European contact with the American continent began as a brief exploration by the Vikings. Knowledge of their new-found land became legend. European desire for spices and contact with Asia allowed intrepid explorers the opportunity to re-discover the American continent. Christopher Columbus, incorrectly calculating the size of the earth, undertook a voyage around the world. His legacy was not to find a new route to Asia, as he hoped, but to find a new continent. This continent was named America, after another early explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.
Other countries apart from the Spanish began to explore and establish settlements in the New World. Jacques Cartier undertook a northern voyage for the French. There they began the settlement of New France, developing the fur industry and fostering a more respectful relationship with many of the inhabitants. The Spanish conquistadors invaded the new world looking for riches. While some Spanish invaders destroyed the powerful Aztec and Inca cultures, others chased legends, such as the fountain of youth and the hidden city of gold. With the Spanish empire spanning much of the South and New France situated in the North, there was still room for the English to exploit. As English nationalism rose in the 16th century, The English began to colonize the mid-Atlantic region of the Continent.
The Vikings Make First Contact
The Vikings were a group of Scandinavian (mostly Sweden, Norway,and Denmark) warriors. During the 8th Century, the Vikings began a campaign of conquest and exploration. For 200 years, they carried out brutal raids on towns and treasuries throughout Europe. In the North, they began new settlements on the largely uninhabited islands of the North Atlantic. The story of American Exploration begins with a Viking called "Erik the Red". Accused of murder and banished from his native home of Iceland in about 982, Eric explored and later founded a settlement in what is now Greenland. Realizing the harsh bleak landscape of Greenland would need many people to prosper, Eric returned to Iceland after his exile had passed, and coined the word "Greenland" to appeal to the overpopulated and treeless settlement of Iceland. Eric returned to Greenland in 985 and established two colonies with a thriving population of nearly 5000. The vikings were considered the true European "discoverers" of North America, having believed to have arrived in what is now known as Nova Scotia, a province of Canada, long before any other European explorers reached North America.
Erik's son, Leif Eiríksson, was drawn to rumors of lands to the west seen by tales from Icelander Bjarni Herjolfsson who was blown off course in route to Greenland during a storm and said to have spotted new land. Leif decided to start an expedition to this new land in 995. During 1003-1004, Leiff Erikson explored the North-East reaches of North America. He landed in three places, the first he named Helluland ("Land of the Flat Stones"), possibly present-day Baffin Island. The second he named Markland ("Wood-land"), possibly present-day Labrador. The third was where he established a small settlement called Vinland. The location of Vinland is uncertain, but an archeological site on the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada (L'anse aux Meadows) was identified as the site of a modest Viking settlement and is the oldest confirmed presence of Europeans in North America.The site of L'Anse aux Meadows is now a national park and an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site contains the remains of eight Norse buildings, as well as a modern reproduction of a Norse longhouse. But despite an hospitable climate and abundant resources, the settlement in Vinland was abandoned as tension rose between the Vikings and the native inhabitants, called Skraelingar by the Vikings. Bickering also broke out among the Norseman themselves. Experts think the settlement lasted less than two years. The Vikings would make brief excursions to North America for the next 200 years. No settlements were founded, experts believe that these brief raids were to procure supplies such as timber for other civilizations, as they did return to Greenland in the spring with a cargo of grapes as well as timber. Some scholars suggest that in the sagas instead of referring to vines as wine that Erikson named the new land Vinland after vin (pasture land). This suggestion is not widely accepted. It seems unlikely that he would have had more interest in pasture than wine, which was a high status drink of great value at the time. Either way the cargo of timber would have been of great value, especially in a virtually treeless Greenland. Leif's success in Vineland encouraged others to make the voyage. Porvaldar Eiriksson made a voyage on which he was shot with an arrow and was killed by Native Americans. He was later buried at the site he was planning to settle on in Vinland, after his crew returned to Greenland. Also, Porsteinn Eiriksson made a "abortive" trip, and never reached Vinland. Possibly the largest expedition was one led by Porfinnur Karlsefni. At least three ships were said to be involved and approximately 100 men and women joined the expedition. Porfinnur brought farm animals and tools as he was intending to settle in Vinland. While in Vinland porfinnur's wife Guoriour gave birth to a son, Snorri, the first European child born in the new world. After years of trying to establish trade, Porfinnur and his men were attacked several times by Native Americans in the areas they had sailed to. After much thought, Porfinnur decided that the limited trade was not worth what he was getting in return. So he decided to return to Greenland with his family and crew of men.
Viking civilization had reached its high water mark. Christianity and the emergence of a unified Christian kingdom in Norway would cause disunity within the the Viking civilization. Europe would soon fall into a series of devastating bouts of epidemic disease. Explorations of a New Land to the West would become a legendary tale of the feared Viking pirates. Nearly 500 years would pass before another European saw the American continent.
The Triumph of Christopher Columbus
By the 15th Century trade in Europe was expanding. The Roman Empire had broken up into several strong Kingdoms. Trade for luxuries such as spices and silk had inspired European explorers to seek new routes to Asia. The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 was a pivotal reason for European exploration. Trade throughout the Ottoman Empire was difficult and unreliable. In particular, Portugal held a lead in exploration and was slowly exploring the shores of the African Continent in search of a better route to the spices and luxuries of the Orient.
It was upon this backdrop that an explorer, Christopher Columbus, submitted his plans for a voyage to Asia by sailing around the world. By the late 15th century most educated Europeans knew the world was round. The Greek mathematician, Eratosthenes, had accurately deduced that the world was approximately 25,000 miles in diameter. Based on this figure many of the experts studying Columbus's plans, on behalf of the European monarchies that he approached, correctly felt it was too far for any contemporary sailing ship to go. Columbus contested the measurements claiming that the world was much smaller than widely believed.
After several approaches to the Italian, English, and Portuguese monarchies,the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally decided to give Columbus a chance, despite the advice of their contemporaries. King Ferdinand thought that perhaps Columbus would find something that could give the Spanish an opportunity to compete with their neighboring kingdom of Portugal. As it turned out, Columbus succeeded and launched Europe towards a new age of discovery. Columbus set out on his voyage on Aug 3, 1492. Five weeks later, after almost being thrown overboard by his own crew, the long voyage would come to an end when land was sighted. This was an island called Guanahani, which is also known as San Salvador in the present-day Bahamas. During this voyage Columbus also explored the northeast coast of Cuba and the northern coast of Hispaniola. On his return to Spain, his news of the new lands discovered spread throughout Europe. Columbus was to make three more voyages to the New World, between 1492 and 1503, exploring the area of the Caribbean and the mainland of Central and South America.
Columbus had been granted the authority by the Spanish Monarchy to claim the land for the Spanish, begin a settlement, trade for valuable goods or gold and explore. He was also made governor of all the lands which he found. Columbus become an increasingly savage and brutal governor, with three subsequent voyages to explore and exploit the riches and resources of the Native Americans. He enslaved and stole from the natives, at one point threatening to cut off the hands of any native who failed to give him gold. His brutal reign would foreshadow the arrival of the Spanish warriors called Conquistadors who would plunder and destroy the large, wealthy Aztec, Incan, and Mayan civilizations.
Christopher Columbus believed for the remainder of his life, that he had reached Asia. However, it was another Spanish explorer, Amerigo Vespucci who gave his name to the new continent. Amerigo tried to describe the lands around his islands and deduce its proximity to Asia. From his voyages, Amerigo deduced that Columbus had found a new Continent. This new continent would be named America.
French Empire in North America
Christopher Columbus's voyages inspired other European powers to seek out the new world as well. Jacques Cartier was a respected mariner in his native France, he proposed a trip to the north to investigate whether Asian lands could be reached from the North. His trip in 1534 retraced much of the voyages of the vikings and established contacts with natives in modern-day Canada. He explored some of northern Canada, established friendly relations with the American Indians, and discovered that the St Lawrence river region neither had abundant gold nor a northwest passage to Asia.
During the 16th century, the taming of Siberian wilderness by the Russians had established a thriving fur trade which created a great demand for fur throughout Europe. France was quick to realize that the North held great potential as a provider of fur. Samuel de Champlain settled the first permanent settlement in present-day Canada and created a thriving trade with the native Americans for beaver pelts and other animal hides.
Meanwhile, in the South, Early French protestants, called Huguenots, had the opportunity to leave hostile European lands while advancing French claims to the new world. Settlements in present-day Florida and Georgia would create tension with Spanish conquistadors, who after conquering Caribbean lands would begin to expand their search for new lands.
Spanish Empire in North America
The Spanish conquistador, Ponce de Leon was an early visitor to the Americas, traveling to the new world on Columbus's second voyage. He became the first governor of Puerto Rico in 1509. However, upon the death of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish did not allow Christopher's son (who also had committed atrocities upon the native Americans of the Caribbean) to succeed. The governors were released and replaced with successors from Spain.
Ponce De Leon, freed of his governorship, decided to explore areas to the north, where there was rumored to be a fountain of youth that restored the youth of anyone drinking from it. Ponce de Leon found a peninsula on the coast of North America, called the new land 'Florida' and chartered a colonizing expedition. Ponce de Leon's presence was brief as he was attacked by native American forces and died in nearby Cuba.
By the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors had penetrated deep into the Central and South American continents. Native American cultures had collected large troves of gold and valuables and given them to leaders of these prosperous empires. The conquistadors, believing they held considerable military and technological superiority over these cultures, attacked and destroyed the Aztecs in 1521 and the Incas in 1532.
The wealth seized by the Spanish would lead to piracy and a new wave of settlements as the other colonial powers became increasingly hostile towards Spain. Many areas and nations that were solely colonized by Spain, were inundated with French and English pirates.
By 1565, Spanish forces looked to expand their influence (and religion, Catholicism) in the New World by attacking the French settlement of Fort Caroline. The Spanish navy overwhelmed 200 French Huguenot settlers, slaughtering, even as they surrendered to Spain's superior military might. Spain formed the settlement of St. Augustine as an outpost to ensure that French Huguenots where no longer welcome in the area. St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European-established city in North America.
Catholicism was introduced to the American colonies by the Spanish settlers in what is now present day Florida (1513) and the South West United States. The first Christian worship service was a Catholic mass held in modern day Pensacola Florida in 1559. Spain established the first permanent European Catholic settlement in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, to help the settlers complete the "moral imperative" which was to convert all the Native peoples to Christianity, and to also to help support the treasure fleets of Spain.  During the time period of 1635-1675 Franciscans operated between 40 and 70 mission stations, attempting to convert about 26,000 "Hispanicized" natives who organized themselves into 4 provinces, Timucua, in central Florida, Guale, along the coast of Georgia, Apalachee on the northeastern edge of the Gulf of Mexico, and Apalachicola to the west.
British Empire in North America
England funded an initial exploratory trip shortly after Christopher Columbus's first voyage. John Cabot made the trip for England in 1501. He explored the North American continent (correctly deducing that the spherical shape of the earth made the north, where the longitudes are much shorter, a quicker route to the New World than a trip to the South islands where Christopher was exploring). Encouraged, he asked the English monarchy for a more substantial expedition to further explore and settle the lands which he found. The ships departed and were never seen again.
England remained preoccupied with internal affairs for much of the 16th century. But by the beginning of the 17th century, the English empire had consolidated much of the British isles and were becoming a much more formidable foe on the world's stage. The quickly expanding British navy was preparing for a massive strike upon the Spanish armada.
Sir Walter Raleigh gained considerable favor from Queen Elizabeth I by suppressing rebellions in Ireland and sought to establish an empire in the new world. His Roanoke colony would be relatively isolated from existing settlements in North America. He privately funded the colony, unlike earlier efforts that were usually funded and sponsored by monarchies. The colony was thought to be destroyed during a three year period in which English was at war with Spanish and did serious damage to the Spanish navy.
The war left the English monarchy drained of money and resources such that the English monarchy sold a charter containing lands between present-day South Carolina to the US-Canada border to two competing groups of investors; the Plymouth company and the London company. The two companies were given the North and South portions of this area, respectively.
The Northern Plymouth settlement in Maine faltered and was abandoned, however the London company established the Jamestown settlement in 1606. This settlement faltered but steadied by the determination of John Rolfe, the settlement developed tobacco as a cash crop for the colony and served as a beginning for the colonial state of Virginia.
Virginia and Jamestown
Founded in 1607 with a charter from the Virginia Company of London, Jamestown was the first permanent English colony in the Americas. However, the swampy terrain was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which carried a variety of diseases - dysentery, malaria, smallpox - that the English were unaccustomed to. Many of the settlers fell prey to these infections and died shortly after.
In addition, Virginia's initial government was weak, and its individual members frequently quarreled over policies. The colonists themselves frantically searched for any precious metals (e.g., gold) they could find, ignoring their deteriorating health in the process. Furthermore, "Indian raids" also weakened any hopes of defense and unification, and gradually the population of the colony declined. By the winter of 1609-1610, also known as the Starving Time, only 60 settlers remained from the original 500 passengers.
Despite these shortcomings, it was the work of two men that helped the colony to survive: John Smith and John Rolfe. John Smith, who arrived in Virginia in 1608, introduced an ultimatum - those who did not work would not receive food or pay. His struggle to improve the colony's conditions succeeded - the colonists learned how to raise crops and trade with the nearby Indians, with whom Smith had made peace.
In 1612, John Rolfe, an English businessman, discovered that Virginia had ideal conditions for growing tobacco. This singular discovery led to an explosion of success as the plant became the colony's major cash crop. With English demand for tobacco rising, Virginia had now found a way to support itself economically.
In 1619, Virginia set up the House of Burgesses, the first elected legislative assembly in America. It marked the beginnings of self-government, as to the martial law that was previously imposed on the colonists.
Simultaneously, however, Virginia was declared a "crown colony" meaning that charter was transferred from the Virginia Company to the Crown of England, which meant that Jamestown was now a colony run by the English monarchy. While the House of Burgesses was still allowed to run the government, the king nevertheless appointed a royal governor to settle disputes and enforce certain British policies.
- Death in Early America. Margaret M. Coffin. 1976
- American Catholics, James Hennesey, S.J. 1981