People came to the Americas from every direction and settled in regions facing both the Atlantic and Pacific. The first settlements in the future-U.S. reflected the involvement of the Spanish and British empires; they were San Agustín, Florida (1560); Jamestown, Virginia (1607); and Sante Fe, New Mexico (1610). Similarly, Québec was founded by New France in 1608. The Atlantic economy, based on slavery and natural resource extraction, can serve as an axis for the story of what connected these peoples and show the different roles they played.

The details that follow give a flavor of important aspects of the different empires in the Americas, particularly regarding their interconnectedness. This list is not comprehensive; details were chosen because of their potential teachability in secondary-level classrooms. For each imperial power, further resources are offered for those who wish to read more.

Native American Peoples
Though decimated in numbers by the mid-16th century, Native American peoples were influential in shaping events and constraining European expansion.

  • The Five Nations of the Iroquois League were a major power in early North America, and could be taught alongside European powers of the time.
  • Through the Newfoundland fisheries, Indians had encountered Europeans before colonization began and were not complete strangers to their ways. This gave them some power to broker their future. For example, they initiated the fur trade in the St. Lawrence, met Jacques Cartier on their own terms (Micmac), and refused all missionary activity (Susquehannock).
  • The Native Americans were not politically naïve, but used their own diplomatic protocols to try to control others. For example, Powhatan tried to bring Captain John Smith and through him the English into his system as his clients, while the English wanted to crown Powhatan as a vassal of King James I (neither attempt worked).
  • Early on, no Native American could have foreseen the coming of large-scale colonization, which was driven almost exclusively by events and trends in Europe (such as overpopulation, the Little Ice Age, the capture of Constantinople, and the plague).
  • As colonization forced Indians to renegotiate their lands and alliances, they came into conflict with one another as well as Europeans. For instance, in the 1650s, the Susquehannock fought the Arrigahagas in a brutal war.

Further Resources:

  • New Worlds For All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America by Colin G. Calloway, 1998
  • Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America by Daniel K. Richter (2003)
  • The World Turned Upside Down: Indian Voices from Early America by Colin G. Calloway (Ed.) (1994).
  • A Long and Terrible Shadow: White Values, Native Rights in the Americas by Thomas R. Berger (1992)
  • Brothers Among Nations: The Pursuit of Intercultural Alliances in Early America, 1580-1660 by Cynthia Van Zandt (2008)

The Spanish
Beginning in 1492, the Spanish colonized parts of both South and North America. They had an American empire for 150 years before Jamestown was founded.

  • Florida, Texas, New Mexico and California were part of the colonial story from the beginning – they were the first European colonizers in North America. Florida and New Mexico were part of the Spanish Empire for longer than they have been part of the U.S.
  • As an evangelical presence, the Spanish built Catholic missions in the regions of today’s New Mexico, California, Florida and Georgia. They tried to convert the Indians, but also intermarried and communicated with them to a degree that the more ethnocentric British and Dutch never did. In trying to win allies among indigenous populations, the Spanish discovered the need to accommodate Indian political, economic and cultural practices.
  • Spanish-American history – conquest, trade, information, governance – flowed on a South to North axis, not East to West; early on, for instance, reconnaissance and slaving expeditions came out of the Caribbean.
  • The Spanish were the people who obsessed the English for much of early colonial history; Britain and Spain were neighbors in the southeast (FL, GA). The English feared and envied the Spanish and cast themselves as “anti-Spanish” (promulgating the Black Legend that the Spanish were uniquely brutal colonizers).
  • Early on, Florida and New Mexico were financial losses for Spain, seen as the remotest of boondocks (poor, sparsely populated, and dangerous); however, they were strategic buffers between important Spanish areas and other imperial powers
  • For the Spanish a crucial area to safeguard was the corridor between Florida and Cuba, where ships carrying silver had to pass.
  • Spain’s northern colonies had more in common with New France than with the core areas of Spanish colonization in Mexico and the central Andes.
  • Some English colonies (Carolina and the southern colonies) learned from the Spanish that they could conquer, dispossess, and even sell Indian captives into slavery, mainly to West Indian sugar plantations.
  • Among the imperial powers, the Spanish led in large-scale cattle ranching.
  • In 18th century, enslaved African Americans from Georgia and South Carolina ran South (not North as was more typical later) to freedom. The Spanish converted them into soldiers, where they became the first line of defense for Spanish Florida.

Further Resources:

  • The Spanish Frontier in North America by David J. Weber (1994)
  • Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830 by John H. Elliott (2007)
  • Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520-1820 website by Dana Leibsohn and Barbara Mundy
  • Colonial Latin America website by Peter Bakewell at Emory:, has images, texts and a useful chronology.
  • Caribbean Views: Sugar, Slavery and the Making of the West Indies website of images & texts concerning different views of life in the British Caribbean colonies in the 18th & 19th centuries. From the British Library:
  • Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands by James F. Brooks (2001)
  • When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 by Ramón A. Gutiérrez (1991)
  • Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California by Douglas Monroy (1990)

The French
The French colonized the St. Lawrence region, Canada, the Mississippi Valley and the Caribbean, creating both urban and rural colonial models that contrasted in many respects with other styles of colony.

  • New France was primarily a mercantile empire with a small population. It included metropolitan fur trading centers in Indian country (such as Detroit, Mobile, New Orleans, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago), but land was of secondary importance. This was a major contrast with the British or Dutch plantation model (except for some plantations in French Illinois and Louisiana).
  • Missionaries traveled to Indian country in 17th century Canada just as they did in the 19th century American West.
  • The French frontier was urban along the Mississippi, and Ursuline nuns started schools and hospitals there beginning in 1639. (Cities with social services challenge our standard notion of the rugged frontier!) Rural Canada, however, was a more self-sufficient, isolated world.
  • Along much of the Mississippi Valley and Great Lakes region, the French and Indians learned to live literally side by side, with much more intermarriage than in the northern European colonies (New France was more like New Spain in this respect). The middle of the continent became increasingly international as it grew and absorbed refugees from the East, and as major warfare began to focus on the Great Lakes, the Iroquois regions, and New France.
  • After the fall of the French empire, francophone traders establish town, ferries and supply posts in West after Lewis and Clark, serving as brokers of the U.S.’s western expansion.

Further Resources:

  • The Bourgeois Frontier: The French Frontier in North America, 1763-1863 by Jay Gitlin (2007)
  • The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 by Richard White (1991)
  • France in America by W.J. Eccles (1990)
  • The People of New France by Allan Greer (1997)

The British
For most of the colonial period, the British colonies emphasized their distinctiveness from one another more than their commonalities as British territories. Colonies were founded for a variety of reasons including freedom to practice Puritan beliefs (Massachusetts Bay), the ideal of a non-slaveholding utopian community (Georgia), and refuge for Catholics (Maryland).

  • The British colonies came to include people from England, Scots Highlanders, Scots-Irish, Irish, Germans, Moravians, Ashkenazi Jews, and Africans (including Muslims, especially in the Carolinas).
  • The British were more ethnocentric than other imperial powers. Their pattern of not intermarrying with Native Americans, made possible by a relatively equal gender ratio of immigrants, meant that communication and understanding across cultures suffered. One effect was that after the first few decades, the British had to fight wars on its colonial frontiers, some of which were very deadly such as King Philips’ War of 1675-1676.
  • The story of how the various groups interacted involved cooperation as well as warfare, and was an ever-shifting story. Warfare in the 1650s helps to illustrate the variety of struggles as parties renegotiated their turf: in this period, the English and Dutch fought 3 wars with each other (a European-European conflict), the English fought an alliance of Indians in King Philips’/Metacom’s War (a European-Indian conflict), and the Susquehannock fought the Arrigahagas (an Indian-Indian conflict).

Further Resources:

  • The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800 by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (Eds.) (2002).
  • Atlantic Virginia by April Lee Hatfield (2003)
  • The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos (about colonial relations between 18th century English, French and Mohawk peoples) (1995)

The Africans
Most though not all Africans were initially enslaved and brought to the Americas; some eventually obtained freedom and were part of a new Atlantic Creole culture from South to North America. Their experiences across the Americas varied tremendously, depending on the location, their slave/free status, and the nature of their work.

  • “Africans” is a misleading title, as African peoples came from particular regions and cultures, especially Angola, Kongo, Senegambia and the Bight of Biafra. The languages they spoke were not mutually intelligible.
  • The African Diaspora was central to New World colonization, and reached Europe and all regions of South America and North America. As Thomas Bender (2006) has noted, by the middle of the 16th century Africans were in Lisbon, Mexico City, and the Chesapeake, pursuing many vocations. By 1820, 5 times as many Africans as Europeans had come to the Americas.

Further Resources:

  • Making Freedom: African Americans in U.S. History (Volume I: True to our Native Land – Beginnings to 1770) by Primary Source (2004).
  • Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South by Michael A. Gomez (1998) University of North Carolina Press.

The Dutch
The Dutch established colonies in South America, the Caribbean, and North America (Manhattan and the Hudson River Valley).

  • New Amsterdam was marginal in the global Dutch commercial strategy; the Dutch primarily sought a piece of the profitable slave trade and sugar colonies, but had interests in the northern fur trade as well. Manhattan was so peripheral to their priorities that they chose Surinam over New Amsterdam after their victory in the Third Anglo-Dutch War.

Further Resources:

  • The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America by Russell Shorto (2005)
  • Journey into Mohawk Country by Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, with artwork by George O’Connor (graphic novel of Dutchman’s journal), New York: First Second, 2006.
  • Colonial New York: A History by Michael Kammen (1996)

The Swedish
New Sweden was founded on the Delaware Bay in 1643, and included some Finns as well as Swedes. It lasted a brief 12 years before being taken over by the Dutch.

Further resources:

  • Colonial Delaware: A History by John A. Munroe (1978)

The Russians
Although large in size, Russian Alaska was the smallest in population and the most marginal of the North America colonies. Founded in 1784 on Kodiak Island, the colony had just 400 Russians by 1800. But rumors of its encroachment into the west coast of North America unnerved the Spanish and helped to prompt exploration of the Pacific.

Further Resources:

  • American Colonies (chapter 19, “The Pacific”) by Alan Taylor (2001).
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