KAREN ORDAHL KUPPERMAN
North America was little known in the early sixteenth century. Geographers did not even agree on whether it was a continent or merely a series of islands. Explorations in the Southeast by Spanish venturers such as Hernando de Soto, along with regular traffic to the Newfoundland Banks in the early sixteenth century, gave important points of reference for the vast extent of North America but little knowledge of the land between the northern and the southern landfalls. First interpretations, derived from analogies with South and Central America, hoped for a limited east-west expanse or at least for a narrow waist somewhere that could be easily traversed by water. Fishermen appreciated the rich banks off Newfoundland, but for most promoters North America was seen as a potential barrier in the quest for new routes to the East rather than as a new and interesting site for development in its own right. Initial explorations of the coast were all in search of a passage through this mass.
Spain and France both sent out voyages in 1524, each with the goal of finding the elusive passage to the South Sea and the riches of Asia.1 Esteban Gómez, a Portuguese pilot who had sailed with Ferdinand Magellan, was hired to conduct such an expedition for Spain. His commission, signed by the Emperor Charles V, was for the exploration of "Eastern Cathay."2 Contemporary comments on his voyage, which apparently traversed the coast between Newfoundland and Florida, are confusing, but all agree that it