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From the 15th century onward, European nations invaded the New World and began establishing empires throughout the continent.
Evaluate the goals of Spanish, British, and French exploration in the Americas
The Spanish Empire between 1492 and 1892, expanded across most of Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and much of North America. In its conquest of the New World, the Spanish subdued and defeated the Inca civilization of Peru, the Aztecs of Central America, and the Maya civilization of the Yucatan.
England's forays into the New World began in 1497 with John Cabot's journey to North America. British exploration of the New World centered on searching for a Northwest Passage through the continent.
The search for a northwest passage to Asia and the burgeoning fur trade in Europe drove the French to explore and settle North America.
Samuel de Champlain began the first permanent settlement of New France and Quebec City in present-day Canada and created a prosperous trade with the American Indians for beaver pelts and other animal hides.
While the Americas remained firmly under the control of indigenous peoples in the first decades of European invasion, conflict increased as colonization spread and Europeans placed greater demands upon the indigenous populations, including expecting them to convert to Christianity (either Catholicism or Protestantism). The Spanish, English, and French were the most powerful nations to establish empires in the new lands.
Conquest of Latin America by the Spanish Empire
Beginning with the 1492 arrival of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish Empire expanded for four centuries (1492–1892) across most of present-day Central America, the Caribbean islands, Mexico, and much of the rest of North America. The empire also claimed territory in present-day British Columbia; the states of Alaska, Washington, and Oregon; and the western half of South America. Colonial expansion under the Spanish Empire was initiated by the Spanish conquistadors and developed by the Monarchy of Spain through its administrators and missionaries. The motivations for colonial expansion were trade and the spread of the Christian faith through indigenous conversions.
Columbus' initial landing and first mainland explorations were followed by a phase of inland expeditions and conquests in the Caribbean and South America, where the first European settlements occurred in the New World. After the forming of Nueva Cádiz in Venezuela and Santa Cruz on the present-day Guajira peninsula, explorers led by Vasco Núez de Balboa conquered areas on the coast of present-day Colombia in 1502. This area was inhabited by the Chibchan speaking nations, including the indigenous Muisca and Tairona people. The Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon traveled to the New World on Columbus' second voyage. He explored areas to the north, looking for a Fountain of Youth, and landed on a peninsula on the coast of North America, which he named Florida.
Attack on the Aztecs and Mayas
The conquistadors, believing they held considerable military and technological superiority over the native cultures, attacked and destroyed the Aztecs in 1521. This campaign was led by Hernán Cortés and featured the Tlaxcala and other indigenous peoples allied against the Mexica/Aztec Empire. The Spanish conquest of the Maya civilization—based in the Yucatán Peninsula of present-day Mexico and northern Central America—was a much longer campaign, lasting from 1551 to 1697. The day Hernán Cortés landed ashore at present-day Veracruz, April 22, 1519, marked the beginning of 300 years of Spanish hegemony over the region.
By the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors had penetrated deep into Central and South America. European explorers arrived at Río de la Plata in 1516. Buenos Aires, a permanent colony, was established in 1536, and in 1537, Asunción was established in the area that is now Paraguay. Buenos Aires suffered attacks by the indigenous peoples that forced the settlers away, and in 1541, the site was abandoned. A second and permanent settlement was established in 1580, by Juan de Garay.
Attack on the Incas
In 1532, at the Battle of Cajamarca, a group of Spanish soldiers under Francisco Pizarro and their indigenous Andean Indian allies, ambushed and captured the Emperor Atahualpa of the Inca Empire. It was the first step in a long campaign—which took advantage of a recent civil war and the enmity of indigenous nations the Incas had subjugated—that required decades of fighting to subdue the mightiest empire in the Americas. In the following years, the conquistadors and indigenous allies extended their control over the greater Andes region, leading to the establishment of the Viceroyalty of Perú in 1542.
The brutal practices of the conquistadors (known as the Black Legend), as recorded by the Spanish themselves, were applied through the encomienda, a system ostensibly set up to protect people from warring tribes as well as to teach them the Spanish language and the Catholic religion. In practice, though, it was tantamount to slavery.
England's forays into the New World began in 1497 (just a few years after Columbus' initial voyage) with John Cabot's journey to North America. British exploration of the New World centered on searching for a northwest passage through the continent. Cabot explored the North American coast and correctly deduced that the spherical shape of the earth made the north—where the longitudes are much shorter—a quicker route to the New World than a trip to the islands in the south, where Columbus was exploring. Encouraged, he asked the English monarchy for a more substantial expedition to further explore and settle the lands that he found. Cabot's ships departed, never to be seen again.
England remained preoccupied with internal affairs for much of the 16th century. Cabot's adventures failed to spark much interest, and England's break with the Catholic church in 1533 led to decades of religious turmoil. However, by the beginning of the 17th century, under the rule of Elizabeth I, the empire had consolidated much of the British Isles and was becoming a much more formidable force on the world stage. With the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, England replaced Spain as the dominant world power. This led to the gradual decline of Spanish influence in the New World and the widening of English imperial interests.
Sir Walter Raleigh
Sir Walter Raleigh sought to establish an empire in the New World after having gained considerable favor from Queen Elizabeth I by suppressing rebellions in Ireland. On March 25, 1584, the Queen granted Raleigh a charter for the colonization of the area of North America known as Virginia. Raleigh and Elizabeth I intended that the venture should provide riches from the New World and a base from which to send privateers on raids against the treasure fleets of Spain. Raleigh himself never visited North America, although he led expeditions in 1595 and 1617 to South America's Orinoco River basin in search of the legendary golden city of El Dorado. Supplying the colonists became troublesome due to continuing war with Spain. The end of the colony in 1587 is unrecorded; as a result, the Roanoke settlement is referred to as the "Lost Colony." There are multiple hypotheses as to the fate of the colonists, including integration into local indigenous tribes.
Henry Hudson was an English sea explorer and navigator in the early 17th century. Hudson made two attempts on behalf of English merchants to find a prospective northwest passage via a route above the Arctic Circle. He explored the region around the modern-day New York metropolitan area and is known for exploring the river which eventually was named for him, thereby laying the foundation for Dutch colonization of the region. In 1611, Hudson discovered a strait and immense bay on his final expedition while searching for the Northwest Passage. After wintering on the shore of James Bay, Hudson wanted to press on to the west, but most of his crew mutinied. The mutineers cast Hudson, his son, and seven others adrift, and they were never seen again.
Giovanni da Verrazzano
The search for a northwest passage to Asia and the burgeoning fur trade in Europe drove the French to explore and settle North America. Major French exploration of North America began under the rule of Francis I. In 1524, Francis sent Italian-born Giovanni da Verrazzano to explore the region between Florida and Newfoundland for a route to the Pacific Ocean. Verrazzano gave the names Francesca and Nova Gallia to that land between New Spain and English Newfoundland, thus promoting French interests.
Later, in 1534, Francis sent Jacques Cartier on the first of three voyages to explore the coast of Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River, to investigate whether Asian lands could be reached from the north. His journey in 1534 retraced many of the voyages of the Vikings and established contacts with American Indians in modern-day Canada. He explored some of northern Canada, established friendly relations with the American Indians, and discovered that the St. Lawrence River region had neither abundant gold nor a northwest passage to Asia. Cartier attempted to create the first permanent European settlement in North America at Cap-Rouge (Quebec City) in 1541 with 400 settlers, but the settlement was abandoned the next year after bad weather and native attacks.
Champlain and New France
During the 16th century, the taming of the Siberian wilderness by the Russians had brought about a thriving fur trade, which created a great demand for fur throughout Europe. France was quick to realize that North America held great potential as a provider of fur. Samuel de Champlain began the first permanent settlement of New France and Quebec City in present-day Canada and created a prosperous trade with the American Indians for beaver pelts and other animal hides. Meanwhile, further to the south, French Protestants, called Huguenots, had the opportunity to leave hostile European lands while advancing French claims to the New World. Settlements in present-day Florida and Georgia created tension with Spanish conquistadors, who after conquering Caribbean lands, would begin to expand northwards in search of new territory. From the middle of the 15th century forward, France tried to establish several other colonies throughout North America that failed due to weather, disease, or conflict with other European powers.
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“European Empires in North America.”
Boundless U.S. History
Boundless, 29 Aug. 2016.
Retrieved 22 Feb. 2017 from