European Colonization of the Americas

European Colonization of the Americas Video

Hello, and welcome to this Mometrix lesson on the European colonization of the Americas!

Which European countries colonized the Americas and when? Today, we’ll be talking about the Spanish, English, French, and Dutch colonization of the Americas.

Before we get started, it’s important to acknowledge the fact that all of the Americas were colonized for over a thousand years before Europeans even arrived; however, for this educational video, we’ll be focusing on what happened following the renowned/infamous arrival of Christopher Columbus.

Timeline: 1490s-1540s

First, let’s use a quick timeline to help us get our bearings for the rest of the video:

1492: Columbus claimed the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola for Spain
1497: John Cabot, an Italian, lands in Newfoundland
1519: Hernán Cortés begins the conquest of Mexico
1519-22: Magellan’s expedition to Asia results in the first circumnavigation of the world
1535: Jacques Cartier sails through eastern Canada, along the St. Lawrence River
1539-41: Hernando de Soto travels throughout the American South
1540: The Spanish discover the Grand Canyon and no Europeans visit again for 200 years

1542: The Spanish begin settlement of the West Coast


Early Spanish Exploration

Now, let’s discuss the results of these explorations. From the early 1500s through the 1800s, the Spanish set out to the New World with goals of spreading Catholicism, obtaining gold, and building large plantations for tobacco and sugar, ranches, and conquests. Upon arriving, they were met by Native Americans (sidenote: historians believe over 20 million people lived in South America, prior to the Spanish arrival).

The Spanish viewed the Native Americans as savages, or heathens, rather than as human beings. Because of this, they treated the natives violently, forcing Catholicism upon them and forcing them into slavery (in 1493, the Pope basically said that all the newly discovered lands belonged to Spain, and that they owned them under the condition of converting the inhabitants to Roman Catholicism).

The Spanish predominantly settled in what is now the entire western half of South America, Mexico, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, California, and other various locations. In these settlements, the settlers were required to follow the laws of the Spanish king. All opposing views and religions were shut down and resulted in death for most people.

Early English Exploration

Like the Spanish, the English began colonizing the Americas around the 1500s. They set out with goals of building plantations, creating additional sources of income, and escaping the religious persecution in Britain. Coming to the Americas, the English settled all along the East Coast of what is now the United States, specifically in Virginia, Massachusetts, and later Maine, Georgia, and all the way to the Mississippi River. They claimed the majority of the East Coast; calling the land “Virginia” after Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” Originally, the English held relatively friendly relations with the natives, sharing in hunting, trading, and crop growing techniques. After the development of greed over crops and income, the Englishman’s relations with the natives grew hostile and created many conflicts.

Timeline: 1600s-1680s

Now, for the 1600s, and another little timeline.

1604: Acadia is “settled” by French fur traders
1607: The English settle in Jamestown
1620: The English settle in Plymouth
1625: The Dutch settle at New Amsterdam (later New York City)
1626: The English settle at Salem… that’ll go well
1630: The English settle at Massachusetts Bay Colony, and, from there on, it’s almost entirely small English settlements (except for a few small Scottish, Swedish, Dutch towns that pop up)

1682: This year is the big exception, with the French claiming much of the area that is now Louisiana


Early French Exploration

So, let’s talk about all that. In the early 1600s, the French set out to what is now considered the Northeastern parts of North America and the Southeastern parts of Canada. The French had a couple of goals in mind: the expansion of their fur and fish trading. As part of this, the French partnered with certain Natives to determine the best areas for hunting and created elaborate maps of the land depicting these areas and the kinds of game they occupied. Their maps detailed the locations of beavers, bears, wild turkeys, and they also mapped out the locations of large Native American Indian tribes. By creating these maps, the French knew the locations of specific resources as well as whether they were located near friend or foe; by using pictures to depict the different animals and tribes, the Native Americans who partnered with the French could also use the map to their benefit.

As you’ve probably inferred, the French had relatively friendly relations with the natives in the area. They engaged each other in hunting tactics, cooking tactics, and even practiced intermarriage for the sake of becoming part of each others’ families. Even so, when the French came, they brought with them their Catholic faith, and they attempted to convert some of the natives to their religion.

As mentioned before, the French settled in the modern-day Northeastern United States and Southeastern Canada, near the Great Lakes. Canadian settlements included Quebec and Montreal. Additionally, the French settled all around the Mississippi River laying claim to a collection of land at the time called Louisiana. This land consisted of present-day Louisiana, Arkansas, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Minnesota, Kansas, Iowa, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Fun fact: the capital of Louisiana, New Orleans, was named after King Louis XVI of France.

Early Dutch Exploration

Similar in timing, settling, and reasoning to the French, the Dutch set out for the New World. In the Canadian region, they formed “New Netherland,” and in what is present-day New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, the Dutch established “New Amsterdam.” Settling in such close proximity to the French meant that natural oppositions would be formed, and that they did.

As I mentioned earlier, the French sided with specific tribes, like the Iroquois Confederacy or the Algonquians, to help each other gain survival and monetary advantages. Likewise, the Dutch formed with the opposing native tribes, creating a stronger rivalry between the natives. The two sides were in constant competition for resources, power, and trade routes. A major goal was the search for a connection from Europe to Asia through the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, as we know, this passage did not really exist. The Dutch “New Amsterdam” was taken by England in 1664 and renamed “New York” after the Duke of York.

While it’s a lot of information, and there are many different ways this topic can be approached, looking at the first settlers and their goals helps us to better understand future events.

Thanks for joining us in this lesson about colonizing the Americas. Go forth and colonize the depths of your mind!


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by Mometrix Test Preparation | Last Updated: October 6, 2023