European Colonization of North America

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Compare and contrast English, French, and Spanish colonies in the New World.  

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The English colonies in the New World were populated by families. This allowed for natural population increase and for England to ultimately dominate North America. England sent religious dissenters such as Quakers and Puritans to the New World, as well as the "deserving poor;" these people would otherwise become social...

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The English colonies in the New World were populated by families. This allowed for natural population increase and for England to ultimately dominate North America. England sent religious dissenters such as Quakers and Puritans to the New World, as well as the "deserving poor;" these people would otherwise become social problems in England. In the New World, they allowed England to claim more land and natural resources. England used Native Americans in proxy wars against the French, though the natives would ultimately be viewed as nuisances who should be removed from the land. England was also helped by its growing navy, which allowed it to defend its colonies from other powers, as well as guard raw materials coming back from the New World.

The Spanish used a system of missions in order to claim much of the American Southwest. They intermarried with native groups, but created a caste system that looked favorably on a person who had more European blood. Spanish governors worked the natives on large plantations and in gold mines, often in horrible conditions. Spanish missionaries did all they could to destroy native language and religion. Though Spain was initially the major player in the New World, it was crippled from its naval loss in 1588 to the English. The Spanish caste system in the New World led to independence movements among the native people in the nineteenth centuryby 1850 Spain had little control over land in the New World.

The French used trading posts along a system of waterways to claim land in Canada as well as the interior of what would become the United States. French traders were more likely to intermarry with tribes for diplomatic and trade reasons. French missionaries were also more likely to print Bibles in native languages. The French also used native tribes as proxies in their wars against the English. Out of the three groups, France sent the fewest people to colonize North America; as a result, France would ultimately lose its North American holdings during the French and Indian War.

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The major commonality of the French, English, and Spanish colonies in the New World was that they were economic boons for their respective imperial powers. However, their methods for economic gain differed. Spain, in particular, grew incredibly rich off of the gold and silver that was shipped back from their colonies. The French focused mainly on the fur trade in Canada. The English utilized the growing of cash crops such as tobacco and indigo. All three imperial powers grew large amounts of sugarcane in their West Indian colonies for export.

The demographics of English, French, and Spanish colonies varied greatly. The English colonies were populated mostly by middle-class English settlers looking to create their ideal vision of English society in the New World. From the start, the English instituted policies to encourage migration to its overseas colonies. As a result, the population of Europeans in English controlled lands grew quickly. By contrast, the French sent relatively few colonists to the region. They were mostly economic adventurers in the form of fur trappers and merchants with a few missionaries as well. The Spanish mostly sent conquistadors and aristocrats to the New World to form a ruling class over the native populations.

All three imperial powers had relationships with the natives in the lands that they conquered. However, the way they interacted differed greatly. The French formed many alliances with various native peoples and saw them as strategic trading and military partners. The English may have started off on amicable enough terms with many native groups, but it did not take them long to see them as an obstacle to be pushed aside. The Spanish saw native populations as people to be conquered, converted, subjugated, and enslaved.

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The Spanish colonies were founded for glory and gold. The Spanish conquistadors converted the Native Americans to Christianity, and they tried to extract as much gold as possible from the New World. When they did not find gold, the Spanish established plantations called encomiendas on which they basically enslaved Native Americans in return, they believed, for helping save their souls by converting them to Christianity.

The French colonies, such as Quebec and those along the Saint Lawrence River, were founded mainly for trading purposes rather than permanent settlement. Small parties of trappers traversed the Saint Lawrence and often worked alongside, and intermarried with, Native Americans. The French brought missionaries with them, but unlike the Spanish, the French priests often worked to learn local customs and languages. They also worked out a form of syncretism with the Native Americans in which they allowed the co-existence of some Native traditions along with those of the French.

The English settlers, unlike the French, formed permanent settlements and largely settled in family groups. The English settlers included far more women than the French. The English were motivated in part by profit and in part by religion. For example, the Puritans in New England went to the New World to find a religious refuge in which they could practice freely. The English sometimes tried to convert the Native Americans, though they also regarded Native Americans largely as savages.

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European colonies in the Americas varied in many important aspects. The only real similarity between the three countries colonial ambitions is that they were all done to make a profit for the motherland. The Spanish, as the first to breach the New World, attempted to loot the continent of its silver and gold. It did this by attempting to enslave the native populations and then conquering them. All three countries were able to weaken the Native Americans with a variety of germs for which the natives had not built up an immunity. After the Spanish conquered the lands from the indigenous people, they worked hard to acculturate and proselytize them to become Spanish. A complete new ethnic group of mixed Spanish-Indian descent emerged in Latin America as a result of this process (mestizo).  

The English attempted to establish colonies in the Americas that produced cash crops. A cash crop is generally a non-food item like cotton or tobacco and is marked by a lack of variety in farming. The English did not attempt to acculturate the Native populations and generally acquired their land and forced the Indians toward the frontiers. The Spanish and English were determined to build permanent colonies in the New World. The French, on the other hand, were not nearly as committed as the other two in building permanent colonies. Their numbers were much smaller and they were committed to trading with the Native Americans and had a much friendlier and symbiotic relationship with the Indians. The French, like the Spanish, had a missionary presence in the New World and attempted to 'Christianize' the native population.

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