US History/Early Colonial Period

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The Arrival of Columbus[edit]

Christopher Columbus and three ships - the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria - set sail on August 3, 1492. On October 12, a lookout cried out that he had sighted land. The crew set foot on an island that day, naming it San Salvador. It is unknown which exact island was discovered by Columbus. (Note that the island presently called San Salvador is so-called in honor of Columbus' discovery; it is not necessarily the one on which Columbus set foot.)

The Native Americans inhabiting the islands were described as "Indians" by Columbus, who had believed that he had discovered the East Indies (modern Indonesia). In reality, he had found an island in the Caribbean. He continued to explore the area, returning to Spain. Columbus' misconception that he found Asia was corrected years later by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, after whom America may be named.

The Protestant Reformation[edit]

In Europe, the power of the Pope and the influence of Catholicism was undoubted. The Catholic religion affected every aspect of politics on the continent. However, in the sixteenth century, the conditions were ripe for reform. Gutenberg's printing press made the spread of ideas much easier. The influence of nationalism grew, and rulers began to resent the power possessed by the Pope.

The Protestant movement may have commenced earlier, but the publication of Ninety-Five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517 spurred on the revolution within the Church. Luther attacked the Church's theology, which, he believed, misrepresented The Bible and placed too much authority in the hands of the clergy, and wished to reform the Church. After being excommunicated, Luther published many books on Reform. Luther's works were most influential in Germany and Scandinavia.

Persons other than Luther championed the cause of Reform. In Switzerland, Huldreich Zwingli advanced Protestant ideas, which mostly affected his home country. Similarly, Frenchman John Calvin helped the spread of Protestantism in France and the Netherlands.

English Protestantism resulted from the direct influence of the British monarch. Henry VIII (1509-1547) sought to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she had failed to produce a viable male heir to the throne. When his divorce led to excommunication by the Pope, Henry simply declared the entire country free of Catholic domination and a bastion of Protestantism. Henry reasoned that England could survive under its own religious regulation (Anglican) and he named himself head of the church.

Elizabethan England[edit]

Elizabethan Succession

After Henry VIII died, he was succeeded by his son Edward VI (1547-1553) who reigned briefly before dying. Edward's death led to the ascension of Henry's daughter by Catherine, Mary I (1553-1558). A staunch Catholic, Mary sought to return England back to the Catholic church. Her religious zeal and persecution of Protestants earned her the nickname, "Bloody Mary." After a short reign, she was succeeded by her half-sister, Elizabeth. Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was the daughter of Henry's second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her ascendency to the throne resulted when neither of her half siblings, Edward and Mary, produced an heir to the throne.

Religious Reform

Under her siblings' reign, the nation constantly battled religious fervor as it sought to identify itself as either Protestant or Catholic. Henry VIII had severed ties with the Roman Catholic Church upon his excommunication after divorcing Catherine of Aragon. He established the Church of England (the precursor to the Anglican Church) as the official state religion and named himself, not the Pope, as its head. Under Mary, the country returned to Catholic rule. The Elizabethan Age brought stability to English government. Elizabeth sought a compromise (the Elizabethan Settlement) which returned England to a nation governed by Protestant theology with a Catholic ritual. Elizabeth called Parliament in 1559 to consider the Reformation Bill that re-established an independent Church of England and redefined the sacrament of communion. Parliament also approved the Act of Supremacy, establishing ecclesiastical authority with the monarch.

Economic Reform

Elizabeth's far more important response was to stabilize the English economy following the 1551 collapse of the wool market. To respond to this economic crisis, Elizabeth used her power as monarch to shift the supply-demand curve. She expelled all non-English wool merchants from the empire. Her government placed quotas on the amount of wool that could be produced while also encouraging manors to return to agricultural production. She also started trading directly with the Spanish colonies in direct violation of their tariff regulations. This maritime violation would later result in an attack on England by the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Queen Elizabeth was a very popular monarch. Her people followed her in war and peace. She remained unmarried until her death, probably through a reluctance to share any power and preferring a series of suitors. This gave her the name, the Virgin Queen, and in honor of her, a colony was named Virginia a few years after her death.

In the aftermath of the Armada's overwhelming defeat and building on the development of a strong fleet started by Henry VIII, England began to gain recognition as a great naval power. Nationalism in England increased tremendously. Thoughts of becoming a colonial power were inspired. These thoughts were aided by the fact that the defeated Spanish lost both money and morale, and would be easy to oppose in the New World.

Early Colonial Ventures[edit]

Richard Hakluyt

In 1584, Richard Hakluyt proposed a strong argument for expansion of English settlement into the new world. With his Discourse Concerning Western Planting, Hakluyt argued that creating new world colonies would greatly benefit England. The colonies could easily produce raw materials that were unavailable in England. By establishing colonies, England would assure itself of a steady supply of materials that it currently purchased from other world powers. Second, inhabited colonies would provide a stable market for English manufactured goods. Finally, as the economic incentives were not enough, the colonies could provide a home for disavowed Englishmen.


The English had already begun the exploration of the New World prior to the Armada's defeat. In 1584, Queen Elizabeth granted Sir Walter Raleigh a charter authorizing him to explore the island of Roanoke, which is part of what is now North Carolina.

Between 1584 and 1586, Raleigh financed expeditions to explore the island of Roanoke and determine if the conditions were proper for settlement. In 1586, about a hundred men were left on the island. They struggled to survive, being reduced to eating dogs. They were, however, rescued- except for fifteen men whose fate remained a mystery.

After another expedition in 1587, another group of men, women, and children- a total of more than one-hundred people- remained on the island. Governor John White of the Roanoke colony discovered from a local Native American tribe that the fifteen men who were not rescued were killed by a rival tribe. While attempting to gain revenge, White's men killed members of a friendly tribe and not the members of the tribe that allegedly killed the fifteen men.

Having thus strained relations with the Natives, the settlers could not survive easily. John White decided to return to England in 1587 and return with more supplies. When he returned, England faced war against Spain. Thus delayed, White could not return to Roanoke until 1590. When he did return, White discovered that Roanoke was abandoned. All that gave clue to the fate of the colony was the word Croatan, the name of a nearby Native American tribe, carved out on to a tree. No attempt was made to discover the actual cause of the disappearance until several years later.

There are only theories as to the cause of the loss of Roanoke. There are two major possibilities. Firstly, the settlers may have been killed by the Natives. Second, the settlers may have assimilated themselves into the Native tribes. But there is no evidence that settles the matter beyond doubt.

Review Questions[edit]

Use the content in this chapter and/or from external sources to answer the following questions. Remember to properly cite any sources used.

  1. Identify or explain the significance of the following people:
    (a) Christopher Columbus
    (b) Martin Luther
    (c) King Henry VIII
    (d) Richard Hakluyt
    (e) Elizabeth I
    (f) Sir Walter Raleigh
  2. What primary factor(s) led to the shift from Catholicism to Protestant belief in England?
  3. Why did King Henry VIII establish the Church of England? How did this influence the English Reformation?
  4. Differentiate between Elizabeth I's policies and Henry VIII's. What attitudes did the English have toward Elizabeth and her rule?
  5. What did the defeat of the Spanish Armada symbolize to all of Europe?
  6. What difficulties did the colonists of Raleigh face between 1584 and 1587? What was the fate of the colony?