US History/Exploration

Christopher Columbus

A posthumous portrait of Christopher Columbus

By the 15th Century European trade for luxuries such as spices and silk had inspired European explorers to seek new routes to Asia. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 had closed a crucial trade corridor. Trade throughout the Ottoman Empire was difficult and unreliable. Portugal was in the lead in exploration, slowly exploring the shores of the African Continent in search of a better route to the spices and luxuries of the Orient.

Then the Italian Christopher Columbus submitted plans for a voyage to Asia by sailing around the world. By the late 15th century most educated Europeans knew the world was round. The Greek mathematician Eratosthenes had accurately deduced that the world was approximately 25,000 miles in circumference. Many of the experts studying Columbus's plans on behalf of the European monarchies he approached for funding realized that this was too far for any contemporary sailing ship to go. Columbus contested the measurements, claiming that the world was much smaller than was widely believed.

After approaching the monarchies of several Italian city-states, and repeated appeals to the English and Portuguese monarchies, the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally decided to give Columbus a chance. King Ferdinand thought Columbus might find something to compete with the neighboring kingdom of Portugal. Columbus set out on August 3rd, 1492. Five weeks later, after almost being thrown overboard by his own crew, the long voyage ended when land was sighted. This was an island called Guanahani (now known as San Salvador, in the island chain called the Bahamas). During this voyage Columbus also explored what is now considered the northeast coast of Cuba and the northern coast of Hispaniola. On his return to Spain, news of the new lands spread throughout Europe. Columbus was to make three more voyages to the New World between 1492 and 1503, exploring the Caribbean and the mainland of Central and South America. He imported sugar cane to the Americas, beginning an important industry.

Columbus was granted authority by the Spanish Monarchy to claim land for the Spanish, begin a settlement, trade for valuable goods or gold, and explore. He was also made governor of all the lands which he found. Columbus become an increasingly savage and brutal governor in the course of his four voyages. He enslaved and stole from the natives, at one point threatening to cut off the hands of any native who failed to give him gold. He was retired, and to the end of his life he believed that he had reached Asia.

It took another Italian explorer for Spain, Amerigo Vespucci, to correct this error. Amerigo described the lands around his islands and tried to deduce their proximity to Asia. From his voyages, Amerigo deduced that Columbus had found a new Continent. This new continent would be named America.

French Empire in North America

A painting of Jacques Cartier meeting with the Iroquoian people of Stadacona.

Christopher Columbus's voyages inspired other European powers to seek out the new world as well. Jacques Cartier, a respected mariner in his native France, proposed a trip to the North to investigate whether Asia could be reached from another route. His trip in 1534 retraced much of the voyages of the vikings and established contacts with natives in modern-day Canada. He explored some of northern Canada, established friendly relations with the American Indians, and discovered that the St Lawrence river region neither had abundant gold nor a northwest passage to Asia.

During the 16th century, the taming of Siberian wilderness by the Russians established a thriving fur trade which created a great demand for fur throughout Europe. France was quick to realize that the North held great potential as a provider of fur. Samuel de Champlain settled the first permanent settlement in present-day Canada and created a thriving trade with the Native Americans for beaver pelts and other animal hides.

Meanwhile, in the South, Early French Protestants, called Huguenots, had the opportunity to leave hostile European lands while advancing French claims to the new world. Settlements in present-day Florida and Georgia would create tension with Spanish conquistadors, who after conquering Caribbean lands would begin to expand their search for new lands. In contrast to these French Protestant colonies, in the 17th century French members of the Catholic order of Jesuits organized a settlement in what would become Maine, and began missionary efforts in what would become lower Canada and upper New York State.

Spanish Empire in North America

Claims made by the Spanish Empire during the Rule of Phillip II, Phillip III, and Phillip IV. Claims and real control of an area could be different.

The Spanish conquistador Ponce de Leon was an early visitor to the Americas, traveling to the new world on Columbus's second voyage. He became the first governor of the present-day area of Puerto Rico in 1509. However, upon the death of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish did not allow Christopher's son to succeed. Like his father, he had committed atrocities against the Native Americans of the Caribbean. The two governors were released and replaced with successors from Spain.

Ponce De Leon, freed of his governorship, decided to explore areas to the north, where there was rumored to be a fountain of youth that restored the youth of anyone drinking from it. Ponce de Leon found a peninsula on the coast of North America, called the new land 'Florida' and chartered a colonizing expedition. His role was brief: attacked by Native American forces, he died in nearby Cuba.

By the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors had penetrated deep into the Central and South American continents. Native American cultures had collected large troves of gold and valuables and given them to leaders of these prosperous empires. The conquistadors, believing they held considerable military and technological superiority over these cultures, attacked and destroyed the Aztecs in 1521 and the Incas in 1532.

The wealth seized by the Spanish would lead to piracy and a new wave of settlements as the other colonial powers became increasingly hostile towards Spain. Many areas that had been colonized by Spain were inundated with French and English pirates.

By 1565, Spanish forces looked to expand their influence to the New World by attacking the French settlement of Fort Caroline. The Spanish navy overwhelmed 200 French Huguenot settlers, slaughtering them even as they surrendered to Spain's superior military might. Spain formed the settlement of St. Augustine as an outpost to ensure that French Huguenots where no longer welcome in the area. St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European-established city in North America.

In 1587 a Spanish Galleon landed in what is currently California with Filipinos aboard, making them among the first Asians to land in what would become the modern United States.[1]

Catholicism was introduced to the American colonies by the Spanish settlers in what is now present day Florida (1513) and the South West United States.[2] The first Christian worship service was a Catholic mass held in Florida in 1559, in what we now identify as Pensacola. Spain established the first permanent European Catholic settlement in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, to help the settlers complete the "moral imperative" which was to convert all the Native peoples to Christianity, and to also to help support the treasure fleets of Spain.[3] During the time period of 1635-1675 Franciscans operated between 40 and 70 mission stations, attempting to convert about 26,000 "Hispanicized" natives who organized themselves into 4 provinces, Timucua, in central Florida, Guale, along the coast of Georgia, Apalachee on the northeastern edge of the Gulf of Mexico, and Apalachicola to the west.

British Empire in North America

1588 painting of Sir Walter Raleigh.

England funded an initial exploratory trip shortly after Christopher Columbus's first voyage. Departing England in 1501, John Cabot explored the North American continent. He correctly supposed that the spherical shape of the earth made the North, where the longitudes are much shorter, a quicker route to the New World than a trip to the South islands Columbus was exploring. Encouraged, he asked the English monarchy for a more substantial expedition to further explore and settle the lands which he had found. The ships departed and were never seen again. England remained preoccupied with political affairs for much of the 16th century. This was despite the insistence of the author Richard Haklyt, who translated some of the accounts of exploration into English. He wrote that England ought to seek colonies in America, specifically in Virginia.

By the beginning of the 17th century, England, Scotland, and other English possessions had formed the nation of Great Britain and was becoming a formidable foe on the world's stage. The quickly expanding British navy was preparing for a massive strike upon the Spanish armada.

Sir Walter Raleigh, who had gained considerable favor from Queen Elizabeth I by suppressing rebellions in Ireland, sought to establish an empire in the new world. His Roanoke colony would be relatively isolated from existing settlements in North America. He funded the colony with his own money, unlike the previous explorers who had been funded and sponsored by monarchies. It is assumed that the colony was destroyed during a three year period in which England was at war with Spain and did serious damage to the Spanish navy.

The war left the British monarchy so drained of money and resources that the monarchy sold a charter containing lands between present-day South Carolina and the US-Canada border to two competing groups of investors, the Plymouth Company and the London Company. The two companies were given the North and South portions of this area, respectively. There was an overlapping area of development in the middle of the two Companies, a place both could exploit provided one Company's settlement wasn't within a hundred miles of the other's settlement. The Northern Plymouth settlement in Maine failed and was abandoned, but the London company established a Jamestown settlement in 1606.

Virginia and Jamestown

The ruins of Jamestown still stand to this day.

The new area was named Virginia, after both the organizing Virginia Company of London and Queen Elizabeth, "the Virgin Queen." Founded in 1607 with a charter from the Virginia Company, Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the Americas. However, the swampy terrain was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which carried dysentery, malaria, and smallpox, diseases that the English did not know. Many of the settlers fell sick and died shortly after.

In addition, Virginia's first government was weak, and its individuals frequently quarreled over policies. The colonists frantically searched for gold, silver, and gems, ignoring their own sicknesses. Indian raids further weakened defense and unification, and Jamestown began to die off. By the winter of 1609-1610, also known as the Starving Time, only 60 settlers remained from the original 500 passengers.

Two men helped the colony to survive: John Smith and John Rolfe. Smith, who arrived in Virginia in 1608, introduced an ultimatum: those who did not work would not receive food or pay. The colonists at last learned how to raise crops and trade with the nearby Indians, with whom Smith had made peace. In 1612, the English businessman Rolfe discovered that Virginia had ideal conditions for growing tobacco. This discovery, and the breeding of a new, "sweeter" strain, led to the plant becoming the colony's major cash crop. Tobacco was then used as medicine against the plague. With English demand for tobacco rising, Virginia had found a way to support itself economically.

In 1619, Virginia set up the House of Burgesses, the first elected legislative assembly in America. It marked the beginnings of self-government, replacing the martial law that was previously imposed on the colonists. However, at the same time Virginia was declared a "crown colony." Its charter was transferred from the Virginia Company to the Crown of England, which meant that Jamestown was now a colony run by the English monarchy. While the House of Burgesses was still allowed to run the government, the king also appointed a royal governor to settle disputes and enforce certain British policies.

Review Questions


1. Name the areas associated with these explorers: Christopher Columbus, Jacques Cartier, John Cabot, Sir Walter Raleigh.

2. Name three motives behind Columbus's voyages.


  2. Death in Early America. Margaret M. Coffin. 1976
  3. American Catholics, James Hennesey, S.J. 1981

European History · English Colonies