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Overview of the Colonial Era
Digital History ID 2909

The year 1492 marks a watershed in modern world history. Columbus's voyage of discovery inaugurated a series of developments that would have vast consequences for both the Old World and the New. It transformed the diets of both the eastern and western hemispheres, helped initiate the Atlantic slave trade, spread diseases that had a devastating impact on Indian populations, and led to the establishment of European colonies across the Western Hemisphere.

This section identifies the factors--including rapid population growth, commerce, new learning, and the rise of competing nation-states--that encouraged Europeans to explore and colonize new lands. It explains why Portugal and Spain were the first to become involved in overseas exploration and why England and France were slow to challenge Spain’s supremacy in the Americas.

Detailed Summary:

European Expansion

During the mid- and late-15th century, Europe gained mastery over the world's ocean currents and wind patterns and began to create a European-centered world economy. Europeans developed astronomical instruments and trigonometrical tables to plot the location of the sun and stars; replaced oarsmen with sails; and began to better understand wind patterns and ocean currents.

The pioneer in European expansion was tiny Portugal, which, after 1385, was a united kingdom, and, unlike other European countries, was free from internal conflicts. Portugal focused its energies on Africa's western coast. It was Spain that would stumble upon the New World.

Columbus underestimated the circumference of the earth by one-fourth and believed he could reach Japan by sailing 2,400 miles west from the Canary Islands. Until his death in 1506 he insisted that he had reached Asia. But he quickly recognized that the new lands could be a source of wealth from precious minerals and sugar cane.

The Columbian Exchange

The 15th and 16th century voyages of discovery brought Europe, Africa, and the Americas into direct contact, producing an exchange of foods, animals, and diseases that scholars call the “Columbian Exchange.”

The Indians taught Europeans about tobacco, corn, potatoes, and varieties of beans, peanuts, tomatoes, and other crops unknown in Europe. In return, Europeans introduced the Indians to wheat, oats, barley, and rice, as well as to grapes for wine and various melons. Europeans also brought with them domesticated animals including horses, pigs, sheep, goats, and cattle.

Even the natural environment was transformed. Europeans cleared vast tracts of forested land and inadvertently introduced Old World weeds. The introduction of cattle, goats, horses, sheep, and swine also transformed the ecology as grazing animals ate up many native plants and disrupted indigenous systems of agriculture. The horse, extinct in the New World for ten thousand years, encouraged many farming peoples to become hunters and herders.

The exchange, however, was not evenly balanced. Killer diseases killed millions of Indians. The survivors were drawn into European trading networks that disrupted earlier patterns of life.

European Colonization

There were three distinct forms of European colonization in the New World: empires of conquest, commerce, and settlement. Spain regarded the Indians as a usable labor force, while France treated the Indians primarily as trading partners. The English, in contrast, adopted a policy known as plantation settlement: the removal of the indigenous population and its replacement with native English and Scots.

For more than a century, Spain and Portugal were the only European powers with New World colonies. After 1600, however, other European countries began to emulate their example. France’s New World Empire was based largely on trade. By the end of the 16th century, a thousand French ships a year were engaged in the fur trade along the St. Lawrence River and the interior, where the French constructed forts, missions, and trading posts.

Relations between the French and Indians were less violent than in Spanish or English colonies. In part, this reflected the small size of France’s New World population, totaling just 3,000 in 1663. Virtually all these settlers were men--mostly traders or Jesuit priests--and many took Indian wives or concubines, helping to promote relations of mutual dependency. Common trading interests also encouraged accommodation between the French and the Indians. Missionary activities, too, proved somewhat less divisive in New France than in New Mexico or New England, since France’s Jesuit priests did not require them to immediately abandon their tribal ties or their traditional way of life.

English Colonization

During the 17th century, when England established its first permanent colonies in North America, a crucial difference arose between the southern-most colonies, whose economy was devoted to production of staple crops, and the more diverse economies of the northern colonies.

Initially, settlers in the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia relied on white indentured servants as their primary labor force, and at least some of the blacks who arrived in the region were able to acquire property. But between 1640 and 1670, a sharp distinction emerged between short-term servitude for whites and permanent slavery for blacks. In Virginia, Bacon's Rebellion accelerated the shift toward slavery. By the end of the century slavery had become the basic labor force in the southern colonies.

In New England, the economy was organized around small family farms and urban communities engaged in fishing, handicrafts, and Atlantic commerce, with most of the population living in small compact towns. In Maryland and Virginia, the economy was structured around larger and much more isolated farms and plantations raising tobacco. In the Carolinas, economic life was organized around larger but less isolated plantations growing rice, indigo, coffee, cotton, and sugar.

Religious persecution was a particularly powerful force motivating English colonization. Some 30,000 English Puritans immigrated to New England, while Maryland became a refuge for Roman Catholics, and Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and Rhode Island, havens for Quakers. Refugees from religious persecution included Baptists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians, to say nothing of religious minorities from continental Europe, including Huguenots and members of the Dutch and German Reformed churches.

By 1700, Britain's North American colonies differed from England itself in the population growth rate, the proportion of white men who owned property and were able to vote, as well as in the population's ethnic and religious diversity. The early and mid-18th century brought far-reaching changes to the colonies, including a massive immigration, especially of the Scots-Irish; the forced importation of tens of thousands of enslaved Africans; and increasing economic stratification in both the northern and southern colonies. A series of religious revivals known as the Great Awakening helped to generate an American identity that cut across colony lines.

Between 1660 and 1760, England sought to centralize control over its New World Empire and began to impose a series of imperial laws upon its American colonies. From time to time, when the imperial laws became too restrictive, the colonists resisted these impositions, and Britain responded with a system of accommodation known as "salutary neglect."

During the late 17th and early and mid-18th centuries, the colonists became embroiled in a series of contests for power between Britain, France and Spain. By the 1760s--after Britain had decisively defeated the French--the colonists were in a position to challenge their subordinate position within the British Empire.