American History

European Colonization of the New World

The Spanish are generally considered to be the first to form colonies in the Americas, although Vikings are acknowledged as the first European visitors. In 1492, Christopher Columbus’ famed accidental discovery of the New World (while attempting to establish a trade route to Africa) set the stage for an aggressive exploration and colonization effort by Spain. The first settlements were established on islands and coasts of the Caribbean, and expanded into both North and South America before the turn of the century.

Spanish colonization of the Americas was largely driven by religious influences, as were most aspects of their national policy. The efforts quickly became conquests in the name of the Catholic faith, resulting in decades of violent confrontations with indigenous peoples like the Muisca, Myans, Incas, and Aztecs. The Spanish exploited existing rivalries between native groups to gain control of the associated areas. In total, Spain would gain possession of the majority of west South America, the Carribean, Mexico, and the western portion of what would become the United States. Their rule would last into the 19th century, when a revolution of local independence spread resistance and war throughout the Spanish colonies. The decline of Spanish colonialism in the New World was punctuated the losses associated with the Spanish-American War.

The French also first came to the New World in the 1520s as explorers wishing to find new trade opportunities, but unlike the Spaniards who were sponsored by the church, economic operations remained the focus of further expansion and colonization efforts. Settling was not an easy process for the French, as weather and conflict with native peoples in upper eastern North America were consistent barriers, while supply problems and opposition from the Spanish hampered developments in the lower part of the continent. South American colonization attempts were similarly opposed, and most of the successful French settlement efforts were limited to small islands. The most obvious exception is the inland region of French Guiana, which remains associated with the country.

Colonization of the New World by Britain began in the early 17th century with the establishment of Jamestown by the English. They continued to establish settlements throughout the eastern United States during the century, while Scotland began attempts to populate the northern regions of Atlantic Canada. The United Kingdom was not especially concerned with establishing trade systems or spreading religion (though these concepts were not ignored), but focused instead on the act of colonization itself. Using their military might both directly and to motivate favorable diplomacy, Britain acquired large parcels of land including New France, Acadia, and Florida. In the late 1700s, the American Revolution was a damaging blow to the power of Britain in the New World, but they were quick to adapt to these events by negotiating a peaceful transition to independence for other important colonies, such as those that formed Canada, as well as many Caribbean and South American settlements.

In terms of long-term influence, the British appear to have had the most successful colonization efforts in the Americas. The failure of French efforts is obvious, and the Spaniards were largely driven away as oppressors. While the American Revolution and other conflicts demonstrated the risk of a similar fate for Britain, but adaptations by the government allowed the United Kingdom to retain or rebuild strong relations with most former colonies.