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Francisco de Orellana (1511-November 1546) was a Spanish conquistador, colonist, and explorer. He joined Gonzalo Pizarro's 1541 expedition that set out from Quito headed east, hoping to find the mythical city of El Dorado. Along the way, Orellana and Pizarro were separated.
While Pizarro returned to Quito, Orellana and a handful of men continued traveling downriver, eventually discovering the Amazon River and making their way to the Atlantic Ocean. Today, Orellana is best remembered for this journey of exploration.
Fast Facts: Francisco de Orellana
- Known For: Spanish conquistador who discovered the Amazon River
- Born: 1511 in Trujillo, Crown of Castile
- Died: November 1546 in the Delta of the Amazon River (Today Pará and Amapá, Brazil)
- Spouse: Ana de Ayala
Francisco de Orellana was born in Extremadura sometime around 1511. It's reported that he had a close relationship with Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, although the exact relationship is not entirely clear. They were close enough, however, that Orellana could use the connection to his advantage.
Orellana came to the New World while still a young man and met with Pizarro's 1832 expedition to Peru, where he was among the Spaniards who overthrew the mighty Inca Empire. He showed a knack for supporting the winning sides in the Civil Wars among the conquistadors that ripped the region apart in the late 1530s. He lost an eye in the fighting but was richly rewarded with lands in present-day Ecuador.
Gonzalo Pizarro's Expedition
Spanish conquistadors had discovered unimaginable wealth in Mexico and Peru and were constantly on the lookout for the next rich native Empire to attack and rob. Gonzalo Pizarro, Francisco's brother, was one man who believed in the legend of El Dorado, a wealthy city governed by a king who painted his body in gold dust.
In 1540, Gonzalo began outfitting an expedition that would set out from Quito and head east in the hopes of locating El Dorado or any other rich native civilization. Gonzalo borrowed a princely sum of money to outfit the expedition, which left in February of 1541. Francisco de Orellana joined the expedition and was considered high-ranking among the conquistadors.
Pizarro and Orellana Separate
The expedition did not find much in the way of gold or silver. Instead, it encountered angry natives, hunger, insects, and flooded rivers. The conquistadors slogged around the dense South American jungle for several months, their condition worsening.
In December of 1541, the men were camped out alongside a mighty river, their provisions loaded onto a makeshift raft. Pizarro decided to send Orellana ahead to scout the terrain and find some food. His orders were to return as soon as he could. Orellana set out with about 50 men and departed on December 26.
A few days downriver, Orellana and his men found some food at a native village. According to documents that Orellana kept, he wished to return to Pizarro, but his men agreed that returning upriver would be too hard and threatened to mutiny if Orellana made them, preferring instead to continue downriver. Orellana did send three volunteers back to Pizarro to inform him of his actions. They set forth from the confluence of the Coca and Napo Rivers and began their trek.
On February 11, 1542, the Napo emptied into a larger River: the Amazon. Their voyage would last until they reached the Spanish-held Island of Cubagua, off the coast of Venezuela, in September. Along the way, they suffered from Indian attacks, hunger, malnutrition, and illnesses. Pizarro would eventually return to Quito, his troop of colonists decimated.
The Amazons-a fearsome race of warrior women-had been legendary in Europe for centuries. The conquistadors, who had become used to seeing new, marvelous things on a regular basis, often looked for legendary people and places (such as Juan Ponce de León's fabled search for the Fountain of Youth).
The Orellana expedition convinced itself that it had found the fabled Kingdom of the Amazons. Native sources, highly motivated to tell the Spaniards what they wanted to hear, told of a great, wealthy kingdom ruled by women with vassal states along the river.
During one skirmish, the Spanish even saw women fighting: they assumed these were the legendary Amazons who had come to fight alongside their vassals. Friar Gaspar de Carvajal, whose first-hand account of the journey has survived, described them as near-naked white women who fought fiercely.
Return to Spain
Orellana returned to Spain in May 1543, where he was not surprised to find that an angry Gonzalo Pizarro had denounced him as a traitor. He was able to defend himself against the charges, in part because he had asked the would-be mutineers to sign documents to the effect that they did not allow him to return upstream to aid Pizarro.
On February 13, 1544, Orellana was named governor of “New Andalucia,” which included much of the region he had explored. His charter allowed him to explore the area, conquer any bellicose natives, and establish settlements along the Amazon River.
Return to the Amazon
Orellana was now an adelantado, sort of a cross between an administrator and a conquistador. With his charter in hand, he went looking for funding but found it difficult to lure investors to his cause. His expedition was a fiasco from the start.
More than a year after gaining his charter, Orellana set sail for the Amazon on May 11, 1545. He had four ships carrying hundreds of settlers, but provisions were poor. He stopped in the Canary Islands to refit the ships but wound up staying there for three months as he sorted out various problems.
When they finally set sail, rough weather caused one of his ships to be lost. He reached the mouth of the Amazon in December and began his plans for settlement.
Orellana began exploring the Amazon, looking for a likely place to settle. Meanwhile, hunger, thirst, and native attacks weakened his force constantly. Some of his men even abandoned the enterprise while Orellana was exploring.
Sometime in late 1546, Orellana was scouting an area with some of his remaining men when they were attacked by natives. Many of his men were killed: according to Orellana's widow, he died of illness and grief shortly after that.
Orellana is best remembered today as an explorer, but that was never his goal. He was a conquistador who accidentally became an explorer when he and his men were carried off by the mighty Amazon River. His motives were not very pure, either: he never intended to be a trailblazing explorer.
Rather, he was a veteran of the bloody conquest of the Inca Empire whose considerable rewards were not enough for his greedy soul. He wished to find and loot the legendary city of El Dorado in order to become even wealthier. He died still seeking a wealthy kingdom to plunder.
Still, there is no doubt that he led the first expedition to travel the Amazon River from its roots in the Andean mountains to its release into the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way, he proved himself as shrewd, tough, and opportunistic, but also cruel and ruthless. For a time, historians deplored his failure to return to Pizarro, but it seems that he had no choice in the matter.
Today, Orellana is remembered for his journey of exploration and little else. He is most famous in Ecuador, which is proud of its role in history as the place from which the famed expedition departed. There are streets, schools, and even a province named after him.
- Ayala Mora, Enrique, ed. Manual de Historia del Ecuador I: Epocas Aborigen y Colonial, Independencia. Quito: Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, 2008.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Francisco De Orellana.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 13 Feb. 2014.
- Silverberg, Robert. The Golde. Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: the Ohio University Press, 1985.