Settlement and Colonization of North America

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

Time Line

circa 38,800-15,000 BC Land bridge across Bering Strait links Asia and North America, making human migration possible.
circa 11,000 BC Age of oldest human remains ever discovered in North America.
circa 11,000–9,000 BC &Bering land bridge disappears permanently under water.
1500 BC Corn, native to Mexico and South America, is fi rst grown in the North.
circa 100 BC Anasazi culture takes shape at present day “Four Corners” in Southwest.


circa 1100 Iroquois Confederacy founded in Northeast.
1492 Christopher Columbus and his party sail from Spain to the Caribbean islands.
1516 Smallpox epidemic decimates America-Indian population.
1539 Hernando de Soto explores the Southeast; many hostile encounters with Indian tribes.
1565 Pedro Menendez de Áviles founds St. Augustine on the Florida coast.
1584 Sir Walter Raleigh explores the Atlantic coast and claims the Virginia territory for England.
1585-1590 Establishment and disappearance of colony on Roanoke Island.
1607 London Company establishes Jamestown colony near Chesapeake Bay.


Settlement and Colonization of North America

Four groups of people settled and colonized the land that became the United States of America. The first were Asian nomads, who later became known as “Native Americans” or “American Indians.” Thousands of years later, they were followed by the Europeans: first the Spanish, then the French, and finally the British.

Native American tribes eventually settled all parts of North and South America, including the islands that could support human habitation. Their cultures were diverse, but in some important ways they were all alike. Common elements of American-Indian culture included respect for the land, making what was needed by hand, hunting and gathering food, and maintaining an oral rather than a written culture.

While European monarchs vied with one another to establish strong nation- states in Europe, they also began sponsoring voyages of exploration beyond the known world. The purposes were fourfold: trade, conquest and expansion, religious conversion, and curiosity. The primary reason for their stupendous success can be summed up in one word: guns.

Europeans had been trading with Asia for a long time, but the overland routes were problematic. Going over land, goods could not be transported any faster than a horse could walk; ships, by contrast, could move much more quickly, and a single ship could carry far more goods than a team of horses. In addition, the overland routes were dangerous; traders were constantly vulnerable to robbery and attack, weather caused problems at most times of the year, and geographical features such as mountains created obstacles to a smooth passage. All these factors ate into profits and led the traders to look for water routes to Asia, since transport of goods by water was much easier, more efficient, and less hazardous.

The second motive was conquest and expansion. European nations tended to have an aggressive foreign policy, constantly attacking one another in order to acquire valuable territory and expand their power bases. A larger population meant more revenue for the Crown in taxes, more income for the Church in tithes, and more soldiers in the army. Therefore, three of the most power- ful branches of society—the court, the clergy, and the military—were united in their desire to explore the seas and lands beyond Europe in the hope of establishing colonies that would make the country richer and stronger than its neighbors.

The third motive, religious conversion, was a product of the universal Christian belief that non-Christians were heathens and that it was a Christian’s duty to convert them, thus saving their souls from eternal damnation after death. Just as a nation is politically and economically stronger when it has a larger population, a church is stronger when it has more believers; therefore the European churches were eager to send missionaries to Asia, Africa, and the Americas to bring more souls into the fold.

The last motive, and a very powerful one, was a sense of adventure and curiosity—the urge to find out what lay beyond the horizon and the willingness to take the risk of finding out. This urge has characterized human beings since the beginning of civilization, and is responsible for all scientific discoveries and technological achievements. Just as the twentieth-century explorations of outer space could not have been accomplished without the fundamental human desire to see and learn about the unknown, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century voyages of exploration could never have happened if a number of brave souls had not taken the plunge and risked boarding the ships.

Although the Chinese had invented gunpowder centuries before, there were no guns elsewhere in the world that could match those that the Europeans had developed by the 1500s. One of the most important axioms in understanding history is that in any conflict, the side with the greater firepower generally wins. The Asians had much less sophisticated guns than the Europeans, and the Americans had no guns at all. This is almost certainly the main reason that the Europeans were able to impose their will on the peoples of the other continents.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

Settlement and Colonization of North America Practice Test

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