Five Centuries Ago, France Came to America

This is the story of two discoveries. The first took place in March 1524, when an explorer, hired by King Francis I to find a sailing route to China, stumbled across the American East Coast. The second was just over 75 years ago, when this forgotten chapter in transatlantic history was uncovered. This is the story of Giovanni da Verrazzano, the sailor who never reached Asia, but became the first European to set foot on the site of the future city of New York.
Inaugurated in 1964, the longest suspension bridge in the Americas bears the name of Giovanni da Verrazzano, the navigator and envoy of France who first explored New York Bay. © Alan Band/Fox Photos/Getty Images

A group of tourists slow down as they admire the Manhattan skyscrapers rising above the river. In fact, they’re not gazing over the Hudson, but the Charente River! At the bend in a street in Angoulême, the graphic-novel capital of Western France, a 100-foot-high mural transports visitors across the Atlantic. New York sur Charente, by artist Nicolas de Crécy, is a nod to the ties connecting the two cities. Historic ties that go back to the time when the Big Apple was called “Angoulême.”

This story begins in the 15th century, a time of great discoveries when European royals were financing ambitious expeditions to explore distant lands. Giovanni da Verrazzano was born in this context, around 1485, in Tuscany according to Italian historians and in Lyon according to their French colleagues. As an experienced sailor and businessman, he was appointed “chief navigator to the king of France,” tasked with finding a sea route to “those blessed shores of Cathay,” as China was then known. Portuguese sailor Ferdinand Magellan had discovered a strait that would allow him to bypass the perilous Cape Horn at the southern tip of the American continent, but surely there had to be a quicker way!

In June 1523, Jean de Verrazane (having Gallicized his name) left Le Havre with four ships. After a stopover in Dieppe, his caravel found itself alone. The Dauphine first sailed along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts to the island of Madeira, from which she set sail on January 17, 1524, before heading west. After a storm “as violent as ever sailing man encountered,” he later wrote in a letter to Francis I, the explorer finally sighted land on March 7, 1524. Unlike his contemporaries, Verrazane was aware that he had not arrived in Asia, but in “a new land which had never been seen before by any man, either Ancient or modern.” In tribute to his patron, he named it Francesca in Latin. And later Nova Gallia: “New France.”

Francesco Allegrini & Giuseppe Zocchi, Giovanni Pier Andrea di Bernardo da Verrazzano, 1767. © New York Public Library
Verrazzane’s 1524 voyage along the Atlantic Seaboard. From Lino S. Lipinsky, Giovanni da Verrazzano: The Discoverer of New York Bay, 1958

The Dauphine dropped anchor off the coast of present-day North Carolina. She then headed south, before turning back for fear of “getting lost among the Spaniards,” who had already landed in Florida in 1513. (It wasn’t until 1562 that a French expedition ventured into the region.) When he reached Cape Hatteras, Verrazane could hardly contain his excitement: “We could see the Eastern Sea from the ship, halfway between west and north. This is doubtless the one which goes around the tip of India, China, and Cathay.” But instead of the sought-after passage to Asia, he was staring at the Pamlico Sound, which travels inland. This error was not corrected on maps until the 17th century. Initially, the body of water was known as the “Sea of Verrazano”!

The caravel resumed its northward trajectory. As the voyage progressed, the explorer named the landmarks he saw from the deck and during seven visits ashore. The map drawn up by his brother Jérôme in 1529 offers a surprising classification of the American East Coast. After le cap de la Peur (Cape Fear), the Dauphine landed at la forêt de Lauriers (North Carolina). This was followed by la terre de l’Annonciation (Virginia), Arcadie (Maryland), le cap d’Alençon (Cape Henlopen), the mouth of le fleuve Vendôme (the Delaware River), la côte de Lorraine (New Jersey), le cap Bonnivet (Cape May), and la colline de Saint-Pol (the Navesink Highlands).

France Arrives in New York

On April 17, 1524, the Dauphine entered a strait and sailed half a league inland. Verrazane and his 50 Norman crewmen discovered an “impressively majestic river” and a “beautiful lake” across which “about 30 small boats ran to and from […] with innumerable people aboard who were crossing from one side to the other to see us.” The explorer – the first European to visit the region and interact with an Algonquin tribe – added: “The people were […] dressed in birds’ feathers of various color and they came toward us joyfully, uttering loud cries of wonderment.” In his report to Francis I, Count of Angoulême, he described a “very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills; between them a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flow out into the sea.”

The “hills” in question are none other than the landforms of Brooklyn and Staten Island. In homage to the king of France, Verrazane named the area “Angoulême.” The “lake” around which New York City now stands was named “Sainte-Marguerite,” after Francis I’s elder sister. However, the rising wind soon forced the sailors back north. The moment was brief, but historic. According to Florent Gaillard, who manages the Angoulême municipal archives and took part in a 2019 documentary on Verrazane’s voyage: “April 17, 1524, will forever remain a bond between New York City and Angoulême.”

Lino S. Lipinsky, Verrazzano Landing in Staten Island in 1524, 1955. © Marine Museum of the City of New York

The Dauphine then reached l’île Louise (Martha’s Vineyard), before spending two weeks in Refuge (Newport). Verrazane was won over by Narragansett Bay, “as pleasant as I can possibly describe, and suitable for every kind of cultivation – grain, wine, or oil,” and the “friendly” tribes who inhabited its shores. Quite the opposite of the men, “full of crudity and vices,” he met beyond le cap Pallavicino (Cape Cod), in Maine: “[They] were so barbarous that we could never make any communication with them, however many signs we made to them.” Throughout his journey, Verrazane described the Natives with interest, including their physical appearance, their customs, and their jewelry, such as earrings made of “many sheets of worked copper which they prize more than gold.”

The expedition pushed further north to Nova Scotia, where Verrazane stopped taking notes. He knew that the English and Portuguese had already visited la terre aux Bretons and la terre Neuve. The Dauphine returned to France in the late spring of 1524 without having found a passage to China. Despite this failure, the explorer took with him a map and a “little book” containing his observations (both documents have unfortunately been lost). In a report sent to Francis I, Verrazane described the American coastline, its relief and natural resources over a distance of 2,500 miles between Florida and Canada. But in the midst of the Italian War, the king never read his letter. The first French epic in North America was lost in the mists of time.

Rediscovering Verrazane

Renewed interest in the explorer came from New York. In 1909, the city celebrated the 300th anniversary of its “discovery” by Englishman Henry Hudson. Protesting that the honor was actually owed to Verrazane, who had arrived 85 years before the Dutch East India Company sailor, the city’s Italian community had a bust of Verrazane installed in Lower Manhattan. The bronze statue stood guard over the mouth of the Hudson for more than 30 years, before being removed during the construction of a tunnel over to Brooklyn. But the plaque, written in Italian, bore no mention of France’s role.

“No 16th-century explorer is more misunderstood than Verrazane,” wrote historian Charles-André Julien, author of a 1946 book about the French in America. He offered two explanations: the lack of reliable sources to validate his account, and the stranglehold of Anglo-American researchers on the subject. What’s more, unlike the English and Dutch who followed him, “Verrazzano wasn’t looking to settle the New World,” says Michael Ryan, vice-president of the New York Historical Society. “Had he planted a flag on the island of Manhattan […] and took possession of it for his majesty Francis I, the story would be very different.”

But the man considered in his day to be “another Amerigo Vespucci, another Ferdinand Magellan, and even more” left no trace of his passage and disappeared from the collective memory. He died in 1528 after being captured by a tribe of cannibals in the West Indies, and his voyage along the American East Coast was soon forgotten. Six years later, Jacques Cartier crossed the Atlantic to claim what was to become Quebec. With these new fur-rich territories, soon to be joined by the Mississippi Valley, France had no use for Verrazane’s geographical observations.

Everything changed in 1948. That year, “despite the skepticism of [his] fellow students,” French historian Jacques Habert defended a thesis on Jean de Verrazane at Columbia University. “Recently discovered documents led me to believe that we now had enough evidence to authenticate this sailor’s voyages,” he later explained in an interview with France-Amérique. And with good reason: At the Morgan Library in New York, he unearthed a copy of the explorer’s report, sent to a Roman banker and acquired in 1911 by financier and collector J.P. Morgan.

A Revolution in Transatlantic History

The thesis in question was published in 1949 under the deliberately provocative title When New York Was Called Angoulême. The professor at the Lycée Français de New York and former officer in the Free French Forces argued that “Verrazzano and his French companions deserved to be known for what they are: the first White men to enter New York Harbor, and the discoverers of the greater part of the Atlantic Seaboard of the United States.” Florent Gaillard remembers attending one of Habert’s lectures as a child: “I was very young, but I understood that this man had revolutionized transatlantic history.”

Jacques Habert’s book, described by The New York Times as a “militant book,” created quite a stir. The New York Historical Society, which until then had maintained that Verrazane had never existed, had no choice but to acknowledge its errors. “Well, we can lay our pistols down now,” wrote its president. “All doubt that Giovanni da Verrazzano was the first man to enter New York Harbor has been dispelled.” From then on, Jacques Habert – who was also director of France-Amérique and a senator for the French community living in the United States – never stopped trying to revive and correct the memory of the Dauphine saga.

The Central Committee of New York’s French Societies began by installing a plaque on the French Line pier to mark the 425th anniversary of Verrazane’s voyage. In 1951, a campaign supported by France-Amérique had the new Staten Island ferry named in the explorer’s honor. And the following year, Verrazane’s bust was returned to Battery Park. The new plaque, written in English by Jacques Habert, put France back at the heart of the first exploration of New York Bay. On the day of the inauguration, the mayor of Angoulême shook hands with his New York counterpart, who proclaimed himself “mayor of Angoulême, U.S.A.” for the occasion. The image of the two men was printed on the front page of our publication.

Angoulême mayor Roger Baudrin and his New York City counterpart, Vincent Impellitteri, at the inauguration of the new Verrazano Monument, November 29, 1952. © France-Amérique
The monument paying homage to Verrazane in Battery Park, in Lower Manhattan. © Anthony Angel/Library of Congress

France and the United States have “everything to gain by upholding this explorer’s memory,” wrote Jacques Habert in France-Amérique. For the historian, it mattered little that Verrazane had brought an eight-year-old native, captured in Maryland, back to France. “Unlike [Christopher] Columbus, Verrazane and the French strove to establish friendly ties with the natives,” he wrote, emphasizing the humanism of “this universal spirit, European before the concept even existed, who pursued goals that went beyond national frameworks.” His campaign was a success. On April 17, 1954, the East Coast states declared “Verrazzano Day,” celebrating the anniversary with plaques and speeches in French, Italian, and English.

The Hudson River Flows Beneath the Verrazzano Bridge

The year 1959 heralded another victory for Verrazane in the United States. At the instigation of France-Amérique and the Italian-American newspaper Il Progresso, the bridge then under construction at the entrance to New York’s Upper Bay, between Brooklyn and Staten Island, was named after the Florentine sailor sent by Francis I. France-Amérique was delighted: “The Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French people to the American people, will no longer be the first monument in the New World to welcome travelers from Europe to these shores – which France was the first to explore.”

Pebbles collected from Dieppe beaches were set into one of the bridge’s pillars, while Italy donated a stone from the Verrazane family’s Tuscan château. On November 21, 1964, in the presence of Jacques Habert (named “godfather of the Verrazzano Bridge” by The New York Daily News) and the mayors of New York, Dieppe, Le Havre, and Angoulême, the “giant gateway to America” was finally inaugurated. Renault cars, a procession of blue, white, and red Caravelle and Dauphine models flying the French and American flags, were the first to cross the bridge. Henri Bonnet, former French ambassador to the United States and president of the Comité Français Jean de Verrazane, promised that “this rediscovery will only strengthen the French-American friendship, which no cloud can meaningfully overshadow.”

As early as 1956, the mayor of Angoulême had the promenade leading to the château formerly inhabited by the Angoulême counts renamed “Place New-York.” In the wake of other lectures given by Jacques Habert in France, the explorer was also honored with a statue in Dieppe, a square and a high school in Lyon, a square near Paris, and a roundabout in Le Havre. Florent Gaillard has since taken up the torch. “The year 2024 will be dedicated to Verrazane,” he says. Alongside the commemorations of the 80th anniversary of the Normandy landings, Angoulême is planning a series of conferences, exhibitions, and events to celebrate the sailor and 500 years of adventures between our two countries. Soon, the historian says, a plaque installed on Place New-York “will set in stone the shared past that unites the new and old Angoulême!”

Another Link Between Angoulême and New York

At Anatole France Middle School in Angoulême, the librarian Damien Renon also maintains the memory of Jean de Verrazane. “During my years at the Lycée Français de New York, I discovered the history of the other Angoulême, as well as its link with the Lycée and Jacques Habert,” he explains. “I decided, very modestly, to take up the torch.” With his students, as well as some thirty classes from the Angoulême area and New York City, he organized a poster contest to bring together the two cities and pay tribute to the explorer who arrived in America in 1524. “These commemorations remind us that the transatlantic relationship is centuries old and still going strong.”