2 Europeans Discover the Americas

The excitement caused by Columbus’s “discovery” in 1492 sparked new rivalries among European powers as many scrambled to create New World colonies. Native Americans who confronted the newcomers  suffered unprecedented population disasters as European diseases to which the natives had no resistance killed up to 95% of native people. They also were victims of the imperialism of the Europeans, who viewed themselves as uncontested masters of the New World, sent by God to bring Christianity to the “Indians.”
Painting of Columbus' landing
Painting by John Vanderlyn in the rotunda of the US Capitol, showing Columbus landing in the West Indies on October 12, 1492.


At the northern tip of Newfoundland, there’s a Canadian Provincial Park called L’Anse aux Meadows built on the site of a Viking settlement. The Norse have an old legend that Viking hero Leif Erikson founded a colony in a new land they called Vinland. The discovery of the Norse village in 1960 and its acceptance as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978 established the Newfoundland colony as the oldest known European site in the Americas, and very probably as the Vinland settlement of Norse legends. The Canadian ruins date from the appropriate period, around 1000 CE. Artifacts found in the remains of eight buildings include farm implements and blacksmith tools. There is also a spinning room containing a soapstone spindle and stone weights that were probably part of a loom. The presence of these artifacts suggests the settlement probably included women, and possibly even families. The sagas also record that in addition to fighting the natives, the Norse traded with them and that the natives were most interested in milk, which they had never seen before. The presence of the spinning room and of cattle, which were not indigenous to the Americas, strongly suggests the Newfoundland site was a permanent colony rather than merely a seasonal fishing camp. It was probably an extension of the permanent Viking settlements on Greenland that were the home of Leif Erikson’s father, Erik the Red.


“Summer on the Greenland Coast circa the year 1000″​ painted by I.E.C. Rasmussen about 1890, suggests the danger of crossing the North Atlantic in small ships and the tenacity of Vikings sailing in frigid arctic waters.


Norse legends say that in addition to trading with the natives the Vinland colonists were regularly attacked by vicious warriors the Vikings called Skraelings, suggesting the native Newfoundland population resisted the newcomers fairly effectively. The map below, drawn in 1570 in Skálholt, Iceland, shows Great Britain on the bottom right, Iceland in the center, and on the left Grönlandia (Greenland), Helleland (the land of flat stones), Markland (the land of forests) and Skralingeland, which a note in the text says was close to Vinland (the land of meadows). The forests of Markland would have been especially interesting to explorers from Greenland, because the Norse settlements there lacked trees for building.


Skálholt map shows Iceland, Greenland, and several North American regions including Skralingeland, known for its hostile natives​.

The scarcity of additional Norse sites and the fact that we’re not all speaking Norwegian in America today remind us that the Vikings failed to sustain their settlement in Vinland. While we can probably attribute this failure partly to the resistance of the Skraelings, another decisive factor was a change in global climate. In the middle of the fourteenth century, a four hundred-year period of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age began. Scientists have measured the effects of this climate change in tree rings as far away as Patagonia. Changes in temperature and weather were noticed and recorded in Mayan and Aztec Chronicles, and also in European paintings depicting Londoners drinking, dancing, and skating on the frozen Thames (which no longer freezes). Pack ice in the North Atlantic expanded southward, making travel from Greenland to America much more difficult and dangerous. Greenland’s glaciers advanced and shortened growing seasons threatened the five hundred year-old Viking settlements there. By the early 1400s the Norse had abandoned these settlements, and without Greenland it was impossible to sustain a colony in Vinland. This 1747 map of Old Greenland mentions that the coastline where settlements had once been located had become “inaccessible” due to “floating and fixed mountains of ice.” The map even includes the location of a legendary strait that was believed to have once allowed travelers to sail through the center of the continent to North America, but had become “shut up with ice.” It’s interesting to speculate what American history would look like today, if the Vikings hadn’t been defeated by Skraelings and climate change.


This 1747 map of “Old Greenland” includes a legendary straight passing directly through the landmass believed to have once been open to ships, “but now they are shut up with ice.” ​

Questions for Discussion

  • Why is it significant that the Vikings were in the Americas five hundred years before the voyages of the Spanish and Portuguese?
  • Why do historians think the remains found in Newfoundland were of a permanent settlement?


Even during the Little Ice Age, Europeans continued to venture into the icy Atlantic and many probably sailed most of the way to the new world. Basque fishing fleets, for example, began crossing the North Atlantic to visit the Grand Banks in the middle of the fifteenth century. The Banks are areas of shallow water on the edge of the North American continental shelf which are warmed by the Gulf Stream. These warm, shallow waters are an ideal home for bottom-dwelling species like Cod and Lobster. Whoever first discovered the rich fisheries of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and Georges Bank off Cape Cod, by the late 1400s thousands of Europeans were crossing the ocean to take advantage of the bounty. Venetian explorer Giovanni Caboto (who Anglicized his name to John Cabot) reported in 1497 that Grand Banks cod were so abundant that you could almost walk across the water’s surface on their backs.


Atlantic cod once attracted Europeans to the Grand Banks and Georges Bank, on the edge of North America.​


Portugal and Spain

Cod had been fished in the North Atlantic at least since the period of Viking exploration, 800 to 1000 CE. The Vikings and the Basques used similar techniques, catching fish close to shore and then drying them on wooden racks assembled on nearby beaches. They probably landed regularly on the coastlines near the fishing grounds, to dry fish and to replenish their supplies of fresh water. While the locations of prime fishing grounds were closely-guarded trade secrets, by the late 1400s the Portuguese had found out and had begun sending their own fleets to the Grand Banks. Salted Cod is still an important element of Portuguese cuisine, although nowadays they get their fish from Norway.

The brother of Portugal’s ruler, Prince Henry the Navigator, spearheaded his country’s explorations in Africa and the Atlantic in the 1400s. With his support, Portuguese mariners  Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama successfully navigated an eastward route to Asia around Africa, establishing a foothold there that became a foundation of their nation’s trade empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Portuguese mariners also built an Atlantic empire by colonizing the Canary, Madeira, Cape Verde, and Azores Islands. Merchants then used these Atlantic outposts as debarkation points for subsequent journeys. From these strategic points, Portugal spread its empire down the western coast of Africa to the Congo, along the western coast of India, and eventually to Brazil on the eastern coast of South America. It also established trading posts in China and Japan. While the Portuguese didn’t rule over an immense landmass, their strategic holdings of islands and coastal ports gave them almost unrivaled control of nautical trade routes and a global empire of trading posts during the 1400s.



Portuguese explorations and colonies began in the early 1400s.


The travels of Portuguese traders to western Africa and the establishment of colonies on both the west and east coasts of the continent introduced the Portuguese to the African slave trade. Seeing slaves as a source of labor in growing the profitable crop of sugar on their Atlantic islands, the Portuguese soon began exporting African captives along with African ivory and gold. Profits from sugar fueled the Atlantic slave trade even before European discovery of the Americas, and the Portuguese islands quickly became home to sugar plantations. In time, much of the Atlantic World would become a gargantuan sugar-plantation complex in which two thirds of the Africans enslaved by Europeans worked to produce the highly profitable commodity for European consumers.

Both the Portuguese and the Spanish had been engaged in a centuries-long military campaign to regain territory in the Iberian Peninsula that had been conquered by the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate in the 8th century CE. The Reconquista ended around 1415 for the Portuguese but it took Spain the rest of the 15th century to subdue the Kingdom of Granada in what is now southern Spain. Portuguese exploration of the African Coast, discovery of a route to Asia around the southern “Horn” of Africa, and colonization of Atlantic islands in the 1400s inaugurated an era of aggressive European expansion. Columbus’s mission to find a route to Asia across the Atlantic appealed to Ferdinand and Isabella, monarchs of the newly-unified Kingdom of Spain, partly because Portugal already controlled the route around Africa. The married monarchs finally defeated Granada in 1492. They also ejected Jews and Muslims from the Kingdom who refused to convert to Christianity and used the Spanish Inquisition to prosecute “conversos” suspected of secretly practicing their original religions after converting. In the 1500s, Spain surpassed Portugal as the dominant European power. This age of exploration marked the earliest phase of globalization, in which previously isolated groups—Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans—first came into contact with each other, sometimes with disastrous results.


1572 image of Elmina Castle, built in 1482. A fortified trading post, it had mounted cannons facing out to sea because the Portuguese feared a naval attack from other Europeans more than of a land attack from Africans. During his career as a navigator along the African coast, Christopher Columbus visited Elmina regularly.

The Spanish monarchs sponsored extensive Atlantic exploration. Spain’s most famous explorer, Christopher Columbus, was actually from Genoa, Italy. Columbus had grown up reading tales like the Travels of Marco Polo, printed for the first time just before his birth by Johannes Gutenberg on his new press. Columbus was also married to a Portuguese noblewoman named Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, the daughter of the Governor of Porto Santo, an island near Madeira. As a navigator in Portuguese-controlled waters off the coast of Africa, Columbus must have had many opportunities to hear the stories of fishermen who had gone to the Grand Banks in search of Cod. Beginning in 1485, he approached Genoese, Venetian, Portuguese, English, and Spanish authorities, asking for ships and funding to explore his westward route. All those he petitioned—including Ferdinand and Isabella at first—rebuffed him; their nautical experts all concurred that Columbus’s estimates of the width of the Atlantic Ocean were far too low. However, after three years of entreaties, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to finance Columbus’s expedition in 1492, supplying him with three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. The Spanish monarchs knew that Portuguese mariners had reached the southern tip of Africa and sailed into the Indian Ocean. They understood that if not challenged the Portuguese would dominate trade with  Asia and the Spanish rulers decided to act.

Questions for Discussion

  • Why were the Portuguese not particularly interested in Columbus’ plan to sail across the Atlantic to reach Asia?
  • How did Columbus get his interest in exploration and ideas about what was across the ocean?


Columbus held erroneous views that shaped his thinking about what he would encounter as he sailed west. Although ancient Greek geometers had established that the Earth was a sphere and had pretty accurately computed its size, Columbus believed the earth to be much smaller than its actual size and expected to land in Asia by traveling as far as the fishermen had in search of Cod. Although he was basically correct about the distance he would need to travel across the Atlantic, Columbus was unaware of the existence of the American continents or the Pacific Ocean.  On October 12, 1492 he made landfall on an island in the Bahamas and then sailed to an island he named Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic and Haiti). Believing he had landed in the East Indies, Columbus called the native Taínos he found there “Indios,” giving rise to the term “Indian” for any native people of the New World. Columbus explored the islands until his flagship, the Santa Maria, ran aground on Hispaniola and had to be abandoned. The two remaining ships did not have enough room for all his men, so with the permission of a local chief Columbus left 39 sailors in a settlement he called La Navidad (because the ship had run aground on Christmas). Upon Columbus’s return to Spain in March 1493, the Spanish monarchs bestowed on him the title of Admiral of the Ocean Sea and named him governor and viceroy of the lands he had discovered.


Columbus’s four voyages to the Americas between 1492 and 1502.

Columbus made three more voyages over the next decade, establishing Spain’s first settlement in the New World on the island of Hispaniola. Columbus made extravagant claims about the territory he had explored, including that the rivers were filled with gold. Columbus’s 1493 letter to his royal patrons, called the probanza de mérito (proof of merit), describing his “discovery” did much to inspire excitement in Europe.  Another Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci, actually coined the term New World in a work that bore that title in Latin. Mundus Novus, written in 1503, described his voyages in a Portuguese ship which landed in the harbor that became Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Mundus Novus was translated into several European languages and became so popular that when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller published a map of the world in 1507, he named the two continents he added America after Vespucci. Waldseemüller’s map includes only the coastal regions of the Americas that had been explored by 1507. Europeans did not understand size of the continents or the extent of the Pacific Ocean until 1513, and Ferdinand Magellan’s mission rounded Cape Horn at the southern tip of the Americas and crossed the Pacific in 1519.


Matrin Waldseemüller’s 1507 map. Note Vespucci in the top panel second from the right.




This island, like all the others, is most extensive. It has many ports along the sea-coast excelling any in Christendom—and many fine, large, flowing rivers. The land there is elevated, with many mountains and peaks incomparably higher than in the centre isle. They are most beautiful, of a thousand varied forms, accessible, and full of trees of endless varieties, so high that they seem to touch the sky, and I have been told that they never lose their foliage…There is honey, and there are many kinds of birds, and a great variety of fruits. Inland there are numerous mines of metals and innumerable people. Hispaniola is a marvel. Its hills and mountains, fine plains and open country, are rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages. The seaports there are incredibly fine, as also the magnificent rivers, most of which bear gold. The trees, fruits and grasses differ widely from those in Juana. There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals in this island. They have no iron, nor steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them, because although they are well-made men of commanding stature, they appear extraordinarily timid. The only arms they have are sticks of cane, cut when in seed, with a sharpened stick at the end, and they are afraid to use these. Often I have sent two or three men ashore to some town to converse with them, and the natives came out in great numbers, and as soon as they saw our men arrive, fled without a moment’s delay although I protected them from all injury.

Questions for Discussion

  • What impact do you think the stories told by explorers like Columbus and Vespucci had on Europeans?
  • Why were the Spanish so well-prepared to become conquistadors in the “New World”?


The 1492 Columbus landfall accelerated the rivalry between Spain and Portugal, and the two powers competed for domination of European politics through the acquisition of new lands. Earlier in the 1400s, Pope Sixtus IV had granted Portugal the right to all land south of the Cape Verde islands, leading the Portuguese king to claim that the lands discovered by Columbus belonged to Portugal. Seeking to ensure that Columbus’s finds would remain Spanish, Spain’s monarchs appealed to the new pope, Spanish-born Rodrigo Borja (Pope Alexander VI), who issued two papal decrees in 1493 that gave legitimacy to Spain’s Atlantic claims at the expense of Portugal. Hoping to salvage Portugal’s Atlantic holdings, King João II began negotiations with Spain. The resulting Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 drew a north-to-south line through South America. Spain gained territory west of the line, while Portugal retained the lands east of the line, including its African colonies and route to Asia, along with the east coast of Brazil.


The Cantino World Map, 1502, depicts the cartographer’s interpretation of the world in light of recent discoveries. The map shows areas of Portuguese and Spanish exploration, the two nations’ claims under the Treaty of Tordesillas, and a variety of flora, fauna, figures, and structures.


Columbus’s discovery opened a floodgate of Spanish exploration. Inspired by tales of rivers of gold and timid natives, Spanish explorers were relentless in their quest for land and gold. Spanish conquistadors had been well-trained during the recently-ended Reconquista, and men of common birth used conquest as a path to wealth and nobility. Hernán Cortés hoped to gain hereditary privilege for his family, tribute payments and labor from natives, and an annual pension for his service to the crown. Cortés arrived on Hispaniola in 1504 and took part in the conquest of that island. Cortés later explored the Yucatán Peninsula and in 1519, he entered Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec (Mexica) Empire. He and his men were astonished by the sophisticated causeways, gardens, and temples in the city, but they were alarmed by the practice of human sacrifice that was central to the Aztec religion. Above all else, the Aztec wealth in gold fascinated the Spanish adventurers.


Hoping to gain control of the Aztec capital, Cortés took the ruler Moctezuma hostage. The Spanish then murdered hundreds of high-ranking Mexica during a festival to celebrate Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. The ambush angered the people of Tenochtitlán, who chased the Spanish out of their city. Cortés slowly created alliances with native peoples who resented Aztec rule. It took nearly a year for the Spanish and thousands of native allies who joined them to defeat the Mexica in Tenochtitlán. They laid siege to the city after the population of the capital was thrown into chaos by epidemic disease. In August 1521, Cortés claimed Tenochtitlán for Spain and renamed it Mexico City.


The conquest of Tenochtitlán is depicted in most Eurocentric histories as a triumph of Spanish weapons and will.



Columbus had returned to the Caribbean in 1495 with 17 ships, 1,200 men, and according to his diaries, “seeds and cuttings for the planting of wheat, chickpeas, melons, onions, radishes, salad greens, grape vines, sugar cane, and fruit stones for the founding of orchards.” Other old-world crops that thrived in the Americas included coffee and bananas, which were brought from the Canary Islands in 1516. The Spanish and Portuguese both had extensive sugar plantations off the African coast, so it only made sense to try the plant in the tropical paradise their explorers had discovered across the Atlantic. Cattle and sheep, neither of which were native to the Americas, were delivered to Spanish conquistadors in Mexico in 1521 and by 1614, according to one of the conquistador chronicles, “the residents of Santiago [in Chile, over 4,000 miles away] possessed 39,250 head,” as well as flocks totaling 623,825 sheep. According to local traditions, when Pizarro first invaded Peru in 1524, he crossed the Andes with only eighty fighting men and forty horses, but with over 2,000 pigs. Most of the really significant Eurasian species brought to the Americas had already been introduced by the Spanish by the early 1500s, long before North American settlement began. Even species like the wild horses of the American West that would transform Plains Indian culture were escapees from the herds of the conquistadors. The Americas were home to very few large mammal species, and most could not be domesticated. Nearly all the species humans have successfully domesticated, the familiar residents of the modern farmyard, originated in Europe and Asia. These include goats, sheep, cows, horses, pigs and chickens. Eurasians began domesticating these animals between ten and fifteen thousand years ago. This was just a little too late for the Beringians to bring domesticated animals with them into North America. In any case, the Beringians were tundra hunters, not temperate-zone pastoralists. But as any good hunter would, the Beringians had brought their dogs.


Historians call the transfer of plants and animals that began with fifteenth and early-sixteenth century European-American re-contact the Columbian exchange. The directions of these transfers and their effects on the environments and people of Europe and the Americas shaped the modern world we live in. American maize, potatoes, and cassava developed by native Americans fed growing European and Asian populations, allowing the building of new cities and industries. They remain three of the five most important staple crops in the world, even today. European animals such as pigs, sheep, chicken, and cattle thrived in the Americas, allowing both Natives and Europeans to expand and change their cultures. But the most significant change of all was the largely accidental transfer of viruses and bacteria from Europeans to Americans, which caused the deaths of possibly 90% of the native American population. Most of humanity’s major diseases originated in animals and crossed from domesticated species to their human keepers. Whooping cough and influenza came from pigs; measles and smallpox from cattle; malaria and avian flu from chickens. The people who domesticated these species and lived with the animals for generations co-evolved with them. Animal diseases became survivable when people developed antibodies and immunity. Without inherited this protection, even a routine childhood disease such as chickenpox would be devastating.


Illustration from the Florentine Codex, ca. 1540, showing Aztecs suffering from smallpox and transmitting the disease by coughing.​

The introduction of a disease into an area without immunity is called a virgin soil epidemic. Such epidemics had happened in Eurasia, when the Romans spread smallpox into the populations they conquered, and in Europe when the expanding Mongols introduced bubonic plague. The Black Death killed probably half the population of Europe in the fourteenth century and reduced world population by over a hundred million. Virgin soil epidemics happened in the Americas when explorers and colonists introduced Eurasian diseases to native Americans who had been isolated for thousands of years. The Americans had no immunities, and even diseases that were no longer deadly to Europeans killed millions. The Eurasian diseases that attacked native populations included smallpox, measles, chickenpox, influenza, typhus, cholera, typhoid, diphtheria, bubonic plague, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and malaria.

The impact of these Eurasian diseases on Americans was one of human history’s most severe population disasters. Even the Black Death didn’t kill as large a percentage of Europeans. For example, there were probably a million people living on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in 1492 when the Columbus left his 39 sailors in La Navidad. By 1548, there were only 500 Natives left alive. The populations of other Caribbean islands were similarly wiped out. Whole civilizations disappeared, but this was not only a tragedy for the cultures that vanished. It began a cycle of violence that became central to American history. Because once there were no natives left to work on European sugar plantations, African slaves became crucial to the survival of the West Indies economy.


1524 map of Tenochtitlán, newly conquered by Cortés and renamed Mexico City.​


The greater population densities of Central and South America helped contagious diseases spread more quickly there. Heavily traveled roads in central Mexico actually spread disease beyond the areas that had been reached by Spanish explorers. Cities were wiped out that had never seen a white man. The population of the Aztec heartland dropped from about 25 million on the eve of the Spanish conquest in 1519 to just under 17 million a decade later. That means one out of every three people died in just ten years. After another decade the Aztec population was reduced to about 6 million. Three out of four people in the Aztec world disappeared in 20 years. By 1580, the Aztec empire had been hollowed out to less than 2 million people, from a starting point of 25 million. Isolated rural communities may have been a little luckier than central cities on trade routes, which were often completely emptied. The city of Zempoala, for example, held 100,000 Aztec citizens in 1519. There were only 25 native inhabitants in 1550.


The execution of the Inca Emperor Atahualpa on the stake, by the conquistador Pizarro.

The Inca Empire in the Andes suffered the same fate. 90% of the South Americans died, and they started dying before the white men arrived, which caused confusion and dismay. When Pizarro crossed the Andes with his eighty conquistadors and 2000 pigs, he found social chaos. Huayna Capac, the Inca leader who had extended the empire to its greatest extent, stretching over 2,500 miles from Chile to Ecuador, had died of smallpox. His two sons fought a brutal civil war for control of the empire, the younger son Atahualpa finally defeating and assassinating his older brother Huáscar. The war and the weakness of the reduced Inca population gave Pizarro the opportunity he needed to capture and kill Atahualpa in 1533, ending the empire. Pizarro built his capital in the Inca imperial city of Cusco and founded Lima, Peru, on the coast. Like Cortés, Pizarro had to combat not only the natives of the new territory he was conquering, but also competitors from his own country. A Spanish rival assassinated him in 1541.

Hernando De Soto landed an expedition in Florida in 1539 and explored territory now in the states of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Everywhere he went, the conquistador reported the land was “thickly settled with large towns.” De Soto didn’t stay long. He died of fever in Louisiana in 1542, and the region wasn’t visited again by Europeans until the French aristocrat, La Salle, traveled down the Mississippi River in 1670. Where De Soto had seen fortified towns, La Salle saw no one. The entire region was empty, and the French explorer traveled hundreds of miles without passing a single village. Historians were unaware until recently that the American south had once been heavily populated with natives before the arrival of contagious Spanish explorers and missionaries.


Spain’s drive to enlarge its empire led other hopeful conquistadors to push further into the Americas, hoping to replicate the success of Cortés and Pizarro.  Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was born into a noble family and went to Mexico, then called New Spain, in 1535. He presided as governor over the province of Nueva Galicia, where he heard rumors of wealth to the north: a golden city called Quivira. Between 1540 and 1542, Coronado led a large expedition of Spaniards and native allies to the lands north of Mexico City, and for the next several years, they explored the area that is now the southwestern United States. During the winter of 1540–41, the explorers waged war against the Tiwa in present-day New Mexico. Rather than leading to the discovery of gold and silver, however, the expedition simply left Coronado bankrupt.


This map traces Coronado’s path through the American Southwest and the Great Plains. The regions through which he traveled were not empty areas waiting to be “discovered”: rather, they were populated and controlled by the groups of native peoples indicated.


The Spanish believed native peoples would work for them by right of conquest, and, in return, the Spanish would bring them Christian salvation. In theory the relationship consisted of reciprocal obligations, but in practice the Spaniards ruthlessly exploited it, seeing native people as little more than beasts of burden. Native peoples everywhere resisted both the labor obligations and the effort to change their ancient belief systems. Many retained their religion or incorporated only the parts of Catholicism that made sense to them. In addition to a system of labor grants called encomiendas, used in Spain during the Reconquista, the Spanish adapted an Inca labor system called the Mita which had required citizens of the empire to work for the public benefit. Men in Inca society between the ages of 15 and 50 worked on public projects such as road building and repair, fishing, or farming. Under the Inca, mita work was seasonal and did not prevent men from providing for their own families. Under Spanish rule, the duration of the mita expanded and work conditions worsened until the mita became synonymous with slavery. The Potosí mita, for example, drew workers from across southern Peru and Bolivia and workers often injured or maimed themselves to avoid recruitment.


Mitas and encomiendas were accompanied by a great deal of violence. One Spaniard, Bartolomé de Las Casas, denounced the brutality of Spanish rule. A Dominican friar, Las Casas had been one of the earliest Spanish settlers in the Spanish West Indies. In his early life in the Americas, Las Casas had owned Indian slaves as the recipient of an encomienda. However, after witnessing the savagery of the Spanish, he reversed his views. In 1515, Las Casas released his native slaves, gave up his encomienda, and began to advocate for humane treatment of native peoples. He lobbied for changes eventually known as the New Laws, which would eliminate slavery and the encomienda system. Ironically, Las Casas advocated the import of African slaves to reduce the exploitation of Indians. Las Casas’s exposure of the Spaniards’ horrific treatment of Indians was amplified by Spain’s Protestant adversaries and inspired the so-called Black Legend that depicted the Spanish as bloodthirsty conquerors with no regard for human life. English writers and others seized on the idea of Spain’s ruthlessness to support their own colonization projects. They demonized the Spanish and justified their own efforts as more humane. All European colonizers, however, shared a disregard for Indians. And as Indian populations disappeared as a result of the Columbian Exchange, Europeans had to look elsewhere for forced labor.




Into and among these gentle sheep…did creep the Spaniards, who no sooner had knowledge of these people than they became like fierce wolves and tigers and lions who have gone many days without food or nourishment. And no other thing have they done for forty years until this day, and still today see fit to do, but dismember, slay, perturb, afflict, torment, and destroy the Indians by all manner of cruelty—new and divers and most singular manners such as never before seen or read or heard of—some few of which shall be recounted below, and they do this to such a degree that on the Island of Hispaniola, of the above three millions souls that we once saw, today there be no more than two hundred of those native people remaining…

Two principal and general customs have been employed by those, calling themselves Christians, who have passed this way, in extirpating and striking from the face of the earth those suffering nations. The first being unjust, cruel, bloody, and tyrannical warfare. The other—after having slain all those who might yearn toward or suspire after or think of freedom, or consider escaping from the torments that they are made to suffer, by which I mean all the native-born lords and adult males, for it is the Spaniards’ custom in their wars to allow only young boys and females to live—being to oppress them with the hardest, harshest, and most heinous bondage to which men or beasts might ever be bound into.


Indians were not the only source of unfree labor in the Americas; by the middle of the sixteenth century, Africans were an important component of the forced labor landscape, producing sugar and tobacco for European markets. Europeans viewed Africans as non-Christians, which they used as a justification for enslavement. At every opportunity, Africans resisted enslavement, and their resistance was met with violence. Physical, mental, and sexual violence formed a key strategy among European slaveholders in their effort to impose their will. Portuguese “factories” on the west coast of Africa, like Elmina Castle in Ghana, served as holding pens for slaves brought from Africa’s interior. The Spanish, prevented by the Treaty of Tordesillas from establishing their own slave-taking colonies on the West African coast, established a monopoly contract called the Asiento in 1518. The Dutch West India Company was awarded the monopoly in 1675 and held it until 1713, when the Asiento was passed to the British South Sea Company which held it until 1750.

FOR MORE INFO: Browse the PBS collection Africans in America: Part 1 to see information and primary sources for the period 1450 through 1750.

Questions for Discussion

  • What made the conquistadors so successful?
  • Why were native societies so susceptible to Eurasian diseases?
  • What were the long-term consequences of native depopulation?



The exploits of European explorers had a profound impact both in the Americas and back in Europe. In Spain, gold and silver from the Americas helped to fuel a golden age, the Siglo de Oro, when Spanish art and literature flourished. Riches poured in from the colonies, especially from the silver mines at Potosí in the Andes and Zacatecas in Mexico. New ideas poured in from other countries and new lands.


Until the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church provided a unifying religious structure for Christian Europe. The Vatican in Rome exercised great power over the lives of Europeans, controlling not only learning and scholarship but also levying taxes on the faithful. Spain, with its New World wealth, was a bastion of the Catholic faith. Beginning with the reform efforts of Martin Luther in 1517 and John Calvin in the 1530s, however, Catholic dominance came under attack as the Protestant Reformation began. During the sixteenth century, Protestantism spread through northern Europe, and Catholic countries responded by attempting to extinguish what was seen as a heretical menace. Religious turmoil between Catholics and Protestants influenced the history of the Atlantic World as well, since different nations competed not only for control of new territories but also for the preeminence of their religious beliefs there. Just as the history of Spain’s rise to power is linked to the Reconquista, so too is the history of early globalization connected to the history of competing Christian groups in the Atlantic World.

Martin Luther was a German Catholic monk and theologian at the University of Wittenberg who took issue with the Catholic Church’s practice of selling indulgences, documents that absolved sinners in return for cash donations to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He also objected to the Catholic Church’s taxation of ordinary Germans and delivery of Mass in Latin. Although he had hoped to reform the Catholic Church while remaining a part of it, Luther’s action instead triggered a movement called the Protestant Reformation that divided the Church in two. The Catholic Church condemned him as a heretic, but a doctrine based on his reforms, called Lutheranism, spread through northern Germany and Scandinavia.


FOR MORE INFO: Visit Fordham University’s Internet Medieval Sourcebook for access to many primary sources relating to the Protestant Reformation.


Like Luther, the French lawyer John Calvin advocated making the Bible accessible to ordinary people in their own languages. In 1535, Calvin fled Catholic France and led the Reformation movement from Geneva, Switzerland. Soon Calvin’s ideas spread to the Netherlands and Scotland. Luther’s idea that scripture should be available in the everyday language of worshippers inspired English scholar William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English in 1526. The break with the Catholic Church in England occurred in the 1530s, when Henry VIII established a new, Protestant state religion. A devout Catholic, Henry had initially opposed the Reformation. Pope Leo X even awarded him the title “Defender of the Faith.” The tides turned, however, when Henry’s Spanish Catholic wife, Catherine (the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella), failed to produce a male heir for Henry and the king petitioned for an annulment to their marriage. The Pope refused his request and Henry created the Church of England, with himself at its head. This left him free to seize all the land and wealth of the Church, and to annul his own marriage and marry Anne Boleyn.


The new queen also failed to bear a son and when she was accused of adultery, Henry had her executed. His third wife, Jane Seymour, at long last delivered a son, Edward, who ruled for only a short time before dying in 1553 at the age of fifteen. Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII and his discarded Spanish first wife Catherine of Aragon, then came to the throne, committed to restoring Catholicism. She earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” for the many executions of Protestants that she ordered during her reign. Mary married her cousin Philip II, the King of Spain, who became King of England as well until Mary’s death in 1558. When Queen Elizabeth I took the throne, Philip proposed marriage so that he could continue as King of England. Elizabeth turned him down, which led Philip to plan an invasion of Britain, supposedly to return the nation to Catholicism. The invasion was launched in the summer of 1588, but the British navy and storms at sea defeated the Spanish Armada and established Britain as Europe’s leading naval power.


Panoramic painting presenting a stylized account of the battle of Gravelines between the Spanish Armada and the English fleet including the beacons, Queen Elizabeth’s address at Tilbury, and the battle itself.


Under Elizabeth, the Church of England again became the state church, retaining the hierarchical structure and many of the rituals of the Catholic Church. However, by the late 1500s, some English members of the Church began to agitate for more reform. Known as Puritans, they worked to purify the last traces of Catholicism from the Church of England. At the time, the term “puritan” was pejorative, since many people saw Puritans as pious frauds who used religion to swindle their neighbors. Worse, many in power saw Puritans as a security threat because of their opposition to the national church. Puritans crossed the Atlantic in the 1620s and 1630s to create a New England, a haven for reformed Protestantism where Puritans could not only practice their religion freely but attain wealth and power unavailable to them in England. The conflict between Spain and England dragged on into the early seventeenth century, and Protestant nations, especially England and the newly-independent Dutch Republic, posed a significant challenge to Spain and to Catholic France as imperial rivalries played out in the Atlantic World. Spain retained its hold on Central and South America, but by the early 1600s, the nation could no longer keep England and its European rivals, the French and Dutch, from colonizing smaller islands in the Caribbean and the mainland of North America.

Question for Discussion

  • How much of a factor do you think the Protestant Reformation was in the colonization of the Americas?


The French and Dutch

Because many of the French in New France were “voyageur” fur traders, a mixed ethnic group called Métis is now recognized in Canada.

Spanish exploits in the New World had whetted the appetite of other would-be imperial powers, including France. In the early sixteenth century, navigator Jacques Cartier claimed northern North America for the French, naming the area New France. From 1534 to 1541, he made three voyages of discovery on the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River. Like other explorers, Cartier made exaggerated claims of mineral wealth in America, but he was unable to send great riches back to France or to establish a permanent settlement in North America. Samuel de Champlain explored the Caribbean in 1601 and then the coast of New England in 1603 before traveling farther north and founding Quebec in 1608.

Unlike other imperial powers, France fostered good relationships with native peoples, paving the way for French exploration further into the continent, around the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and eventually the Mississippi River. Champlain made an alliance with the Huron confederacy and the Algonquins and agreed to fight with them against their enemy, the Iroquois. The French created extensive trading networks in New France, relying  on native hunters to supply furs, especially beaver pelts, in exchange for French trade goods. Beaver undercoat fur was very fine and could be felted into high quality hats that were extremely popular throughout Europe. The French also dreamed of replicating the wealth of Spain by colonizing the tropics and raising sugar. When Spanish control of the Caribbean began to weaken, the French turned their attention to small islands in the West Indies, and by 1635 they had colonized two, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Later in the seventeenth century, the French moved on larger islands including Hispaniola itself. Though it lagged far behind Spain, France’s Caribbean possessions became lucrative sugar islands that provided profits for French planters by exploiting African slave labor.


To see how cartographers throughout history documented the exploration of the Atlantic World, browse the hundreds of digitized historical maps that make up the collection American Shores: Maps of the Middle Atlantic Region to 1850 at the New York Public Library.


Dutch entrance into the Atlantic World is part of the story of religious and imperial conflict in the early modern era. During the sixteenth century, the provinces of the Spanish Netherlands adopted Calvinism and fought a series of wars for independence from Catholic Spain. Established in 1581, the Dutch Republic, or Holland, quickly made itself a powerful force in the race for Atlantic colonies and wealth. The Dutch relied on powerful corporations: the Dutch East India Company, chartered in 1602 to trade in Asia, and the Dutch West India Company, established in 1621 to colonize and trade in the Americas. Sailing for the Dutch East India Company in 1609, the English sea captain Henry Hudson explored New York Harbor and the river that now bears his name. Like many explorers of the time, Hudson was actually seeking a northwest passage to Asia and its wealth (Europeans remained unaware of the width of North America until the nineteenth century), but the ample furs harvested from the region he explored, especially beaver pelts, provided a reason to claim it for the Netherlands. The Dutch named their colony New Netherlands, and it served as a fur-trading outpost for the expanding Dutch West India Company. With headquarters in New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan, the Dutch set up several regional trading posts, including one at present-day Albany. A brisk trade in furs with local Algonquian and Iroquois peoples brought the Dutch and native peoples together in a commercial network that extended throughout the Hudson River Valley and beyond.


New Amsterdam in the 1660s.

Question for Discussion

  • How did the French approach to the Americas differ from that of England?


British North America

Although England initially lacked the naval power and financial resources to challenge the Spanish and Portuguese in the Atlantic, English monarchs carefully monitored developments in the new Atlantic World and took steps to assert England’s claim to the Americas. As early as 1497, Henry VII of England had commissioned Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), an Italian mariner, to explore new lands. Caboto sailed from England to the Grand Banks and made landfall somewhere along the North American coastline. He reported that the cod were so numerous on the Grand Banks that you could almost walk across the surface of the ocean on their backs. For the next century, English fishermen routinely crossed the Atlantic to fish the rich waters off the North American coast. However, English colonization efforts in the 1500s were closer to home, as England devoted its energy to the subjugation of Catholic Ireland. England could not consider large-scale colonization in the Americas while Spain appeared ready to invade Ireland or Scotland. Nonetheless, Queen Elizabeth commissioned English privateers, sea captains authorized to raid and harass England’s enemies. These professional pirates cruised the Caribbean, plundering Spanish ships whenever they could. Each year the English took more than £100,000 from Spain; English privateer Francis Drake first made a name for himself when, in 1573, he looted Spanish silver, gold, and pearls worth £40,000.


Elizabeth did authorize an early attempt at colonization in 1584, when Sir Walter Raleigh, a favorite of the queen’s, attempted to establish a colony at Roanoke, an island off the coast of present-day North Carolina. The colony was small, consisting of only 117 people who struggled to survive in their new home. Their governor, John White, returned to England in late 1587 to secure more people and supplies, but was unable to return to Roanoke for three years. When White’s resupply ships arrived in 1590, the entire colony had vanished. The only trace the colonists left behind was the word  “Croatoan” carved into a fence surrounding the village. Governor White never discovered whether the colonists had gone to live with the Indians of the nearby island (now Hatteras) or whether some disaster had befallen them all. Roanoke is still called “the lost colony.”

In 1588, a promoter of English colonization named Thomas Hariot published A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia  to describe the region to the English and encourage exploration and colonization. English advocates of colonization promoted its commercial advantages and promoted the establishment of Protestantism in the Americas. English merchants and aristocrats began to pool their resources to form joint stock companies, the precursor of modern corporations. The companies received charters from the crown to establish colonies, and the first permanent English settlement was established by the Virginia Company. Named for Elizabeth, the “virgin queen,” the company sent two expeditions to the New World. The northern colony, established on the Kennebec River, quickly failed. But in early 1607, 144 settlers arrived in Chesapeake Bay. Finding a river they called the James in honor of their new king, James I, they established a ramshackle settlement in a marshy region shunned by local Indians and named it Jamestown. Despite serious struggles, the colony survived.


1591 map of Virginia by Theodor de Bry, based on drawings by Roanoke Governor John White .


The Jamestown settlers did not bring any workers. The colonists came from elite families: younger sons who would not inherit their fathers’ estates but had not learned any of the skills they needed to survive in a new colony. The Jamestown adventurers believed they would find instant wealth in the New World, as the Spanish had a century earlier, and did not actually expect to have to perform work. Henry Percy, the eighth son of the Earl of Northumberland, was among them. His son’s account, excerpted below, illustrates the hardships the English confronted in Virginia in 1607. The 144 men and boys who started the Jamestown colony were completely unprepared for the hardships they would face. By the end of the first winter, only 38 had not starved to death. Henry’s son George Percy, who later served twice as governor of Jamestown, kept records of the colonists’ first months in the colony which were published in London in 1608. This excerpt is from his account of August and September of 1607.




The fourth day of September died Thomas Jacob Sergeant. The fifth day, there died Benjamin Beast. Our men were destroyed with cruel diseases, as Swellings, Fluxes, Burning Fevers, and by wars, and some departed suddenly, but for the most part they died of mere famine. There were never Englishmen left in a foreign Country in such misery as we were in this new discovered Virginia…Our food was but a small Can of Barley sod [soaked] in water, to five men a day, our drink cold water taken out of the River, which was at a flood very salty, at a low tide full of slime and filth, which was the destruction of many of our men. Thus we lived for the space of five months in this miserable distress, not having five able men to man our Bulwarks upon any occasion. If it had not pleased God to have put a terror in the Savages’ hearts, we had all perished by those wild and cruel Pagans, being in that weak estate as we were; our men night and day groaning in every corner of the Fort most pitiful to hear. If there were any conscience in men, it would make their hearts to bleed to hear the pitiful murmurings and outcries of our sick men without relief, every night and day, for the space of six weeks, some departing out of the World, many times three or four in a night; in the morning, their bodies trailed out of their Cabins like Dogs to be buried. In this sort did I see the mortality of diverse of our people.


England came late to the colonization race. As Jamestown limped along in the 1610s, the Spanish Empire extended around the globe and grew rich from its global colonial project. Although they dominated Caribbean, Central, and South America, the Spanish did not completely ignore North America. In 1565, Spain established the first permanent European settlement in North America at St. Augustine in Florida. Florida would remain a Spanish territory until the early nineteenth century, which may help explain why St. Augustine is not better remembered as the first European settlement. After Jamestown’s founding, English colonization of the New World accelerated. In 1609, a ship bound for Jamestown foundered in a storm and landed on Bermuda (some believe this incident helped inspire Shakespeare’s 1611 play The Tempest). The ship’s commander, George Somers, claimed the island for the English crown. The English also began to colonize small islands in the Caribbean that had been overlooked by the Spanish American empire, such as St. Christopher (1624), Barbados (1627), Nevis (1628), Montserrat (1632), and Antigua (1632).


From the start, the English West Indies had a commercial orientation, producing the cash crops tobacco and then sugar. Very quickly, by the mid-1600s, Barbados became one of the most important English colonies because of the sugar produced there. Barbados specialized to such an extent that the colony depended on New England and the Mid-Atlantic colonies for foodstuffs because planters were unwilling to sacrifice any space on the island to grow anything but sugar. Barbados became a model for other English slave societies in the Caribbean and on the American mainland, which differed radically from England itself, where slavery was not practiced.

English Puritans also began to colonize the Americas in the 1620s and 1630s. One of the first groups of Puritans to move to North America, known as Pilgrims and led by William Bradford, had originally left England to live in the Netherlands. Fearing their children were losing their English identity among the Dutch, however, they sailed for North America in 1620 to settle at Plymouth, the first successful colony in what became known as New England. The Pilgrims differed from other Puritans in their insistence on completely separating from what they saw as the corrupt Church of England. For this reason, Pilgrims are known as Separatists.


The Pilgrims sign the Mayflower Compact on their arrival at Cape Cod, November 1620.

Like Jamestown, Plymouth occupies an iconic place in American national memory. The tale of the 102 Pilgrims who crossed the Atlantic aboard the Mayflower and their struggle for survival is a well-known story of the founding of the country. The story includes the signing of the Mayflower Compact, a 1620 document some see as an expression of democratic spirit because of the cooperative nature of the agreement to live and work together. In 1630, a much larger contingent of Puritans left England to escape conformity to the Church of England and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony in nearby Boston.

Although the Bay Colony’s leaders wrote of their goal to create a “City upon a Hill” at Boston that would be an example of pious life, leaders of the colony were also very interested in material success. John Winthrop, the Puritan leader who helped establish Boston and who was Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony four times before 1650, sent his second son Henry to help establish Barbados in 1626. When Oliver Cromwell’s Civil War halted the flow of commercial shipping between England and the ten-year-old Bay Colony in 1640, trade with the West Indies saved Boston’s economy. Governor Winthrop’s younger son Samuel joined the growing community of New England merchants in the Caribbean sugar islands in 1647.

Questions for Discussion

  • Why were the settlers of Jamestown unwilling in working to make their colony successful?
  • What was the most important early English colony, from a financial perspective?


Primary Sources:

Journal of Christopher Columbus, 1492

First encounters between Europeans and Native Americans were dramatic events. In this account, we see the assumptions and intentions of Christopher Columbus, as he immediately began assessing the potential of these people to serve European economic interests. 

An Aztec account of the Spanish attack

This source aggregates a number of early written reports by Aztec authors describing the destruction of Tenochtitlán at the hands of a coalition of Spanish and Indigenous armies. The collection was assembled by Miguel Leon Portilla, a Mexican anthropologist.

Bartolomé de las Casas describes the exploitation of Indigenous people, 1542

Las Casas, a Dominican priest, wrote directly to the King of Spain hoping for new laws to prevent the brutal exploitation of Native Americans. Las Casas’s writings were used as justification for other European nations to challenge Spain’s colonial empire with their own schemes of conquest and colonization. 

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca travels through North America, 1542

Spanish explorer, Cabeza de Vaca, traveled across the Gulf South, from Florida to Mexico. As he traveled, Cabeza de Vaca developed a reputation as a faith healer. In his account he offers a rare, if perhaps unreliable, glimpse at the life of Native Americans in the area. 

Thomas Morton reflects on Native Americans in New England, 1637

Thomas Morton both admired and condemned aspects of Native American culture. In his descriptions, we can find not only information about the people he is describing but also descriptions of Native Americans as a means of criticizing English culture.

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