AP United States History/New World Beginnings

This will cover the period of time from around the 1400s to the 1600s prior to European expansion.

Before European ExpansionEdit

West AfricaEdit

Many people lived in the West African Sahara region. From here, many traveled north, and from there an important trade in gold and salt developed as they came in contact with those from other regions and lands.

Kinship bonds were very important to the people as an important cultural aspect of their lives. These bonds generally extended past the immediate family members to the extended family. Many in the region practiced polygamy for economic purposes, especially to pay off debts. Europeans who later came to the region deemed this practice as barbaric and sinful, as yet another region to establish what they believed as European superiority.

Religion was an important part of the lives of people from this land. Before the arrival of Islam, importance was stressed on a spiritual presence pervading nature. The people of this region mainly practiced monotheistic beliefs, although many also practiced some form of ancestor respect or worship. Artistic traditions were an important part of their beliefs.

Islam spread to the region by the 11th century by followers of the religion. The grasslands settlers became Muslims, and followers enforced the Islamic Law. Many of the West African kingdoms, which were primarily found in grassland regions, were bureaucratic empires, and often claimed a semi-godlike status to disguise the practice and spread of Islam.


By the mid to late 1400s Europe was beginning to reach the height of the European Renaissance. After a century-long economic recession, many parts of Europe were becoming wealthier. Excess money was available for Europeans that was not needed for basic necessities, which many patrons used to commission for painters and sculptors of the time. However, many factors made the lives of people in Europe reconsider staying where they live, paving the way for territorial expansion. These factors occurred throughout Europe, especially Western Europe; the country most affected was England, which faced much change and conflict during this time.


There were many concerns about economic ranks and social status, which was mainly determined by gender, wealth, inherited position, owned property, and political power. At the top of the social hierarchy were the Kings and the members of their courts, followed by the masses of society. There was a large socioeconomic gap between the few educated rich, who owned most of the property and wielded nearly all of the available power, and the many educated poor, who were mostly peasants, formed between 70% and 80% of the population, led miserable lives, and had almost no political power despite their larger numbers in society. It was common for a king involved in a war or conflict to levy high taxes to help finance the war, and the poor were often the most economically affected by these taxes. Tensions and hatred rose between the rich and the poor.

An economic depression in the 1500s left many impoverished and homeless.

There was also a rapid increase in population. In England, the population doubled from around 2.5 million in 1500 to about 5 million is 1620. More workers competed for fewer jobs, and unemployment and low wages were increasingly common. The mobile unemployed, who often had to travel to find jobs, wanted to find an alternative place to live where they could support themselves and their families.

There were strict property inheritance rules that determined who could inherit the family's fortune. These rules generally required the recipients of family property to be male relatives, most often the eldest son of the deceased family members. This left other members of the family, especially younger sons, to be forced to seek their fortune elsewhere, since they were ineligible for inheriting the family fortune. The result of these rules was that many of the New World's first explorers were the younger sons of wealthier families in Europe.

Joint-stock companies, the ancestors to the modern corporation, were formed in an attempt to help the economy and make more money for investors as well as the country. The Virginia Company was one of them, and later helped to finance one of the first English colonies in America, the colony of Jamestown.


Religious tensions soared during this time, as the Catholic Church faced the separation of Christianity into many groups that broke away from the Church, the most significant of which occurring in the Early Modern Period. In the early 1500s, King Henry VIII of England had wanted to seek an annulment of marriage with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (also known as Catalina of Aragon) because of her apparent inability to produce his desired male heir. When the Catholic Church refused to grant the couple an annulment, the former devout Catholic Henry VIII decided to break away from the Church and form the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church. The leader of the newfound Church of England granted King Henry the annulment he had wanted, marking the formal separation of and the start of increased tensions between the Anglican and Catholic Churches. After the death of Henry VIII, reign was passed on to his sickly son Edward VI, who ruled for only a short period of time. After Edward VI died, rule was passed on to his eldest daughter Mary, who restored Catholicism to the country. Mary was often known as "Bloody Mary" for her ruthless persecution of Protestants residing in England. After Mary's death, Queen Elizabeth I (known as the "Virgin Queen") brought back Protestantism. Religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants continued to grow.

In addition to the separation of the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church had to deal with more separation. In 1517, Martin Luther became unhappy with what he perceived as abuse of the Catholic Church. He disliked the then-common practice of the sale of indulgences, which were supposed to relieve the buyers of punishment or penance for sin, and thus give the buyer access to heaven and eternal life after death. He also disliked the discouragement of the Church in providing direct access to the Bible and other Christian scriptures, as well as the concept that leaders of the Church served as a mediator between God and the people. In 1517, he posted the Ninety-Five Theses on the Power of Indulgences, which stated his opinions about Christianity and condemned the Church practices he disagreed with, on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. While he was later excommunicated from the Catholic Church for these beliefs, many people liked his ideas of a more personal relationship with God, and that only God Himself (not the Church or any other mediator) could forgive the people for their sins directly. Luther was especially favored by the economic poor and socially disadvantaged, many of whom could not afford to pay for indulgences but wanted to be absolved from sin. Luther's teachings provided the basic foundation for the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist traditions within the Protestant Church, all of which formally separated from the Catholic Church.

John Calvin was especially moved by Luther's teachings, elaborating on his point of view of the theses and founding Calvinism, a religious tradition within the Protestant Church. Calvinism helped form the roots of Scottish Presbyterianism, English Puritanism, the beliefs of the French Huguenots, and the traditions adopted by the Dutch Reformed Church. Calvinism taught that God was all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing, and that humans were conversely weak and wicked because of the Original Sin of the Bible. God, according to Calvin, knew from the moment of creation who was destined for heaven (known as visible saints or the elect) and who was destined for hell, and could not save those destined for eternal damnation from their predestination, or fate. Even the elect were largely unsure of whether they were indeed among those who were guaranteed salvation, and sought in themselves signs of conversion and sainthood.

The Puritan minority, who were largely part of the economically disadvantaged called for what they saw as a needed purification of the Anglican Church from all Catholic traditions and rituals. They primarily adopted Calvinism as their creed, believing that only visible saints should be admitted to the church membership, opposing the Anglican Church creed that all citizens of England should be admitted. Many were unhappy with the slow movement of the Protestant Reformation, and were eager to de-Catholicize the Church of England. They were divided into the Separatists, who wanted to break away from the Anglican Church, and the Non-Separatists, who wanted to reform the Anglican Church from within. Many Separatists left for Calvinist Holland. Both Separatists and Non-Separatists feared religious persecution. Queen Elizabeth I distrusted most of them, but kept their loyalty as a Protestant. King James I firmly opposed them, issuing a "no bishop, no king" doctrine to oppose the belief that all who members of the church were visible saints.

The Quakers were a minority denomination of Protestant Christianity, named mainly for their unusual traditions practiced during times of worship. They were generally peace-loving people who disliked war and conflict. They were against parts of Puritan doctrine. They disliked what they considered ungodly practices such as performing plays, playing dice, playing cards, exhibiting extreme hilarity, or certain forms of dancing. They were largely persecuted by others for their beliefs and sought religious freedom.

International RelationsEdit

During this time, nearly every country in Western Europe was fighting for power. All hoped to prove themselves worthy of the title of most powerful country in the world. These rivalries began to grow powerful as religion and the economy became more relevant. Holland (also known as the Netherlands) sought, and later received, independence from Spain, and the Dutch wanted to gain a strong position in this world. Catholic Spain and France became increasingly hostile with largely Protestant England.

When the English fleet defeated the Spanish Armada, the strength of the dreams and fighting spirit Spain once had was largely weakened, helping England achieve naval dominance over the North Atlantic region.

European ExplorationEdit

Prior ExplorationEdit

The Vikings had previously visited parts of the Americas. Their American colony was placed in modern-day Newfoundland and called Vinland. Settlement in Vinland was small and temporary, in part due to poor relations with indigenous peoples.

Initial ExplorationEdit

Christopher Columbus had sought an alternative route to India, and received permission from Spain to search for one. He sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with three ships, called the Nina (Little Girl), the Pinta (Spot), and the Santa Maria (Saint Mary). In 1492, he reached the Americas in the Caribbean region, although he believed he was in India. After later realizing that he had indeed discovered a new land previously unknown to the rest of the world, he had begun the start of a series of explorations that would later pave the way for European colonization.


In 1580, Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe, plundering and returning with his ship loaded with Spanish booty, and making a profit of about 4,600%.