Sir Walter Raleigh and South America

By William M. Wisser

LEARN NC was a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Education from 1997 – 2013. It provided lesson plans, professional development, and innovative web resources to support teachers, build community, and improve K-12 education in North Carolina. Learn NC is no longer supported by the School of Education – this is a historical archive of their website.

The legend of El Dorado predates the arrival of Spaniards in South America. The Chibcha people of present-day Colombia apparently performed an annual ritual where the leader was coated in fine gold dust, which he then washed off in a lake during a ceremony. The first Spanish Conquistadors who explored the interior of South America heard of this “gilded king” and assumed the ritual meant that the Chibcha people had temples and mines similar to the Aztec and Inca empires. The first expedition in search of El Dorado was led by Francisco de Orellana in 1541. Orellana named the Western Hemisphere’s largest river, the Amazon, and followed it across South America to the Atlantic Ocean but he did not find the fabled city of El Dorado. But he did report that he saw plenty of gold items in the possession of the Indians.

While Orellano traveled from Peru in the west, in 1595 Sir Walter Raleigh started his search for El Dorado from the east, at the mouth of the Orinoco River. Raleigh’s expedition had several goals. First, he wanted to find the city of El Dorado, which he thought might be an Indian city named Manoa. Second, he wanted to create an English foothold in northern South America that could compete with the Spaniards for the loyalty of the American Indians. In the sixteenth century the Spaniards had not yet solidified control outside of the heavily populated areas of the Valley of Mexico and the highlands of Peru. Raleigh thought he could either create an English settlement in the land he called Guinea, or at least turn the Indians away from friendly relations with the Spaniards.

Sir Walter Raleigh did not find the golden city of El Dorado, but he remained convinced that there were fabulous riches to be discovered in northern South America. He came across gold in riverbanks and in Indian villages. Raleigh was certain that a large quantity of gold could be mined in the mountains of northern South America, but he did not have the tools or men to excavate it. Even though Raleigh did not find a huge cache of gold, he considered his adventure to be a success. He made valuable contacts with the Indians, and believed that he had convinced them to ignore the Spanish and welcome any future English expeditions.