America: Pathways to the Present Chapter 1: The Origins of a New Society

Andrew Cayton

Chapter 1: The Origins of a New Society

The first chapter of the textbook is a review that covers early American history from the time of the early European explorers up through the development of the English colonies on the eastern coast of North America. The chapter is divided into three sections: The Atlantic World, European Colonization of the Americas, and Growth of the American Colonies

Section 1: The Atlantic World

Main Ideas

  • Three different cultures came together to create the Atlantic World: Native American culture, European culture, and West African culture.
  • European exploration of the Americas brought these cultures together and reshaped them into something new.

Summary and Analysis
In the late fifteenth century, three distinct cultures collided to form what the authors refer to as the Atlantic World. The first culture comprised the Native Americans who inhabited the continent of North America. These native peoples had first arrived as part of a migration from Asia, most likely over the Bering Strait off Alaska’s west coast, and eventually worked their way across the continent and evolved into many different societies with distinct languages. Despite their differences, they also had many common characteristics, including their kinship or tribal structure, their animistic religious beliefs, and their concept of respect for the land, all of which would be at odds with the coming Europeans’ beliefs.

The Europeans who came across the ocean in search of riches had a very different culture. Europe was undergoing an unprecedented period of economic and population growth as farming methods increased food supplies. The Renaissance (a French word that means “rebirth”) had brought about a time of great creativity as Europeans strove for knowledge in every field. European social structure was based on wealth and power rather than on kinship relationships and had developed strong nation states that heavily competed with each other. Europeans carried those competitive values with them to their new lands in the West. They also brought with them Christianity and a strong sense of religious superiority. They believed that the Native Americans they encountered in the New World were inferior.

Also contributing to this new Atlantic World was the culture of West Africa. Based on kinship and tribal ties, the culture of West Africa differed significantly from that of Europe, but the two societies traded together peacefully for many years. Slavery, however, changed everything. Early on, slavery was an internal part of African culture. Africans captured other Africans in raids or wars. These captives became slaves and a part of their owners’ tribes. Eventually, some African slaves were sold to European traders. When the Europeans reached the New World and found that Native Americans were unsuited to the work of farming and mining, they insisted on having—and then took—more and more West Africans for slaves. The slave trade had begun.

First Columbus and then other explorers came to the new world. They were seeking a way to reach India, but they soon realized the value of the continent they had found instead. The Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Dutch all became involved in exploiting and settling this rich new land. European explorers brought not only their culture and values, but also their prejudices, diseases, wars, and weapons. Disease alone decimated the native populations, who had little or no resistance to European diseases. Because the native populations were sick and dying, they were not able to satisfy the Europeans enormous need for labor to mine for gold and to establish plantations. Thus the Spanish, and those after them, turned to West Africa for slaves to provide the labor.

Section 2: European Colonization of the Americas

Main Ideas

  • Several European countries established colonies, and each colony was very different.
  • The French established fur trading posts in Canada.
  • The Spanish carved out an empire based on mining and farming that brought them great wealth.
  • The English established the largest and most populated colonies on the Eastern seaboard.

Summary and Analysis
Although there were several European countries that were competing for land in the new world, only a few made a large mark on the continent. The Portuguese settled and created a large colony in what is present-day Brazil. The French established fur trading posts and settlements in present-day Canada. And the Dutch settled in New Amsterdam, which would later become New York. The two main colonial powers—and constant enemies—were England and Spain.

The Spanish conquistadors carved out an empire in Mexico, Central America, South America, and on the islands of the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish were not as focused on settling their lands as they were on exploiting them for gold and crops. They tried to use Native Americans as slaves but found that they were not suitable; they began bringing in West Africans as slaves instead and so ignited the slave trade. Forts were built to help settle and defend Spanish territory in the New World, and missionaries for the Roman Catholic Church established missions throughout Spanish America.

While the Spanish focused on the southern and western areas of the New World, the English established successful colonies along the eastern seaboard. The first truly successful colony was Jamestown, which struggled for years but achieved success and stability with the development of tobacco as a cash crop. Also successful were the colonies planted in New England by the Puritans, beginning with Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans were a splinter group of Protestants who left England to practice their ascetic version of Christianity freely. The Puritans’ belief in hard work and working for the common good paid off. By 1700, nearly 100,000 people lived in the Massachusetts, primarily around the growing city of Boston.

The English established other colonies, including New Jersey, Maryland, and the Carolinas. Many Englishmen came to the New World seeking religious tolerance like the Puritans. Maryland was founded by Catholics seeking relief from persecution in Protestant England. Pennsylvania was settled by the Quakers, also seeking freedom of religion. Rhode Island and Connecticut were founded by Puritans who were dissatisfied with conditions in Massachusetts.

Section 3: Growth of the American Colonies

Main Ideas

  • The English colonies developed diverse economies that resulted in a system of triangular trade.
  • England gave colonies a great deal of self-rule.
  • Tensions developed between the English colonists and the French traders and Indians.

Summary and Analysis
England gave colonies a great deal of freedom to govern themselves. The Pilgrims set the precedent with their Mayflower Compact, which provided a local government. By 1614, Virginia had a House of Burgesses, a legislative body that was in effect a limited form of self-government. England’s relationship with the colonies was based on the economic theory of mercantilism, which held that all countries were in competition for a limited amount of gold. England thus wanted colonies to provide raw materials, a market for finished goods, and loyal colonists. England found that she got what she wanted from her colonies by leaving them alone.

The differences in the geography of the northern and southern colonies saw the growth of divergent economies. Large plantation-style farming worked well in the South for growing rice, indigo, cotton, and tobacco. These labor-intensive crops also necessitated the introduction of slavery. The North’s small farms and more diverse economy were not as well suited for slave labor. By the late 1700s, there were approximately 400,000 African slaves in the southern states and only around 50,000 in the northern states. A system of triangular trade was developed as New England merchants brought finished products such as books and cloth to the West Indies, then brought sugar to New England where it was made into rum, and then finally brought the rum and firearms to the West Indies for more slaves.

By the 1700s, several issues were causing tension in the colonies. First, the colonies’ growing population was coming into conflict with French trappers and Native Americans along the western and northern frontiers. Second, preachers such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield sparked a religious movement called “The Great Awakening,” which revived colonists’ religious convictions. This religious independence led to the formation of two new Christian denominations: Baptism and Methodism. Proponents of each claimed that individuals could act on their own faith and questioned the idea that some people are better than others because of birth or wealth. These new ideas would have grave consequences for the future of the colonies.