The story of North American exploration spans an entire millennium and involves a wide array of European powers and uniquely American characters. It began with the Vikings' brief stint in Newfoundland circa 1000 A.D. and continued through England's colonization of the Atlantic coast in the 17th century, which laid the foundation for the United States of America. The centuries following the European arrivals would see the culmination of this effort, as Americans pushed westward across the continent, enticed by the lure of riches, open land and a desire to fufill the nation's manifest destiny.
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The explorer Christopher Columbus made four trips across the Atlantic in search of a water route from Europe to Asia. He never found it, but he did accidentally "discover" the Americas along the way.
Jamestown, located near present-day Williamsburg, Virginia, was the first permanent English settlement in North America.
The first permanent European settlement in New England, Plymouth was founded by a group of religious separatists who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620.
From around 800 to 1100 A.D., bands of Scandinavian seafaring warriors known as the Vikings raided and settled in vast areas of eastern and western Europe.
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Explorer Henry Hudson died when his crew mutinied and left Hudson, his son and seven crew members adrift in a small open boat in the Hudson Bay.
The first attempt by Europeans to colonize the New World occurred around a.d. 1000, when the Vikings sailed from the British Isles to Greenland, established a colony, and then moved on to Labrador, the Baffin Islands, and finally Newfoundland. There they established a colony named Vineland (meaning fertile region) and from that base sailed along the coast of North America, observing the flora, fauna, and native peoples. Inexplicably, after a few years Vineland was abandoned.
Although the Vikings never returned to America, their accomplishments became known to other Europeans. Europe, however, was made up of many small principalities whose concerns were mainly local. Europeans may have been intrigued by the stories of the feared Vikings' discovery of a "new world," but they lacked the resources or the will to follow their path of exploration. Trade continued to revolve around the Mediterranean Sea, as it had for hundreds of years.
But between 1000 and 1650 a series of interconnected developments occurred in Europe that provided the impetus for the exploration and subsequent colonization of America. These developments included the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Catholic Counter-Reformation, the Renaissance, the unification of small states into larger ones with centralized political power, the emergence of new technology in navigation and shipbuilding, and the establishment of overland trade with the East and the accompanying transformation of the medieval economy.
The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic church's response in the Counter-Reformation marked the end of several centuries of gradual erosion of the power of the Catholic church as well as the climax to internal attempts to reform the church. Protestantism emphasized a personal relationship between each individual and God without the need for intercession by the institutional church. In the Renaissance, artists and writers such as Galileo, Machiavelli, and Michelangelo adopted a view of life that stressed humans' ability to change and control the world. Thus, the rise of Protestantism and the Counter-Reformation, along with the Renaissance, helped foster individualism and create a climate favorable to exploration.
At the same time, political centralization ended much of the squabbling and fighting among rival noble families and regions that had characterized the Middle Ages. With the decline of the political power and wealth of the Catholic church, a few rulers gradually solidified their power. Portugal, Spain, France, and England were transformed from small territories into nation-states with centralized authority in the hands of monarchs who were able to direct and finance overseas exploration.
As these religious and political changes were occurring, technological innovations in navigation set the stage for exploration. Bigger, faster ships and the invention of navigational devices such as the astrolabe and sextant made extended voyages possible.
But the most powerful inducement to exploration was trade. Marco Polo's famous journey to Cathay signaled Europe's "discovery" of Chinese and Islamic civilizations. The Orient became a magnet to traders, and exotic products and wealth flowed into Europe. Those who benefited most were merchants who sat astride the great overland trade routes, especially the merchants of the Italian city-states of Genoa, Venice, and Florence.
The newly unified states of the Atlantic--France, Spain, England, and Portugal--and their ambitious monarchs were envious of the merchants and princes who dominated the land routes to the East. Moreover, in the latter half of the fifteenth century, war between European states and the Ottoman Empire greatly hampered Europe's trade with the Orient. The desire to supplant the trade moguls, especially the Italians, and fear of the Ottoman Empire forced the Atlantic nations to search for a new route to the East.
Portugal led the others into exploration. Encouraged by Prince Henry the Navigator, Portuguese seamen sailed southward along the African coast, seeking a water route to the East. They were also looking for a legendary king named Prester John who had supposedly built a Christian stronghold somewhere in northwestern Africa. Henry hoped to form an alliance with Prester John to fight the Muslims. During Henry's lifetime the Portuguese learned much about the African coastal area. His school developed the quadrant, the cross-staff, and the compass, made advances in cartography, and designed and built highly maneuverable little ships known as caravels.
After Henry's death, Portuguese interest in long-distance trade and expansion waned until King John II commissioned Bartolomeu Dias to find a water route to India in 1487. Dias sailed around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean before his frightened crew forced him to give up the quest. A year later, Vasco da Gama succeeded in reaching India and returned to Portugal laden with jewels and spices. In 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered and claimed Brazil for Portugal, and other Portuguese captains established trading posts in the South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Arabian Sea. These water routes to the East undercut the power of the Italian city-states, and Lisbon became Europe's new trade capital.
Spain's imperial ambitions were launched by Christopher Columbus. Born in Genoa, Italy, around 1451, Columbus learned the art of navigation on voyages in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. At some point he probably read Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly's early fifteenth-century work, Imago mundi, which argued that the East could be found by sailing west of the Azores for a few days. Columbus, hoping to make such a voyage, spent years seeking a sponsor and finally found one in Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain after they defeated the Moors and could turn their attention to other projects.
In August 1492, Columbus sailed west with his now famous ships, Niña, Pinta, and Santa María. After ten weeks he sighted an island in the Bahamas, which he named San Salvador. Thinking he had found islands near Japan, he sailed on until he reached Cuba (which he thought was mainland China) and later Haiti. Columbus returned to Spain with many products unknown to Europe--coconuts, tobacco, sweet corn, potatoes--and with tales of dark-skinned native peoples whom he called "Indians" because he assumed he had been sailing in the Indian Ocean.
Although Columbus found no gold or silver, he was hailed by Spain and much of Europe as the discoverer of d'Ailly's western route to the East. John II of Portugal, however, believed Columbus had discovered islands in the Atlantic already claimed by Portugal and took the matter to Pope Alexander II. Twice the pope issued decrees supporting Spain's claim to Columbus's discoveries. But the territorial disputes between Portugal and Spain were not resolved until 1494 when they signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which drew a line 370 leagues west of the Azores as the demarcation between the two empires.
Despite the treaty, controversy continued over what Columbus had found. He made three more voyages to America between 1494 and 1502, during which he explored Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Jamaica, and Trinidad. Each time he returned more certain that he had reached the East. Subsequent explorations by others, however, persuaded most Europeans that Columbus had discovered a "New World." Ironically, that New World was named for someone else. A German geographer, Martin Waldseemüller, accepted the claim of Amerigo Vespucci that he had landed on the American mainland before Columbus. In 1507 Waldseemüller published a book in which he named the new land "America."
More Spanish expeditions followed. Juan Ponce de León explored the coasts of Florida in 1513. Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and discovered the Pacific Ocean in the same year. Ferdinand Magellan's expedition (in the course of which he put down a mutiny and was later killed) sailed around the tip of South America, across the Pacific to the Philippines, through the Indian Ocean, and back to Europe around the southern tip of Africa between 1519 and 1522.
Two expeditions led directly to Spain's emergence as sixteenth-century Europe's wealthiest and most powerful nation. The first was headed by Hernando Cortés, who in 1519 led a small army of Spanish and Native Americans against the Aztec Empire of Mexico. Completing the conquest in 1521, Cortés took control of the Aztecs' fabulous gold and silver mines. Ten years later, an expedition under Francisco Pizarro overwhelmed the Inca Empire of Peru, securing for the Spaniards the great Inca silver mines of Potosí.
In 1535 and 1536 Pedro de Mendoza went as far as present-day Buenos Aires in Argentina, where he founded a colony. At the same time, Cabeza de Vaca explored the North American Southwest, adding that region to Spain's New World empire. A few years later (1539-1542) Francisco Vásquez de Coronado discovered the Grand Canyon and journeyed through much of the Southwest looking for gold and the legendary Seven Cities of Cíbola. About the same time Hernando de Soto explored southeastern North America from Florida to the Mississippi River. By 1650 Spain's empire was complete and fleets of ships were carrying the plunder back to Spain.
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Classroom Study Guides
Jamestown Teachers Guide (PDF)
Curriculum companion to the program about the first permanent British settlement in North America.