Most authorities believe that the Western hemisphere was populated at the end of the last Ice Age when a lowered ocean level exposed a land bridge that Asian peoples traversed to North America.
Later, the arriving European settlers discovered the existence of extensive civilizations. In the southern reaches of North America (present-day Mexico and Central America) the Mayan civilization built sophisticated stone structures, developed an advanced numerical system and maintained extensive agricultural complexes. The Aztecs established a far-reaching empire that controlled much of present-day Mexico.
In the northern portions of North America the early native peoples are commonly divided into the following regional groups:
- The Eastern Woodland Culture was located in the drainage area of the Mississippi River east to the Atlantic Ocean and south from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Various groups of mound builders existed in this region.
- The Plains culture existed on the open expanses of present-day Canada and the United States.
- The Southwest culture occupied areas in present-day northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Notable within this grouping were the Pueblo societies in present-day New Mexico and Arizona.
- The Far West culture ranged from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
- The Northwest culture inhabited the coastal regions of the northwestern United States and western Canada
- The Subarctic culture stretched across Canada north of the Great Lakes and south of the Arctic tree line, and across much of Alaska
- The Arctic culture occupied the treeless expanses in the extreme northern portions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland
Historical evidence for early European ventures to the New World is in dispute, but it appears that Norsemen, including Leif Eriksson
, made voyages to the area toward the end of the 10th century.
Europe lacked the technological skills and motivation to immediately follow the Vikings into the New World. Conditions changed
, however, during the 1400s. Portugal
emerged as the first nation-state to engage in an organized effort to reach the lucrative Far Eastern markets by means of an all-water route.
Next, Spanish exploration
of the New World followed the voyages of Christopher Columbus
, 1492-1504. Settlements were established in the hope of finding mineral wealth, converting the native populations to Christianity, and for the thrill of a great adventure.
England and France followed Spain into the Americas in the early 17th century, later to be joined by Holland and, briefly, Sweden.
Northern European interest in exploration was fueled by the search for a Northwest Passage
. Later, attention was turned to the establishment of permanent colonies. The English failed in an effort at Roanoke Island
in the 1580s, but succeeded at Jamestown
in 1607. In 1620, a Pilgrim colony was established at Plymouth
in present-day Massachusetts
, followed in 1630 by the Puritan
colony of Massachusetts Bay
The white settlements in New England sparked interaction with local Native Americans, notably the Narragansett
and the Pequot
. The ultimate failure of the relationships was seen in the Pequot War
(1637) and King Philip’s War
- First Contact - European explorers were the first to encounter indigenous peoples of the New World. The first contact may have occurred when Thorvald, brother of Leif Eriksson, died in a skirmish with natives near V... Continue Reading
- The Spanish - During the 15th century, the Iberian Peninsula at the western end of the Mediterranean Sea became the focal point of European efforts to reach the riches of Asia by a sea route, rather than depend on ... Continue Reading
- The French - Up to the eve of the explosion of European exploratory and colonizing activity, France had been embroiled in the enervating Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). That series of conflicts started in a quarr... Continue Reading
- The English - By 1500, England was arguably the most politically advanced nation in Europe. It had been engaged in a centuries-long struggle between the monarchy and nobility that predated the famed Magna Charta (... Continue Reading
- Roanoke Island - In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh hired navigators Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to head an exploratory venture to the New World. It was originally intended that a settlement be made in the Chesapeake B... Continue Reading
- Jamestown - England was relatively slow to begin settlements in North America, which stood small in the shadow of the vast Spanish Empire. Several halting attempts were made during the 1500s, most notably those ... Continue Reading
- Leif Ericksson - Erik Thorvaldsson, popularly know as Erik the Red, led a colonizing party to Greenland in 986 A.D. after being forced out of Iceland. His son, Leif Eriksson, was most likely born in Greenland (but so... Continue Reading
- Christopher Columbus - Christopher Columbus, the son of a respected weaver and local politician, was born in Genoa. He worked in his father's business, but chose to go to sea at age 14. Columbus sailed throughout the Medi... Continue Reading
- John Cabot - John Cabot was born in Genoa, Italy, became a merchant and mariner in Venice, then finally settled in Bristol, England. His success in commerce induced Henry VII to sponsor Cabot as the leader of a v... Continue Reading
- Sir Francis Drake - Francis Drake was one of the most famous men of his age, having won royal favor, and amassed a fortune from preying on Spanish ships and ports. Born in Devonshire, England, he was the son of a tenant... Continue Reading
- Jacques Cartier - Jacques Cartier, the French navigator, established his country’s claim to present-day Canada through his explorations of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River. Jacques Cartier was bor... Continue Reading
- Henry Hudson - Henry Hudson, the English navigator, failed in his great quest to find an all-water route to the East, but was rewarded for his efforts by having a number of prominent North American geographic featur... Continue Reading