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European Colonization of the Americas

European Colonization of the Americas

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The European colonization of the Americas was the process by which European settlers populated the regions of North, Central, South America, and the islands of the Caribbean. It is also recognized as the direct cause for the cultures of the various indigenous people of those regions being replaced and often eradicated.

The process of colonization developed fairly quickly between 1492-1620, with others arriving in larger numbers between c. 1620 - c. 1720, and still others afterwards up through the early 20th century. As more Europeans arrived, more land was required by them, steadily forcing Native Americans onto reservations as the immigrants enlarged their settlements.

The first European community in North America was established c. 980 - c. 1030 by the Norse Viking Leif Erikson (b. c. 970 - c. 980) in Newfoundland at the site known today as L'Anse aux Meadows. This settlement was temporary, however, and the Norse left to return to Greenland after a little over a year, inspiring no further expeditions to the site. Although Norse artifacts have been found along the east coast of North America – suggesting further explorations – this has not been established as evidence of a widespread Norse presence in the Americas.

European colonization of the region is therefore cited as beginning with Christopher Columbus (l. 1451-1506) whose voyages to the West Indies, Central and South America, and other islands of the Caribbean between 1492-1504 introduced the so-called New World to European interests. Columbus was not attempting to discover the Americas but was seeking a new maritime route to Asia after the closure of the overland trade routes (known as the Silk Road) by the Ottoman Empire in 1453; an event which launched the so-called Age of Discovery. Columbus, sailing for Spain, opened the way for Spanish colonists to settle in the region he had explored, which would later lead to the Spanish Conquest of Central and South America throughout the 16th century.

The region of modern-day Brazil was claimed for Portugal in 1500 by the Portuguese aristocrat and mariner Pedro Álvares Cabral (l. 1468 - c. 1520) while parts of modern-day Canada were claimed for France after its exploration by the Florentine seaman and explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano (l. 1485-1528, who mapped the entire eastern seaboard of North America) in 1524, leading to the establishment of the colony of New France in 1534.

The Dutch Republic of the Netherlands founded the colony of New Netherland in North America (present-day region of the states of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and surrounding environs) in 1614, and Sweden had established their own, New Sweden, in part of modern-day Delaware by 1638. Other nations such as Russia, Germany, and Scotland also attempted to establish themselves in the New World without success.

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Among the most significant plants introduced by the indigenous people to the colonists of North America was tobacco.

The wealth Spain acquired from their colonies and the enslavement and sale of indigenous people encouraged England to establish their own presence in the New World. The first two colonies – Popham and Roanoke Colony – failed but the third, Jamestown, founded in Virginia in 1607, succeeded. The Plymouth colony followed, founded in 1620 in Massachusetts and, afterwards, the basic regions of European control in the Americas, in spite of periodic conflicts, were established until the French and Indian War (1754-1763) which resulted in significant reformation and English control of the entire eastern seaboard of the modern-day United States.

The colonization is recognized as initiating the Columbian Exchange, a modern-day term coined in 1972 by the historian Alfred W. Crosby, jr. of the University of Texas at Austin, referring to the cross-cultural transmission of animals, crops, disease, technology, cultural values, and human populations between the Americas, West Africa, and Europe.

Among the most significant plants introduced by the indigenous people to the colonists of North America was tobacco which, because it was labor-intensive and required considerable arable land to cultivate, resulted in hostilities between the Europeans and natives as more and more land was taken, deforestation as land was cleared, and the institutionalization of slavery by c. 1640, already established by the Spanish in Central and South America earlier as part of the feudal encomienda system of forced labor.

The history of the conquest and colonization of the Americas was later written by the victors, which cast their efforts in a noble light in the interests of exploration, civilization, and conversion of the indigenous people to Christianity. In the modern era, this narrative has been challenged and initiatives proposed to recognize the cultural losses and human rights abuses of the Native Americans and West Africans by the European colonizers but, so far, nothing significant has come of these efforts.

Columbus, Portugal, & the Spanish Conquest

Trade between Europe and Asia had been ongoing since 130 BCE when the Han Dynasty of China (202 BCE - 220 CE) opened the routes known in the modern day as the Silk Road. Although there were contentions over these routes through the years, and different monarchies or tribes took control of them in whole or in part, they remained open, and goods traveled back and forth along them until the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453; afterwards, the Ottoman Empire closed the Silk Road to the West.

Europeans had grown used to the items from Asia, however, and so began to look for other routes to the East. Columbus believed he could find a new passage by sailing west and received funding for his expedition by Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Spain, setting out on his first voyage in 1492. Columbus landed in the Bahamas, believing the first island he claimed for Spain to be a part of a chain just off the coast of China. His next three voyages would include efforts at finding a sea passage in the region leading to Asia, but, after his first, Spain was just as interested in colonization and exploitation of the New World as a new route to the East.

Columbus and his crew made the first voyage in three ships; he returned in 1493 at the head of 17 ships full of colonists, soldiers, priests, and large Mastiffs to intimidate the native people. Columbus, as per his agreement with Ferdinand and Isabella, became governor of the new colony and established the encomienda system whereby Spanish settlers marked out a sizeable tract of land and offered the Native Americans protection, primarily from themselves, in return for labor.

In 1500 Cabral claimed the region of modern-day Brazil, and a colony would be established there by 1530. The Portuguese had no more regard for the indigenous people of the region than Columbus had earlier and almost instantly enslaved them. Finding that the people had no immunity to European diseases and died quickly and also that they did not seem to be able to endure hard manual labor, they imported slaves from West Africa. By this time (c. 1540), between Columbus' efforts and Cabral's, an estimated 90% of the indigenous population was dead.

Columbus had promised Ferdinand and Isabella a wealth of gold from the New World which he had not delivered and so others were sent to find it. Hernán Cortés (l. 1485-1547) is among the most infamous of these, conquering the Aztec Empire of Mexico between 1519-1521 and sending his commander Pedro de Alvarado (l. 1485-1541) to subdue the Maya to the north in 1523; a mission which the earlier conquistador Cordoba had failed to accomplish and which would not be completed until 1697 when the conquistador Martín de Ursúa (l. 1653-1715) crushed the last of the Maya resistance.

The conquest continued elsewhere and in all directions as part of the ongoing European quest for gold, which eventually established Spanish claims from the present-day southern west regions of the United States through Central and South America. In the region of modern-day Venezuela, Francisco Pizarro (l. 1476-1541), conquered the Inca in 1532 and the last of their resistance was crushed by 1572. Once the indigenous people had been killed, sold into slavery, or otherwise removed, Spanish colonists established themselves on their lands.

France & the Netherlands

Cartier named the new territory Canada from an Iroquois word (Kanata) for “village”.

The colony of New France was founded in modern-day Canada by the French explorer Jacques Cartier (l. 1491-1557) in 1534. France would also claim land holdings in the regions of modern-day South America, the Caribbean, the state of Louisiana, and elsewhere. Cartier's mission, like Columbus', was to navigate a maritime passage to Asia and return to France with gold.

On his first voyage, he and his crew kidnapped two of the sons of an Iroquois chief, Donnacona. He returned in 1535 with three ships, the two sons (who had been allowed to be taken by their father in return for various goods), and plans for settlement which were fully implemented on his third voyage in 1541. He named the new territory Canada from an Iroquois word (Kanata) for “village”.

He was sure, based on what he thought Donnacona had said, that Canada was a land teeming with gold, and his reporting this to the French authorities (and finally kidnapping Donnacona so he could tell them himself) guaranteed more colonists and profiteers arriving in the region after 1542. The French were not interested in enslaving the indigenous people since they already had learned by this time that they did not make good slaves and found it more profitable to have the natives work for them in supplying animal furs and other goods to be sold in Europe.

The Dutch would also lay claim to parts of lower Canada, as well as the modern-day region of the Hudson River Valley in New York State, through the efforts of the Dutch East India Company which, like the others, was seeking a route to Asia (this elusive route, never found because it did not exist, came to be known as the Northwest Passage) and colonized North America along the way. The explorer Henry Hudson (Hendrick Hudson, l. 1565-1611) mapped and claimed the regions for the Dutch East India Company in 1609, and colonies would be established by 1614 with New Amsterdam (Manhattan) added in 1624.

Early English Colonies

England, impressed by the wealth Spain was able to acquire from the New World, considered establishing their own colonies there but, first, found it easier to have privateers (state-sponsored pirates) stop Spanish vessels returning from the Americas and seize their cargo, among them Sir Francis Drake (l. 1540-1596), known to the Spanish as “the Dragon” for the ferocity of his attacks on settlements in Panama and continual strikes against their ships.

The English understood, however, that it would be more efficient and effective to launch ships against the Spanish from the coasts of the Americas than their own and so Queen Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603), who had funded Drake's missions, tasked her friend and confidante Sir Walter Raleigh (l. 1552-1618) with sending an expedition to claim any lands in the Americas not yet under the flag of a European nation.

Raleigh placed the captains Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe in charge of two ships and sent them off in 1584 (known as the Amadas-Barlowe Expedition) to find a suitable spot. They returned later that year and reported to Raleigh who told Elizabeth that they had found a bountiful land, filled with friendly natives, which he called Virginia in honor of Elizabeth, the virgin queen.

The first settlement was established in 1585 on Roanoke Island, because the ships could not reach the mainland owing to a storm, under the leadership of Ralph Lane (d. 1603). The indigenous people were, at first, friendly, but when the colonists' supplies grew low and the natives had tired of helping them for nothing in return, Lane attacked and killed their chief. Afterwards, low on food and outnumbered by the natives, the colonists accepted a ride back home with Francis Drake who was passing by after another raid on the Spanish.

A second expedition was sent in 1587 under a John White who brought his family along with 117 settlers, mostly families, all of whom were promised land. As before, the colonists began to run out of food, but this time the indigenous people were not so friendly, and no help was offered. White returned to England for supplies and, owing to bad weather and other delays, did not return until 1590 when he found all the colonists gone, giving Roanoke the epithet of “the lost colony”.

One of the causes for the delay which prevented White from returning sooner was the threat of Spanish ships which were under the directive to end the privateering of Englishmen like Drake. Deciding to strike at the source of the trouble, Spain assembled its entire armada – 132 ships carrying 17,000 soldiers and 7,000 sailors – for an invasion of England in 1588. They were met by Drake and others who sent flaming ships into their midst, firing their boats, and a sudden storm then broke their formations; only half of the fleet managed to return to Spain.

Elizabeth I died in 1603, and the throne was assumed by James VI of Scotland who became James I of England (r. 1603-1625). With the Spanish threat removed, new plans were underway to colonize the New World and two expeditions were launched in 1606; one funded by the London Company (also known as the Virginia Company) and the other by the Plymouth Company, both of which received charters from King James I to establish colonies in separate regions of North America. The Plymouth Company's expedition would found the Popham Colony in the region of modern-day Maine in 1607, but it failed after a little over a year. The Virginia Company's colony would become Jamestown, also founded in 1607, which struggled but survived to become the first permanent English colony in North America.


The Jamestown colony barely survived the first few years, losing 80% of its population in only a few months, primarily because those who made up the expedition were either upper-class aristocrats who refused to work for their food or lower-class laborers who had no skill in farming. The colony was saved first by Captain John Smith (l. 1580-1631), a soldier, sailor, and adventurer who famously pronounced “he who does not work, shall not eat” and managed to organize the survivors to fend for themselves while also establishing a cordial relationship with the indigenous people of the Powhatan tribe, without whose help the colonists would have starved to death.

Smith returned to England in 1609, and the colony suffered from his absence, enduring what is known as the Starving Time during which they resorted to cannibalism. A ship, the Sea Venture, was en route to bring them aid when it was blown off course and wrecked in Bermuda in 1609. With no help coming and no supplies, the colonists were going to abandon the settlement and return to England when, in 1610, ships arrived carrying supplies and the three men who would turn the colony's fortune's around: John Rolfe (l. 1585-1622, who would later marry the famous Pocahontas, l. 1596-1617), Sir Thomas Gates (l. 1585-1622, the future governor), and Thomas West, Lord De La Warr (l. 1577-1618).

De La Warr prevented the desperate colonists from leaving and organized the colony while Gates handled daily administration and Rolfe introduced a new seed blend of tobacco he felt would do well in the Virginian soil and be popular back in Europe. Rolfe was correct, and the tobacco crop not only saved the colony but encouraged others in England to come to the New World. The crop also, unfortunately, required extensive lands for cultivation for maximum profit and a later arrival, Sir Thomas Dale (l. 1560- 1619), orchestrated the removal of the Powhatan tribe. Indentured servitude provided the necessary labor for the crop at first but, when this proved problematic, was eventually replaced by institutionalized slavery.

In 1619, the House of Burgesses was first convened, the first assembly of Englishmen in North America to gather and establish laws. This event is traditionally recognized as the earliest expression of democracy in the New World, even though it has become clear that the Native American tribes had been practicing a democratic form of government for centuries prior to this date.

The success of Jamestown encouraged the founding of the Plymouth colony in 1620 by the Puritan Separatists under Edward Winslow (l. 1595-1655) and William Bradford (l. 1590-1657) who characterized themselves as pilgrims seeking a holy land in which they could worship freely. Jamestown would eventually be abandoned and forgotten, but Plymouth colony, though it would only last until 1691, would live on in the national imagination, inspiring the images of grateful pilgrims and helpful natives as the foundational myth of what would become the United States of America.

Colonization of the Americas

Hello, and welcome to this Mometrix lesson on the European Colonization of the Americas.

Which European countries colonized in the Americas and when? Today, we’ll be talking about the Spanish, English, French and Dutch colonization of the Americas. Before we get started, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that all of the Americas were colonized for over a thousand years before Europeans even arrived, however, for this educational video, we’ll be focusing on what happened following the renowned/infamous arrival of Christopher Columbus.

First, let’s use a quick timeline to help us get our bearings for the rest of the video:

1492, Columbus claimed the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola for Spain
1497, John Cabot, an Italian, lands in Newfoundland
1519, Hernan Cortes begins the conquest of Mexico
1519-1522, Magellan’s expedition to Asia results in the first circumnavigation of the world
1535, Jacques Cartier sails through eastern Canada, along the St. Lawrence River
1539-41, Hernando de Soto travels throughout the American South
1540, the Spanish discover the Grand Canyon and no Europeans visit again for 200 years.
1542, the Spanish begin settlement of the West Coast

Now, let’s discuss the results of these explorations. From the early 1500s through the 1800s, the Spanish set out to the New World with goals of spreading Catholicism, obtaining gold, and building large plantations for tobacco and sugar, ranches, and conquests. Upon arriving, they were met by Native Americans (sidenote: historians believe over 20 million people lived in South America, prior to the Spanish arrival). The Spanish viewed the Native Americans as savages, or heathens, rather than as human beings. Because of this, they treated the natives violently, forcing Catholicism upon them, and forcing them into slavery (in 1493, the Pope basically said that all the newly discovered lands belonged to Spain, and that they owned them under the condition of converting the inhabitants to Roman Catholicism). The Spanish predominantly settled in what is now the entire western half of South America, Mexico, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, California, and other various locations. In these settlements, the settlers were required to follow the laws of the Spanish king. All opposing views and religions were shut down and resulted in death for most people.

Like the Spanish, the English began colonizing the Americas around the 1500s. They set out with goals of building plantations, creating additional sources of incomes, and escaping the religious persecution in Britain. Coming to the Americas, the English settled all along the East coast of what is now the United States, specifically in Virginia, Massachusetts, and later Maine, Georgia, and all the way to the Mississippi River. They claimed the majority of the East Coast calling the land “Virginia” after Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen”. Originally, the English held relatively friendly relations with the natives, sharing in hunting, trading, and crop growing techniques. After the development of greed over crops and income, the Englishman’s relations with the natives grew hostile and created many conflicts.

Now, for the 1600s, and another little timeline:

1604, Acadia is “settled” by French fur traders
1607, the English settle in Jamestown
1620, the English settle in Plymouth
1625, the Dutch settle at New Amsterdam (later New York City)
1626, the English settle at Salem… that’ll go well
1630, the English settle at Massachusetts Bay Colony, and, from there on, it’s almost entirely small English settlements (except for a few small Scottish, Swedish, Dutch towns that pop up).
1682, is the big exception with the French claiming much of the area that is now Louisiana.

So, let’s talk about all that. In the early 1600s, the French set out to what is now considered the Northeastern parts of North America and the Southeastern parts of Canada. The French had a couple of goals in mind: the expansion of their fur and fish trading. As part of this, the French partnered with certain natives to determine the best areas for hunting and created elaborate maps of the land depicting these areas and the kinds of game they occupied. Their maps detailed the locations of beavers, bears, wild turkeys, and they also mapped out the locations of large Native American Indian tribes. By creating these maps, the French knew the locations of specific resources as well as whether they were located near friend or foe by using pictures to depict the different animals and tribes, the Native Americans who partnered with the French could also use the map to their benefit.

As you’ve probably inferred, the French had relatively friendly relations with the natives in the area. They engaged each other in hunting tactics, cooking tactics, and even practiced intermarriage for the sake of becoming part of each others’ families. Even so, when the French came, they brought with them their Catholic faith, and they attempted to convert some of the natives to their religion.

As mentioned before, the French settled in modern day Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada, near the Great Lakes. Canadian settlements included Quebec and Montreal. Additionally, the French settled all around the Mississippi River laying claim to a collection of land at the time called Louisiana. This land consisted of present day Louisiana, Arkansas, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Fun fact: the capital of Louisiana, New Orleans, was named after King Louis XVI of France.

Similar in timing, settling, and reasoning to the French, the Dutch set out for the New World. In the Canadian region they formed “New Netherland” and in what is present day New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, the Dutch established “New Amsterdam”. Settling in such close proximity to the French meant that natural oppositions would be formed, and that they did. As I mentioned earlier, the French sided with specific tribes, like the Iroquois Confederacy or the Algonquians, to help each other gain survival and monetary advantages. Likewise, the Dutch formed with the opposing native tribes, creating a stronger rivalry between the natives. The two sides were in constant competition for resources, power, and trade routes. A major goal was the search for a connection from Europe to Asia through the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, as we know, this passage did not really exist. The Dutch “New Amsterdam” was taken by England in 1664 and renamed New York after the Duke of York.

While it’s a lot of information, and there are many different ways this topic can be approached, looking at the first settlers and their goals helps us to better understand future events.

Thanks for joining us in this lesson about Colonizing the Americas. Be sure to “like” this video and “subscribe” to our channel for more just like it. Go forth and colonize the depths of your mind!

1. Pre-contact Foods and the Ancestral Diet

The variety of cultivated and wild foods eaten before contact with Europeans was as vast and variable as the regions where indigenous people lived.

Seeds, nuts and corn were ground into flour using grinding stones and made into breads, mush and other uses. Many Native cultures harvested corn, beans, chile, squash, wild fruits and herbs, wild greens, nuts and meats. Those foods that could be dried were stored for later use throughout the year.

As much as 90 percent of the Southwestern Pueblo diet consisted of calories consumed from agricultural products, with wild fruits, greens, nuts and small game making up the balance. Because large game was scarce in some areas, textiles and corn were traded with the Plains people for bison meat. There is evidence that ancient Native cultures even incorporated cacao—the bean used to make chocolate—into their diets, as a 2009 excavation in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon revealed.  

Corn, beans and squash, called the Three Sisters by many tribes, serve as key pillars in the Native American diet and is considered a sacred gift from the Great Spirit. Together, the plants provide complete nutrition, while offering an important lesson in environmental cooperation. Corn draws nitrogen from the soil, while beans replenish it. Corn stalks provide climbing poles for the bean tendrils, and the broad leaves of squashes grow low to the ground, shading the soil, keeping it moist, and deterring the growth of weeds. 

Two Navajo women, pictured with a baby and three small lambs, c. 1930s.

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

1. European Colonization Impact on Native Americans’ Demography

After the arrival of the European colonists, massive changes started happening in the demography of the Native American people.

Primarily demographic changes came for three reasons:

  • European immigrants executed massacres on the Native American people.
  • Immigrants spread microbes throughout the continents, where millions of Natives lost their lives.
  • European colonists and Natives belonged to two different human races. It created racial diversity in their societies.

Because of the massacres and the deaths from diseases, their population on both continents (north and south) greatly reduced.

Studies show that more than 12 million natives lost their lives from 1492 to 1900 only for these reasons.

On the other hand, European colonists and Native Americans belonged to two different human races.

European people belonged to the Caucasian race (white people) and Natives were quite closer to the Mongolian human race.

2. The Imposition of Slavery (Beginning of Atrocities)

The Native people who lived here before the arrival of the colonists enjoyed a very peaceful life.

It was true that they had some minor inter-tribe clashes but they never had to face such brutality ever before, which they started facing once the Europeans arrived.

First of all, the colonialists imposed slavery on these ingenious people. They began capturing locals for the slave trade in Europe.

Columbus captured little native girls of 8 to 10 years old with the purpose of sexual slavery.

It’s just an example there is no account of how many such atrocities have been inflicted on them.

The most tragic events were those when many groups of these indigenous people chose the path of mass suicide to get rid of the outrages.

3. Spread of Lethal Diseases Among Native Americans

In history, residents of European origin are infamous for the fact that they spread dangerous diseases all over the world.

We can feel this truth after their arrival to the new continent.

Do you know what colonists spared such dangerous microbes among the people, whose immunity was not ready to fight against those threats?

Yes, those diseases were completely unknown and immediate to Natives’ health. As a result, it caused the deaths of millions of Native Americans.

Such microbes were:

  • Smallpox
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases
  • Bubonic Plague
  • Chickenpox
  • Scarlet Fever
  • Cholera
  • Influenza
  • Diphtheria
  • Measles
  • Malaria, etc.
4. Impact On Culture

European colonization also created an impact on the cultural side of the Americas.

Of course, it was obvious to happen because on one side where the people of Europe were very smart similarly, on the other hand, the number of Natives reduced in both continents significantly.

Therefore, the immigrants’ impact on Natives’ culture was quite obvious.

For example, colonists successfully spread Christianism in the new world.

5. Impact On Political Authority

Earlier when locals dominated both American continents, the political authority was divided between various small local groups.

Each of these groups had its own supreme leader and they controlled the administration of their groups.

But the arrival of European colonists entirely changed this political system.

After their arrival, political authority became centralized and transferred to the hands of various countries in Europe.

United States Era 1

Standard 1: Comparative characteristics of societies in the Americas, Western Europe, and Western Africa that increasingly interacted after 1450.

Standard 2: How early European exploration and colonization resulted in cultural and ecological interactions among previously unconnected peoples.

The study of American history properly begins with the first peopling of the Americas more than 30,000 years ago. Students will learn about the spread of ancient human societies in the Americas, North and South, and their adaptations to diverse physical and natural environments. This prepares students to address the historical convergence of European, African, and Native American people starting in the late 15th century when the Columbian voyages began. In studying the beginnings of North American history, it is important for students to understand that Indian societies, like peoples in other parts of the world, were experiencing change–political, economic, cultural–on the eve of the arrival of Europeans. The history of the Native Americans was complex, and it was continuing even as European settlers landed on South and North American shores.

European mariners were the agents of the encounters among these many peoples of the late 15th and early 16th centuries. To understand why the trans-oceanic voyages took place students must gain an appreciation of Europe’s economic growth, the rise of bureaucratic states, the pace of technological innovation, intellectual and religious ferment, and the continuing crusading tradition in the late medieval period. Students’ grasp of the encounters of diverse peoples in the Americas also requires attention to the history of West and Central Africa. This study will prepare students to investigate the conditions under which the Atlantic slave trade developed.

By studying the European colonization–and partial conquest–of the Americas to 1620, mostly played out in Central and South America, students will embark upon a continuing theme–the making of the many American people of the Western Hemisphere. As a people, we were composed from the beginning of diverse ethnic and linguistic strains. The nature of these manifold and uneven beginnings spawned issues and tensions that are still unresolved. How a composite American society was created out of such human diversity was a complicated process of cultural transformation that unfolded unevenly and unremittingly as the following eras will address.

By studying early European exploration, colonization, and conquest, students will learn about five long-range changes set in motion by the Columbian voyages. First, the voyages initiated a redistribution of the world’s population. Several million voluntary European immigrants flocked to the Americas at least 10-12 million involuntary enslaved Africans relocated on the west side of the Atlantic, overwhelmingly to South America and the Caribbean and indigenous peoples experienced catastrophic losses. Second, the arrival of Europeans led to the rise of the first trans-oceanic empires in world history. Third, the Columbian voyages sparked a world-wide commercial expansion and an explosion of European capitalist enterprise. Fourth, the voyages led in time to the planting of English settlements where ideas of representative government and religious toleration would grow and, over several centuries, would inspire similar transformations in other parts of the world. Lastly, at a time when slavery and serfdom were waning in Western Europe, new plantation economies were emerging in the Americas employing forced labor on a large scale.

Each standard was developed with historical thinking standards in mind. The relevant historical thinking standards are linked in the brackets, [ ], below.


Comparative characteristics of societies in the Americas, Western Europe, and Western Africa that increasingly interacted after 1450.

The student understands the patterns of change in indigenous societies in the Americas up to the Columbian voyages.

5-12 Draw upon data provided by archaeologists and geologists to explain the origins and migration from Asia to the Americas and contrast them with Native Americans’ own beliefs concerning their origins in the Americas. [Compare and contrast different sets of ideas]
5-12 Trace the spread of human societies and the rise of diverse cultures from hunter-gatherers to urban dwellers in the Americas. [Reconstruct patterns of historical succession and duration]
9-12 Explain the common elements of Native American societies such as gender roles, family organization, religion, and values and compare their diversity in languages, shelter, labor systems, political structures, and economic organization. [Analyze multiple causation]
7-12 Explore the rise and decline of the Mississippian mound-building society. [Analyze multiple causation]

The student understands changes in Western European societies in the age of exploration.

5-12 Appraise aspects of European society, such as family organization, gender roles, property holding, education and literacy, linguistic diversity, and religion. [Identify historical antecedents]
9-12 Describe major institutions of capitalism and analyze how the emerging capitalist economy transformed agricultural production, manufacturing, and the uses of labor. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]
7-12 Explain the causes and consequences of European Crusades in Iberia and analyze connections between the Christian crusading tradition and European overseas exploration. [Analyze multiple causation]
7-12 Explain dissent within the Catholic Church and analyze the beliefs and ideas of leading religious reformers. [Explain the influence of ideas]
9-12 Analyze relationships among the rise of centralized states, the development of urban centers, the expansion of commerce, and overseas exploration. [Identify historical antecedents]

The student understands developments in Western African societies in the period of early contact with Europeans.

5-12 Describe the physical geography of West and Central Africa and analyze its impact on settlement patterns, cultural traits, and trade. [Draw upon data in historical maps]
9-12 Describe general features of family organization, labor division, agriculture, manufacturing, and trade in Western African societies. [Analyze multiple causation]
7-12 Describe the continuing growth of Islam in West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries and analyze interactions between Islam and local religious beliefs and practices. [Examine the influence of ideas]
9-12 Analyze varieties of slavery in Western Africa and the economic importance of the trans-Saharan slave trade in the 15th and 16th centuries. [Analyze multiple causation]
9-12 Analyze the varying responses of African states to early European trading and raiding on the Atlantic African coast. [Analyze cause-and-effect relationships]

The student understands the differences and similarities among Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans who converged in the western hemisphere after 1492.

5-12 Compare political systems, including concepts of political authority, civic values, and the organization and practice of government. [Compare and contrast different political systems]
5-12 Compare social organizations, including population levels, urbanization, family structure, and modes of communication. [Compare and contrast different social organizations]
5-12 Compare economic systems, including systems of labor, trade, concepts of property, and exploitation of natural resources. [Compare and contrast different economic institutions]
5-12 Compare dominant ideas and values including religious belief and practice, gender roles, and attitudes toward nature. [Compare and contrast the influence of ideas]
5-12 Compare political systems, including concepts of political authority, civic values, and the organization and practice of government. [Compare and contrast different political systems]


How early European exploration and colonization resulted in cultural and ecological interactions among previously unconnected peoples.

The student understands the stages of European oceanic and overland exploration, amid international rivalries, from the 9th to 17th centuries.

5-12 Trace routes taken by early explorers, from the 15th through the 17th century, around Africa, to the Americas, and across the Pacific. [Draw upon data in historical maps]
7-12 Evaluate the significance of Columbus’ voyages and his interactions with indigenous peoples. [Assess the importance of the individual in history]
5-12 Compare English, French, and Dutch motives for exploration with those of the Spanish. [Compare and contrast different sets of ideas]
9-12 Appraise the role of national and religious rivalries in the age of exploration and evaluate their long-range consequences. [Consider multiple perspectives]
7-12 Evaluate the course and consequences of the “Columbian Exchange.” [Hypothesize the influence of the past]

The student understands the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas.

The Introduction of Disease

Perhaps European colonization’s single greatest impact on the North American environment was the introduction of disease. Microbes to which native inhabitants had no immunity led to death everywhere Europeans settled. Along the New England coast between 1616 and 1618, epidemics claimed the lives of 75 percent of the native people. In the 1630s, half the Huron and Iroquois around the Great Lakes died of smallpox. As is often the case with disease, the very young and the very old were the most vulnerable and had the highest mortality rates. The loss of the older generation meant the loss of knowledge and tradition, while the death of children only compounded the trauma, creating devastating implications for future generations.

Some native peoples perceived disease as a weapon used by hostile spiritual forces, and they went to war to exorcise the disease from their midst. These “mourning wars” in eastern North America were designed to gain captives who would either be adopted (“requickened” as a replacement for a deceased loved one) or ritually tortured and executed to assuage the anger and grief caused by loss.

European Colonization

Before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World the continents of North and South America were ruled by multiple empires. The Aztecs ruled the land of Mexica, The Inca Empire stretched from modern day Columbia to Chile, and the Mayan culture had influenced most of the New World. In North America the Iriquois, Shawnee, Souix, Cherokee, Seminole, and other tribes forged small city states and confederacies.

The arrival of the Europeans was the first event of many that set in motion the end of these civilizations. Europeans were different then the people of the New World and were of a different mentality. The European continent had been embroiled in hundreds of wars ranging from small conflicts to large scale invasions. The result was an advanced view of warfare with advanced technology. They had a mindset of empire no doubt handed down from their Roman ancestors and continued to search for ways to expand.

The Portuguese, Spanish, French, Dutch, and English explorers would all lay claims in the New World and create a global empire. The Portuguese focused on a new trade route to India and colonized around Africa and the most eastern part of South America. The Spanish focused on the Caribbean, Mexico and South America. The French had colonies within the Caribbean as well as in Canada. The Dutch settled among the coastline of North America and the Caribbean, and the English founded colonies in North America and captured colonies within the Caribbean. Each had their own empires and would war with each other and the natives.

Early in the 16th century the Spanish were the most powerful. Their conquistadors had conquered the Aztecs and Incas and established strongholds throughout the Caribbean. Militarily they were close to a hegemony, but their main strength lied in their economy. The trade brought in from the New World made Spain one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Their wealth was used to expand their empire and explore the world. However, by the end of the century their power began to wane. The feared armada had been soundly defeated by the English and other European countries had begun to colonize the New World. This colonization would drive out the natives and create conflict between the European powers.

While the Spanish, French, Portuguese, Dutch, and English were the main players in European colonization of the New World, they were not the only ones. Sweden, Courland, Norway, The Danes, Russia, and Scotland also colonized the New World. This colonization would not come to a close until the 20th century.

  • British America (1607&ndash&thinsp1783)
    • Newfoundland (1583-1949) (1607- 1783)
    • Rupert&rsquos Land (1670-1870)
    • British Columbia (1793-1871)
    • British North America (1783&ensp&ndash&thinsp1907)
    • New Courland (Tobago) (1654&ndash1689)
    • Danish West Indies (1754&ndash1917)
    • Greenland (1814 &ndash today)
    • New Netherland (1609&ndash1667)
    • Essequibo (1616&ndash1815)
    • Dutch Virgin Islands (1625&ndash1680)
    • Berbice (1627&ndash1815)
    • New Walcheren (1628&ndash1677)
    • Dutch Brazil (1630&ndash1654)
    • Pomeroon (1650&ndash1689)
    • Cayenne (1658&ndash1664)
    • Demerara (1745&ndash1815)
    • Suriname (1667&ndash1954)
    • Curaçao and Dependencies (1634&ndash1954)
    • Sint Eustatius and Dependencies (1636&ndash1954)
    • New France (1604&ndash1763)
      • Acadia (1604&ndash1713)
      • Canada (1608&ndash1763)
      • Louisiana (1699&ndash1763, 1800&ndash1803)
      • Newfoundland (1662&ndash1713)
      • Île Royale (1713&ndash1763)
      • Greenland (986-1814)
      • Vinland (Partly in the 1000s)
      • Dano-Norwegian West Indies (1754&ndash1814)
      • Sverdrup Islands (1898&ndash1930)
      • Erik the Red&rsquos Land (1931-1933)
      • Colonial Brazil (1500&ndash1815) became a Kingdom, United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves.
      • Cisplatina (1808&ndash1822, today Uruguay)
      • Barbados (1536&ndash1620)
      • French Guiana (1809&ndash1817)
      • Russian America (Alaska), 1799&ndash1867)
      • Nova Scotia (1622&ndash1632)
      • Darien Scheme on the Isthmus of Panama (1698&ndash1700)
      • Stuarts Town, Carolina (1684&ndash1686)
      • Darien, Georgia (from 1735)
      • Cuba (until 1898)
      • New Granada (1717&ndash1819)
        • Captaincy General of Venezuela
        • Nueva Extremadura
        • Nueva Galicia
        • Nuevo Reino de León
        • Nuevo Santander
        • Nueva Vizcaya
        • Las Californias
        • Santa Fe de Nuevo México
        • Captaincy General of Chile
        • New Sweden (1638&ndash1655)
        • Saint Barthélemy (1785&ndash1878)
        • Guadeloupe (1813&ndash1815)

        Although it was an indirect effect, the colonization of the New World set the stage for the American Revolutionary War. Without the fall of the other empires and the lack of influence from the Native Americans the continent was easily overtaken and eventually became the United States of America.

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        The Cultivation of Plants

        English naturalist Sir Hans Sloane traveled to Jamaica and other Caribbean islands to catalog the flora of the new world.

        Adriaen van Ostade, a Dutch artist, painted An Apothecary Smoking in an Interior in 1646. The large European market for American tobacco strongly influenced the development of some of the American colonies.

        European expansion in the Americas led to an unprecedented movement of plants across the Atlantic. A prime example is tobacco, which became a valuable export as the habit of smoking, previously unknown in Europe, took hold. Another example is sugar. Columbus brought sugarcane to the Caribbean on his second voyage in 1494, and thereafter a wide variety of other herbs, flowers, seeds, and roots made the transatlantic voyage.

        Just as pharmaceutical companies today scour the natural world for new drugs, Europeans traveled to America to discover new medicines. The task of cataloging the new plants found there helped give birth to the science of botany. Early botanists included the English naturalist Sir Hans Sloane, who traveled to Jamaica in 1687 and there recorded hundreds of new plants. Sloane also helped popularize the drinking of chocolate, made from the cacao bean, in England.

        Indians, who possessed a vast understanding of local New World plants and their properties, would have been a rich source of information for those European botanists seeking to find and catalog potentially useful plants. Enslaved Africans, who had a tradition of the use of medicinal plants in their native land, adapted to their new surroundings by learning the use of New World plants through experimentation or from the native inhabitants. Native peoples and Africans employed their knowledge effectively within their own communities. One notable example was the use of the peacock flower to induce abortions: Indian and enslaved African women living in oppressive colonial regimes are said to have used this herb to prevent the birth of children into slavery. Europeans distrusted medical knowledge that came from African or native sources, however, and thus lost the benefit of this source of information.

        The Oriental land and sea routes terminated at ports in the Crimea, until 1461 at Trebizond (now Trabzon, Turkey), Constantinople (now Istanbul), Asiatic Tripoli (in modern Lebanon), Antioch (in modern Turkey), Beirut (in modern Lebanon), and Alexandria (Egypt), where Italian galleys exchanged European for Eastern products.

        Competition between Mediterranean nations for control of Asiatic commerce gradually narrowed to a contest between Venice and Genoa, with the former winning when it severely defeated its rival city in 1380 thereafter, in partnership with Egypt, Venice principally dominated the Oriental trade coming via the Indian Ocean and Red Sea to Alexandria.

        Overland routes were not wholly closed, but the conquests of the central Asian warrior Timur (Tamerlane)—whose empire broke into warring fragments after his death in 1405—and the advantages of a nearly continuous sea voyage from the Middle and Far East to the Mediterranean gave Venice a virtual monopoly of some Oriental products, principally spices. The word spices then had a loose application and extended to many Oriental luxuries, but the most valuable European imports were pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon.

        The Venetians distributed these expensive condiments throughout the Mediterranean region and northern Europe they were shipped to the latter first by pack trains up the Rhône Valley and, after 1314, by Flanders’ galleys to the Low Countries, western Germany, France, and England. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 did not seriously affect Venetian control. Although other Europeans resented this dominance of the trade, even the Portuguese discovery and exploitation of the Cape of Good Hope route could not altogether break it.

        Early Renaissance Europe was short of cash money, though it had substantial banks in northern Italy and southern Germany. Florence possessed aggregations of capital, and its Bardi bank in the 14th century and the Medici successor in the 15th financed much of the eastern Mediterranean trade.

        Later, during the great discoveries, the Augsburg houses of Fugger and Welser furnished capital for voyages and New World enterprises.

        Gold came from Central Africa by Saharan caravan from Upper Volta (Burkina Faso) near the Niger, and interested persons in Portugal knew something of this. When Prince Henry the Navigator undertook sponsorship of Portuguese discovery voyages down the west coast of Africa, a principal motive was to find the mouth of a river to be ascended to these mines.

        Final Thoughts

        In the end, the conquest of the Americas comes down to a single issue: it just wasn't a fair fight. The Native Americans had had their tyrants and their wars over the years, but nothing even approaching what Europe had gotten used to millennia ago. Europeans at that time were simply used to many things that were unheard of in the Americas. America had never known anything like the Roman Empire or Alexander the Great, ideals which inspired every European conqueror who crossed the Atlantic. America had never experienced (to my knowledge) any kind of religious war, a concept which had been refined into a brutal artform in Europe for centuries. America was unprepared for a devastating plague like smallpox, while Europe had had plenty of time to recover from the Black Death.

        Europe was a really, really rough neighborhood (and has been for most of its history), and they'd refined the tools and tactics of war and cultural domination over centuries of bitter competition between the hundreds of factions that fill up European History books. Brutal sieges, religious persecution, forced labor, forced conversion, large-scale theft, destruction of local culture. These things were utterly unconscionable, crimes against humanity even, but they weren't terribly different from what the Europeans were doing to each other at the time, except for the scale on which it happened in the New World.

        Imagine if, today, aliens arrived in orbit and pelted the entire surface of the Earth with radiation bombs, killing 95% of humanity. Then, imagine they landed in multiple locations simultaneously, and started enforcing their will with weapons we had no way of defending ourselves against. And finally, imagine that while the remnants of humanity struggled to organize and recover, more and more ships were arriving in orbit every day, bringing more and more soldiers and more and more settlers to Earth.

        Watch the video: La Guerre de Sept Ans - Résumé en carte avec pays qui parlent (May 2022).