4 Famous Explorers Who Died in the Middle of Their Missions

wooden wheel of a ship

Andreas Guskos / Shutterstock

Humans have long been driven by a desire to see beyond the horizon, to explore new regions in a drive to claim territory, make scientific discoveries, create economic wealth, and convert people to one religion or another. No matter the era or the destination, it's dangerous work to stretch our knowledge of the world, and not every explorer has made it back to claim the glory of the discovery. Some were killed while others succumbed to bad weather, starvation or sickness. Even though they didn't make it home alive, every explorer on this list left behind a legacy worth remembering.

Ferdinand Magellan

Illustration of Ferdinand Magellan

Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese explorer who relocated to Spain to seek royal support for a westward voyage to the Spice Islands. He is remembered today as the first European to cross the Pacific Ocean in the early 1500s. His expedition of 1519-1522 was the first to successfully circumnavigate the world, though it did end up costing the lives of most of his original crew — not to mention his own. The goal of the trip was to find a westward route to Asia for trade, and it was supported by King Charles I of Spain. Magellan set sail from Spain in August 1519 with 270 men sailing five ships and headed south to hook around the southern tip of South America, through the Philippines and then back home around the Cape of Good Hope off the southern coast of Africa. During a stop in the Philippines, Magellan led an attack on the rival of a friendly local king with the aim of converting the rival to Christianity. During the battle, Magellan and more than 30 of his men were killed by natives. Most of his remaining crew ended up concentrating their numbers onto one of the remaining ships and struck out across the Indian Ocean. The surviving ship and handful of survivors limped back to Spain nearly three years after they had set out.

Juan Ponce de León

Juan Ponce de Leon

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Juan Ponce de León is known for his search of the fabled Fountain of Youth, which is supposedly how he discovered Florida. The truth of the matter isn't nearly as exciting: Ponce de León and the Fountain of Youth weren't linked until after his death.

Ponce de León was a Spanish explorer who led the first European expedition to Florida and who first sailed to the New World on Christopher Columbus' second voyage in 1493. Nine years later he was working in the island of Hispaniola when he landed a promotion to the station of frontier governor of a new province in recognition of his success in helping to crush a native rebellion. In 1513, he led his first trip to Florida, an area that he named. In 1521, Ponce de León sailed back to Florida to help firm up his claim. After landing in the Sunshine State, Ponce de León, his crew, and the group of colonists whom he had led were attacked by native warriors. It's believed that Ponce de León took a poison arrow to the leg. He was able to make it back to Cuba, where he died of his wounds in 1521.

James Cook

statue of James Cook

Roger Wong / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

James Cook was an English explorer who is remembered for making the first European contact with the eastern side of Australia and Hawaii. Cook found work as a merchant mariner at a young age and climbed the ranks to captain. He joined the Royal Navy in 1755 to fight in the Seven Years War. Cook proved to be a capable sailor with a particular aptitude for surveying and mapmaking. His maps of the jagged coast of Newfoundland were of such high quality that they were still being used by sailors 200 years after his death. Cook later went on to map the eastern side of Australia.

James Cook took a total of three long voyages around the world, along the way compiling a journal that detailed his discoveries (of land and plants and animals) that became valuable resources for later scientists and researchers. Cook became famous in his own time and tried to find contentment in a life away from the sea but was unable to resist its lure. In 1776, he set out on an expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, the fabled potential trading route connecting Europe and the East via waterways in Northern Canada.

Cook and his men sailed around the southern tip of Africa and around Australia before swinging north to sail along the western side of the modern-day United States to explore and map the Alaska area in search of the opening of the Northwest Passage. He was turned back by ice and sailed back south to Hawaii, which he had discovered earlier on the way from Australia. He landed on what is now called the Big Island and settled down for a month to rest and repair. Cook's voyage home was precluded by a broken mast shortly after he set sail from the island, forcing him to turn back. The islanders were not happy, and tensions between the natives and Cook's crew culminated in Cook's death when a native struck and killed him on Feb. 14, 1779.

Zheng He

Zheng He monument

Hassan Saeed / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

Zheng He was born in southwest China in 1371 into a Muslim family with a history of serving in the military and government. When Zheng He was 11, he was captured by the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in its campaign against the waning Yuan Dynasty and made a eunuch (castrated). He served the court of Zhu Di, the prince and son of the Ming Dynasty founding emperor where he eventually gained the close confidence of his princely master. Zheng He was elevated to serving as bodyguard and fought alongside Zhu Di as he battled all over China, subduing enemy band after enemy band. When Zhu Di became the Yongle emperor in 1402, Zheng He was promoted to the position of Grand Eunuch and given orders to turn his gaze toward the sea. The emperor was hungry for trade and wanted to better understand the world beyond his borders. Zheng He gave him that world, passing into history's folds as one of the only major Chinese seagoing explorers.

Zheng He was given a massive armada of ships; his first voyage (of seven total) comprised hundreds of large ships holding more than tens of thousands of men. Zheng He and his massive ships (the largest were thought to be the size of a football field with nine masts) traveled throughout the South China Sea, ranging around modern-day India, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Indonesia and Thailand. He preferred to let the size of his armada do his talking, and did a brisk trade swapping gold and silk for ivory and zebra pelts, but was not afraid to flex his militaristic might when necessary, ruthlessly pursuing and dispatching pirates.

In 1424, the Yongle emperor died and his successor moved to curtail Zheng He's expeditions. The new emperor didn't live long before passing his position to his son, who commissioned one last voyage for Zheng He. In 1433, Zheng He died on the return leg of a voyage to the Persian Gulf. True to his decades spent living the life of a sailor, Zheng He's body was given over to the ocean with a burial at sea.