovery he named the entire country Nova Francia (New France) and declared it a possession of the French throne. On his return to Europe, he found France at war with Germany and Spain, and as a result, the voyage of Verrazano proved as abortive as had the explorations of Cabot. Had Henry VII., or Francis I, only realized the vast extent of the New World, or could they have dreamed of its wonderful possibilities, what a different story would be written of America of today.
Nova Francia, Nueva Espana, New Amsterdam, (New Holland), Virginia; truly America was blessed with a multiplicity of names bestowed upon it by the rival claimants to its territory. Happily the last was to prove the survivor of the three others.