The Spanish monarchy began the Age of Exploration when it sponsored Christopher Columbus’s journey westward, across the Atlantic Ocean, in search of Asia. Columbus failed to reach Asia, landing instead on the Bahama Islands in 1492. He returned to the New World in 1493 and established the settlement of Santo Domingo as a base for further exploration. In 1493, the Pope declared that all lands west of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands belonged to Spain, but Portugal, another great sea power, disputed the papal decree. The two countries reached a compromise with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, which divided all future discoveries between Castile (a region of Spain) and Portugal.
The Treaty of Tordesillas reveals that both Portugal and Spain led the charge in exploring the New World. But while the Portuguese focused on navigation and geographical observation, the Spanish put their efforts into expedition and colonization.
After the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain quickly established itself as the premier European power in the New World, sending wave after wave of explorers into South America. These Spanish expeditions, led by conquistadors, set out in search of gold, slaves, lucrative trade routes, and fame. Indeed, they succeeded in creating an enormous empire. By 1522, the Spaniard Hernando Cortez had conquered the Aztecs in Mexico and by 1536, under the leadership of Francisco Pizaro, Spain had conquered the Incas in Peru. Conquistadors plundered the indigenous tribes for treasure and slave labor. They established numerous encomiendas—sprawling estates populated with native slaves. Under Conquistador rule, many of the natives died from disease, malnutrition, and fatigue, and they were soon replaced on the encomiendas by African slaves brought in by Portuguese slave traders.
In North America, Spain initially proved just as dominant. Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain in 1513, and Hernando de Soto led a Spanish exploration of the southeastern United States in 1539, discovering the Mississippi River. In 1565, Spain established the first successful European settlement in North America—a fortress in St. Augustine, Florida. Around the turn of the seventeenth century, Spanish settlers moved into the Southwest, establishing the colony of Santa Fe in 1610. In an effort to maintain control of North America, the Spanish attacked many British and French settlements and destroyed forts. Spain saw its claim on Florida as particularly important in the effort to diminish English and French expansion southward.
France also played a strong role in the New World, though its efforts were mainly confined to North America. The French led the charge to find a Northwest Passage, a much-hoped-for water route through which ships might be able to cross the Americas to access Asia. In three voyages between 1534 and 1542, French explorer Jacques Cartier traveled the St. Lawrence River as far as Montreal. The Northwest Passage eluded him (it doesn’t exist), but his explorations established France’s early dominance of North America’s major waterways. In 1562, French settlers briefly and unsuccessfully attempted to settle in what is now South Carolina, and in 1564, the Spanish attacked and destroyed a French settlement near Jacksonville, Florida.
Despite its failures, France continued to be a major player in North America. Most notably, the French engaged in the highly profitable fur trade, setting up trading outposts throughout Newfoundland, Maine, and regions farther west. Samuel de Champlain founded the first permanent French settlement in 1608 at Quebec, and established a fur trade with the region’s Native American tribes. By the end of the seventeenth century the French controlled the St. Lawrence River, the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes and, therefore, much of the land in the heart of the continent. Of all the European colonial powers, the French enjoyed the best relationship with Native Americans.
The Dutch East India Company became interested in North American settlement in 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now carries his name. In 1625, the Dutch bought Manhattan island from the natives who lived there and established the settlement of New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson River. While the colony flourished on account of the fur trade, the Dutch did little to expand their landholdings beyond their domain around the Hudson. A European conflict between England and the Netherlands spread to the New World in 1664, during which the English took over New Amsterdam, renaming it New York. After 1664, Dutch influence waned.
Compared to other European powers, England got a relatively late start in the exploration and colonization of the New World. True, King Henry VII of England did send explorer John Cabot across the Atlantic in 1497, and Cabot claimed Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Grand Banks for England. But after Cabot’s efforts, the English became more concerned with domestic issues and generally ceased exploring. For much of the sixteenth century, England had no real presence in the New World.
English interest in the New World increased in the second half of the sixteenth century. Religious groups (such as the Puritans, who disagreed with the practices of the Church of England) saw the New World as a place where they could practice their religion without persecution. The English monarchy was enticed by the wealth pouring into Spain from Mexico, South America, and the West Indies; and the riches Captain Francis Drake and others plundered from Spanish ships off of Central America in the late 1570s particularly piqued England’s interest. Catholic Spain felt threatened by British sea power and the influx of English Protestants, and the two European powers quickly became bitter rivals, each scheming to position strategic bases throughout the New World.
England’s first effort to establish a settlement in the New World ended badly. In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh gained a royal charter to found the settlement of Roanoke, located on an island off the coast of North Carolina. Raids by Native American tribes and disease devastated the settlement, and it was eventually abandoned. Still, the Spanish monarchy, determined to eliminate their New World rivals, dispatched the great Spanish Armada in 1588 to attack the British off the coast of England. Through luck and ingenuity, a fleet of outgunned English ships decimated the Armada. With this victory, England began its ascent as a premier naval power, which bolstered its colonial efforts, and Spain fell into a slow decline.
The struggle between Britain and Spain dragged on throughout the end of the sixteenth century, so that by 1600 the English crown and Parliament were hesitant to spend money on colonization. In place of government funding, joint-stock companiesformed to gather funding for colonization through the sale of public stock. Along with religious groups—who saw the rise of the English navy as a real opportunity to move to the New World and escape religious persecution—these companies were responsible for most English colonization throughout the seventeenth century.
Effects of Colonization on the Natives
Colonization had a disastrous effect on the native population. War, slavery, and starvation claimed many lives, but disease, especially smallpox, had the most devastating effect. In Mexico, the native population plummeted from 25 million in 1519 to 2 million by 1600. European settlement physically displaced numerous tribes, setting in motion the sad fate of Native Americans throughout American history.
The Spanish, however, provided the Native Americans of the Great Plains with an unintended gift: horses. During the conquistadors’ expeditions into the Southwest, some horses escaped and formed large herds on the Great Plains. Within a few generations, Native Americans in the plains region became experts on horseback, expanding their hunting and trading capabilities and dramatically transforming Native American culture.