Global Migration & Settlement During the Age of Discovery

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 we will learn about global migration and settlement in the Age of Discovery. We will understand the patterns and trends that developed as Europeans migrated to the New World.

European Migration in the Age of Discovery

The Age of Discovery was a remarkable period of time in which globalization took place at an unprecedented scale. The world was becoming a smaller place (so to speak) as European powers began exploring and settling the American continents. Just so we are clear, when we talk about the Age of Discovery we are referring to the period of time between the 15th and 18th century. This was the age of Christopher Columbus, Ponce de León, Hernán Cortés , and Jacques Cartier.

After the New World was revealed to Europe by Christopher Columbus, a race to claim and settle the new land broke out between the major European powers. Initially, Portugal and the Netherlands had a hand in this land-grab, but ultimately it came down to three-way contest between France, Great Britain, and Spain. These were the most powerful European nations at the time, so it is no surprise they emerged as the players in the race to colonize the New World.

As migration and settlement took place, patterns and trends developed. Certain nations tended to settle certain regions, and tended to go about settlement in certain ways. Let's explore these trends, and see how colonization differed among the major European powers.

Spanish Colonization in the New World

Spain was a dominant force in the colonization of the Americas, especially early on. Remember, Columbus claimed the land he discovered for Spain. The Spanish settled throughout South America, the Caribbean, and sections of North America. In North America, they settled many in Florida, Mexico, and the American Southwest.

Conquistadors is the term we use to describe Spanish explorers and soldiers who claimed land in the New World for the monarchy. Hernán Cortés and Hernando de Soto are two well known Spanish conquistadors.

Hernan Cortes was one of many famous Spanish conquistadors.
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The desire to accumulate gold was a major motivation for Spanish colonization, as was the spreading of the Catholic faith. Many zealous missionaries arrived in 'New Spain' to convert Native American groups to the Christian religion. Some missionaries were very gracious and kind, but others were cruel. At the hands of Spanish immigrants, Native American groups like the Aztec and Inca suffered greatly. New Spain developed into a fairly stable society, with religion and conquest playing central roles.

French Colonization of the New World

The French migration to the New World led to a strong presence in North America, particularly along the Mississippi River, in Canada, and in the Ohio River Valley and other portions of the frontier. Jacques Cartier claimed sections of North America for France in 1534. Just as the Spanish-controlled region of Americas was called 'New Spain,' French controlled North America became known as 'New France.'

At the height of its power, New France stretched from Newfoundland to the Rocky Mountains to the Gulf of Mexico. American cities such as Detroit, New Orleans, and St. Louis were founded by the French. Economic reasons were the primary reason French immigrants came to North America. There was much wealth to be gained from hunting and trapping furs, as well as trade with Native American groups. In fact, the fur trade became a cornerstone of French culture in North America.

French explorer Jacques Cartier.
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We have to remember that not everyone who came to the New World came willingly. All the major European powers participated in the slave trade. In time, a pattern developed known as the slave triangle, or triangular trade. There were many variations of this pattern, but basically it involved importing slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean or other parts of the Americas; from there products like sugar were taken up to the coast where they were traded for rum or manufactured goods; these goods were then taken back to Europe or Africa, and the process was repeated.

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