More to Explore
Page 2 of 2
The impulse for exploration was further fueled by the European imagination. The idea of "America" antedated America's discovery and even Viking exploration. That idea had two parts: one paradisiacal and utopian; the other savage and dangerous. Ancient tales described distant civilizations, usually to the west, where European-like peoples lived simple, virtuous lives without war, famine, disease, or poverty. Such utopian visions were reinforced by religious notions. Early Christian Europeans had inherited from the Jews a powerful prophetic tradition that drew upon apocalyptic biblical texts in the books of Daniel, Isaiah, and Revelations. They connected the Christianization of the world with the second coming of Christ. Such ideas led many Europeans (including Columbus) to believe it was God's plan for Christians to convert pagans wherever they were found.
If secular and religious traditions evoked utopian visions of the New World, they also induced nightmares. The ancients described wonderful civilizations, but barbaric, evil ones as well. Moreover, late medieval Christianity inherited a rich tradition of hatred for non-Christians derived in part from the Crusaders' struggle to free the Holy Land and from warfare against the Moors.
European encounters with the New World were viewed in light of these preconceived notions. To plunder the New World of its treasures was acceptable because it was populated by pagans. To Christianize the pagans was necessary because it was part of God's plan; to kill them was right because they were Satan's or Antichrist's warriors. As European powers conquered the territories of the New World, they justified wars against Native Americans and the destruction of their cultures as a fulfillment of the European secular and religious vision of the New World.
While Spain was building its New World empire, France was also exploring the Americas. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano was commissioned to locate a northwest passage around North America to India. He was followed in 1534 by Jacques Cartier, who explored the St. Lawrence River as far as present-day Montreal. In 1562 Jean Ribault headed an expedition that explored the St. Johns River area in Florida. His efforts were followed two years later by a second venture headed by René de Laudonnière. But the Spanish soon pushed the French out of Florida, and thereafter, the French directed their efforts north and west. In 1608 Samuel de Champlain built a fort at Quebec and explored the area north to Port Royal, Nova Scotia, and south to Cape Cod.
Unlike Spain's empire, "New France" produced no caches of gold and silver. Instead, the French traded with inland tribes for furs and fished off the coast of Newfoundland. New France was sparsely populated by trappers and missionaries and dotted with military forts and trading posts. Although the French sought to colonize the area, the growth of settlements was stifled by inconsistent policies. Initially, France encouraged colonization by granting charters to fur-trading companies. Then, under Cardinal Richelieu, control of the empire was put in the hands of the government-sponsored Company of New France. The company, however, was not successful, and in 1663 the king took direct control of New France. Although more prosperous under this administration, the French empire failed to match the wealth of New Spain or the growth of neighboring British colonies.
The Dutch were also engaged in the exploration of America. Formerly a Protestant province of Spain, the Netherlands was determined to become a commercial power and saw exploration as a means to that end. In 1609, Henry Hudson led an expedition to America for the Dutch East India Company and laid claim to the area along the Hudson River as far as present-day Albany. In 1614 the newly formed New Netherland Company obtained a grant from the Dutch government for the territory between New France and Virginia. About ten years later another trading company, the West India Company, settled groups of colonists on Manhattan Island and at Fort Orange. The Dutch also planted trading colonies in the West Indies.
In 1497 Henry VII of England sponsored an expedition to the New World headed by John Cabot, who explored a part of Newfoundland and reported an abundance of fish. But until Queen Elizabeth's reign, the English showed little interest in exploration, being preoccupied with their European trade and establishing control over the British Isles. By the mid-sixteenth century, however, England had recognized the advantages of trade with the East, and in 1560 English merchants enlisted Martin Frobisher to search for a northwest passage to India. Between 1576 and 1578 Frobisher as well as John Davis explored along the Atlantic coast.
Thereafter, Queen Elizabeth granted charters to Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh to colonize America. Gilbert headed two trips to the New World. He landed on Newfoundland but was unable to carry out his intention of establishing military posts. A year later, Raleigh sent a company to explore territory he named Virginia after Elizabeth, the "Virgin Queen," and in 1585, he sponsored a second voyage, this time to explore the Chesapeake Bay region. By the seventeenth century, the English had taken the lead in colonizing North America, establishing settlements all along the Atlantic coast and in the West Indies.
Sweden & Denmark
Sweden and Denmark also succumbed to the attractions of America, although to a lesser extent. In 1638 the Swedish West India Company established a settlement on the Delaware River near present-day Wilmington called Fort Christina. This colony was short-lived, however, and was taken over by the Dutch in 1655. The king of Denmark chartered the Danish West India Company in 1671, and the Danes established colonies in St. Croix and other islands in the cluster of the Virgin Islands.
Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, a.d. 500-1600 (1971); John H. Parry, The Spanish Seaborne Empire (1966; 2nd ed., 1980); David B. Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, 1481-1620, from the Bristol Voyages of the Fifteenth Century to the Pilgrim Settlement at Plymouth: The Exploration, Exploitation, and Trial-and-Error Colonization of North America by the English (1974).
PAUL R. LUCAS
The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Fact Check We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!
Keep up with the latest History shows, online features, special offers and more.Sign up
Classroom Study Guides
Jamestown Teachers Guide (PDF)
Curriculum companion to the program about the first permanent British settlement in North America.