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First Contacts

Written by: Mark Christensen, Assumption College

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the causes of exploration and conquest of the New World by various European nations
  • Explain how and why European and Native American perspectives of others developed and changed in the period

Suggested Sequencing

This narrative should be assigned to students at the beginning of their study of chapter 1. It can be followed by examination of the Cortes’ Account of Tenochtitlan, 1522 and Watercolors of Algonquian Peoples in North Carolina, 1585 Primary Sources, and the Montezuma and Cortés Decision Point.

Twelve thousand years ago, rising sea levels submerged the land bridge connecting the Americas and Asia; thus, the Americas developed in isolation from Europe. The first contact between the vastly different cultures of the Europeans and Native Americans represented a rare moment in recorded history, producing impressions that are difficult to alter, even today.

The first documented European contact with the Americas occurred in North America, when the Vikings established a settlement in Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada around 1000 A.D. Norse legends, or sagas, recount a relationship between Vikings and Native Americans defined by violence and frequent attacks. The reason the Vikings eventually abandoned their Newfoundland settlement is the subject of much scholarly debate. Regardless, it appears the Vikings did not have any lasting impact on Native American societies, and the Americas had little impact on Europeans.

However, beginning in the fifteenth century, merchant capitalism, the emergence of navigation tools and improved ship designs, and the desire for a sea route westward to the valuable goods in Asia drove Europeans once again into the Atlantic. Iberians – the people of Spain and Portugal – dominated most of these efforts, although the English, French, and Dutch also played a role. All brought with them the expectation of finding trade goods and their preconceived notions of strange humans and barbaric societies, often influenced by fictitious travel accounts circulating in Europe at the time. Following the Vikings, the most important contact between Europeans and the Native Americans in North America was begun by Christopher Columbus, working for Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

An illustration depicts several caravels of different styles and sizes.

Columbus sailed in three caravels such as these. His flagship, the Santa Maria, was only 58 feet long.

Columbus came to the Americas quite by accident in his search for a route west from Europe to Asia. Upon arriving in the Caribbean in 1492, sighting Bahamian islands, and eventually landing in Hispaniola (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he believed he had found the islands just southeast of Asia, or the East Indies. According to his own account, the inhabitants, whom he believed were natives of the East Indies, or Indians, brought the Europeans a variety of goods to trade, including parrots, cotton, and spears. The Europeans had brought trinkets such as glass beads and small brass bells. The native populations’ lack of understanding of European weaponry, their nearly naked appearance, and their lack of what Europeans would term civilization led Columbus to report that they “would make fine servants” and that “with fifty men we could subjugate them all.”

An image shows a woodcut of Native Americans and Columbus in his sailing vessel off the coast.

This 1495 woodcut is from “Lettera delle isole novamente trovata” by Giuliano Dati, an Italian translation of the letter Columbus sent to the Spanish court after his first voyage. The image includes the nakedness of the Native Americans that shocked Columbus.

Columbus also reported that various Caribbean islands held cannibals, people with tails, and women warriors known as Amazons – descriptions all derived from preconceived notions and tales circulating in Europe at the time. In the end, he took six natives back to Spain as proof of his success.

For their part, the native populations surely were equally intrigued by the Europeans. Although documentation is mostly lacking, a few reports do exist. Contrary to popular belief, Native Americans did not believe the Europeans were gods. In general, they found the Europeans to be dirty and unkempt and did not care for their food. Certainly, natives adopted specific European goods they deemed most useful, such as metal tools, weapons, and cloth, but it was a selective process and they did not readily adopt much technology. Echoing the Europeans’ opinions of them, the natives viewed many practices and habits of the European newcomers as little less than savage.

Over the course of his subsequent three voyages to the Caribbean, Columbus established Spanish towns and continued to trade with natives. However, the these Native Americans were subsistence farmers and fishers, not producers of valuable exports and commodities. Mistaken expectations held by both Europeans and Native Americans in these first encounters led to outbreaks of violence and abuse. The eventual decimation of the native population was largely due to disease. Yet the settlement of the Spaniards in the Caribbean was a stepping stone to their farther incursions into the Americas.

Columbus’s third and fourth voyages took him to modern-day Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and sustained contact occurred afterward. In 1500, Spain authorized Rodrigo de Bastidas to explore lands not previously discovered by Columbus. In 1500 and 1501, Bastidas made contact with various Native Americans in Jamaica and Santo Domingo, and traded European trinkets for gold, pearls, and other items. He also acquired Native American slaves. Like Columbus and later Europeans, Bastidas was interested in tradable goods. If the Native Americans possessed them and traded them freely, relations remained peaceful. However, in the absence of valuable goods or trade, violence and slavery typically followed; enslaved people were a marketable good always in high demand throughout the New World.

The Portuguese discovered Brazil in 1500, but it remained of minor importance to the crown during the first few decades that followed, while peaceful coastal trading of Brazilwood (desired for its red dye) took place with the various Native American groups. French traders also frequented the coast of Brazil until Portugal initiated its colonization effort in 1531. This enterprise endowed portions of land, or captaincies, on individual donatories, who settled the land at their own expense in return for the right to create and govern towns, levy taxes, and enslave the Native Americans. As sugar mills began to appear along the coastline, the Native Americans were eventually forced into labor. Slave raiders known as bandierantes pursued them into the interior as they fled and then enslaved and sold them.

Yet not all first contacts resulted in the enslavement of the Native Americans. Occasionally, Europeans encountered sedentary native civilizations, cultures like the Aztec, Maya, and Inca that had ready access to valuable trade items and proved more difficult to conquer. In such cases, other Native Americans allied themselves with the Spaniards to pursue their own interests in defeating long-time enemies and rivals and upsetting existing hierarchies of power. For example, the Tlaxcalans took the opportunity to join the Spaniards in overthrowing the Aztec (also called Mexica), who were their warring rivals. Similar alliances occurred throughout central Mexico and Peru.

Although the Spaniard Hernando de Soto led an expedition into Florida in 1539 and Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established the town of St. Augustine in 1565, the English did not create a successful permanent settlement in the contiguous United States until Jamestown in 1607 in the Chesapeake Bay area. The Jamestown settlers experienced a generally warm initial greeting from the Powhatan people. Yet their permanent presence and continuous exploration provoked a series of attacks from neighboring groups of Native Americans. Along with starvation and disease, such attacks nearly defeated the colony in its first year. This strained first contact foreshadowed a difficult relationship between Europeans and Native Americans, culminating in a surprise attack on Jamestown by the Powhatan nation in 1622. Nearly 350 settlers were killed, spelling disaster for relations between Europeans and American Indians.

The relationships originating from first contact between Europeans and American Indians were complex and varied and should not be viewed as monolithic. In general, when Native Americans possessed goods or land they were willing to trade to Europeans, relations remained peaceful. The absence of such commodities, however, often led to violence and slavery. This pattern is not new. In fact, it has been replicated worldwide since the rise of civilizations.

Review Questions

1. Which of the following was an outcome of the first expedition to the Americas led by Christopher Columbus?

  1. Columbus led an expedition into the present-day United States.
  2. The first permanent settlement in North America was founded at St. Augustine.
  3. The expedition landed on the island of Hispaniola and engaged in trade with the native population.
  4. Columbus led Spanish troops in overthrowing the Aztecs in present-day Mexico.

2. Portugal encouraged settlement of land in Brazil by endowing portions of land to individual donatories. These individuals could create and govern towns, levy taxes, and enslave native populations in return for

  1. funding future explorations into South America
  2. opening trade routes for French traders
  3. establishing peaceful relationships with the surrounding Native Americans
  4. financing the settlement of their endowed portions of land

3. Which of the following best expresses the opinion of Columbus regarding the Native Americans he encountered?

  1. Native Americans were civilized according to European standards.
  2. Europeans would find it very difficult to subjugate these groups.
  3. It was unlikely that these Native Americans would be suited for slavery.
  4. The inhabitants were native to the East Indies.

4. Although there is little documentation of the perspective of Native Americans, the few reports that do exist indicate that Native Americans held which of the following views regarding European explorers?

  1. The civilized behavior and appearance of the Europeans were admired.
  2. Any European technology was a vast improvement and should be adopted immediately.
  3. The Europeans were gods.
  4. Europeans tools and goods that were deemed useful should be adopted selectively.

5. Which of the following does not describe the experience of Native Americans encountering Portuguese explorers and settlers in Brazil?

  1. Forced labor in sugar mills in the coastal areas
  2. Peaceful relations based on equitable trade of goods
  3. Loss of land to individuals settling areas endowed to them by the government
  4. Pursuit by slave raiders of those Native Americans fleeing to the interior

6. What was the first permanent English settlement established in 1607 in the Chesapeake Bay area?

  1. Roanoke
  2. St. Augustine
  3. Jamestown
  4. Plymouth

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how the Spanish and the Native Americans viewed each other and how this first impression affected their future relationship.
  2. Explain what characterized the relationships between Europeans and Native Americans after Columbus.
  3. Explain the main factors determining the relationships between Europeans and Native Americans.

AP Practice Questions

A woodcut shows King Ferdinand of Spain as a crowned, robed ruler seated on a throne, surrounded by land and sea. He points across the Atlantic, where Columbus lands with three large ships. A large group of Indians is shown on the shore.

This 1495 woodcut is from an Italian translation of the letter Columbus sent to the Spanish court after his first voyage.

Refer to the image provided.

1. The depiction of the Native Americans in the top right of the woodcut reinforced European perceptions of Native Americans by showing that

  1. Native American populations were complex societies on equal footing with European nations
  2. Europeans expected fierce and successful resistance to their exploration efforts
  3. Native populations were primitive societies that would be easily subjugated by the Spanish
  4. the Americas were populated by diverse populations and cultures

2. What was the most significant result of Columbus’s voyages to the Americas in the late fifteenth century?

  1. Native Americans adopted Spanish military and agricultural technologies.
  2. Native Americans’ patterns of economic and cultural exchange were fundamentally changed.
  3. The planting of European crops drove American crops into extinction.
  4. New World diseases spread to Eurasia and decimated the populations there.

Primary Sources

Christopher Columbus’s Letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain:

Suggested Resources

Kicza, John E., and Rebecca Horn. Resilient Cultures: America’s Native Peoples Confront European Colonization, 1500-1800. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Restall, Matthew, and Kris Lane. Latin America in Colonial Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Seed, Patricia. Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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