The Meeting of Cultures

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The Meeting of Cultures


Before European explorers arrived in the Americas, Native Americans had developed many forms of social organization. No two tribes were exactly alike, they were often unaware of each other’s existence, and no two had attained exactly the same level of development. Little of this mattered to the Europeans. Knowing very little of the native people, Europeans were almost exclusively interested in exploiting the resources of the New World, both natural and human. They regarded all natives as inferior. Therefore, they set out to redefine or destroy native societies and replace them with a variant of European culture. The unintended but highly lethal biological disaster brought on by smallpox and other diseases made it easier for the Europeans to conquer the native tribes and their civilizations and impose a variety of colonial systems on them. Over time the Europeans also began to import African slaves to replace the labor of Native Americans lost through epidemics and wars. Competition for those slaves was part of a larger complex international rivalry. In short, many conflicts and competing interests in the Old World spilled over into the New World as many different nations entered the race for land, colonies, slaves, and profits. By the end of the sixteenth century, the age of discovery was all but over, and the age of colonization, especially English colonization, was about to begin.


A thorough study of Chapter 1 should enable the student to understand:
1. The history of the Native Americans and their cultural distinctions before the arrival of Christopher Columbus

2. How European knowledge of the New World was changed by the expectations and results of Columbus’s first voyage

3. The ways in which the peoples of the New and Old Worlds affected each other in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, with an emphasis on the enormous role that disease played in this interaction

4. The changes in western Europe that resulted in increasingly widespread interest in colonization

5. The colonial policies of each European nation with an interest in the New World, and the effect each had on the future of the Americas

6. Spain’s New World empire in the sixteenth century and its impact on Spain’s rivalry with England

7. The varying African cultures from which black slaves were taken and the early development of slavery in the New World

8. The role of religion in European efforts to colonize the New World

9. The impact of the English experience in Ireland on English efforts to colonize the New World
10. The first efforts of the English to establish a colony in the New World and the reasons for their failure


1. That the colonization of the Americas included a collision of European and Native American cultures that had been developing along very different lines for thousands of years

2. How a variety of ambitions and impulses (political, personal, financial) moved individuals and nations to colonize the New World

3. How the motives of the colonizers, their experiences before immigrating, and their limited knowledge of the New World shaped their attitudes toward Native American cultures


1. How did pre-Columbian Indian societies differ? How were they similar? What marked a highly developed Indian society? Where were these societies found, and why were they located where they were? What defined an Indian society grounded in subsistence agriculture? What relationship existed between an Indian society’s subsistence pattern and its general culture?

2. What European “discoveries” were made in America before 1600? Which of these discoveries contributed to colonization and which did not? What contributed to the success or failure of these colonization efforts?

3. What did the Indian cultures contribute to the Europeans? Despite these contributions, why did the Europeans still think of the Native Americans as inferior?

4. What did the Europeans contribute to the Indians? Despite these contributions, why was European contact such a destabilizing force to Native American societies?

5. How were the Spanish and English motives for colonization different? How were they similar? How were these motives reflected in the organization of the colonies they established?

6. What was the social and cultural background of the Africans brought to America? How did this background differ from that of the Indians and the Europeans? In what ways were the backgrounds of these people similar?

7. How did the Europeans use previous efforts at exploration and colonization when they went about colonizing America?

8. It has often been said that European colonization of America was motivated by “gold, God, and glory.” Is this an accurate, shorthand interpretation of the motivation of all Europeans? Most Europeans? Some Europeans?

9. How did the cultural interaction of Europeans and Native Americans change when African slaves became part of the mix? Explain the factors that encouraged the origination of the African slave trade and the impact of African slaves on the economy and culture of colonial America.


1. Identify the principal subsistence patterns of early Native Americans.

2. What was the geographic distribution of Native Americans discussed in this chapter?

3. Identify the routes of exploration and the nations that sponsored these ventures.

4. Identify the centers of European settlement.


1. How did the geographic distribution and subsistence patterns of Native Americans influence their cultural development?

2. European exploration and colonization affected Native Americans in many ways. Considering where Europeans explored and planted settlements, which Indian cultures were affected most? How did initial exploration make it easier for future explorers (even from rival nations) to settle the area?

3. How did conditions in Europe help promote the exploration and settlement of America? How does the location of American colonies reflect the geographic situation of the mother country? (Students may want to consult a world map for this question.)

4. Consider the location of principal Spanish cities. Which of these appear to have been established for trading purposes? For military (strategic or defensive) purposes? For both? How did the Spanish missions fit into this settlement scheme?

5. Compare and contrast the Spanish colonial map with contemporary maps of the same areas. What features of the Americas did the early map accurately represent? What was not accurate? How would Spain’s colonial conception of North America influence its plans for colonization?

6. Compare and contrast the maps in Chapter 1, paying special attention to eastern North America. Based on these maps, what was the impact of the English arrival in North America? Why did the English system prevail in this region? What other factors contributed to English success here?


These questions are based on the preceding map exercises. They are designed to test students’ knowledge of the geography of the area discussed in this chapter and of its historical development. Careful reading of the text will help students answer these questions.
1. In what ways did European exploration and colonization affect Native Americans? In answering this question, note where Europeans explored and planted settlements. What cultural regions were affected most? Why was the impact of Europeans greater here? How did initial exploration make it easier for future explorers (even from rival nations) to settle the area?

2. What conditions existed in Europe that helped promote the exploration and settlement of America? How did the geographic situations of European countries influence patterns of colonial settlement? (Students will want to consult a world map for help on this question.)

3. Study the maps in this chapter of the text. Based on these maps, what do you feel was the impact of the English arrival in North America? Why did the English system prevail in this region? What other factors contributed to English success here?


Nicholas Canny, The Elizabethan Conquest of Ireland (1976)

Robert S. Grumet, Historic Contact: American People and Colonists in Today’s Northeastern United States in the Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (1995)

Robert Jackson and Edward Castillo, Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization (1995)

Alvin M. Josephy, ed., America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus (1993)

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Roanoke: The Abandoned Colony (1984)

D. W. Meinig, The Shaping of America, Vol. 1: Atlantic America (1492-1800) (1986)

Gary Nash, Red, White, and Black: The Peoples of Early America (1982)

Barbara L. Solow, Slavery and the Rise of the Atlantic System (1991)

Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (1997)

John Thornton, Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1680 (1992)

Bruce G. Trigger and Wilcomb Washburn, eds., Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the New World, Vol. 3: North America (1993)
For Internet resources, practice questions, references to additional books and films, and more, see this book’s Online Learning Center at

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