First European Settlements of North America

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  • 0:02 The Cool Kids of Colonialism
  • 1:36 French Settlements
  • 2:56 British Settlements
  • 5:00 Dutch Territories
  • 6:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the first years of European colonization in North America as several nations attempted to establish their first colonial settlements. Then, you can test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Cool Kids of Colonialism

In every school there was always that one kid who just defined 'cool'. Everything they did started a trend. They wore sunglasses, and suddenly everybody was rushing to the store to buy those same sunglasses. They got a smartphone, and everybody rushed to trade in their old phones. They started colonizing North America, and everybody rushed across the Atlantic Ocean to start their own colonies.

In the 16th century, Spain was the cool kid of Europe. The Spanish kingdom, brand new at the time, sponsored the voyage of a man named Christopher Columbus in 1492. Spain was trying to find a new route to China, because nations like Portugal and cities like Venice already had the good routes around Africa and across the Asian continent. Columbus' voyage paid off, and Spain learned that there was an entire continent across the ocean. They established colonies in the Bahamas and Cuba, and started exploring North America in 1513 as they mapped the area they named Florida.

However, they really made news after conquering the Aztec Empire in 1521 and gaining the wealth of Mexico. Spain became instantly wealthy, profiting from the gold, silver, spices, flowers, foods, and minerals of the New World. The treasure ships sailing back to Spain, overflowing with goods, were enough to convince the other European nations to start colonizing the lands north of Spanish control. Although Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and other nations managed to establish colonies, the biggest contenders were France, Britain, and the Netherlands.

French Settlements

French efforts to colonize the Americas began around 1534, when the explorer Jacques Cartier began charting the Saint Lawrence River, the major waterway between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes. Cartier was looking for a northern sea route to the Pacific Ocean but ended up founding the colony New France. French ships and French fur trappers visited the colony but did not establish true settlements there for many years.

In 1608, the French, under Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Dugua de Mons, founded the city of Quebec in the part of the territory called Canada. Although settlement was originally slow, by 1640, around 355 colonists lived there. The French tried to make alliances with the local native groups, notably the Algonquin and Huron. They fought alongside the natives in local power struggles and maintained good relationships with them, establishing crucial trade networks with the native people of the Americas.

The French traders and explorers were some of the first Europeans to encounter most of modern North America. In the late 17th century, they also extended south, founding the colony of Louisiana in 1682. For most of the early colonial period, the French interests in the Americas were in fur trapping and trading with the indigenous people, although they also hunted for gold and other treasures.

British Settlements

The first British settlement in North America was St. John's, in Newfoundland, Canada around 1520. However, it could not sustain a year-round population until 1620, a century later. The first major attempt to create a British colony in the modern-day United States was at Roanoke, in present day North Carolina in 1587. Historians call this the 'lost colony', so you may be able to guess how that turned out. By the time a ship arrived with fresh supplies in 1590, the colony was abandoned and the people gone, with their exact whereabouts and destiny serving as a longstanding historical mystery.

In 1606, the British got serious and King James I formed the Virginia Company to settle North America. It did so in 1607 at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Jamestown, located in Virginia, was beset by disease and starvation. The powerful Powhatan Confederacy, a coalition of Algonquin-speaking people under the leadership of Chief Powhatan, took pity on the colonists. The Powhatan, and other native allies, showed the colonists how to farm, hunt, and basically how to survive. The fact that the English colonists were starving in one of the most naturally abundant places on the continent must have seemed strange to the natives, but the English did not arrive prepared to farm. They arrived prepared to dig for gold, expecting the riches that Spain had found in Mexico.

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