UNITED STATES HISTORY
The Age of Exploration
*Although American history has taken place in America, it did not
begin in America. The Europeans who settled the Americas did
so for reasons stretching back into the Middle Ages.
*In fact, the first exploration of the New World was undertaken
during the Middle Ages by the Vikings, who briefly settled what
they called Vinland in what is now Newfoundland around 1000 AD.
*For most of the early Mediæval Period, though, Western Europe was
focused primarily on its own survival following the fall of the
Western Roman Empire and on various dynastic feuds. The
Eastern Roman Empire remained, however, in the form of the
Byzantine Empire, and was still respected in Western Europe for
its wealth and its heritage as the remnants of the Roman
Empire. When the Byzantine Empire, beset by Muslim invasion,
called on the Pope for assistance, the era of the Crusades began
with Catholic Christians going, in theory, to the defence of
Orthodox Christians in Anatolia and to reclaim lost Christian
lands in the Levant.
*The Crusades in the Middle East took place periodically between
1095 and 1271 and during the Crusades, Europeans were exposed
through travel or trade to the luxuries of the Far East.
Silk, spices, fine porcelain, and other luxuries from China,
India, and the Spice Islands appealed to the Crusaders, and
eventually Northern Italian merchants who could trade with the Far
East through the Byzantine capital of Constantinople grew
*As the Italian city-states grew richer, their leading merchants
had time for hobbies: collecting curiosities and learning
about the wider world, beyond what was needed for mere
survival. As they began collecting antiquities and oddities,
they began to develop an interest in their own history, that of
the ancient Roman Empire (as well as the Greek culture that had so
greatly influenced it). Likewise, through trade with the
Byzantine Empire and the Middle East, Italians became conversant
with both ancient and modern Greek scholarship, as well as Muslim
science, which was then the most advanced in the world. As Turkish
forces advanced into the Byzantine Empire and eventually conquered
it, many of eastern scholars fled to Italy, enlarging a
flourishing scientific and artistic community in the 1300s and
1400s. This led to a rebirth of interest in scientific and
artistic development: a Renaissance.
*While the Renaissance began in Italy, it eventually spread
elsewhere in Europe. In the 1400s, though, warfare was much
more common in most of Europe than scholarship. In the
Iberian Peninsula, a crusade known as the Reconquista,
which had been under way since A.D. 732 was still dedicated to
driving the Moors out of Iberia. By the 1400s, most of the
Iberian Peninsula was divided into the Kingdoms of Portugal,
Castile, Aragon, and (Moorish) Granada.
*In the 1400s, Portugal, which no longer had a direct border with
a Moorish enemy, had spent much of the century exploring by
sea. Prince Henry (later called the Navigator for his
sponsorship of voyages of exploration), the third son of King John
I of Portugal, in the Renaissance spirit of education and
scientific advancement, founded the precursor to the University of
Lisbon. He encouraged training in navigation and funded
missions of exploration, conquest, and trade. Under his
leadership, Portugal developed some of the most advanced sailing
ships and navigational methods of the early 1400s and began to
explore the west coast of Africa, seeking to expand their empire,
fight the forces of Islam, spread Christianity, and discover new
sources of wealth (including a vastly expanded slave trade to
provide labour for the sugar plantations of Madeira, the Azores,
São Tomé, and Principe, a model for plantation agriculture to come
in the New World)—in short, the explored the world for God, Gold,
*Prince Henry was partly inspired by Mediæval legends of a
Christian king in Africa known as Prester John, whom he thought
might be a valuable ally.
*Henry's men never found Prester John, but they did discover the
Azores and the Madeira Islands (which Portugal still owns),
claimed ports in Africa, and became engaged in the slave
trade. Eventually, his expeditions allowed Portugal to begin
importing gold from West Africa, the first time Europeans had seen
land south of the Sahara.
*As Portugal was rising in the 1400s, the Italians suffered a
major blow to their economy in 1453, when the Ottoman Turks
captured Constantinople (which they called Istanbul), bringing an
end to the Byzantine Empire and essentially cutting off Italians’
ability to trade with Asia.
*For Portugal, whose sailors were moving further and further down
the West Coast of Africa, this presented a tremendous opportunity,
if only they could find a way to sail around Africa to Asia.
*Henry died in 1460, too soon to see his nation's greatest
triumph: in 1497-98, Vasco de Gama charted a sea route from
Portugal to India.
*In 1510, Portugal claimed the Indian territory of Goa, and
controlled it (and other small ports) until 1961. Portugal
would go on to establish colonies in East Timor (until 1975), in
Macau, China (until 1999), in Africa (Mozambique, Angola,
Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, Cape Verde, until 1974-75),
and in Brazil. Theirs was the first global empire, and thus
far the longest-lasting. This success inspired other
*In 1492 the Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabella completed the
Reconquista, driving the Moors from Granada, after a
struggle of 760 years. The Spanish, though, were hardly
going to stop there. With zealous armies they moved into
northern Africa, but they also had time for other undertakings.
*The fall of Granada did not just allow Spain to unify the Iberian
peninsula (except Portugal) and to build a very strong
nation-state using the Inquisition as a tool of the state.
The wealth seized during the conquest of the city allowed the
Spanish government to sponsor not just military expeditions into
Africa but also to gamble on the plans of Christopher Columbus.
*Most educated Europeans knew that the world was round, but its
precise circumference was unknown. There were two widespread
conjectures: about 25,000 miles or about 15,700 miles.
Both figures came from the ancient Greeks, and most Europeans
believed the larger figure. They were correct.
Columbus, however, had convinced himself that the Earth was not
much more than 15,000 miles around, and that most of that was
land. This meant that Asia could be reached by sailing
across the Atlantic using ships that existed at the time.
*Hoping to spread Catholicism, to find greater wealth, and to
promote its national honour, Spain granted Columbus three ships
and gave him permission to gather a crew and sail into the
*After nearly exhausting all his provisions, Columbus sighted land
on 12 October, 1492. He landed in the Caribbean, probably in
the Bahamas, explored some of the Islands (he believed Cuba was
Japan), and, convinced he had found the East Indies, called the
local people Indians, resupplied, and went home in 1493. He
was named Admiral of the Ocean Sea, made three more voyages to the
new world, and died in 1506, still convinced that he had found
*By 1493 Portugal had explored most of Africa's west coast and
Spain had just discovered a new continent. With the entire
world to pick from, the two Iberian kingdoms decided to
share. To do so fairly, they asked the most important man in
the world to divide the globe.
*In 1494, Pope Alexander VI devised the Treaty of Tordesillas,
which divided the world between Spain and Portugal. Spain
got all of the Americas except Brazil (an odd coincidence, as
Brazil had not yet been officially discovered) and Portugal got
all of Africa and most of Asia (although Spain later colonised the
*From their initial colonies in the Caribbean, Spaniards began to
explore North and South America.
*In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon explored Florida looking
(unsuccessfully) for the Fountain of Youth.
*Also in 1513, Vasco de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and
became the first European to see another ocean, which looked so
peaceful that he named it the Pacific.
*Unfortunately, as the new continents of America (named for
Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer of South America's coast)
were more fully explored, they turned out to be, in certain ways,
a great disappointment: the world's biggest speed bump,
keeping Europeans from sailing directly to Asia.
Consequently, the next few centuries would be spent trying to find
an all-water route to Asia.
*The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa to
India, but another Portuguese explorer (sailing on behalf of
Spain) named Ferdinand Magellan, went the other way.
*From 1519 to 1522, his expedition sailed around South America
(through the Strait of Magellan), to the Philippines (where
Magellan was killed, which did not prevent the Spanish from going
back and claiming the islands later), around the Cape of Good Hope
in South Africa, and ultimately back to Spain after almost exactly
3 years. The 18 sailors to survive became the first men to
circumnavigate the globe.
*Although the Americas were a navigational problem in certain
ways, as the Spanish explored them, they discovered new peoples
and new sources of wealth.
*The American Indians in Central and South America, unlike those
of North America, had created several large and powerful empires
prior to the arrival of Columbus in 1492 (the pre-Columbian
*The Mayan culture in Central America was very weak when the
Spanish finally arrived, but still wide-spread, and many Mayan
people remain in Mexico, and many still speak Mayan
*The Aztecs were the dominant empire of what is now southern
central Mexico, with their capital at what is now Mexico
City. They had a highly hierarchical society with a rigid
class structure and a powerful military. When the Spanish
arrived, they were initially welcomed as possible gods or
emissaries of the god Quetzalcoatl. In 1521, the Spanish,
under Hernan Cortez, arrived, allied with a subject tribe that
wanted to be free of their Aztec rulers, took over Tenochtitlan,
and made war with their guns against bows and arrows. They
also brought smallpox, which the Indians had never encountered,
and to which they had no immunity—throughout the Americas, between
30 and 90% of all the Indians died of European diseases).
The Aztecs were rapidly defeated.
*The major empire of South America was that of the Inca, in the
Andes, in what is now Peru, and parts of Bolivia, Chile, and
Ecuador. They were in the midst of a civil war between two
brothers who both claimed the throne when Francisco Pizarro
arrived in 1532 and rapidly conquered them.
*The Spanish took the place of the Inca emperors for most of the
Empire, and kept the mita system in place for their own use.
The Catholic Church used the main Incan languages (Quechua and
Aymara) to spread the gospel in South America, and this is one
reason that some Incan languages survive today.
*Between 1539 and 1542 Hernando de Soto explored American
Southeast, even entering southeast Tennessee, but mistreated the
Indians so badly that many of his men were attacked and
killed. After he died of a fever, his corpse was dropped in
the Mississippi River by his men so it could not be desecrated by
the Indians who hated him.
*Between 1540 and 1542 Francisco Vasquez de Coronado explored the
southwest looking for Cibola, the seven cities of gold based on a
story told by the shipwrecked Cabeza de Vaca and other early
explorers. Although he never found the Cities of Gold, he
did discover the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon.
*In 1565, the Spanish founded St Augustine, Florida, the oldest
surviving European settlement in what is now the United States.
*The Spanish came to the New World for God, Gold, and Glory, and
they got it all.
*The Catholic Church came with Spain, and converted the Indians of
Central and South America to Roman Catholicism, often by force and
slavery, but effectively nonetheless (although some elements of
native religions and African religions were transferred into Latin
American Catholicism, with many old gods finding a new form in one
saint or another).
*There was glory in the New World, too, for those who would win
it. Latin America was divided, eventually, into
Viceroyalties, governed by Viceroys (in place of the King).
The major ones were New Spain (Mexico and the rest of Central
America), New Granada (Ecuador and Columbia), Peru (Peru and
Chile), La Plata (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and parts of
Bolivia), and Brazil.
*Most of Spanish America was granted to the conquistadors
(conquerors) as encomiendas and haciendas.
*Encominedas were groups of Indians entrusted to a particular
Spaniard to work for him and be cared for and protected by
him. In many cases, these Indians were often treated little
better than slaves, and the abuses of the system led to its
decline as religious leaders and the Spanish crown began to limit
them a generation or two after the conquest of the New World.
*Haciendas were vast estates; the inhabitants were under the
control of the hacendado. These could be run as farms, but
were mostly used as ranches, and were not very economically
efficient--they only meant to be self-sufficient, and to produce
enough money to buy the owner some luxuries for showing off to the
other hacendados. In a few cases, haciendas included mines,
and could bring great wealth to their owners. In short, only
a few people owned almost all the land in Central and South
America, and they were immensely powerful.
*To work these farms, and their mines, the Spanish enslaved the
Indians, and also imported many African slaves to Central and
South America, and especially to the Caribbean.
*The mistreatment of the Indians, especially as reported by
Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Dominican friar, was so shocking to the
Spanish crown that, at least in theory, many Indians were allowed
to govern themselves under their own leaders, as long as they
became Christian and were loyal to the crown. Although this
did not always happen, the cruel treatment of the Indians,
especially in the early days of Spanish settlement gave rise to
the ‘Black Legend’ of Spanish cruelty that is still resented in
many Latin American countries and which the English used to
justify their fight against Spain, supposedly on behalf of the
cruelly oppressed Indians.
*The Spaniards also found gold, or at least silver, beyond their
wildest dreams. The greatest mine in the world was at
Potosi, in modern Bolivia. Worked by thousands of Indian
slaves (under a relic of the mita system), it turned out more
silver than the world had ever before seen. The mine was
opened about 1545, and remained valuable until the early
1800s. The area still produces some tin, but the silver is
mostly used up. Mexico also had a tremendous mine at
Zacatecas. The silver of Peru (in which Potosi was located)
and New Spain was famous around the world, and made Spain
fabulously wealthy, before destroying the economy due to
*The silver was minted into pesos, each worth eight reales
(royals). The pesos were also called dollars (which is where
the US dollar gets its name), and were often cut up to make
change. They were usually cut into eight pieces, or bits,
which is why a quarter is still sometimes called two bits.
*The Aztecs, incidentally, also introduced the Spanish (and thus
Europe) to corn, the tomato, chocolate, and syphilis. Other
Indians showed them and other Europeans potatoes, pumpkins, and
new types of beans.
*The Indians received a new religion, as well as wheat, cattle,
horses, pigs, chickens, mules, peaches, honeybees, the wheel,
other modern technologies, and deadly diseases including smallpox,
typhus, and the measles. This exchange of goods, ideas, and
people between the Old World and the New World is known as the
*Spain's new-found wealth was both a blessing and a curse.
In the short run, it made Spain wealthy and powerful, but it also
led to inflation and an economy based on the extraction of wealth
from the New World rather than one based on more developed
commerce or industry, keeping Spain a nearly mediæval economy
until the early 20th Century.
*Spain’s new-found wealth also led other European countries to
seek wealth and territory of their own in the New World.
*In 1534, Jacques Cartier explored the St Lawrence River in search
of the Northwest Passage and named the territory around it New
*In 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec.
*In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet explored the
*In 1681 and 1682, Robert de la Salle explored the Mississippi
River Valley further as well as the region around the great lakes,
and named it Louisiana in honour of his king.
*For the most part, the French worked with the Indians and lived
alongside them in peace, only sending a few tens of thousands of
settlers, most of whom lived in a few cities and trading
*The French were more interested in trading for furs than they
were in truly colonising the vast stretches of land that they
claimed or in changing the Indians’ culture aside from converting
them to Catholicism through a pretty successful missionary effort.
*Indeed, many French fur trappers, particularly the coureurs de
bois (woods runners) who trapped and traded far beyond the
frontier, ended up adopting many Indian habits, particularly in
their clothing, and often married Native wives as well.
Later, the French government decided to take a little more control
over the fur trade, and the coureurs de bois were officially
replaced by licensed voyageurs, although they, too, tended
to take on Indian customs and families.
*In some ways, France did try to control the culture of New
France, forbidding Huguenots, French Protestants who often
suffered persecution, from settling in New France, with the result
that many moved instead to the Netherlands and to Dutch colonies
in the New World and to England and England colonies, where many
famous Americans such as Paul Revere, Davy Crockett, and John
Sevier were descended from Huguenots.
*Spain's wealth also attracted attacks from English privateers
such as Sir Henry Morgan and Sir Francis Drake, and encouraged
England to explore and attempt to settle the New World as well.
This page last updated Saint Dunstan's Day, 2021.