The first AmericansThe term ‘discovery of America’ is misleading. It implies that the continent was waiting to be discovered by Europeans, when it was already populated. The first human settlers in America were nomadic hunters, who had crossed the Bering Straits into Alaska on a land bridge at least 13,500 years ago though possibly much earlier.
|One theory of how humans|
crossed into America
Along the Atlantic coast other groups engaged in hunting, farming, and fishing. In what is now upstate New York the Iroquois Federation of five large tribes came together some time after 1450. By 1500 the North American population comprised an estimated seen to ten million people.
The age of European explorationThese civilisations came under threat with the arrival of the Europeans at the end of the fifteenth century. The Europeans immediately claimed ownership of ‘America’, so that in 1494 the Pope was forced to intervene. Alexander VI had divided the New World along an imaginary north-south line that ran 370 leagues west of the Azores (about 46°30 west of the Greenwich meridian). This gave Portugal control over the established routes to the West Indies and enabled it to claim Brazil when it was discovered in 1500. Spain was able to claim possession of any discoveries made in North and South America west of modern Brazil.
The Europeans exported their diseases into the new world. The Arawak/Taino population of Hispaniola (Haiti) estimated at 300,000 to 1 million in 1492 all but disappeared within the space of fifty years. The population of Mexico fell by 90 per cent in the sixteenth century. The surviving indigenous people were ripe for exploitation, made to work in the mines, or on the large estates. They were also subject to conversion and the Spaniards in particular made strenuous efforts to eradicate the indigenous culture or else to remould it in a Catholic direction, as can be seen in the cult of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The Europeans also exported their national rivalries. Almost from the start the English and the French were challenging Spanish dominance. England’s claim to territory in the New World was old before it was exploited. In 1497 Henry VII had sponsored the voyage of the Venetian explorer Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) to ‘Newfoundland’. His enthusiastic reports opened the way for international rivalries over the region; early in the 16th century English, French, Basque, and Portuguese fishermen were contesting for catches. (It was probably Basque fishermen who named Cape Breton Island.)
|Battista Agnese's map, c. 1544|
By the sixteenth century the Spaniards were exploring the territory that became the United States. The earliest known exploration of Florida was made in 1513 by Juan Ponce de Léon, then governor or Puerto Rico. In 1539 Hernando de Soto landed on the west coast of Florida with 620 men and 220 horses. His expedition travelled north into Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In 1541 they reached the Mississippi River, crossed it and travelled westward through modern day Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
|Discovery of the Mississippi by William Henry Powell (1823–1879)|
This fanciful depiction hangs in the United States Capitol rotunda.
De Soto died on the expedition, which failed in its objective to acquire gold and establish colonies. But the Spaniards were the first Europeans to reach this part of North America. In 1565 they founded St Augustine, Florida, the first European town in the present-day United States. The colony included a fort, church, hospital fish market and over a hundred shops and houses, built decades before the first English settlements.
In 1609 they founded Santa Fe in New Mexico. This became the first centre of mission activity in the south-west. Missionaries, particularly Franciscans and Jesuits, established isolated missions, settlements in which the Indians were persuaded to live and to convert to Catholicism. By 1630 there were fifty Catholic churches and friaries in New Mexico and some 3,000 Spaniards.
While the Spaniards were establishing their missions, other European powers arrived on the American Continent, notably the French and the English.
The English in the New WorldIn 1577 Spanish hegemony was challenged when Elizabeth’s astrologer and mathematician, John Dee, claimed that by virtue of her descent from King Arthur and Prince Madoc, Elizabeth had a claim to the New World, and coined the term ‘British Empire’. The claim was made against a background of licensed piracy. In the 1560s and 70s English privateers plied the slave trade between West Africa and the Spanish Indies, most notably the Plymouth seaman Sir John Hawkins (1532-95). After Hawkins’ defeat at the hands of the Spaniards at San Juan de Ulúa in 1568, his trade of piracy was continued by Francis Drake. In 1572, having obtained a privateering commission from the queen, he sailed to Panama and led a daring raid on the treasure house at Nombre de Dios, which was aborted only after his men lost heart when he was wounded in the leg. In the following year he successfully ambushed the mule train carrying silver from the mines of Peru across the Isthmus of Panama and his share of the profits amounted to £20,000 worth of bullion. From Panama he had caught a glimpse of the Pacific from the top of a tall tree and prayed that God would give him leave ‘to sail once in an English ship on that sea’. But how would he get there?
On 13 December 1577 he set sail from Plymouth, with the aim of concluding trading treaties with the people who lived south of the Spanish sphere of influence, and if possible to explore Terra Australis. On 20 August 1578 his squadron entered the Straits of Magellan.. They were now in difficult and unknown territory, never before encountered by Englishmen. On cruising northward up South America’s Pacific coast, they robbed townships and seized vessels. They sailed as far north as 48° N on a parallel with Vancouver to seek the North-West passage, but were defeated by the bitterly cold water, and sailed south again. Nevertheless Drake had become the first European to sight the western coast of Canada. Off the coast of what may have been California (possibly San Francisco), he accepted the sovereignty of a territory he called New Albion and was himself crowned by the Indians. He arrived back in England on 26 September 1580.
NewfoundlandWith the exception of the Dutch, northern European governments were slow to come round to the idea of colonization; support never advanced beyond a primitive urge to oppose Spain wherever she claimed to rule. Enthusiasm for colonization was generally confined to small groups of private individuals. The first to plan and then lead a serious attempt at settlement was Sir Humphrey Gilbert. In June 1583 Gilbert sailed for Newfoundland, a tempting target because of its abundance of fish. On 3 August he arrived at St John’s, where he raised the royal arms and proclaimed himself governor. This formal act of possession made little difference to the fishermen who were already spending half the year there, but no-one seriously disputed the English claim, and Newfoundland became the first English possession in the New World.
VirginiaIn April 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh despatched an expedition to America. They landed at what is now North Carolina, and took possession in the queen’s name of the land they believed was named Wingandacoa. They arrived back in England in September, bringing with them two Indians, tobacco and potatoes, and promptly began selling the new colony. Prospective investors were told that this was a land of magical wealth and boundless fertility offering all the commodities of the south and east, as well as the ‘health-giving’ herb tobacco. However, the Queen was unwilling to commit herself to the expense or to risk the wrath of Spain. Her one contribution was to insist that Wingandacoa be renamed Virginia.
A colony of 112 men led by Raleigh's kinsman, Sir Richard Grenville, in 1585 was unsuccessful. However, in 1587 Raleigh dispatched a second colony consisting of 150 settlers under the command of his friend, John White. They landed at Roanoke, where the settlers built houses, and on 18 August White’s grandchild, Virginia Dare, was born. White's pictures of the Algonquins are a valuable source of information for the colony and the attitudes of the colonists to the indigenous people.
|John White's depiction of an|
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Thus, when Elizabeth I died, apart from the fishing settlement of Newfoundland, there were no English colonies in the New World. England was not seen as a serious rival to Spain, and no-one could have predicted that the English would become the dominant power in North America.