The Beginning of American History
By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:
- List the reasons for the colonization of the Americas by Europeans.
- Describe the negative impact of early European colonization on those native civilizations already in America.
- Explain the importance of tobacco and other agricultural products to the early colonies of America.
- Identify the reasons for increased control of the American colonies by the British Empire.
The early years of American history were devoted to basic survival, as the English colonists endeavored to live in the swampy, disease-ridden Virginia colony and in the frigid, inhospitable New England colonies. The European explorers and colonists had no idea what to expect when they reached the “New World,” and the very first colonists found they were ultimately unprepared for the adventure. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was the fact that they were not alone – in fact, civilizations had risen, flourished, and vanished for more than 10,000 years on the North American continent.
How the colonists adapted to their new environment is a testament to their will to replicate on distant shores the European society into which they were born. Whether it was the Spanish or English colonies, Europe staked its claim on North America. In order to make room for this new civilization the settlers took by force what the Native populations refused to voluntarily relinquish. From the beginning, the American colonies were steeped in the violence that would be a hallmark of this new society. How this New World evolved is where this history begins.
Why did the Europeans come to America?
Magellan, Cortez, Columbus, all of the European explorers who traveled to the far reaches of the planet, did so for the same basic reason: they were searching for resources of one kind or another. They sought riches in the form of gold, spices such as pepper, luxury food items like coffee, sugar, and cocoa, and they sought land and timber for agricultural development, settlement, and ship-building. Since none of these products could be produced in Europe and there was very little land available for agriculture and settlement they had to find these resources elsewhere. As they encountered new lands and peoples, they traded their finished goods for the raw materials grown, mined, and harvested in these “exotic” places. Therefore, the ever-increasing populations of Europe began to move across the globe, settling in the far-off places described by the explorers and endeavoring to make new lives as colonists – distant subjects of European monarchies.
Trading with distant lands, such as Asia, required dependable marine technology. With the desire to procure goods from distant lands, it was imperative that Europeans develop technology that would enable stronger, faster, and more efficient ships, such as those utilized by the controversial Christopher Columbus.
Columbus, famously – yet erroneously – noted for discovering America, wanted to find a westward route to Asia. Having been turned down by Portugal, Columbus approached Spain with the proposition of funding a mission to find this new route. Spain agreed, and in 1492 Columbus set sail west from Spain in search of Asia. What he found instead was North America – specifically the Bahamas and Cuba.