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Age of Discovery and Conquest: Prehistory–1763

Motivations and Effects of European Exploration and Settlement

Motivations for European Exploration

Europeans mainly sought new sea routes to Asia and later searched the lands they discovered for riches.
From the mid-15th century to the mid-16th century, Europeans were in search of new trade routes to Asia. Political disputes in countries along the traditional land trade routes had caused unsafe conditions for Western merchants. In addition the Ottoman Turks and the Italian Venetians controlled sea routes from the East. Also by the 15th century, European countries along the Atlantic coast were politically stable enough to support exploration for new trade routes.

Trade Routes in the 14th Century

Early 14th-century trade routes between Europe and Asia were primarily overland. Great distance, lengthy travel times, and need for middlemen made such overland treks inefficient in promoting trade between the regions.
The prince of Portugal, Henry the Navigator, is considered the "Father of the Age of Exploration." Although Henry never participated in exploratory voyages himself, expeditions he financed were the first to seek a route to the East by sailing south along the African coast. In 1456 explorers sponsored by Henry discovered the Cape Verde archipelago off Africa's west coast near what is now Senegal.

Explorers of the time theorized they could reach China—to the east of Europe—by sailing west. Although the explorers were mistaken, by sailing west they discovered new lands and riches. In 1492 Christopher Columbus set sail in search of China and India. Reaching the Bahamas, Cuba, and Haiti, he thought they were Asian territory, believing Cuba to be part of China. But by the early 16th century, doubts about that claim arose. The Portuguese continued their search by sailing around the coast of Africa and then east. By 1511 Portugal established a base in what is now Malaysia.

The Spanish government sent Columbus west in the late 15th century, while John Cabot sailed west for the English. He sought the Northwest Passage, a sea route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean—avoiding the land barrier of North America—and providing quicker access to Asia. In May 1497 Cabot departed Bristol, England, in a small ship with a crew of only 18. He sailed around Ireland and then north and west. After about a month, Cabot's ship landed in the area of southern Labrador or Newfoundland, Canada. Upon his return to Bristol he announced he had reached the northeast coast of Asia. In 1498 Cabot set sail on a second voyage. That journey failed, however, and he was lost at sea.

This period of the 15th and 16th centuries was a time when European explorers traveled the world seeking new trade routes and trading partners. As the European nations claimed and conquered areas of North and South America, they attempted to establish political and economic control over the indigenous peoples. Some Europeans saw colonization—settling in a foreign area and establishing political control over its indigenous inhabitants—as a mandate to spread their religion. Since most Europeans considered the indigenous people pagans, Spain and France sent missionaries to convert the natives to Roman Catholicism. This greatly extended the global dominance of European culture and religion in the newly discovered lands.

Conquest and the Columbian Exchange

The Columbian Exchange—an extensive transfer of biological and cultural elements between Europe and the Americas—was a result of European conquest.

With discovery of new lands and people in North and South America, a period of European conquest began. Spanish conquistadores led their country's exploration and domination of the Americas in the 16th century. A conquistador was a soldier who fought in the name of God and the Spanish Crown. In their search for riches, the conquistadores enslaved large populations of indigenous people. The Spaniards were aided in their conquest by the horses, firearms, and other weapons they possessed. In addition the conquistadores spread germs among the indigenous peoples that severely affected their health. European diseases such as smallpox, measles, and typhus devastated local populations, who had no immunity to such ailments. It is estimated that millions of native inhabitants—as much as 80 percent of the continents' indigenous population—perished from imported illnesses.

In the early 16th century the Spaniards unearthed the treasure they sought when they located the Inca Empire's gold and silver mines. Under the rule of King Charles V in 1503, the Spanish Crown established a reward system for its conquistadores. Called encomienda, the system granted each conquistador a plot of land and all the indigenous people who lived there. The conquistadores could demand payments from their districts' inhabitants—either in labor or in gold. The encomienda also required conquistadores to protect the natives and teach them Christianity. Many, however, ignored these responsibilities, and the encomienda devolved into an enslaved workforce the conquistadores used for mining and agricultural tasks.

The Columbian Exchange involved transfer between Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas of plants, animals, weapons, populations, diseases, and ideas following the 1492 voyage of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.

Columbian Exchange, 15th-17th Centuries

The Columbian Exchange broadened diets in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas, but foreign diseases such as typhus and malaria decimated indigenous American populations.
In the Columbian Exchange Europeans brought steel, firearms, and large ships to the Americas. They also brought foods such as wheat, oranges, and coffee and domesticated animals such as horses, cattle, and pigs. The indigenous populations gave Europeans medicinal quinine, along with tobacco and numerous foods, including corn, tomatoes, and potatoes.

Europeans also introduced agricultural practices. The newcomers set up plantations that supplied Europe with huge amounts of sugar. The French brought the fur trade to North America. Native peoples began trapping wild animals to trade with the French, who then shipped the pelts to Europe. In exchange for the furs, indigenous people received European goods and weapons.

Europeans brought Christian beliefs to the Americas as Christian missionaries arrived to convert the indigenous population. To facilitate teaching, the missionaries introduced their languages to indigenous Americans. This helped not only with the transfer of religious principles but also with communication used in trade.

Overall, the Columbian Exchange brought transformation to both cultures in terms of their agriculture, diet, social practices, and even population density.

Settlement Patterns of Europeans in North America

Through the mid-17th century five European countries—Spain, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Britain—established settlements in North America.

In the 16th century Spanish arrivals established the first European settlements in North America. Spain claimed a large area in present-day Mexico, as well as New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Florida. In 1565 the Spanish built a fort in St. Augustine, Florida, to guard the Gulf Stream—the colony's main sea route to Europe. In 1610 the Spanish also settled Santa Fe, New Mexico.

France claimed most of eastern Canada and areas now part of the United States. In 1603 French navigator Samuel de Champlain helped found the territory of New France. This vast region spanned from the Appalachian Mountains west to the Missouri River and south from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Five years later de Champlain founded Quebec City—which would become New France's most flourishing settlement and the center of a bustling fur trade.

England's most populated territories were the 13 colonies along the Atlantic coast. These colonies evolved into the 13 original states of the United States. In 1607 Jamestown—located in present-day Virginia—became the first permanent English colony to be established.

The Plymouth Colony was founded in 1620 but absorbed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1691. Settlers established New Hampshire in 1623, Connecticut in 1635, and Rhode Island in 1636. These four colonies became known as New England.

South of New England, settlers established Maryland in 1634 and Carolina in roughly 1655, initially calling it Albemarle. A few years later, in 1663, Charles II granted a charter for the colony, which was renamed Carolina in his honor. Several decades later—in 1729—the Carolina colony split into North Carolina and South Carolina. Quakers founded the colony of Pennsylvania in 1681. Georgia—the last of the 13 colonies—was settled in 1733.

Dutch settlers of the 1620s founded the New Netherland colony on territory explored for them in 1609 by the English navigator Henry Hudson. New Netherland was located on land that now forms parts of New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. Albany—New York's capital—is located on the Hudson River. When the Dutch founded the town as the center of the area's fur trade, they had named it Beverwijck, or "beaver district."

Beginning in the 1650s Britain and the Dutch fought three wars over dominance in trade and shipping. Britain's King Charles II promised his brother, James—the Duke of York—ownership of New Netherland. In May 1664 Britain forced New Netherland to surrender. The colony was renamed New York, and its capital, New Amsterdam, became New York City.

Sweden's only American colony was established on the Delaware River in 1638 in an area that is now Wilmington, Delaware. With fewer than 400 settlers at its peak, the colony eventually fell—first to the Dutch in 1655 and then to the English in the 1660s.

Claimed Regions of North America, 17th and 18th Centuries

Spain, France, and England claimed most of North America, while the Netherlands and Sweden held small colonies.

Encounters between Native Americans and Europeans

Encounters between Native Americans and Europeans were influenced by the mutual desire for trade and the Europeans' approaches to settlement.

Spain wanted silver, gold, and gems from its American empire. Converting the region's indigenous peoples to Roman Catholicism was also a crucial goal. Between 1519 and 1521 Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés demonstrated Spain's power by conquering Mexico's wealthy Aztec Empire.

Populations of early Spanish settlements included conquistadores, explorers, and priests. The system of encomienda prevailed. As this practice basically enslaved indigenous people, it established antagonistic relationships between original inhabitants and newcomers. While the Spanish tightened their control, there were continuing hostile relationships between the two groups.

Often involved in expensive foreign conflicts, France wanted its settlements to generate income to fund its many wars. France sent explorers, traders, fur trappers, and priests to its territory of New France. Intent on their lucrative fur trade, they partnered with Native Americans who provided them with food staples such as maize (corn). Native Americans also became trappers and traded with the explorers. Some newcomers married into local tribes. The French and Native Americans were not always compatible, however. Hostility arose between some indigenous people and priests who tried to convert them to Christianity. In 1646 Native Americans in an area near what is now Albany, New York, captured French Jesuit missionary Father Isaac Jogues. They blamed Jogues for the illness and crop failure afflicting their tribe and killed him in retaliation. Overall, encounters between indigenous peoples and the French were mixed—both cooperative and hostile.

Britain focused on building agricultural colonies and traded with Native Americans for the land they needed. But the indigenous people lived by the concept that only the use of land could be granted. They may not have realized the English intended to take the land forever.

Initial encounters between English settlers and local tribes were peaceful. One tribal chief, Massasoit, believed trading with colonists would benefit the tribes and worked steadfastly to maintain cordial relations. Years later, Massasoit's son, Metacom, led the tribe. The young chief's regal manner inspired the British to call him King Philip. Relationships between the British and Native Americans soured as colonists took more land. During the summer of 1675, years of territorial disagreements came to a head, and Native Americans began raiding remote settlements. Colonial leaders declared the raids a violation of several peace treaties. King Philip's War broke out that November. Conflict continued through the following summer, when the British captured Metacom and executed him. Following his death, the British won the war. Some tribal members escaped to Canada while hundreds were captured and sold into slavery. The issue of land had thus destroyed the once peaceful and cooperative relationship.
An Algonquian village reveals native structures and agriculture that Europeans encountered. The two fire pits accommodate the tribe's spiritual life as locations for prayer and ceremonial feasts. The structure at the lower left housed the tribe's religious leader, or shaman.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-52444