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Chapter 1 Introductory Essay: 1491-1607

Written by: Alan Taylor, University of Virginia

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the context for European encounters in the Americas from 1491 to 1607


During the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Europeans explored the world’s oceans and distant coasts. Once a barrier to exploration, the Atlantic Ocean now became their route to other seas, faraway regions, and people unknown. In the “Age of European Exploration,” voyagers rounded southern Africa to cross the Indian Ocean, reaching India and the East Indies. Between 1519 and 1521, Portugal’s Ferdinand Magellan became the first person to circle the globe. In an unprecedented burst of new geographic knowledge, daring, and enterprise, explorers built outposts on newly discovered shores, creating the first global trade empires based on oceanic shipping. (See the Ship Technology Lesson.)

A map shows shipping routes for Spain and Portugal. The routes are shown traversing the globe through Central America around the tip of Africa to India and across the Pacific Ocean.

The Iberian countries of Spain and Portugal led the way in the European Age of Exploration and the creation of maritime empires. Spanish shipping routes are shown in white and Portuguese routes in blue.

The Portuguese and the Spanish in the New World

The expansion was begun by Portugal, a kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula of southwestern Europe. Sailing along the west coast of Africa, Portuguese mariners sought new sources of gold, ivory, pepper, and slaves. They slowly but steadily probed southward until 1498, when Vasco da Gama sailed around the continent’s southern tip and crossed the Indian Ocean to reach India. The riches of that new trade route fascinated Portugal’s Iberian neighbors, the Spanish. Seeking an alternate route to the trade riches of Asia, the Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabella enlisted the help of a mariner from Genoa (in what is now Italy) named Christopher Columbus. Like other educated Europeans, Columbus knew the world was round. Therefore, in theory, sailing due west would take his fleet to China or Japan, promising sources of silks and spices. He had no idea, however, of the exact circumference of the earth and greatly underestimated it. He also did not know that the Americas would block a direct voyage westward. In 1492, with three ships and ninety men, Columbus followed the trade winds southwest from Spain past the Canary Islands and out into the Atlantic. To his surprise, he reached then-unknown islands, the Bahamas and West Indies, located in the Caribbean Sea. Columbus stubbornly insisted that the islands were the East Indies near the mainland of Asia. Although the natives, the Taino, were unlike any people he had ever seen or read about, he called them “Indians,” a name for all the native populations that has stuck in the writings of Europeans and their descendants. (See the Native People Narrative.) Sailing home, Columbus reported to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in early 1493. They authorized an immediate and larger expedition of seventeen ships, twelve hundred men, and many livestock. This time the Spanish came to stay, to dominate the land and the natives, and to weave the new settlements into an empire to support a European power. Colonization proved tragic for the Taino. The Spanish viewed them as primitive savages fit for conquest and slavery. They aimed to convert the natives to Christianity and introduce them to the civilization of Spain. Using the military advantages of horses, cannons, steel swords, pikes, and crossbows, the Spanish killed and captured thousands of Taino. Others they shipped to Spain for sale as slaves, but most had to work on plantations or in gold mines in the new Spanish colonies. The Taino population declined from 300,000 in 1492 to a mere five hundred by 1548. Most died as a result of diseases to which they lacked immunity and that unintentionally were brought across the Atlantic by the Spanish, though some died because of enslavement and outbreaks of violence. The Spanish had not intended to destroy the Indians, whom they preferred to exploit as workers and tributaries—but exploitation sometimes led to violence. (See the First Contacts Narrative the Should We Remember Christopher Columbus as a Conqueror or Explorer? Point-Counterpoint and the Paideia Seminar: Christopher Columbus Lesson.) To continue to work their mines, ranches, and plantations, the Spanish colonists sought new slaves by raiding the mainland of Central and South America. In Cuba, a brilliant but ruthless adventurer named Hernán Cortés became intrigued by reports of a wealthy empire in the highlands of central Mexico. There, by conquering their neighbors and exacting tribute, the Aztecs had grown rich and built a city called Tenochtitlan that was larger than any city in Spain. It featured lofty pyramids superintended by priests and ruled by an emperor named Montezuma. But in their rise to power, the Aztecs had also made enemies an invader could recruit. By alternating brutal force with shrewd diplomacy, Cortés forged partnerships with Indians along his route into Mexico’s interior. Alarmed by the Spanish weapons and alliances, Montezuma tried to buy Cortés off with gifts. Instead, the invader seized the emperor. When the Aztecs fought back, the Spanish destroyed Tenochtitlan. Deploying thousands of new captives as slaves, the Spanish rebuilt the city as the capital of a new colony, which they called New Spain. By his death in 1547, Cortés had become the wealthiest man in the new Spanish empire. (See the Montezuma and Cortes Decision Point and the Cortes’s Account of Tenochtitlan 1522 Primary Source.) Cortés’s spectacular success inspired other Spanish conquistadores—enterprising soldiers who sought wealth. The conquistadores regarded plunder, slaves, and tribute as just rewards for men who forced pagans to accept Spanish rule and the Christian faith. Although many Indians embraced the Christianity promoted by Roman Catholic Spanish missionaries and its promise of eternal life in heaven, many others, noting that the Spanish appeared immune to disease, suspected the newcomers knew some powerful supernatural secret that spread death. In search of relief, some embraced the new religion because they saw it as a source of magical protection. Some missionaries spoke out against the heavy casualties and massive destruction wrought by the conquistadores. These missionaries urged the Spanish crown to exercise greater control over the distant colonies, subordinating the private armies of soldiers. The most eloquent critic was Bartolomé de Las Casas, a former conquistador who repented and became a priest. (See the Las Casas on the Destruction of the Indies 1522 Primary Source.) Las Casas argued for the humanity and natural rights of the natives. He asked: “Are these Indians not men? Do they not have rational souls? Are you not obliged to love them as you love yourselves?”

The Spanish crown did issue more rules governing the colonies, but the effort was hampered by continental wars and the Protestant Reformation in Europe, which diverted attention away from the colonies. The crown agreed that the conquistadores killed too many Indians, who might otherwise have become Christian converts and taxpaying subjects. From about ten million in 1500, the Indian population of Mexico declined to one million by 1620. The decline came about primarily from epidemics of new diseases unwittingly introduced by the invaders, but also was the result of violence. (See the Columbian Exchange Narrative and The Florentine Codex c. 1585 Primary Source.)

Missionary priests also criticized the legal authority granted to conquistadores as exploitive and destructive to Indian communities. Successful conquistadores obtained legal rights known as encomienda to govern and collect tribute from particular Indian village. In return, the encomendero was supposed to promote the conversion of Indians to Christianity by supporting a priest and building a church. Other Spaniards obtained private land grants known as hacienda, which displaced Indian settlements and substituted ranches and mines. In 1573, the priests persuaded the crown to issue the Royal Orders for New Discoveries, which sought to reduce violence against Indians by increasing the power of priests over expeditions by conquistadores. (See the Life in the Spanish ColoniesNarrative and the Columbus’s Letter to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain 1494 Primary Source.)

A drawing shows a Spaniard wearing a beard and European clothing and holding a stick or sword pulling the hair of a much smaller Indian who is wearing a loincloth and has blood flowing from his face and body.

In this startling image from the Kingsborough Codex (a book written and drawn by native Mesoamericans) a well-dressed Spaniard is shown pulling the hair of a bleeding severely injured Indian. The drawing was part of a complaint about Spanish abuses of their encomiendas.

The priests were not blameless. They demanded that Indians surrender their traditional beliefs and behaviors and adopt the ways of the Spanish. To that end, they oversaw the destruction of Indian temples, prohibited customary dances, and obliged Indians to practice the rituals of a new faith. The missionaries also ended the Aztec practice of human sacrifice to appease their sun god. Many Indians tried to adapt, but few, if any, could so quickly and completely change everything they believed. While publicly practicing Christianity, some still secretly venerated old idols and conducted traditional ceremonies. They assimilated the Christian faith into their traditional forms of worship. By 1540 in the Americas, the Spanish had developed the largest empire ever ruled by Europeans, larger even than the ancient domain of the Romans. At its core were the gold- and silver-rich colonies of Mexico and Peru, which eclipsed Spain’s initial settlements on the islands of the Caribbean. During the sixteenth century, the new colonies attracted 250,000 Spanish emigrants. Most of the emigrants were men; they married the widows and daughters of conquered Indians, with whom they produced mixed-race children known as mestizos, who became the majority population of New Spain by 1700. The core colonies developed hundreds of carefully planned towns with a grid of streets around a central plaza, which featured a municipal hall and a church. These towns were trading centers for a land of shrinking Indian villages and expanding Spanish farms and ranches. Ambitious conquistadores probed northward, deep into the continental interior of what is now the United States, in search of riches held by other Indian empires. In 1539, Hernando de Soto led an expedition from Cuba that landed in what is now Florida and crossed the American southeast, reaching the Mississippi River. The Spanish discovered many large towns, vast fields of corn, and earthen pyramids topped by wooden temples, but almost no gold. In frustration, they slaughtered Indians who resisted them. In 1542, de Soto fell ill and died, and the remaining men built boats to sail down the Mississippi and return empty handed to Mexico. They left behind diseases that ravaged the region’s Indian nations, reducing the populations to a fraction of their size before contact with Europeans. The survivors of these epidemics abandoned the great riverside towns and pyramids, dispersing into the hilly hinterland. (See the Hernando de Soto Narrative.)

A map shows de Soto’s route through Florida up into Georgia and across Alabama Mississippi and Louisiana.

Hernando de Soto’s exact route is not known but he and his men opened the door for future Spanish exploration and settlement.

In 1540, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led a similar expedition north, this time from Mexico into the American southwest, seeking the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola and their fabulous riches. Reaching modern New Mexico, he found substantial villages made of stone and adobe brick, which he called pueblos. He called all the inhabitants “the Pueblos,” although they actually belonged to several cultures with distinct languages. Failing to find gold or silver, Coronado and his conquistadores provoked violence with the Pueblos after demanding supplies. The Spanish also attacked a dozen villages of the Tiwa Indians after again failing to acquire gold or supplies. Pressing northeastward, they crossed a vast grassy plain known now as the Great Plains. With little wealth to show for his venture, Coronado retreated to Mexico in 1542. The de Soto and Coronado expeditions were expensive failures and discouraged further efforts by conquistadores. But missionaries wanted to return to the northern frontier of Spain’s new empire, to convert the Indians of Florida and New Mexico. They won support from Charles V, who, as the leader of the preeminent Catholic power in Europe, took the conversion of Indians and the expansion of the faith seriously. The king also saw a Spanish missionary presence as a buffer to keep rival European powers from developing colonies that might be used as a base from which to attack Spain’s valuable territory in Mexico. In 1564, in fact, a French expedition built a fort it called Fort Caroline on the Atlantic coast of Florida. In 1565, the Spanish sent Pedro Menéndez de Avilés with a small army to take the fort by surprise, slaughter the French garrison, and build a Spanish town named San Agustin (now St. Augustine). The Spanish were unable to attract many colonists to Florida because of repeated Indian attacks and the vast distance from Mexico. However, they tried to convert Indians to Hispanic ways at missions that stretched across the region to the Gulf Coast. By 1675, forty priests were ministering to twenty thousand Indians at thirty-six missions in Florida. The Spanish also reoccupied the Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, with a system of forts and missions centered around a capital they named Santa Fe (meaning “holy faith”). Too few colonists went to such a distant and isolated colony, so again the soldiers and priests had to rely on converting the Indians and taking tribute from them. By the end of the sixteenth century, King Philip II of Spain ruled not only the Iberian Peninsula (including Portugal) but also a massive empire in the New World, which stretched from modern Florida and New Mexico in North America to the lands of the conquered Inca empire in South America. The Spanish generated great wealth at their core bases in Mexico and Peru. Between 1500 and 1650, they shipped 181 tons of gold and sixteen-thousand tons of silver from the Americas to Europe. This bullion enabled the Spanish to raise and pay for large armies in Europe. The armies dominated Italy and the Netherlands and threatened the rest of Europe.

Threats to Spanish Sovereignty

To even the military odds in Europe, the French, English, and Dutch wanted a share of the wealth being generated in the Americas. The quickest way to get it was to steal gold and silver from Spanish ships bound for Europe. Queen Elizabeth I of England (even sanctioned privateers, government-licensed pirates, to raid Spanish ships laden with New World treasure. During the 1580s and 1590s, Francis Drake the most successful English pirate sailed into the Pacific Ocean to capture Spanish ships along the Peruvian and Mexican coasts before heading west to complete his voyage around the globe. Lashing back in 1588, Philip II sent an armada of warships to seize control of the English Channel and assist in an invasion of England. But the English navy and fierce storms combined to scatter and destroy most of the Spanish fleet. Thereafter, Spanish naval power declined while England and France expanded their commercial and colonial reach.

A portrait of Elizabeth I shows the queen in full regalia with her hand on a globe. Behind her through the windows scenes showing the defeat of the Spanish Armada are visible.

This famous Arcada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was painted after England’s defeat of Spain in 1588. How has the artist communicated the queen’s power in this image?

State-sanctioned piracy could generate spectacular but unpredictable windfalls. To obtain steadier profits, the other European powers wanted their own American colonies. They wanted to exploit precious mines and develop plantations to raise tropical crops—sugar, cacao, and tobacco—that sold for high prices in Europe. Arguing for the benevolence of their own New World colonies, the French and English developed the “black legend” that the Spanish were uniquely cruel and destructive. Therefore, these critics argued, the Indians would welcome other Europeans as liberators. The French and the English had many violent encounters with American Indians in Canada and the eastern seaboard of North America. One English colonist wrote, “Our intrusion into their possession shall tend to their great good, and no way to their hurt, unlesse as unbridled beastes, they procure it to themselves.” For his part, the Powhatan leader Opechancanough asserted, “Before the end of two moons there should not be an Englishman in all their countries.” English settlers at Jamestown and Powhatan Indians attacked each other and sometimes engaged in wholesale massacres and retaliatory strikes. Although most encounters were based upon mutually beneficial trade, violence erupted often between Europeans and American Indians.

The French Arrive in the North

As the French found out in Florida in 1565, it was dangerous to settle too close to the Spanish colonies. The French did better when they probed the northern waters and coasts of Canada—a land the Spanish had dismissed as too cold and barren—in the early seventeenth century. The French hoped to find either precious metals or the fabled Northwest Passage through, or around, the continent to reach the Pacific and the trade riches of Asia. Failing in both goals, they instead discovered coastal waters teeming with fish and sea mammals: seals and whales. During the warmer months, French fishermen began to visit the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Grand Banks near Newfoundland. In the fall, they sailed home with their catch, which they had dried in the sun and packed into barrels. Some fishermen began to trade with the Indians, who were skilled hunters living among many fur-bearing mammals, particularly beaver. Although the northern climate discouraged agriculture, it yielded especially thick and valuable furs, which fetched high prices back in Europe, where a craze for felt hats had developed. Indians eagerly traded the furs for European goods, including steel knives, hatchets, and arrowheads. (See the Henry Hudson and Exploration Narrative.) Indians grew dependent on these new goods, especially the steel weapons. Well-armed Indians nations could attack their neighbors, taking away valuable hunting grounds where they could kill more beavers to trade for more weapons. To avoid destruction, all had to find a European trade partner. But the Indians could also manipulate the French traders, who dared not alienate their suppliers of furs. Coming in small numbers as they did, the French could not afford to bully, dispossess, or enslave the Indians of Canada. In 1608, Samuel de Champlain founded a permanent French trading post at Quebec on the St. Lawrence River. His Indian allies and suppliers—the Montagnais and Algonquin—demanded that he help them against their enemies, the Iroquois, who lived to the south. In 1609, Champlain and nine French soldiers joined their Indian allies’ raiding party. Reaching the lake now named for Champlain, they attacked an Iroquois encampment there. Shocked by the French firearms, which killed three chiefs, the Iroquois broke and fled.

An engraving shows Samuel de Champlain fighting on the side of the Huron and Algonquins against the Iroquois. Champlain stands in the middle of the battle firing a gun while the Indians around him shoot arrows at each other.

This engraving styled after a 1609 sketch by Samuel de Champlain depicts the battle between the Iroquois and Algonquian tribes. Note the presence of the French armed with guns.

The French advantage proved short-lived, for the Iroquois soon obtained their own guns from Dutch traders who settled along the Hudson River. With their new weapons, the Iroquois raided French settlements and the villages of their Indian allies. In pursuit of fur-trade profits, the French became entangled in complicated Indian alliances and enmities. At the same time, the fur trade escalated the warfare between Indian nations to unprecedented levels of bloodshed and destruction. (See The Oral Tradition of the Foundation of the Iroquois Confederacy Primary Source.)

The English and the Atlantic Coast

While the Spanish dominated the southern part of North America and the French focused their efforts on northern waters, the intervening Atlantic coast became, by default, the target of English colonizers. The English named the region “Virginia,” after Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen” who never married. In 1587, English adventurers built their first American settlement on Roanoke, a sandy island within the Outer Banks of present-day North Carolina. Raising too few crops, they relied on taking food from the local Indians. Within a few years, the colony mysteriously disappeared, though historians are not sure whether by assimilation with the Croatan tribe or by a devastating attack. (See the Watercolors of Algonquian Peoples in North Carolina 1585 Primary Source.)

n 1607, the English tried again, a bit farther north at the Chesapeake Bay, which offered better harbors, navigable rivers, and fertile land. The Virginia Company, an entrepreneurial joint-stock company, erected a settlement at Jamestown beside the James River, both places named for the new king of England, James I. One of its leaders was John Smith, bold and dashing despite his humble origins in England, who claimed the Indian Pocahontas had saved him from execution by her father, a powerful chief named Powhatan.

A drawing shows John Smith’s encounter with Powhatan. Powhatan is shown elevated in front of a fire surrounded by a crowd.

John Smith included an image of his encounter with Powhatan on a map of Virginia drawn in 1622. The caption beneath the image reads: “Powhatan held this state & fashion when Capt. Smith was delivered to him prisoner 1607.”

Repeating the mistake of Roanoke, however, the Jamestown colonists worked too little at raising crops, perhaps because Smith and the other leaders required them to tend communal fields where shirking was widespread. The colony’s ever-changing succession of leaders also ordered them to hunt for gold and seize food from the Indians. As a result, the newcomers suffered from hunger, disease, and violence wrought by Indians led by Powhatan. When a new governor, Thomas Dale, arrived in 1611, he observed untended communal fields, only “some few seeds put into a private garden or two,” and the inhabitants engaged in “their daily and usuall workes, bowling in the streets.” He introduced martial law, which further impinged upon the liberties of the colonists. The subsequent introduction of private property on which they would grow their own food met with considerable success, however. As settler Ralph Hamor observed in 1615, “When our people were fedde out of the common store and laboured jointly in the manuring of the ground, and planting corne, glad was that man that could slippe from his labour, nay the most honest of them in a generall businese, would take so much faithfull and true paines, in a weeke, as now he will doe in a day.”

Conditions slowly improved during the 1610s, thanks in part to the efforts of an especially enterprising colonist named John Rolfe. In 1614, Rolfe married Pocahontas a union that diminished hostilities between her people and the English, just as marriages among European royalty cemented diplomatic relations between families and nations. Taking the name “Rebecca” and embracing Christianity, Pocahontas went to England with Rolfe on a promotional tour to raise money for the colony. Her presence, in fine European clothing, suggested the English would succeed in converting the natives. Her capture and conversion also persuaded her elderly and weary father to suspend his war against the Virginia colony. But in 1617, at the age of just 21 years, Pocahontas died of disease in England.

This is a 1616 portrait of Pocahontas depicting a young woman with Indian features in traditional European dress including a tall hat and an Elizabethan ruff and a regal pose.

This 1616 engraving by Simon van de Passe, completed when Pocahontas and John Rolfe were presented at court in England, is the only known contemporary image of Pocahontas, then known as Rebecca. Note her European garb and pose. What message did the artist likely intend to convey with this portrait of Pocahontas, the daughter of a powerful Indian chief?

Rolfe also promoted the cultivation of a promising new crop: tobacco. Although worthless as food, the plant was mildly intoxicating and highly addictive after being dried and cured so it could be smoked. After Rolfe developed milder strains of the plant, the English began to crave tobacco, which grew better in the Virginia heat than in the cool climate of Britain. By 1624, Virginia had produced 200,000 pounds of tobacco. Fourteen years later, that production had soared to three million pounds. Profits from tobacco and greater opportunity attracted more immigrants to the Virginia colony. From only 350 people in 1616, its numbers had swelled to thirteen thousand by 1650. Most arrived as poor young men who signed an indenture or labor contract to work for wealthy landowners for a set period in return for their passage, food, clothing, and lodging. Settlers also often earned land, transferred to them from planters who received it through the “headright system,” which rewarded those who brought Englishmen to Virginia and thereby saved the Virginia Company, and later the Crown, the expense of populating the colony. The terms of the settlers’ “indentured servitude” typically lasted at least four years. Indentured servants gambled their lives on an unhealthy climate. If they survived their terms, they would obtain land and buy their own servants. Starting in 1619, an occasional shipment of enslaved Africans arrived to provide another source of labor for those who could afford to buy them. Initially, the colonists treated some of the Africans as indentured servants, who also became free at the end of their terms. Free black people were not an uncommon sight in the first few decades of settlement; some African-born Virginians owned their own land and the labor of English indentured servants and African slaves. In the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion (1676), Virginia increasingly switched its labor force from indentured servants to African slaves, as greater opportunity in England reduced the supply of indentures and the growing Atlantic slave trade expanded the supply of Africans. Over the course of the century, however, the colonists increasingly treated the Africans as lifelong slaves who were forced to pass that status on to their children.

An eighteenth-century advertisement for tobacco showing workers harvesting tobacco leaves on a farm.

This eighteenth-century English advertisement for Virginia tobacco (“Martin’s Best Virginia at the Tobacco Role in Bloomsbury Market”) shows black children working on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. What does the presence of children working the tobacco fields reveal about slavery in the colony by the 1700s?

The colony’s early years took a grisly toll. Between 1607 and 1622, about ten thousand colonists settled in Virginia, but only a fifth were still alive in 1622 when their Indian neighbors launched a massacre that had left 347 Englishmen dead by day’s end. A critic declared that the colony had become “a slaughterhouse.” The death rate exceeded the birth rate in Virginia throughout the seventeenth century because of the unhealthy Tidewater climate and prevalence of disease. (See The Anglo-Powhatan War of 1622 Narrative.)

Yet the English had come to Virginia to stay, to the dismay of the Indians, whose numbers also decreased as a result of war and disease. However, the king took control of the colony because the Virginia Company could not handle the problems with the Indian population or the discontent of the settlers. Moreover, an investigation revealed the shocking mortality rates. Thereafter, the crown appointed a governor who had to cooperate with the New World’s earliest elected legislature, known as the House of Burgesses. This body first convened in Jamestown in the summer of 1619, only a few days before the first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived at a dock a few hundred feet away. These conflicting visions of democracy and slavery continued to shape America. (See the Origins of the Slave Trade Narrative.)

n the 1620s, the English developed another set of colonies, known as “New England,” farther north along the coast (and beyond the small Dutch colony of New Netherland on the Hudson River). A colder, rockier land, New England was less promising for cultivating crops for export to England. A group called the Pilgrims was the first to arrive there in 1620. The Pilgrims were separatists who believed the Church of England was irredeemable and saw no other solution but to leave the Church and the country. After a brief stay in Holland, the Pilgrims eventually set sail for the New World and settled just north of Cape Cod in the town of Plymouth. According to their governor, William Bradford, they “fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth.” In signing the Mayflower Compact, they agreed to cooperate and write just laws. The region also attracted colonists who adhered to a purist form of Protestant Christianity, which had led their critics at home in England to call them “Puritans.” The Puritans felt persecuted by the English government and troubled by the immoralities they detected in England. They were a hard-working as well as a moralistic people. One Puritan preached, “God sent you unto this world as unto a Workhouse, not a Playhouse.” While most Puritans stayed behind in England, thousands went to New England during the 1630s to establish a model society governed by their understanding of the Bible. They expected that such a “Bible Commonwealth” would prosper and inspire the people back in England to copy their example—as Governor John Winthrop put it, to be “a city upon a hill,” a phrase he borrowed from the Book of Matthew. (See the A City Upon a Hill: Winthrop’s “Modell of Christian Charity ” 1630 Primary Source.)

Image (a) shows the 1629 seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. On the seal an Indian dressed in a leaf loincloth and holding a bow is depicted asking colonists to “Come over and help us.” Image (b) is a portrait of John Winthrop who wears dark clothing an Elizabethan ruff and a pointed beard.

(a) In the 1629 seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony an Indian is shown asking colonists to “Come over and help us.” This seal indicates the religious ambitions of (b) John Winthrop, the colony’s first governor, for his “city upon a hill.”

Unable to agree among themselves on the matters of religion, dissidents left Massachusetts and Plymouth to found other colonies in nearby Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. Rhode Island tended to attract radicals who broke with New England orthodoxy, including Roger Williams, who favored a stricter separation of church and state, and Anne Hutchinson, who was banished because she refused to back down from her claim to women’s right to convene meetings to discuss religious beliefs. (See the Anne Hutchinson and Religious Dissent Narrative.) Although they bickered with one another, the New England colonists united to fight the Indians who resisted their expansion. For example, in 1637, they destroyed the Pequot Indians of eastern Connecticut. (See The Salem Witch Trials Narrative.)

Unlike the Virginians, most of the New Englanders came from the middle class and emigrated as free families; they were often married couples with young children. Although twice as many English had migrated to Virginia, New England had the larger population of colonists by 1660, thanks to a more equal balance of the sexes, a healthier climate, better living conditions, and a higher birth rate. New Englanders diversified their economy and did not focus on tobacco and other cash crops, as southerners did. They developed smaller farms and raised a little of everything: wheat, rye, barley, corn, potatoes, vegetables, chickens, hogs, horses, and cattle. Because the crops were not labor intensive, labor was supplied by the settlers’ many children rather than by slaves or indentured servants. For export, the region also developed fisheries and shipbuilding. In contrast to the extremes of wealth and poverty found in England and the Chesapeake Bay area, a broad middle class of yeoman farmers populated New England. These farmers were literate in a society that valued education and scripture reading. In Massachusetts Bay, freemen who were older than 21 years and church members could vote. Although their farms produced less wealth than did the plantations of the Chesapeake area, a broad equality characterized the farmers and tradesmen of New England. The wealthiest were a few merchants in the seaports, who managed the export of fish and ships, and the import of manufactured goods from England and enslaved Africans in the Atlantic slave trade.


By the early seventeenth century, Europeans had come by the thousands to dominate the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America. They built rival empires covering much of the Americas and competed to control the resources and Indians. Arriving first, the Spanish claimed the densest areas of Indian civilization in Mesoamerica. They also sustained weaker colonies along a broad northern frontier stretching from New Mexico to Florida. Arriving in smaller numbers, the French developed a far northern colony and relied on fishing and on trading furs with Indians living near their sparse settlements in the St. Lawrence Valley. They also formed military alliances with the Indians. The English came relatively late and claimed the temperate region best suited for family farms and tobacco plantations. Agriculture attracted and sustained many more immigrants in Virginia and New England than the French could muster for Canada or the Spanish could attract to Florida and New Mexico. In the contest to colonize North America, the English had the advantage of growing numbers but the disadvantage of fiercer Indian resistance. Despite initial military advantages, Europeans did not drive the Indians from the interior for another two centuries.

Watch this BRI Homework Help video on The Colonization of America to review of the reasons different European powers claimed portions of the New World:

A timeline shows important events of the era. From approximately 13 000 to 7 000 B C E Humans cross the land bridge between Asia and North America. In approximately 5 000 B C E corn is domesticated in Mesoamerica; a drawing of different types of corn is shown. In approximately 2 000 B C E to 900 C E Mayan civilization flourishes in the Yucatan Peninsula; a photograph of a Mayan vase is shown. In approximately 1000 Leif Ericson arrives in present-day Canada; a painting of Leif Ericson on a ship is shown. In approximately 1100 Cahokia is at its peak near modern Saint Louis. In 1325 to 1521 Aztec civilization flourishes in present-day Mexico; a map of Tenochtitlan is shown. In 1492 Columbus arrives in the Bahamas; a painting of the arrival of Columbus is shown. In 1400 to 1532 the Inca Empire thrives in South America.

As shown on this timeline thousands of years of history transpired on the North and South American continents before 1492. What are the arguments for and against focusing this course on events that took place after the arrival and lasting settlement of Europeans?

Additional Chapter Resources

Review Questions

1. What was the primary motivation for early Spanish exploration?

  1. To gain economic benefit
  2. To gain scientific knowledge
  3. To prove the earth was not flat
  4. To develop the North American tobacco crop

2. What strategy did Hernan Cortes use to achieve victory over the Aztecs?

  1. Large numbers of Spanish troops
  2. Hot-air balloons for surveillance of the battlefield
  3. Alliances with Indians who also wanted to defeat the Aztecs
  4. Valuable gifts to Montezuma to persuade him not to fight

3. How did the Spanish royal government respond to the critiques of Las Casas and others of Spanish conquistadores?

  1. It sent additional ships and troops to put down rebellion.
  2. It issued the Royal Directives for New Discoveries giving more power to the priests and less to the conquistadores.
  3. It signed the Treaty of Tordesillas to divide the empire and reduce rebellion.
  4. It ignored the critics because the King was most interested in the wealth the colonies provided and not the well-being of the Indians.

4. What was the major cause of the sharp decline in American Indian populations after their first contact with the Europeans?

  1. War with the Europeans
  2. American Indians’ migration to other parts of the world
  3. American Indians’ exposure to European diseases for which they had no immunity
  4. An already small population that suffered no significant decline

5. How did rival European nations attempt to undermine the dominance of Spain in early American settlements?

  1. The English Dutch and French formed an alliance to fight Spain for its American colonies.
  2. Spain’s rivals formed alliances with the American Indians to overthrow Spanish dominance.
  3. Spain’s rivals used diplomacy to get Spain to allow them to form their own colonies.
  4. Spain’s rivals legalized piracy to seize Spanish goods and created the “black legend” to highlight Spain’s cruelty to the American Indians.

6. The early French forays into the far northern parts of the North American continent were intended to do which of the following?

  1. Convert the Indians to Christianity
  2. Find gold and silver
  3. Grow tobacco
  4. Trap and trade furs

7. Although English settlement of the middle part of the North American coast did not yield the desired gold John Rolfe’s introduction of an improved variety of which of the following saved the Virginia colony once settlers could acquire private property?

  1. Sugar
  2. Tobacco
  3. Indigo
  4. Maize

8. The geographic and climate differences between the northern and southern British colonies resulted in which of the following?

  1. Longer lifespans and large plantation agriculture in the South
  2. Longer lifespans and small family farming in the North
  3. Shorter lifespans and large plantation agriculture in the North
  4. Shorter lifespans and small family farming in the South

9. What did John Winthrop mean in referring to the Puritan settlement as a “city upon a hill”?

  1. The Puritans would build their settlement on a hill to see enemies when they approached.
  2. Because their settlement was on the coast the Puritans would create a lighthouse on a hill to guide ships.
  3. The Puritan settlement would be a model society and an example to those in England of how a Christian society should operate.
  4. The Puritan settlement would be a model of democratic government.

10. Although the Puritans aimed for the purification of the Church of England Pilgrims believed which of the following?

  1. The Church of England was right in all things and must separate itself from the Puritans.
  2. The Church of England could not be purified and the Pilgrims must separate themselves from it.
  3. The Puritans were a radical and dangerous sect.
  4. Freedom to practice religion should be extended to all religious groups.

11. Religious dissidents like Roger Williams who sought greater separation between church and state and Anne Hutchison who challenged church views on women and religious practice were instrumental in the founding of which colony?

  1. Rhode Island
  2. Connecticut
  3. New Hampshire
  4. New Jersey

12. Why was the mid-Atlantic region settled by the English more appealing to large-scale and family migration than areas claimed by the French in the north or the Spanish to the South?

  1. The climate and the geography were more amenable to agriculture and survival.
  2. There wasn’t any religious dissension in France or Spain to drive people out.
  3. English-speaking colonies were more appealing to the British.
  4. Larger harbors allowed more ships to bring more people.

13. Shipbuilding was an important industry in which area?

  1. The Gulf Coast
  2. New England
  3. Peru
  4. Jamestown

14. Which settlement did the French establish in North America?

  1. Tenochtitlan
  2. Santa Fe
  3. San Agustin
  4. Quebec

15. Which crop became most important to the economy in Virginia?

  1. Wheat
  2. Cacao
  3. Tobacco
  4. Sugar

16. Which Indian empire did Cortes conquer?

  1. Aztec
  2. Inca
  3. Powhatan
  4. Pueblo

17. Which of the following best describes a change in the population of Native Americans in North America during the period 1491-1607?

  1. The Native American population initially declined then rebounded due to intermarriage with English settlers.
  2. The Native American population initially declined then grew due to increased food supplies brought by Spanish missionaries.
  3. The Native American population declined largely due to deforestation and encroachment by Europeans.
  4. The Native American population declined largely due to war and disease brought by Europeans.

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how small numbers of Spanish conquistadores succeeded in conquering larger numbers of Indians.
  2. Explain why the French concentrated their colonial effort on the north and Canada.
  3. Explain how New England colonies differed from Virginia.

AP Practice Questions

“The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways. So that we shall see much more of his wisdom power goodness and truth than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when he shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations – the Lord make it likely that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till wee be consumed out of the good land whither we are a going.”

John Winthrop A Model of Christian Charity 1630

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. How does Winthrop suggest the Puritans’ relationship with God will change as a result of their going to the New World?

  1. It will change for the better; they will be closer to God and he will bless them more abundantly.
  2. It will change for the worse and they will have to keep the faith and endure hardship to create a better relationship.
  3. It will not change; the Puritans’ relationship with God does not depend on geography.
  4. It will change but it will take a long time.

2. The excerpt provided most directly led to

  1. the settlement at Roanoke
  2. the settlement of Jamestown
  3. the settlement of Massachusetts
  4. the establishment of Rhode Island

3. John Winthrop’s view in the passage provided is most representative of

  1. the English government
  2. the Puritans
  3. the Pilgrims
  4. the Dutch Reformers

“My most humble duty remembered to you hoping in god of your good health as I myself am at the making hereof. This is to let you understand that I you child am in a most heavy case by reason of the country [which] is such that it causeth much sickness [such] as the scurvy and the bloody flux and diverse other diseases which maketh the body very poor and weak. . . . And I have nothing to comfort me nor is there nothing to be gotten here but sickness and death except [in the event] that one had money to lay out in some things for profit. . . . [Mr. Jackson] much marvelled that you would send me a servant to the Company; he saith I had been better knocked on the head. And indeed so I find it now to my great grief and misery; and [I] saith that if you love me you will redeem me suddenly for which I do entreat and beg. And if you cannot get the merchants to redeem me for some little money then for God’s sake get a gathering or entreat some good folks to lay out some little sum of money in meal and cheese and butter and beef. Any eating meat will yield great profit.”

Letter from an Indentured Servant to his Parents 1623

Refer to the excerpt provided.

4. The practice of indentured servitude in the early English colonies served to

  1. provide labor for silver mines
  2. provide labor for tobacco farms
  3. provide labor for cotton crops
  4. provide labor for factories

5. What is the author of this letter requesting from his parents?

  1. That they either pay off his indenture debt or send supplies he can sell for a profit
  2. That they come visit him
  3. That they send him cheese and beef to eat
  4. That they send him meat and medicine to cure him of disease

6. Why did people come to North America as indentured servants in the seventeenth century?

  1. There were few opportunities for advancement in England.
  2. Parents needed fewer mouths to feed in difficult economic times.
  3. People thought life would be easier in the New World.
  4. People thought they would become rich.

Primary Sources

de Champlain Samuel. “ ‘The Iroquois Were Much Astonished That Two Men Should Have Been Killed So Quickly’: Samuel de Champlain Introduces Firearms to Native Warfare 1609.” History Matters. From Samuel de Champlain The Works of Samuel de Champlain (Toronto 1925) Vol 2 89–101.

Percy George. “Jamestown: 1609–10: ’Starving Time ’” National Humanities Center.

Suggested Resources

Calloway Colin G. New Worlds for All: Indians Europeans and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1997.

Cronon William. Changes in the Land: Indians Colonists and the Ecology of New England New York: Hill & Wang 1983.

Crosby Alfred W. Jr. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900. New York: Cambridge University Press 1986.

Horn James. Adapting to a New World: English Society in the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press 1994.

Murrin John M. “Beneficiaries of Catastrophe: The English Colonies in America.” In The New American History edited by Eric Foner. Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1997.

Phillips Carla Rahn and D. William Jr. The Worlds of Christopher Columbus. New York: Cambridge University Press 1992.

Steele Ian K. Warpaths: Invasions of North America. New York: Oxford University Press 1994.

Taylor Alan. American Colonies. New York: Viking-Penguin 2001.

Thornton John. Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World 1400-1680. New York: Cambridge University Press 1992.

Warren Wendy. New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. New York: Liveright 2017.

Weber David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven: Yale University Press 1992.

White Sam. A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2017.

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