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6 Famous Explorers Who Vanished from the Face of the Earth

They set off into uncharted territory and were never seen again.

explorers who vanished

The siren song of discovery has called many men and women from their homes, compelling these intrepid spirits to sail the seas or cross deserts in search of something new. Many of these explorers went on to become famous, establishing important trade routes or even declaring dominion over new lands. But for every successful explorer, there are those who vanished in the uncharted places of the world, never to be seen again…

 Percy Fawcett & the Lost City of Z 

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  • Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Lost City of Z may sound familiar to readers. That's because Charlie Hunnam portrayed this real-life adventurer in the cinematic adaptation of David Grann's 2009 book of the same name. The real-life Percy Fawcett was obsessed with finding a lost city in the Amazon jungle, which he called "Z." Unfortunately, it was an obsession that ultimately cost him his life, as he, his oldest son, and a fellow explorer named Raleigh Rimmell disappeared into the jungle in 1925 and were never seen again. In the years since, hundreds of expeditions have gone in search of the truth about what happened to Percy Fawcett. Many of these search parties have vanished as well. 

 Henry Hudson 

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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the time he set sail to find the Northwest Passage in 1610, Henry Hudson was an experienced explorer. He had already charted the North American river, strait, and bay that bear his name. This rumored passage was supposedly an ice-free route through the Arctic that would allow Europe to more easily reach the East Indies and the valuable trade located there. Attempts to discover this passage had already claimed the lives of more than a few sailors by the time Hudson and his crew sailed into the frigid waters of northern Canada. Subjected to freezing conditions and a famously indecisive captain, the crew mutinied. They then set Hudson and eight others, including his son, adrift in a rowboat in Hudson Bay. Most of the crew then returned safely to England, where they were charged with murder and ultimately acquitted. The bodies of Hudson and the other marooned sailors were never recovered. 

 Franklin's Lost Expedition 

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Henry Hudson was by no means the last explorer to lose his life in the quest for the Northwest Passage. Over two centuries later, in 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin led two ships on an Arctic expedition intended to locate a navigable passage across the top of the world. In hindsight, the names of the two ships seem uncannily prescient, given the ultimate fate of the expedition. They were the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. What we know for certain is that the two ships ultimately became icebound somewhere in Victoria Strait, and all 129 crew members were lost. Shortly after the expedition disappeared, graves and other relics were found on Beechey Island and King William Island. Study of these graves suggested that the men may have turned to cannibalism before they perished. Eventually, in 2014 and 2016, the wrecks of both ships were found in remarkably well-preserved condition in the icy waters of Queen Maude Gulf and south of King William Island. The exact fate of the crew remains unknown, and has led to great speculation, including a fictionalized account by Dan Simmons in his 2007 novel The Terror.

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The Corte-Real Brothers 

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Ill-fated explorers originally hailing from Portugal, Gaspar and his elder brother Miguel Corte-Real managed to disappear on two separate expeditions to the New World. In 1501, the Corte-Real brothers mounted a successful expedition to Greenland, which they claimed for Portugal. Afterward, Miguel returned to Europe with two of their three ships (and 57 enslaved native men), while Gaspar sailed on toward the New World. Gaspar was never seen again. Upon learning of his brother's disappearance, Miguel mounted an expedition to rescue him in 1502, but that expedition vanished as well. What became of the two brothers remains unknown to this day. In 1912, Edmund B. Delabarre put forth an interesting hypothesis. He claimed that the unusual petroglyphs found on Dighton Rock in what is now Massachusetts were, in fact, abbreviated Latin, and that, when translated, they read, "I, Miguel Corte-Real, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians." If the translation is accurate, that would mean Miguel Corte-Real survived his expedition by at least nine years, and seems to have done pretty well for himself in the New World. Other scholars have refuted this claim, but it remains a popular theory.

Ludwig Leichhardt 

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Known as Australia's "Prince of Explorers," the Prussian-born naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt was obsessed with the land down under, and mounted a 3,000 mile overland expedition from Moreton Bay to Port Essington between 1844 and 1845. Leichhardt was initially given up for the dead and the trip assumed failed before he finally arrived in Port Essington on December 17, 1845. Not content with one death-defying journey, Leichhardt then proposed an even more ambitious expedition, one that intended to cross the whole of Australia, from Darling Downs to the Swan River. After traveling only a few hundred miles, the expedition was forced to turn back. In 1848, Leichhardt set out on what would become his final journey, once again attempting to travel from the Condamine River to the West coast of Australia. He never made it, and the expedition never returned. Subsequent search parties found only scattered trees marked with the letter L and, in 1900, a brass plaque attached to a burnt gun, bearing Leichhardt's name and dated 1848. In 2006, the plaque was authenticated as having belonged to Ludwig Leichhardt, indicating that he made it at least two-thirds of the way across the continent, but his ultimate fate remains a mystery.

Peng Jiamu 

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  • Photo Credit: Adventure Journal

The desert of Lop Nur in China was once an enormous salt lake before it was drained by the construction of various dams. In the years since, Lop Nur has been used as a nuclear test site. Forty-five nuclear tests were conducted there between 1964 and 1996. It has also been used as a source for potash and other mining. It also houses a number of archaeological sites, and has proven irresistible to explorers, including Peng Jiamu, a Chinese biochemist who disappeared on an expedition into Lop Nur in 1980. Leaving behind a note that said he had gone to find water, Peng was never heard from again, and his body has never been discovered. He isn't the only explorer to be claimed by the vast desert. In 1996, another Chinese explorer named Yu Chunshun died while attempting to cross Lop Nur on foot.

We may think of the days of exploration and the dangers that come with it as being in the distant past. But the story of Peng Jiamu proves that, while there may no longer be any spots on the map marked "here be dragons," it is still possible to lose oneself in the wilds of our big, strange world.

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Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons; Additional photo: Adventure Journal