European Migration to the North American Colonies

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, you'll learn about European migration to the North American colonies. We'll cover which European countries were involved in migration and where in North America they settled.

European Competition in North America

Go back in your mind to the Age of Exploration. You know, Christopher Columbus and all that good stuff. After Columbus landed in the Caribbean region in 1492, the major European powers all wanted a piece of North America. With all its natural resources, it was just there for the taking, or so most European countries thought. So the question became: which European country or countries would become dominant in North America? In time, France, Great Britain, and Spain emerged as the dominant powers on the continent.

French Migration to North America

What do the cities of Detroit, St. Louis, and New Orleans have in common? They were all founded as French settlements. The French established a very strong presence in North America, especially in the North, the Ohio River Valley region, and along the Mississippi River. In 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier claimed sections of northern North America for France. This area became known as New France. At the peak of its power, New France extended from Newfoundland in the Northeast to the Rocky Mountains in the West to the Gulf of Mexico in the South.

French explorers and immigrants came to North America primarily for material benefits. Unlike some of their English counterparts, most French immigrants did not come to North America to escape religious persecution. The French were known for their hunting and trapping skills, and fur trading with Native American groups and other forms of commerce became a cornerstone of French colonization.

Unlike the English, the French had difficulty at times getting women to immigrate to New France. Because of this, French and Native American intermarriage was common, especially in the frontier regions. To encourage women to immigrate, King Louis XIV sponsored a program in which some 800 young French women were sent to Canada between 1663 and 1673 to marry French settlers and raise families. These women became known as the King's Daughters. In the Caribbean, the hope of wealth through the sugar trade drew many, and there were also slaves in the region, who were sent against their will.

English Migration to North America

English migration to North America began in 1607 with the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America. In 1620 another English settlement was established at Plymouth, Massachusetts. We know this group as the Pilgrims. The English came to North America for a number of reasons. The search for gold was a major motivation for the settlers of Jamestown. To their disappointment, they found none. The Pilgrims, of course, came for religious reasons. They wanted to worship God in their own way, which they hadn't been able to do under the authority of the Church of England.

This illustration depicts the Pilgrims landing in Plymouth in 1620.

The English settled primarily along the East Coast of what is now the United States. In time, 13 separate colonies were established. Like the French, the English brought slaves to North America. English colonization was more vibrant than French. By the outbreak of the French and Indian War in 1754, the British population of North America outnumbered the French 20 to 1.

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