European Colonization of the Americas

From New World Encyclopedia
A political map of America in 1794

The start of the European Colonization of the Americas is typically dated to 1492, although there was at least one earlier colonization effort. The first known Europeans to reach the Americas are believed to have been the Vikings ("Norse") during the eleventh century, who established several colonies in Greenland and one short-lived settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in the area the Norse called Vinland, present day Newfoundland. Settlements in Greenland survived for several centuries, during which time the Greenland Norse and the Inuit people experienced mostly hostile contact. By the end of the fifteenth century, the Norse Greenland settlements had collapsed. In 1492, a Spanish expedition headed by Christopher Columbus reached the Americas, after which European exploration and colonization rapidly expanded, first through much of the Caribbean region (including the islands of Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Cuba) and, early in the sixteenth century, parts of the mainlands of North and South America.

Eventually, the entire Western Hemisphere would come under the domination of European nations, leading to profound changes to its landscape, population, and plant and animal life. In the nineteenth century alone over 50 million people left Europe for the Americas. The post-1492 era is known as the period of the Columbian Exchange. The potato, the pineapple, the turkey, dahlias, sunflowers, magnolias, maize, chilies, and chocolate went East across the Atlantic Ocean. Smallpox and measles but also the horse and the gun traveled West.

The flow of benefit appears to have been one-sided, with Europe gaining more. However, the colonization and exploration of the Americas also transformed the world, eventually adding 31 new nation-states to the global community. On the one hand, the cultural and religious arrogance that led settlers to deny anything of value in pre-Columbian America was destructive, even genocidal. On the other hand, many of those who settled in the New World were also social and political visionaries, who found opportunities there, on what for them was a tabula rasa, to aim at achieving their highest ideals of justice, equality, and freedom. Some of the world's most stable democracies exist as a result of this transformative process.

Disease and population loss

The European and Asian lifestyle included a long history of sharing close quarters with domesticated animals such as cows, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, and various domesticated fowl, which had resulted in epidemic diseases unknown in the Americas. Thus, the large-scale contact with Europeans after 1492 introduced novel germs to the indigenous people of the Americas. Epidemics of smallpox (1518, 1521, 1525, 1558, 1589), typhus (1546), influenza (1558), diphtheria (1614), and measles (1618) swept ahead of initial European contact,[1] killing between 10 million and 20 million people,[2] up to 95 percent of the indigenous population of the Americas.[3] This population loss and the cultural chaos and political collapses it caused greatly facilitated both colonization of the land and the conquest of the native civilizations. Mann says that "what happened after Columbus was like a thousand kudzus everywhere." "Throughout the hemisphere," he wrote, "ecosystems cracked and heaved like winter ice."[2]

Estimates of the population of the Americas at the time Columbus arrived have varied tremendously. This population debate has often had ideological underpinnings. Some have argued that contemporary estimates of a high pre-Columbian indigenous population are rooted in a bias against aspects of Western civilization and/or Christianity. Since civilizations rose and fell in the Americas before Columbus arrived, the indigenous population in 1492 was not necessarily at a high point, and may have already been in decline. Indigenous populations in most areas of the Americas reached a low point by the early twentieth century, and in a number of cases started to climb again.

The number of deaths caused by European-indigenous warfare has proven difficult to determine. In his book, The Wild Frontier: Atrocities During the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee, William M. Osborn sought to tally every recorded atrocity in the area that would eventually become the continental United States, from first contact (1511) to the closing of the frontier (1890), and determined that 9,156 people died from atrocities perpetrated by Native Americans, and 7,193 people died from those perpetrated by Europeans. Osborn defines an atrocity as the murder, torture, or mutilation of civilians, the wounded, and prisoners.[4] Michno estimates 21,586 dead, wounded, and captured civilians and soldiers for the period of 1850–1890 alone.[5]

Early conquests, claims, and colonies

European Nation's Control over South America 1700 to the twentieth century
Territorial evolution of North America of non-native nation states from 1750 to 2008.

The first conquests were made by the Spanish and the Portuguese. In the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, ratified by the Pope, these two kingdoms divided the entire non-European world between themselves, with a line drawn through South America. Based on this Treaty, and the claims by Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa to all lands touching the Pacific Ocean, the Spanish rapidly conquered territory, overthrowing the Aztec and Inca Empires to gain control of much of western South America, Central America, and Mexico by the mid-sixteenth century, in addition to its earlier Caribbean conquests. Over this same time frame, Portugal conquered much of eastern South America, naming it Brazil.

Other European nations soon disputed the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which they had not negotiated. England and France attempted to plant colonies in the Americas in the sixteenth century, but these met with failure. However, in the following century, the two kingdoms, along with the Netherlands, succeeded in establishing permanent colonies. Some of these were on Caribbean islands, which had often already been conquered by the Spanish or depopulated by disease, while others were in eastern North America, which had not been colonized by Spain north of Florida.

Early European possessions in North America included Spanish Florida, the English colonies of Virginia (with its |North Atlantic off-shoot, The Somers Isles) and New England, the French colonies of Acadia and Canada, the Swedish colony of New Sweden, and the Dutch New Netherland. In the eighteenth century, DenmarkNorway revived its former colonies in Greenland, while the Russian Empire gained a foothold in Alaska.

As more nations gained an interest in the colonization of the Americas, competition for territory became increasingly fierce. Colonists often faced the threat of attacks from neighboring colonies, as well as from indigenous tribes and pirates.

Early state-sponsored colonists

The first phase of European activity in the Americas began with the Atlantic Ocean crossings of Christopher Columbus (1492-1504), sponsored by Spain, whose original attempt was to find a new route to India and China, known as "the Indies." He was followed by other explorers such as John Cabot, who discovered Newfoundland and was sponsored by England. Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil for Portugal. Amerigo Vespucci, working for Portugal in voyages from 1497 to 1513, established that Columbus had discovered a new set of continents. Cartographers still use a Latinized version of his first name, America, for the two continents. Other explorers included Giovanni da Verrazzano, sponsored by France; the Portuguese João Vaz Corte-Real in Newfoundland; and Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635) who explored Canada. In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and led the first European expedition to see the Pacific Ocean from the west coast of the New World. In an action with enduring historical import, Balboa claimed the Pacific Ocean and all the lands adjoining it for the Spanish Crown. It was 1517 before another expedition from Cuba visited Central America, landing on the coast of Yucatán in search of slaves.

Spanish Empire under king Philip II (1598).

These explorations were followed, notably in the case of Spain, by a phase of conquest: The Spaniards, having just finished the Reconquista of Spain from Muslim rule, were the first to colonize the Americas, applying the same model of governing to the former Al-Andalus as to their territories of the New World. Ten years after Columbus's discovery, the administration of Hispaniola was given to Nicolás de Ovando of the Order of Alcántara, founded during the Reconquista. As in the Iberian Peninsula, the inhabitants of Hispaniola were given new landmasters, while religious orders handled the local administration. Progressively the encomienda system, which granted land to European settlers, was set in place.

A relatively small number of conquistadores conquered vast territories, aided by disease epidemics and divisions among native ethnic groups. Mexico was conquered by Hernán Cortés in 1519-1521, while the conquest of the Inca, by Francisco Pizarro, occurred from 1532-35.

Over the first century and a half after Columbus' voyages, the native population of the Americas plummeted by an estimated 80 percent (from around 50 million in 1492 to eight million in 1650),[6] mostly by outbreaks of Old World diseases but also by several massacres and forced labor (the mita was re-established in the old Inca Empire, and the tequitl—equivalent of the mita—in the Aztec Empire). The conquistadores replaced the native American oligarchies, in part through miscegenation with the local elites. In 1532, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor imposed a viceroy to Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, in order to prevent Cortes' independentist drives, who definitively returned to Spain in 1540. Two years later, Charles V signed the New Laws (which replaced the Laws of Burgos of 1512) prohibiting slavery and the repartimientos, but also claiming as his own all the American lands and all of the autochthonous people as his own subjects.

When in May 1493, the Pope Alexander VI enacted the Inter caetera bull granting the new lands to the Kingdom of Spain, he requested in exchange an evangelization of the people. Thus, during Columbus's second voyage, Benedictine friars accompanied him, along with twelve other priests. As slavery was prohibited between Christians, and could only be imposed on non-Christian prisoners of war or on men already sold as slaves, the debate on Christianization was particularly acute during the sixteenth century. In 1537, the papal bull Sublimis Deus recognized that Native Americans possessed souls, thus prohibiting their enslavement, without putting an end to the debate. Some claimed that a native who had rebelled and then been captured could be enslaved nonetheless. Later, the Valladolid controversy opposed the Dominican priest Bartolomé de Las Casas to another Dominican philosopher Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, the first one arguing that Native Americans were beings doted with souls, as all other human beings, while the latter argued to the contrary and justified their enslavement. The process of Christianization was at first violent: When the first Franciscans arrived in Mexico in 1524, they burned the places dedicated to pagan cults, alienating much of the local population. In the 1530s, they began to adapt Christian practices to local customs, including the building of new churches on the sites of ancient places of worship, leading to a mix of Old World Christianity with local religions.[7] The Spanish Roman Catholic Church, needing the natives' labor and cooperation, evangelized in Quechua, Nahuatl, Guarani, and other Native American languages, contributing to the expansion of these indigenous languages and equipping some of them with writing systems. One of the first primitive schools for Native Americans was founded by Fray Pedro de Gante in 1523.

To reward their troops, the Conquistadores often allotted Indian towns to their troops and officers. Black African slaves were introduced to substitute for Native American labor in some locations—most notably the West Indies, where the indigenous population was nearing extinction on many islands.

During this time, the Portuguese gradually switched from an initial plan of establishing trading posts to extensive colonization of what is now Brazil. They imported millions of slaves to run their plantations.

European colonies around the world in 1674

The Portugal and Spanish royal governments expected to rule these settlements and collect at least 20 percent of all treasure found (the Quinto Real collected by the Casa de Contratación), in addition to collecting all the taxes they could. By the late sixteenth century American silver accounted for one-fifth of Spain's total budget. In the sixteenth century perhaps 240,000 Europeans entered American ports.[8][9]

Economic immigrants

Many immigrants to the American colonies came for economic reasons. Inspired by the Spanish riches from colonies founded upon the conquest of the Aztecs, Incas, and other large Native American populations in the sixteenth century, the first Englishmen to settle in America hoped for some of the same rich discoveries when they first established a settlement in Jamestown, Virginia. They were sponsored by common stock companies such as the chartered Virginia Company (and its offshoot, the Somers Isles Company) financed by wealthy Englishmen who understood the economic potential of this new land. The main purpose of this colony was the hope of finding gold or the possibility (or impossibility) of finding a passage through the Americas to the Indies. It took strong leaders, like John Smith, to convince the colonists of Jamestown that searching for gold was not taking care of their immediate needs for food and shelter and that "he who shall not work shall not eat" (A direction based on text from the New Testament). The extremely high mortality rate was quite distressing and cause for despair among the colonists. Tobacco quickly became a cash crop for export and the sustaining economic driver of Virginia and nearby colonies like Maryland.

From the beginning of Virginia's settlements in 1587 until the 1680s, the main source of labor and a large portion of the immigrants were indentured servants looking for new life in the overseas colonies. During the seventeenth century, indentured servants constituted three-quarters of all European immigrants to the Chesapeake region. Most of the indentured servants were English farmers who had been pushed off their lands due to the expansion of livestock raising, the enclosure of land, and overcrowding in the countryside. This unfortunate turn of events served as a push for thousands of people (mostly single men) away from their situation in England. There was hope, however, as American landowners were in need of laborers and were willing to pay for a laborer’s passage to America if they served them for several years. By selling passage for five to seven years worth of work they could hope to start out on their own in America.

In the French colonial regions, the focus of economy was the fur trade with the Amerindians. Farming was set up primarily to provide subsistence only, although cod and other fish of the Grand Banks were a major export and source of income for the French and many other European nations. The fur trade was also practiced by the Russians on the northwest coast of North America. After the French and Indian War, the British were ceded all French possessions in North America east of the Mississippi River, aside from the tiny islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

Religious immigration

Roman Catholics were the first major religious group to immigrate to the New World, as settlers in the colonies of Portugal and Spain (and later, France) were required to belong to that faith. English and Dutch colonies, on the other hand, tended to be more religiously diverse. Settlers to these colonies included Anglicans, Dutch Calvinists, English Puritans, English Catholics, Scottish Presbyterians, French Huguenots, German and Swedish Lutherans, as well as Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, Moravians, and Jews of various nationalities.

Many groups of colonists came to the Americas searching for the right to practice their religion without persecution. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century broke the unity of Western European Christendom and led to the formation of numerous new religious sects, which often faced persecution by governmental authorities. In England, many people came to question the organization of the Church of England by the end of the sixteenth century. One of the primary manifestations of this was the Puritan movement, which sought to "purify" the existing Church of England of its many residual Catholic rites that they believed had no mention in the Bible.

A strong believer in the notion of the Divine Right of Kings, England's Charles I persecuted religious dissenters. Waves of repression led to the migration of about 20,000 Puritans to New England between 1629 and 1642, where they founded multiple colonies. Later in the century, the new Pennsylvania colony was given to William Penn in settlement of a debt the king owed his father. Its government was set up by William Penn in about 1682 to become primarily a refuge for persecuted English Quakers; but others were welcomed. Baptists, Quakers, and German and Swiss Protestants flocked to Pennsylvania.

The lure of cheap land, religious freedom and the right to improve themselves with their own hand was very attractive to those who wished to escape from persecution and poverty. In America, all these groups gradually worked out a way to live together peacefully and cooperatively in the roughly 150 years preceding the American Revolution.

Many of these settlers had almost utopian visions of constructing a better world. They hoped that at least some of the mistakes of the Old World could be left behind. For the citizens of what became the United States, throwing off colonial governance was an opportunity to start again, to create a society based on human rights, freedom, and justice.

Forced immigration

Slavery existed in the Americas, prior to the presence of Europeans, as the Natives often captured and held other tribes' members as captives. Some of these captives were even forced to undergo human sacrifice under some tribes, such as the Aztecs. The Spanish followed with the enslavement of local aborigines in the Caribbean. As the native populations declined (mostly from European diseases, but also and significantly from forced exploitation and careless murder), they were often replaced by Africans imported through a large commercial slave trade. By the eighteenth century, the overwhelming number of black slaves was such that Native American slavery was less commonly used. Africans, who were taken aboard slave ships to the Americas, were primarily obtained from their African homelands by coastal tribes who captured and sold them. The high incidence of disease nearly always fatal to Europeans kept nearly all the slave capture activities confined to native African tribes. Rum, guns, and gun powder were some of the major trade items exchanged for slaves. In all, approximately 300,000 to 400,000 black slaves streamed into the ports of Charleston, South Carolina and Newport, Rhode Island until about 1810. The total slave trade to islands in the Caribbean, Brazil, Mexico, and to the United States is estimated to have involved 12 million Africans.[10]


In recent years, the calamitous consequences of European colonization on Native American life has been emphasized. Mann discusses the cultural arrogance that allowed the European settlers not only to exploit the Americas but to deny that before 1492, the Americas "had no real history," being "empty of mankind and its works." In this view, the people of the America's "lived in an eternal, unhistorical state."[2] Research has helped not only to high levels of achievement in pre-Columbian America in such areas as calendar-making and mathematics but a sophisticated understanding of the relationship between the natural environment and humans. Mann resists the temptation to romanticize regarding depicting "Indians as green role models," commenting that "native American interaction with their environment were as diverse as Native Americans themselves."[2] However, they did build up, he says, "a remarkable body of knowledge about how to manage and improve their environment" that retain value.[2] One lesson that the natives learned was that anyone who "over exploited their environment was going to be dead." For example, the Yanomamo people of the Amazon have lived for centuries in a way that "has not damaged the forest," using farming techniques that have kept "human groups sustainable within the rigid ecological limits of the tropics."[2]

On the other hand, the map of the world and humankind's knowledge of the world was transformed by the European colonization of the Americas. Ancient civilizations were conquered and much of their legacy destroyed, but 31 nations, including some of the most stable democracies, have joined the world community. More people have been linked together across the globe. Some of those who settled saw their new societies as tabula rasa, where the principles of justice and equality could be put into practice, without first having to dismantle existing, non-egalitarian, unjust systems. Of course, colonial rule qualified as unjust. However, at least in the case of the Thirteen Colonies, this did not pick up sufficient momentum to withstand revolutionary challenge. Native American spirituality often reveres nature and saw humanity as part of nature. Land was not "owned" by people; rather, the people were owned by the land, which was to be respected and looked after.


  1. Colette Flight, Smallpox: Eradicating the Scourge BBC February 17, 2011. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York, NY: Knopf, 2005, ISBN 9781400040063).
  3. The Story Of... Smallpox – and other Deadly Eurasian Germs Guns, Germs and Steele, PBS. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  4. William M. Osborn, The Wild Frontier: Atrocities During the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee (New York, NY: Random House, 2000, ISBN 9780375503740).
  5. Gregory Michno, Encyclopedia of Indian Wars: Western Battles and Skirmishes, 1850-1890 (Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Pub. Co., 2004, ISBN 978-0878424689).
  6. Christian Duverger, Une catastrophe démographique L'Histoire 376 (2012):17. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  7. Christian Duverger, Espagnols-Indiens: Le choc des civilisations L'Histoire 322 (2007):14-21. Retrieved November 23, 2020.
  8. James Axtell, The Columbian Mosaic in Colonial America The Wisconsin Magazine of History 76(2) (Winter, 1992-1993): 132-145.
  9. Peter M. Stearns (ed.), The Encyclopedia of World History (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2001, ISBN 9780395652374).
  10. Ronald Segal, The Black Diaspora (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995, ISBN 9780374113964).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Axtell, James. Natives and Newcomers: The Cultural Origins of North America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0195137705.
  • Calloway, Colin G. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. ISBN 978-0801854484.
  • Crosby, Alfred W. The Columbian Exchange; Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Pub. Co., 1972. ISBN 978-0837158211.
  • Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. New York, NY: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 978-1400040063.
  • Michno, Gregory. Encyclopedia of Indian Wars: Western Battles and Skirmishes, 1850-1890. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Pub. Co., 2004. ISBN 978-0878424689.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Great Explorers: the European Discovery of America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1978. ISBN 978-0195023145.
  • Osborn, William M. The Wild Frontier: Atrocities During the American-Indian War from Jamestown Colony to Wounded Knee. New York, NY: Random House, 2000. ISBN 978-0375503740.
  • Polk, William Roe. The Birth of America: From Before Columbus to the Revolution. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2006. ISBN 978-0060750909.
  • Seaver, Kirsten A. The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America, ca. A.D. 1000-1500. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0804725149.
  • Segal, Ronald. The Black Diaspora. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995. ISBN 978-0374113964.
  • Starkey, Armstrong. European-Native American Warfare, 1675-1815.. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. ISBN 978-0806130743.
  • Stearns, Peter M. (ed.). The Encyclopedia of World History. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2001. ISBN 978-0395652374.


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