European Colonization of the Americas and What It Meant

Chloe Chandler European colonization of what would become North America was motivated by various reasons, including the desire for religious freedom, profit, or a chance to start over. The colonies were populated by religious groups seeking freedom to practice their religions without interference from England, indentured servants, debtors seeking a clean slate, settlers hoping to find a profit and people who were brought to America involuntarily as slaves from Africa. The establishment of European colonies in North America meant dealing with the Native American tribes who had already lived in the area for centuries.
More often than not, colonists treated the native peoples as lesser beings and savages, and tensions between natives and Europeans led to many inhumane acts and deaths, particularly deaths of the native peoples. English colonization took many trial and error attempts before they were able to establish the famed thirteen colonies that would eventually go on to become the United States of America. Despite the catchy assertion that “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and became the first person to discover the “New World”, he was not the first foreigner to set foot in what would become North America.
Aside from the native tribes that had already been in the Americas for centuries, there was another group of people to find America before Columbus. The Vikings were the first to discover what would become North America. However, the Vikings did not remain in the area and their discovery of North America became something of a Viking legend. In 1492 an explorer named Christopher Columbus set out to find a new route to Asia in order to maximize the efficiency of the spice trade between Asia and Europe. Instead of discovering a shorter route to Asia, Columbus stumbled across the new world that would come to be known as America.

Though his discovery is referred to as the new world, there were countless groups of Native American tribes who had been living in America for centuries and had their own cultures and ways of life. Columbus did not arrive in the new world with an open mind regarding the native populations. Like many people at the time, Columbus regarded those with a skin color different from his own to be inferior. On Columbus’ second trip to America, he wrote a letter to the King and Queen suggesting that they enslave a large portion of the Native American population. “Their Highnesses will see that I can give them as much gold as they desire… nd as many slaves as they choose to send for, all heathens” (Columbus’ first letter, 1493) After the monarchy refused this suggestion, Columbus proceeded to enslave the native peoples regardless. 1,200 natives were taken from their homes and enslaved by Columbus. 560 of these natives were forcibly sent on a ship to Spain where 200 of them died of illness during the trip (Weatherford). In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh established the colony of Roanoke on an island off of present-day North Carolina. Roanoke became the first European colony established in America.
The charter to establish Roanoke was granted to Raleigh by the Queen Elizabeth I with the intentions of discovering riches in America as well as having a base from which the privateers she had commissioned could raid Spanish ships. The colony of Roanoke survived for three years before mysteriously disappearing, earning it the title “the lost colony”. One of the most commonly held beliefs regarding Roanoke’s fate, is that trouble with the native populations led to the deaths of several colonists, while the rest integrated into the Native lifestyle rather than face starvation or death by other means.
In 1534 Jacques Cartier, an explorer for France, founded the settlement New France in the area of present-day Canada and the northern US. The French had a better relationship with the native inhabitants than any of the other countries that had, or would colonize the Americas. The French realized that trouble with the natives could be detrimental and that a positive relationship with them could be beneficial. The French treated the natives with respect instead of viewing them as savages or lesser beings like the Spanish and British did.
The French established a polite trading system of fur with the Native Americans. The French’s respect for the indigenous peoples would later be rewarded by the native’s help in the French and Indian War between the colonial French and the colonial British. A group of French Protestants called the Huguenots settled in what would become the southern US, but were eventually killed or driven away by colonial Spain to the south. In 1624, the Dutch settled the area of present day New York and New Jersey. They named their settlement New Amsterdam. The Dutch remained in the area until 664 when the British took over the colonies and renamed part New York and part New Jersey. The British also gained the colony of New Sweden from the Dutch, which went on to become a part of present-day Delaware. By the year 1600 the Spanish had established an expansive empire in America from present-day California to present day Florida, and down into Central America. The Spanish sought to expand their empire in the search of a profit and also to spread their Catholic faith. The Spanish obtained this vast empire by destroying the native peoples that stood between them and conquest.
The three well-known cultures that were decimated during the Spanish conquest of the Americas were the Aztecs, the Maya and the Inca. In 1565, the Spanish attacked and took the French’s colonial settlement of Fort Caroline, killing 200 settlers. The Spanish then renamed the settlement St. Augustine. The Spanish desire for expansion would later cause tension between colonial Spain and colonial Britain. In 1606, King James I of England sold charters to the Plymouth Company and to the London Virginia Company. The charter was divided between the two companies, giving the Plymouth Company the northern half in the current-day Maine area.
The colony established by the Plymouth Company did not succeed and was soon abandoned. With their Southern half of the charter, The London Virginia Company established the colony of Jamestown, Virginia which would become the first overseas English colony to succeed. The colonists of Jamestown faced many hardships in their first few years. The settlers of Jamestown arrived in the area at an inopportune time, as the area was experiencing a severe drought that made the cultivation of crops impossible. The lack of food resulted in many colonists dying of starvation.
Aside from the drought, the settlers also experienced encounters from the native tribes who did not welcome their presence. Many settlers were killed by the Native Americans in the area, particularly in the long-standing rivalry that ensued between colonists and the neighboring tribes and resulted in the deaths of colonists and natives alike. Many other colonists died of diseases as a result of their malnutrition (Wolfe). When trouble with the neighboring Powhatan tribe finally subsisted, the colonists were introduced to the idea of using tobacco as a cash crop.
With the introduction of tobacco as a cash crop the colony was finally able to succeed, though a darker issue arose from this success. As the tobacco trade became more and more successful for the colony, the issue arose of how to work the fields while spending the least amount of money on labor. Thus began America’s dark history of slavery. Several colonies were founded in order to seek religious freedom that was not offered in England. In 1620, a group of Protestants called the Pilgrims settled in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
The Pilgrims chose to settle in America in order to be able to freely practice their religion. Nine years later, another religious group called the Puritans established a colony called the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans were unaccepting of other religions and established their colony in order to be able to practice their religion and also to be able to keep other religions out. In 1681, yet another colony was established for religious regions. William Penn, a Quaker, founded the colony of Pennsylvania in order to create a haven where Quakers could live and practice their beliefs in peace.
In 1670, the establishment of the colony of Carolina was funded by a private group of Englishmen who were seeking to make a profit off of the colony. Carolina was settled but initially failed because no one had any motivation to move to the area. The colony of Carolina finally succeeded once farmable land was found in present-day Charleston. The establishment of South Carolina was motivated by the desire for profit, rather than for religious reasons as was the case in some of the other colonies.
The motivations of the Carolinian settlers became apparent in their actions. Since they were profit-driven rather than being driven by religion as with some of the other colonies, the colonists of Carolina were most interested in how to maximize profits and did not mind if other people were hurt in order for their businesses to flourish. The Carolinian settlers came mainly from the British colony of Barbados, and they brought African slaves along with them. Being profit motivated, South Carolina began a trading relationship with the Caribbean Islands.
Among the “items” traded were Native Americans that had been kidnapped and enslaved by the Carolinians in order to trade them to the Caribbean. Alongside their atrocities committed against the natives, the settlers of Carolina also brought in slaves from Africa to work in rice fields once they decided that slaves were cheaper to maintain than indentured servants. In 1733, the southern colony of Georgia was founded by James Oglethorpe in order to separate the colony of Carolina from the Spanish-populated Florida area due to tensions between Spain and Britain.
These tensions were caused by Spain’s desire to be ever-expanding, and their history of attacking and taking over colonies that were close by. The English helped add to this tension through the practice of English privateers frequently raiding Spanish ships, stealing their gold or supplies and killing anyone in the way. Since the idea of living in a colony created as a buffer between two rivaling areas is not particularly appealing, Oglethorpe did not expect anyone to willingly settle in Georgia. This opened the question of how Georgia would be settled.
The answer became a solution to another of England’s issues– what to do with their large number of debtors. At the time in England to be in debt meant to remain in prison until the debt could be paid. James Oglethorpe pitied the debtors who could not pay their debts, and this pity gave him an idea that would solve two problems at once. The colony of Georgia was populated by debtors in England who were given the choice of colonization or remaining in prison in England until their debts could be paid. During the time of colonization, as many as 300,000 colonists were indentured servants (US-History. om). An indentured servant was a person whose boat fare, housing and food were all paid by the person who hires them. In exchange, the indentured servant entered into a contract and agreed to work for their master for as many years as it took for their debt to be paid off. Indentured servants worked in fields or as house servants and often were not treated well. While indentured servants did enter into the contract voluntarily, it was only because they could not afford to go to America on their own and they desperately wanted a chance to start over in the new world.
As it became too expensive to keep indentured servants, colonists who owned plantations began to look for cheaper ways to work their fields. Between 1500 and 1800, over half of the population of the colonies consisted of African slaves who were brought to America against their will (Brinkley, 18). Many colonists and slave owners viewed African slaves as primitives and hardly regarded them as being human at all. The slaves were not given wages or promised freedom after a set number of years as with indentured servitude, but instead were regarded as the permanent property of the person who purchased them.
The colonist’s poor treatment of anyone with a skin color different from theirs was also exhibited in their treatment of the Native Americans. As aforementioned, some colonies such as South Carolina forcibly enslaved the native populations and sold them in order to make a profit. The colonists also encroached on the native’s lands and were eager to expand westward without any regard for the native’s homes or lands. Colonists frequently regarded the natives as savages who were uncivilized and, like the Africans, hardly human. During colonization, several wars broke out between the settlers and the Native Americans.
The war between the Powhatan tribe and the Virginians began when the colonist Captain John Smith began stealing food and supplies from the Native Americans as well as kidnapping several of them. Another dispute caused by the mistreatment of the Native Americans was King Philip’s War which began as a result of the natives defending themselves when the English colonists began to demand that the natives be held under the English colonist’s rule (Umass. edu). Another dispute between colonists and natives known as Bacon’s Rebellion began when a native tribe attacked the plantation of a colonist who had not paid them for goods.
Colonists then returned attack– on the wrong tribe of natives. Several native chiefs were killed throughout the dispute and some innocent and friendly natives were kidnapped by colonists (nps. gov). In conclusion, the new world was settled by many different kinds of people with many different motivations. Some settled in order to seek religious freedom, while others sought a profit, and some to escape their debt while others were brought to the colonies forcibly as slaves. Several colonies were only able to thrive by depending on the institution of slavery.
The colonies also settled without any regard for the Native Americans who had already been living in the area. Many natives lost their lives in war with the colonists and many more lost their lives as a result of unfamiliar diseases brought over by the colonists. It took many failed colonies before the new world was settled by Europeans. After the colonization of Georgia in 1733, the English had established 13 English colonies in North America. They had also developed a successful economy grounded in tobacco, rice, and slavery.
Sources: Brinkley, Alan. The Unfinished Nation: A Concise History of the American People. 6th ed. Vol. 1. New    York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Weatherford, Jack. “Examining the Reputation of Columbus. ” Understanding Prejudice. Last modified    2002. Accessed February 18, 2013. http://www. understandingprejudice. org/nativeiq/weather. htm. Wolfe, Brendan. “Early Jamestown Settlement. ” Encyclopedia Virginia. Ed. Caitlin     Newman. 13 Feb. 2013. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. 29 Jan. 2013 Columbus, Christopher.
Letter, “The Letter of Columbus to Luis De Sant Angel Announcing His    Discovery,” 1493. Historic Documents. Independence Hall Association. United States History. “Indentured Servitude. ” Accessed February 18, 2013. http://www. u-s-history. com/pages/h1157. html. “King Philip’s War. ” University of Massachusetts. http://www. bio. umass. edu/biology/conn. river/    philip. html. McCully, Susan. “Bacon’s Rebellion. ” Edited by Jen Loux. National Park Service. Last modified June    1987. Accessed February 18, 2013. http://www. nps. gov/jame/historyculture/bacons-rebellion. htm.

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