Native North Americans
Until the latter half of the twentieth century, accounts of American history usually began with the arrival of Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) in 1492. Before Columbus went ashore on a small island in the Bahamas (a group of islands south of present-day Florida in the Caribbean Sea), however, native peoples had lived in North America for thousands of years. Nevertheless, for centuries historians chose to concentrate only on the story of Europeans in the "New World" (a European term for North and South America). Native Americans thus remained in the background of the narrative, portrayed either as passive observers or as wild savages.
One reason for the incomplete portrait of Native American culture was that documents from the colonial period presented only the European point of view. For instance, European explorers and settlers wrote detailed observations of Native American people and customs, kept records of treaties, and transcribed the speeches of great chiefs. Some wrote about conflicts with Native Americans, others expressed admiration for the Native American way of life, and many documented atrocities the colonists and Native Americans committed against one another. Yet there was no way to produce a true picture of native peoples—especially the origin and development of their ancient societies—because Native Americans themselves did not maintain written records. Instead,...
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Spanish Exploration and Settlement
Exploration and settlement of the New World (the European term for North and South America) began in the late fifteenth century as a direct result of events in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. One of the most significant influences was the Crusades (1095–1291), a failed Christian movement to recapture the Holy Land (a region in the Middle East comprising parts of modern Israel, Jordan, and Egypt; today known as Palestine) from the Muslims (followers of the Islamic religion). During four hundred years of interaction with Middle Eastern cultures, Europeans discovered the learning of the Muslims, which enabled them to make significant advances in exploration. For instance, they drafted more accurate maps of the known world, built swifter ships, and charted sea routes by observing the position of the Sun. Another important development was the introduction of luxury goods, such as silks and spices, that came from China and the East Indies (India and adjacent lands and islands in the Far East), which created a thriving market in Europe.
Motivated by visions of huge profits, adventurers were willing to take risks in searching for trade routes to previously unknown lands. At that time, the only way for Europeans to reach the Far East was to sail south along the west coast of Africa and then east into the Indian Ocean. The most direct route was through the Mediterranean Sea, but the eastern...
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French Exploration and Settlement
Spain dominated southwestern and southeastern North America until the late seventeenth century. Within twenty years of that time, however, Spanish influence had gone into decline as a result of English expansion into present-day South Carolina and Georgia (see Chapter 4). Native Americans came to rely on English trade goods and formed alliances with the English settlers against the Spanish. During this time, France had been establishing New France in present-day Canada. Like the Spanish and English, the French were attracted to North America by promises of great wealth in gold, silver, and other precious metals. Like the Spanish, the French also wanted to convert the "pagan" (one who is not Christian, Muslim, or Jewish) Native Americans to Roman Catholicism, thus combining conquest with a Christian mission. (Roman Catholicism is a Christian religion based in Rome, Italy, and headed by a pope who has supreme authority in all church affairs.) Although France did not establish permanent settlements in the territory that became the United States, French explorers extended the frontiers around the Great Lakes (a chain of five lakes along the border of present-day Canada and the United States), along the Mississippi River valley, and around the Gulf of Mexico. The French presence became an obstacle to English expansion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Tensions came to a head during the French and Indian...
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The Thirteen English Colonies
English exploration of North America began with the voyages of the Italian-born navigator John Cabot (c. 1450–c. 1499), who, in 1497, reached the region that is present-day New England. By 1502 fishermen were sending cod (a type of whitefish) from Labrador and New England to the port of Bristol, England. As early as 1508 or 1509 Cabot's son Sebastian had explored the Atlantic coast, but the English did not establish a permanent presence on the continent for another one hundred years. Although English explorer Bartholomew Gosnold (d. 1607) briefly attempted to colonize New England in 1602, the settlers were not prepared for life in the New World (a European term for North and South America). Nevertheless, published reports of Gosnold's venture described North America as "the goodliest continent that ever we saw, promising more by farre [far] than we any way did expect." Eager investors formed colonizing companies in hopes of exploiting the New World's bountiful resources.
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By the mid-1600s, less than half a century after the English had opened the way for full-scale European settlement, serious crises were brewing in the American colonies. At first tensions were caused by a steadily increasing population: massive numbers of settlers required more land, additional dwellings and other accommodations, greater food supplies, and expanded trade and transportation networks. The immediate victims were Native Americans, who suffered mistreatment at the hands of colonists scrambling to grab land and natural resources. A demand for more laborers also created the institution of slavery, as millions of Africans were transported into the colonies during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Among the colonists themselves, religious differences were escalating into confrontations, land squabbles were causing rebellions, and class divisions were breeding unrest.
A major issue was the way the colonies were governed. This problem had emerged in the first few years of the settlement period and quickly gained momentum in the seventeenth century. By the late 1600s all thirteen colonies had come under English control. Governing bodies therefore consisted either of proprietors (individuals granted ownership of a colony and full authority to establish a government and distribute land) hired by wealthy investors, or councils, controlled by the monarchy (king or queen) and the...
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Government and Law
Europeans brought Old World government and legal traditions with them when they settled in North America. There they were confronted with the challenge of transplanting European systems to a strange environment populated by native peoples who did not share European cultural experiences. In the early 1600s, France, the Netherlands (Holland), and England were all governing colonies in North America. By the turn of the eighteenth century, however, England dominated the territory that would become the United States.
French, Spanish, and Dutch colonies
The presence of the French and the English, along with the resistance of Native Americans, had prevented the Spanish from moving beyond the "borderlands"—the Southeast (present-day Florida and Alabama) and the Southwest (present-day New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas). France was operating a thriving colony in New France (present-day Canada), and French missionaries (people who do religious work in foreign countries) had founded settlements around the lower Great Lakes and along the Mississippi River valley to the Gulf of Mexico. Yet the English had kept the French confined to areas outside the borders of English colonies. The Dutch founded the New Netherland colony in 1624, but the English...
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Economy and Communications
Native Americans had an extensive economic and trading system for at least 2,500 years before Europeans reached North America in the mid-1500s (see Chapter 1). Native peoples in the Southwest (present-day New Mexico, Arizona, and Texas) irrigated (watered) their land to grow maize (corn), beans, and squash. Native Americans who lived in the eastern part of the continent (the Eastern Woodlands) burned forests and prairies to stimulate crop production and wild berry growth. They grew maize, potatoes, beans, squash, sunflowers, and tobacco. Archaeologists (scientists who study ancient cultures) have found pottery fragments, baskets, stone weapons, and shells, which reveal that a vast trade network flourished among the 7,000,000 to 10,000,000 Native Americans who inhabited North America. But Europeans disrupted these productive enterprises when they seized native lands, introduced deadly diseases, and gained dominance with their sophisticated weapons. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 90 percent of the Native American population north of the Rio Grande (the river that forms part of the border between Mexico and Texas) was wiped out. The continent was now open for European settlement and trade. Yet European economic development in North America would have been impossible without the contributions of the surviving Native Americans. They offered food to starving settlers, provided pelts (animal skins)...
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When the first European colonists arrived in North America, they brought with them their own cultural values and traditions. Confronted with a strange new world, they poured their energies into re-creating familiar ways of life. Inevitably, they found it necessary to adapt their lifestyles to their new environment. In addition, they came into contact with settlers from different parts of Europe and Native Americans. These experiences led to a gradual process of adaptation and exchange among very different cultures.
One way early European colonists sought to feel more at home was to attach familiar words to their strange surroundings. They exchanged exotic Native American place names for English, German, Dutch, or Spanish ones. They gave their towns familiar names such as Plymouth, Boston, and Ipswich. Settlers displayed loyalty to their kings by giving important towns names such as Jamestown, Charlestown, and Williamsburg. They clustered their homes in European village patterns, and they worked hard to duplicate the life they had known in the Old World.
Yet life in the colonies was very different from life in Europe, especially in the early colonial period. North America had climates, crops, and sources of food that the settlers had never before encountered. There was an unfamiliar abundance of land and materials. In addition, interaction with Native Americans...
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European colonists in North America had varying family patterns, especially during the 1600s. In the New England colonies, the early settlers immigrated in whole family units (now called nuclear families) composed of a father, mother, and children. They formed communities based on these nuclear families, which provided valuable stability for British colonial society. The climate of New England proved to be remarkably healthful, and the land supported numerous crops that made a relatively nutritious diet possible. As a result, family members in these colonies were on average healthier than people back home in England and in other colonies. The number of infant deaths was relatively low, and people lived longer lives.
The situation was quite different in other colonies. For instance, family life in New Netherland was unstable until Peter Stuyvesant (1610–1672) became leader of the colony in 1647 (see Chapter 4). He established policies to promote the immigration of nuclear families, which brought new stability to the colony. In early Virginia and Maryland, deadly diseases and different social conditions produced less stable communities. In the early seventeenth century, far more men than women came to the region, most of them unmarried indentured servants (people bound by signed documents to work as laborers for a specified time) who worked in tobacco fields. The few young women who did...
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The story of the colonial era has usually been told as if white European males acted alone in settling North America. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, history books generally gave only slight attention to the lives of colonists who lacked access to power—servants, women, Native Americans, African slaves—thus creating wide gaps in the story of America. Yet without the efforts of these silent actors, the new country would never have been built. Scholars eventually recognized this fact, and during the 1970s they began collecting and publishing information about the daily existence and contributions of ordinary European settlers such as servants and other laborers. Anthropologists and ethnologists (scientists who study human culture) also retrieved a rich history of Native Americans dating back thousands of years (see Chapter 1). Efforts to piece together the story of African Americans were ongoing at the end of the twentieth century, producing a better understanding of slave culture (see Chapters 5, 7, 8, and 9). Similar efforts were being made to tell the story of colonial women—European, African, Native American—who worked hard to build their communities but remained essentially voiceless.
The idea that the New World (a European term for North and South America) was a place of unlimited growth, freedom, and opportunity did not necessarily apply to women. This chapter explores...
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When Europeans began arriving in North America in the sixteenth century, they encountered Native American traditions that dated back thousands of years. Although native peoples observed a wide variety of religious practices, they all believed in a supreme creator who was present in every aspect of nature. For instance, Native Americans in eastern North America (known as the Eastern Woodland tribes) believed they were only a small part of a harmonious world created by the Great Spirit. All of nature contained this divine spirit and was to be respected. Thus they changed their environment as little as possible, taking only what they needed. They thanked a tree for dying and providing them with wood for a fire. They thanked an animal they had killed for giving up its flesh to feed them and its skin to clothe them. The European view—that humans dominated nature and could change it for their advantage—made no sense to these people. Access to the spirit world came through dreams, which shamans (priests) interpreted for them. Often these shamans were women, who seemed to be more in contact with the spiritual realm because of their role in the miraculous event of childbirth.
Europeans did not recognize the basic similarities between Native American beliefs and their own Christian religions. Therefore most European colonists attempted to convince native peoples that the Christian God was the...
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Native Americans were among the first pupils in European schools in North America. Religious education was a tool of conquest used by all European colonizers in the New World (the European term for North and South America). Driven by "God, Gold, and Glory," the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English were determined to spread Christianity to "heathen" peoples. Yet conversion was not their only goal: they also wanted to seize land so they could exploit the rich natural resources and expand their nations' empires in North America. The Spanish and French established mission (church) schools where they converted Native Americans to Roman Catholicism and enforced European customs and traditions. (Roman Catholicism is a branch of Christianity based in Rome, Italy, and headed by a pope who has supreme authority in all church affairs.) The Dutch and the English used a similar approach, attempting to convert Native Americans to various Protestant beliefs. (Protestantism is a branch of Christianity that formed in opposition to Catholicism; it consists of many denominations, or separate organized churches.)
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Arts and Culture
The earliest known European artists in North America were Dutch portrait painters in New Netherland (which became New York in 1664, when the English took over the colony). The Dutch brought a rich artistic tradition with them from the Netherlands. They decorated their homes with oil paintings and prints, including landscapes, still lifes, and religious subjects. Although historical records show that Dutch painters in New Netherland were quite productive during the seventeenth century, only three works survived: portraits of New Netherland governor Peter Stuyvesant, Nicholas William Stuyvesant, and Jacobus Strycker, which were probably painted sometime between 1661 and 1666 by Huguenot (French Protestant) artist Henri Couturier.
Most Dutch painters were "limners" (that is, delineators, or artists who depicted their subjects by drawing). They usually earned their living at other trades such as housepainters or glaziers (people who place glass in windows), and they were sometimes self-taught. Many traveled from place to place in search of commissions (contracts). One of the earliest limners was Evert Duyckinck (1621–c. 1703), who headed a family of artists. None of his paintings has survived, but coats of arms (family emblems or crests) enameled on the windows of the Dutch Reformed Church (a Protestant religious group based in Holland) at Albany, New York, in 1656 are known to be his...
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Science and Medicine
In the late sixteenth century, Europeans began journeying to the region in North America that became the original thirteen colonies. Many explorers reported on the features of the land and the customs of native peoples. But their primary goal was to find a more direct sea route to Asia or acquire instant wealth from discovering precious metals. Then the English founded permanent settlements along the Atlantic coast. From that time on, North America was like a scientific laboratory, helping scientists test ancient theories about the size and shape of the Earth or the location of oceans. Mountains, rivers, lakes, and bays invited closer investigation. Soon ordinary colonizers and settlers became geographers, naturalists, and mapmakers as they ventured into the wilderness. Spanish naturalists (those who study plant and animal life) explored the American Southwest from their base of New Spain (now Mexico). In 1590 the Spaniard Jose de Acosta speculated on the origins of Native Americans in The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies. From New France (now Canada) French naturalists set out on the Saint Lawrence River and explored the Great Lakes, eventually reaching the Mississippi River. Because the British colonies were more established than French and Spanish settlements, however, English achievements in science were more noteworthy.
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Sports and Recreation
By the time Europeans began arriving in North America during the late sixteenth century, Native Americans already had a long tradition of individual contests and team sports. Both men and women engaged in competitive recreation, especially various kinds of ball games. Southwestern native peoples played a form of basketball, and northern tribes competed in a version of modern-day lacrosse. (In lacrosse, players use a long-handled stick with a triangular mesh pouch attached at one end for catching, carrying, and throwing a ball into a goal.) A type of football, which involved kicking a leather ball against a post or posts, seems to have been popular among Eastern Woodlands tribes (native inhabitants of the region stretching from New England to Virginia). In Virginia it was played by women and young boys. European observers were all impressed with how civil the game was, how fairly the Native Americans played, and how little violence was indulged in by the players. Another favorite sport among native peoples was throwing spears at a rolling object. Frequently neighboring groups or towns challenged one another to spear-throwing contests. Native Americans also enjoyed swimming for recreation as well as for cleanliness.
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