The European Voyagers
The first Europeans to reach the Americas were Norsemen. Around the year AD 982, Erik the Red discovered Greenland and established a Viking settlement there. In the year 1000, his son Leif Erikson landed on the eastern coast of Canada. However, the Norsemen did not pursue their ventures into the Western Hemisphere.
The Spanish Explorers
Trade Routes to the East
The race for American colonies and the continuing cultural exchange between the Americas and Europe began in the early sixteenth century following Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Caribbean in 1492. Columbus, an Italian sponsored by the monarchs of Spain, had sailed forth in charge of a fleet of three ships looking for the elusive trade route to India and China. He reasoned that since the world was spherical, one should be able to reach the East by sailing west. There was only one flaw in his theory—the Americas and the Pacific Ocean lay between Europe and Asia. Europeans were ignorant of the existence of this great landmass.
In four voyages to the Caribbean, Columbus claimed Cuba, Hispaniola, Antigua, and the Bahamas for Spain, establishing a base of operations for the Spanish explorers who followed him. The islands are called the “West Indies” because Columbus never realized that he had not in fact reached India; the misnomer “Indians” has stuck to the earliest inhabitants of the Americas ever since.
Power and Religion
European monarchs realized that by sponsoring explorers like Columbus they could establish colonies and expand their power bases abroad. Missionaries of the Catholic Church were also pleased at the discovery that there were whole societies of people to convert to their faith.
Spain soon sponsored more voyages to the West. In 1513, Vasco Nuñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal sailed westward past the southern tip of South America. Magellan was killed in a fight in the Philippines, but several of his crew members returned safely to Spain, having circled the globe. They established beyond doubt that it was possible to reach the East by sailing west.
Wealth and Greed
Between 1519 and 1531, the Spaniards defeated and wiped out the mighty Aztec and Inca armies of Mexico and Peru. The great wealth they seized fired the imaginations of explorers such as Juan Ponce de León and Hernando de Soto, who sailed to North America in search of similar wealth. These men are known to history by the romantic name of conquistadors, a word that celebrates their adventurous spirit and undoubted bravery while minimizing the fact that they were motivated by greed and behaved brutally to those whose lands they invaded.
Ponce de León led the first party of European explorers to reach the North- American mainland. They landed near present-day Tampa Bay, Florida, in 1513. Hernando de Soto followed Ponce de León in 1539. He and his party penetrated deep into the heart of the southeastern United States, killing, kidnap- ping, and robbing the numerous American-Indian tribes they encountered on the way. In 1541, De Soto and his party became the first Europeans to see and cross the Mississippi River. At the same time, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Gárcia López de Cárdenas, and Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo were exploring the Southwest and the California coast. At one time, Spain claimed almost two- thirds of the present United States.
In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Áviles finally established the first Spanish col- ony in North America. He and his party founded the city of St. Augustine, Florida. The Spaniards began to settle Texas in the late 1600s and California in the mid-1700s. Their influence can still be seen in the Spanish place names, the architectural styles, and the predominance of Catholic churches in these areas.