United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


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Up to 40-60% more affordable

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Hardcover print text only


Per volume


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

In-Book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

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Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform


Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Hardcover print text only


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Per volume


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

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Chapter 2: Cultural Collision

Chapter Overview

Beginning in 1492, and ever since, Columbus’s legacy has been contested. At the time, he was sent back to Spain in chains for treating Taíno and Spanish colonists with brutality on the island he had named Hispaniola (present day Haiti and Dominican Republic). Although he was cleared of the worst charges and allowed to sail on one more voyage to the Caribbean, he died in 1506 lacking the recognition and accolades from the Spanish monarchs he thought he deserved. During the hundreds of years since his death, Columbus has intermittently been lauded and resoundingly criticized for his role in the exploration and settlement of what he called the “new world.”

Whether you evaluate Columbus’s arrival in the Americas as a positive or negative event, October 12, 1492 was undoubtedly a seminal date in American history. Columbus’s arrival at what he called San Salvador in the Caribbean led to the creation of the “Atlantic World” that merged North and South America, Europe, and Africa. His arrival also signaled the beginning of the “Columbian Exchange,” which transferred people, plants, animals, diseases, and goods around the world. The Columbian Exchange irreparably changed the environments, biodiversity, diets, and populations of both the Americas and Europe (and later Africa and Asia). More so than any other part of the Columbian Exchange, European imported diseases such as smallpox proved deadly to Native Americans, who had no natural immunity to the diseases.

In the wake of Columbus’s “discovery,” Spain and other European countries raced to explore and settle the Americas. European powers utilized various models for creating their colonial empires in what would become the United States. Spain established small mission settlements in the southwest and southeast devoted to converting Native Americans to Catholicism and exploiting their labor. The French had small numbers, but established a powerful fur trade empire in the northern portion of North America. The Dutch also traded furs and established small settlements on the northeastern coast. The English, one of the last powers to arrive and establish a colonial presence in the Americas, followed an entirely different model of colonization and settlement. The English colonial empire on the eastern coast of America is the subject of Chapter 3.

No matter which model of colonization European powers utilized, Native Americans were profoundly affected by their encounters with the Spanish, French, and Dutch. They suffered from disease, land loss, and challenges to their cultures and religions. When faced with these challenges, Native Americans adopted several different strategies for survival. Some resisted militarily (like the Pueblos of New Mexico), others resisted covertly, and still others practiced accommodation. Some formed partnerships with European traders in order to obtain coveted goods. In many cases Native Americans successfully manipulated Europeans without their knowledge. Native Americans survived despite the life-changing challenges they faced following Columbus’s arrival.

This chapter examines the reasons for European colonization, their areas of exploration and settlement, and the often tortured relations with the native peoples that arose in the years following contact.

Chapter Objectives

  • Understand the reasons for European exploration and colonization
  • Examine selected early European explorations
  • Explore early efforts of the Spanish, French, Dutch, and English to explore and colonize the Americas
  • Understand the significance of the Columbian Exchange

Question 2.01

2.01 - Level 5

In textbooks, the Americas are often called the “new world.” How would you evaluate the use of this term? Should the Americas be called a “new world?” Why or why not?

Click here to see the answer to Question 2.01.

The Reasons for European Exploration and Colonization

Norse Exploration

Although the year is disputed, historians believe that Norse sailors began to explore outside of Scandinavia around 982, possibly due to political unrest or overpopulation in their homeland. Their explorations led them to Iceland, Greenland, and eventually what they called Vinland (due to the presence of wild grapes) on the Atlantic coast of North America. Around 1000, they formed a small settlement, including about eight buildings and 75 people, near L’Anse aux Meadows in present day northern Newfoundland (Figure 2.1). Their settlements remained small and lasted about 500 years until they were abandoned.

Figure 2.1: Recreation of a Norse long house, L'Anse aux Meadows. [1]​

While the story of Norse colonization remained alive in their epic tales, few other Europeans learned about their exploration and settlement of North America. Indeed, until the late fourteenth century, most Europeans did not know about the existence of the Americas. Historian Daniel Boorstin, in The Discoverers, commented that Norse explorers in America “did not change their own or anybody else’s view of the world... There was practically no feedback from the Vinland voyages. What is most remarkable is not that the Vikings actually reached America, but that they reached America and even settled there for a while, without discovering America” (215).

2.02 - Level 1

Which of the following accurately describes Norse colonization of the Americas?


In the fourteenth century, most Europeans knew about the existence of the Americans from Norse explorations and the small colonies they established in Newfoundland.


Norse explorers visited present-day Iceland, Greenland, and Canada.


Archaeologists have not found any evidence of Norse settlements in North America.


The Norse explored some of the Americas at the same time as Columbus—the late 1400s.

The Reasons for Expanded European Exploration in the 15th Century

By the late fifteenth century, several factors came together to set the stage for extensive European exploration and colonization far beyond the tentative (and relatively unknown) efforts of the Norse explorers. This exploration led to the creation of what historians call the Atlantic World, which eventually linked peoples and nations that bordered the Atlantic Ocean—including the two Americas, Europe, and Africa—together in a web of exchange, conquest, settlement, trade, and slavery.

First, the creation of the “Atlantic World” stemmed in part from the desire for cheaper, faster trade goods from Asia. Europeans coveted merchandise from China, India, Indonesia, and other countries in the East, including silks, gems, tapestries, perfumes, sugar, dyes, and especially spices. Europeans purchased these luxuries from Italian merchants, who in turn received them from Middle Eastern traders. The trade goods, however, were extremely expensive because they had to be transported across enormous distances and through numerous middlemen. European merchants and consumers wanted to find a less expensive and quicker route to Asia. By the fifteenth century, some people believed that the East could be reached more quickly by sailing south down the coast of Africa, or even by traveling west across the Atlantic.

2.03 - Level 2

Click on the continents that are part of the Atlantic World.

Second, while merchants were hoping to develop new trade routes to Asia, strong nation-states arose across Europe which had the political power and economic ability to support exploration. During the Middle Ages (approximately 500–1500), the majority of Europe was divided into small kingdoms that lacked political power. Although the Catholic Church loosely united Europe, specific countries lacked strong leadership and political power was weak and dispersed. At the local level, most people’s outlook was fairly provincial; the majority of people were small subsistence farmers, and few merchants traded beyond the borders of their own individual villages.

The political situation changed in the fifteenth century with the rise of new monarchs who consolidated political power. Beginning in Portugal and followed by France, Spain and finally England, these rulers brought together various social factions and were able to unite fragmented geographic regions. For example, the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabella of Castile in 1469 brought together two of the most powerful Spanish kingdoms. Like many of their counterparts across Western Europe, Ferdinand and Isabella began the process known as creating a nation-state. This included the development of national courts, laws, armies, bureaucracies, and tax collection systems. As these ambitious kings and queens consolidated power and increased their wealth, they became eager to further enrich their nations through expanded trade, exploration, and colonization.

Third, the efforts of monarchs to unify many different peoples into nation-states coincided with a sweeping cultural revival known as the Renaissance (meaning “rebirth”), which began in the fourteenth century. During the Renaissance, scholars and poets rediscovered the texts and ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as writings by Muslim, Eastern Orthodox, and Jewish scholars. Armed with this “rediscovered” knowledge, Renaissance scholars discussed ancient philosophy, explored science, nature, and the stars, and studied the human body, among many other topics. Renaissance artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo created paintings, sculptures, anatomical drawings, music, and new forms of architecture.

Renaissance scholars also rediscovered ancient Greek maps and writings on geography. They especially studied Ptolemy, a Greek scholar and mapmaker from Alexandria. Renaissance cartographers incorporated Ptolemy’s observations with more recent findings to produce more accurate maps. Indeed, Christopher Columbus relied in part on Ptolemy’s Geography when he left on his voyage to find a route to Asia (Figure 2.2).

Interestingly, school children are often taught that Columbus was one of the few mariners during his time who believed that the world was round. This is not true. Educated Renaissance scholars and geographers, like Ptolemy and other ancient Greek and Roman observers before them, knew that the world was spherical. Columbus, and others, however, underestimated the Earth’s circumference and especially the width of the Atlantic Ocean. This miscalculation meant that early explorers believed that they could quickly sail across the Atlantic to reach Asia. In fact, one geographer of the time theorized that the Atlantic could be crossed in a few days if the wind was favorable. In reality, it took Columbus about six weeks to cross the Atlantic on his initial voyage. 

Figure 2.2: This map illustrates that Renaissance scholars, like Ptolemy and other ancient Greek and Roman observers before them, knew that the world was spherical. Columbus, and others, however, underestimated the earth’s circumference and especially the width of the Atlantic Ocean. The map elongates Asia and does not fully represent Africa. The map also exaggerates geographical markers that were important to Renaissance mariners for trade, such as present-day Sri Lanka (known to Greek scholars as Taprobane). [2]

Fourth, the cultural expression and desire for knowledge that characterized the Renaissance also spurred the development of new technologies that aided exploration. The Portuguese took the early lead in creating new navigational technology. For example, Portuguese sailors mastered the magnetic compass (a Chinese invention) and the astrolabe (which helped determine latitude). These inventions allowed them to better navigate in ocean waters. Shipbuilders and mariners added the triangular Arab sail to their heavy cargo ships, which made it possible to sail into the wind. They also created a more maneuverable vessel, the caravel, which sailed faster than previous ships, cost less to rig and sail, carried large amounts of cargo, and could float in shallow water (Figure 2.3). Using the new navigational technology and ships, explorers also developed a better understanding of trade winds and ocean currents, which allowed them to plan their voyages to take advantage of favorable winds. They also learned how to navigate through or around difficult winds and currents.

Figure 2.3: Caravels, used on da Gama’s second voyage to India in 1502. [3]

Fifth and finally, the newly united European powers (especially Portugal) tested their new political power, ships, technology, and geographic knowledge by sailing south along the coast of Africa in attempts to reach the rich trade of the East. Beginning in 1418, under the leadership of Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), Portuguese seamen sailed their new caravels southward along the African coast. They learned to master the difficult Atlantic current and winds, and explored the Atlantic side of Africa. Eventually, they established several trading posts along the African coast. After Henry’s death, other Portuguese navigators continued exploring the extensive African coast, reaching as far south as Cape Verde on Africa’s western side. In 1487-1488, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope (the southern tip of Africa). In 1497-1498 Vasco da Gama traveled all of the way around the Cape of Good Hope to India, making him the first European explorer to sail directly from Europe to India (Figure 2.4).

Figure 2.4: Early Portuguese Explorations of Africa​

2.04 - Level 2

Which of the following was not a reason for European exploration beginning in the fifteenth century?


The consolidation of power by powerful monarchs across Europe


The desire for trade goods from the East


The Renaissance


The desire to spread democracy


The development of new sailing technology

Question 2.05

2.05 - Level 2

Briefly describe the role of the nation-state in spurring the Age of Exploration.

Click here to see the answer to Question 2.05.

In addition to new geographic knowledge, sailors brought gold, ivory, and other goods back from Africa to Europe. Unfortunately, the Portuguese explorers also began the European slave trade. In 1444, the Portuguese brought 235 enslaved Africans back to Lagos, a port city on the Atlantic coast of Portugal. By 1460, the Portuguese used enslaved Africans as labor on sugar plantations in Madeira, a Portuguese island off the west coast of Africa. In 1481, they built the first slave fort on the coast of modern Ghana. This meant that the slave trade was well established before Columbus reached the Americas. Millions of African slaves were wrenched from their home continent and forced to labor on the Caribbean Islands and North and South America over the course of four centuries. Moreover, Columbus and other European explorers followed the precedent established by the Portuguese and enslaved Native Americans, just as their predecessors had enslaved Africans.

2.06 - Level 1

Which of the following nations was the first to participate in the modern African slave trade?








United States

Christopher Columbus

The Portuguese initially dominated trade up and down the African coast as well as the water-route to India around the Cape of Good Hope. However, the Spanish also hoped to develop trade with the East. In order to avoid the Portuguese, they looked for another route that did not follow the African coast. Christopher Columbus convinced the Spanish monarchs he would lead their country to the riches of the East by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean, instead of using routes already established by the Portuguese.

Figure 2.5: Portrait of a man, said to be Christopher Columbus, 1519. [4]​

Christopher Columbus was from Genoa, Italy, although he learned to sail for the Portuguese (Figure 2.5). During his initial voyages, he became interested in the idea of reaching Asia by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean. Although he did not know it at the time, this plan was based on several errors. First, he believed that the earth was about 25% smaller than it actually was. Second, he thought that the Asian continent extended about 8,000 miles farther eastward than it actually did. In fact, he thought the distance from Europe to Asia was actually shorter going west than east. Third, it did not occur to him (or others) that another continent lay to the west that separated Europe from Asia. Due to these errors, he believed that he could quickly cross the Atlantic and sail directly to Asia.

In addition to his desire to find a quick trade route to the Indies, Columbus was extremely religious, like most people at the time. Columbus dreamed of converting peoples around the world to Christianity. Historian Bryan F. La Beau, in his article “Columbus and the Matter of Religion,” summarized Columbus’s religious mission, claiming that he “believed that, much as his patron saint, he would bear the word of Christ across the waters to those who had never heard it, thereby preparing the way for the evangelization of the last non-Christian lands of the world.” Indeed, La Beau argues that Columbus’s name in Spanish, Cristóbal Colón, can be translated to mean “Christian Colonizer.” Columbus expressly noted his desire to spread Christianity in his journal describing his initial voyage. He wrote that he hoped all peoples he encountered “might be converted to our holy faith.”

Columbus first approached Portugal with this plan to sail across the Atlantic. The Portuguese rejected his proposal, so he contacted Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish monarchs at the time. The Spanish King and Queen agreed to sponsor Columbus’s expedition to increase their prestige and find riches; they also supported Columbus’s desire to convert native peoples he encountered to Catholicism. Both Spanish monarchs were fervent Catholics, as illustrated by their renewed holy war—known as the Reconquista—against states controlled by Muslims in southern Spain. In January 1492, the Moorish (Islamic) kingdom of Grenada had fallen and Ferdinand and Isabella expelled thousands of Moors and Jews from the country. With the Reconquista over, the monarchs could now focus their attention on promoting Catholicism (as well as enriching their coffers) outside of Spain. Indeed, Ferdinand and Isabella signed a formal agreement with Columbus on April 17, 1492, only a few short months after their conquest of Grenada.

2.07 - Level 2

Christopher Columbus’s claim that the world was round was widely mocked by his contemporaries, who warned that he would sail off the edge of the world.





Columbus’s Initial Voyage

According to his agreement with the Spanish monarchs, Columbus would receive 10% of any profits from his voyage, noble status, and hereditary governorship of any new territories he discovered. With these incentives in mind, and with Spanish funding and support, Christopher Columbus set sail from Palos, Spain on August 3, 1492. He commanded 90 men and three ships called the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. He sailed west, hoping to quickly reach Japan.

Figure 2.6: Columbus’s Voyages​

Unfortunately for Columbus, the voyage took much longer than he, and others, had theorized. Indeed, throughout his voyage, Columbus frequently deceived his crew about the distance and time they had been sailing. After about six weeks they began to see signs of land, which halted a threatened mutiny. On 12 October 1492, Columbus and his men set foot on an island that he named San Salvador (Figure 2.7). Of course, Columbus did not know that San Salvador was actually in the Bahamas; he believed that he had discovered outlying islands near Japan. After a short stay, he left San Salvador and reached present day Cuba. He also explored and founded a settlement called La Navidad on an island he named Hispaniola (present-day Dominican Republic/Haiti). When he returned to Spain, he left thirty-nine men at the settlement of La Navidad to search for gold that he was sure existed on the island. He also brought several captured natives with him to as evidence of his achievement.

Figure 2.7: Columbus claims San Salvador for Spain. [5]

Columbus’s Three Additional Voyages

After his initial voyage (1492-93), Columbus returned to the Caribbean three additional times (Figure 2.6). In September 1493, he set sail again, this time with a much larger expedition comprising 17 ships, 1,500 prospective colonists, and many items for establishing a Spanish colony, including livestock and other animals (horses, pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and dogs), fruit trees, and seeds for wheat and sugar cane. As before, he headed into the Caribbean, reaching several additional islands. He also returned to Hispaniola, where he found the colonists he had left at La Navidad buried in shallow graves. There are two theories of what caused their deaths. First, Columbus was told by local Taíno (natives on the island) that the Spanish settlers had severely mistreated the natives, who retaliated by killing them. Second, other sources suggest that the colonists fought among themselves, which led to their deaths. Despite the inauspicious beginning of the first Spanish colony, Columbus established a new Spanish settlement (named Isabela) on Hispaniola at a nearby location. He returned to Spain in 1496.

On his third voyage (1498-1500), Columbus visited Trinidad and cruised along the northern coast of South America. For the first time, he concluded that what he had discovered were not islands off the coast of Japan or China, but a separate continent. Still, he remained convinced that Asia was only a short distance away. After exploring part of the coast of South America, he returned to the ill-fated settlement at Hispaniola, where native peoples had again rebelled against Spanish mistreatment and brutality. Spanish settlers also complained of mistreatment at the hand of Columbus and his brother, Diego Columbus, whom he had left in charge of the colony during his explorations. A royal commissioner arrested Columbus in August 1500 for his mismanagement of the nascent Spanish colonies and sent him back to Spain in chains. In 1502, the Spanish king and queen cleared Columbus of the most serious charges, but took away his governor’s title. Still, he persuaded the Spanish king to finance one last voyage. This time, Columbus explored the coast of Central America and reached Panama. In 1504, he returned to Spain, where he died in 1506.

2.08 - Level 1

Of the thirty-nine men that Columbus left at the La Navidad settlement on Hispaniola in 1492, how many were still alive when he returned a year later?

2.09 - Level 2

Match each of Columbus’s voyages to the most appropriate description.


First Voyage


Left a small number of men to begin a small colony called La Navidad


Second Voyage


Explored what is today Panama


Third Voyage


Came to the conclusion that he had not actually reached Asia


Fourth Voyage


Brought a large contingent of people¸ animals¸ and plants to start more extensive colonization

2.10 - Level 3

Click on the region of the map that was Columbus's initial desired destination.

Christopher Columbus and the Taíno

On each of his four voyages, Columbus and his crew encountered native peoples he called ‘Indios,” (which the English Anglicized to Indians), because he believed that he had reached the Indies. This misnomer persists into the present day. The majority of native peoples he encountered, however, were actually the Taíno. At the time of Columbus’s exploration, the Taíno were the most numerous indigenous people of the Caribbean, inhabiting what is now Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Some historians estimate that there were approximately 125,000 Taíno in 1492, although estimates range as high as three million for Hispaniola alone and six million overall.

The Taíno had a highly complex culture, society, and economy. The Taíno hunted, fished, gathered wild plants, and cultivated crops including yucca, sweet potatoes, maize, beans, and cassava. They lived in large villages that ranged from one hundred to two thousand inhabitants. Each community had a hierarchical social system, with chiefs at the top and workers below. Their homes reflected social distinctions: chiefs lived in rectangular huts called caneyes, located in the center of the village, while the workers resided in round huts called bohios. Both structures were made of palm wood with thatched roofs of palm leaves. Each village also contained a ceremonial ball park, similar to those that existed throughout the southern hemisphere and into the American southwest (Figure 2.8). The Taíno constructed large, ocean-going canoes which allowed them to travel between islands. Words common in the English language today, including canoe, hammock, barbeque, and hurricane, came from the Taíno language.

Figure 2.8: Reconstruction of a Taíno Village in Cuba [6]

Despite these achievements, Columbus saw the Taíno as simple, “uncivilized,” and and as not having a religion. The Spaniards expected the Taíno to acknowledge the sovereignty of the King of Spain, pay tributes of gold or other precious metals, labor for the Spanish, and convert to Christianity. By 1550, the number of Taíno throughout the Caribbean had declined precipitously, many having died from diseases brought by the Spaniards. Others starved from forcibly working for the Spanish instead of planting their own crops. During each of his voyages, Columbus also enslaved numerous Taíno for work on the islands, as well as for sale in Spain.

European nations, including Spain and Portugal, used the alleged “uncivilized” and “simple” nature of Indians to justify taking their lands. Indeed, after Columbus’s “discovery” of America, Spain and Portugal agreed to the Treaty of Tordesillas (June 7, 1494) which divided the world between Spain and Portugal (Figure 2.9). This document drew a line down the globe, giving Spain everything West of that line and Portugal everything East of that line, in an effort to prevent conflicts between the two. The location chosen for the line was 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. The Treaty of Tordesillas gave Portugal control of present day Brazil and Spain control of the rest of South America. The Treaty strarkly illustrates the fact that European powers saw the “new world” as a blank slate, on which they could write their own borders without honoring native claims to the lands.

Figure 2.9: Treaty of Tordesillas, June 7, 1494​​

Spotlight on Primary Source

Read excerpts from Columbus’s Journal, starting on Friday, 12 October 1492, which marked his arrival in the Bahamas. Specifically focus on entries from October 12-15; November 1; and November 6.

Question 2.11

2.11 - Level 4

Based on what you have read in the source, how did Columbus describe the native peoples he encountered? What did he want from what he called the “Indios?” What did he think of their religion?

Click here to see the answer to Question 2.11.

Selected European Explorations after Columbus

Figure 2.10: Selected European explorations after Columbus.

Although Columbus’s legacy has since been tarnished by Spanish treatment of the Taíno and European appropriation of native lands, his four voyages paved the way for countless others. In 1497, England attempted to join the race to Asia when King Henry VII sent Italian navigator John Cabot to explore the North Atlantic. Cabot sailed past Nova Scotia and explored the coast of Newfoundland. He hoped to find the fabled “Northwest Passage,” an easy water-route across North America leading to the Pacific. While he did not find the Northwest Passage, Cabot claimed everything he saw, as well as the lands beyond that, for England.

In 1513, Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa finally reached the Pacific Ocean by crossing the narrow Isthmus of Panama. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan, sailing for Spain, traveled down the coast of South America, rounded its southern tip, and crossed the Pacific to the Philippines. In 1534, Jacques Cartier, in service of the French, sailed up the St. Lawrence River. While many other European countries explored the Americas, Spain continued to lead the way. By 1550, the Spanish had explored many islands in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America, as well as some of the interior regions of what would become the United States, including Florida (Figure 2.10).

Spanish Conquistadors

In addition to exploration, Spain also led the colonization of what they called the “new world.” The Spanish first established colonies in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico (1508), Jamaica (1510), and Cuba (1511). Next, Spanish conquistadors moved inland to conquer portions of Mexico and South America. In 1519, Hernán Cortés and six hundred troops arrived on the Mexican coast. After burning his ships so that his army could not turn back, he marched inland. By 1521, Cortés had brutally overthrown the Aztec empire and built the Spanish capital, Mexico City, on the destroyed Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán. Between 1532 and 1536, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan empire in Peru. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Spanish empire stretched from Mexico southward to Chile, and north into the present day southwestern and southeastern United States.

When they established their colonies, Spanish—and later English, French, Dutch, and American—colonizers followed what later was called the “doctrine of discovery.” According to this doctrine, Christian explorers had the right to claim all lands they “discovered;” they did not need to purchase lands from native peoples. In theory, a document known as the Requerimiento (Spanish for “demand” or “requirement”), explained Spanish colonization to native peoples. Whenever Spanish explorers encountered Indians, they were required to read them the Requerimiento in Spanish. This document demanded that Indians submit themselves to Spanish rule and accept Christianity. Of course, the Indians understood neither the Spanish language nor the concepts discussed in the Requerimiento. As such, the document was merely a superficial justification for conquest on the part of the Spanish.

After taking control of land, whether Indians agreed or not, Spain adopted various practices to make sure that the crown retained tight control over its colonies. For example, the Spanish established authoritarian governments in each colony, tightly controlled potential immigrants, and required each colony to import all its manufactured goods from Spain. Roman Catholic priests also played a key role in the colonies. The priests made sure that all Spanish settlers remained loyal to the Catholic Church; they were also supposed to convert all Indians to Catholicism. Finally, the Spanish established the encomienda system. Under the encomienda system, Spanish conquistadors received large grants of Indian lands and native slaves to work the land. In exchange for native labor and tribute, conquistadors were supposed to provide protection and education for “their” native peoples. In reality, however, Indians rarely if ever benefited from the encomienda system. Instead, it enriched the Spanish and led to the mistreatment of native peoples.

2.12 - Level 1

Match the following words related to Spanish colonization with their definition.




A document read to Native Americans demanding that they submit themselves to Spanish rule and accept Christianity




Christian explorers had the right to claim all lands they "discovered"




Large grants of lands and Indians to work them


Doctrine of Discovery


The Aztec capitol conquered by the Spanish

Question 2.13

2.13 - Level 5

Put yourself in the position of the native peoples. What would you think of the Spaniards? What sources of conflict and misunderstanding might arise between your people and the Spanish?

Click here to see the answer to Question 2.13.

While few challenged the encomienda system, over time, several critics began to call for change. One of the strongest opponents of Spanish treatment of native peoples was Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Catholic priest. Las Casas initially participated in the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean. He was given an encomienda (land grant and Indians slaves) and participated in the conquest of Cuba. However, in 1515, he began to question Spanish treatment of native peoples. He relinquished his Indian slaves and encomienda and began to advocate on behalf of native rights. Las Casas is associated with creating the so-called “Black Legend” of Spanish colonization, which accused Spanish conquistadors of treating native peoples cruelly, inhumanely, and brutally (Figure 2.11). In 1542, based largely on Las Casas’s writings, King Charles of Spain issued the “New Laws of the Indies” designed to improve the Indian’s treatment. Although some followed the “New Laws,” most Spaniards continued to see native peoples as inferior and as “natural slaves.”

Figure 2.11: An illustration of the “Black Legend” of Spanish treatment of Native Americans​“Spaniards killing women and children and feeding their remains to dogs.” [7]

Spotlight on Primary Source

Bartolomé de Las Casas, “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” published, 1552.

Question 2.14

2.14 - Level 5

How did Bartolomé de Las Casas portray the "Indians" in his document? How did he portray the Spanish and their treatment of native peoples? How do you think other Spanish conquistadors responded to this document?

Click here to see the answer to Question 2.14.

The Spanish in North America

Spanish Explorations

While Spanish exploration and colonization mainly focused on areas south of the present day United States, Spanish conquistadors also explored and established small settlements in the American southwest and southeast. For example, in 1513, Juan Ponce de León explored Florida. Between 1539 and 1543, Hernando de Soto led a brutal expedition through the southeast accompanied by an army of approximately six hundred soldiers, two hundred horses, herds of pigs, and dogs (some of them wearing spiked metal collars) who had been trained to attack. The expedition searched for gold, other treasures, fame, and power.

De Soto started in Tampa, Florida and marched west. Although his exact route is unknown, he probably traveled through what are now Florida, central Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas. In May 1541, De Soto arrived at the Mississippi River. He continued his explorations for another year, following the Mississippi downstream and eventually reaching Louisiana and Texas. De Soto did not find any treasure and more than half of his force died along the way. De Soto himself died in 1542. In 1543, the remnants of his army reached Spanish settlements in Mexico. Although he did not fulfill his goal of finding wealth like other conquistadors in Mexico and South America, he opened the way for further Spanish exploration and settlement of the American southeast and southwest. De Soto also enslaved, attacked, and executed natives along the way, often without provocation. This led native peoples to distrust European (especially Spanish) explorers and colonizers throughout the route from Florida to Texas.

From 1540 to 1542, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led another expedition of Spanish soldiers and Indian allies north from Mexico in search of treasures. A Spanish friar had reported seeing the fabled cities of Quivira (also called Cibola, or the “Seven Lost Cities”), which were so rich in treasure that golden cups allegedly hung from trees and everyone ate off golden plates (Figure 2.12). Seeking Cibola, Coronado explored much of the southwest, making it all of the way into present day Kansas. When he did not find the fabled golden cities, he returned to Mexico in humiliation. For the next 250 years, Spanish explorers searched for the treasure they thought Coronado had missed. Interestingly, some historians argue that the Pueblos of New Mexico may have repeated stories of fabulous cities of gold to the east in order to convince the Spanish to leave their communities. 

Figure 2.12: Coronado searching for the fabled city of Quivira. [8]

Spanish Mission Settlements in the Southwest and Southeast

The expeditions of De Leon, De Soto, Coronado, and others failed to find gold, silver, or wealthy Indian empires, like those of the Aztecs or Incas, north of Mexico. Consequently, the Spanish did not establish a large colonial presence in what would become the United States like they did in Mexico and South America. The Spanish did, however, establish small mission settlements in Florida, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. Examples of Spanish mission settlements included St. Augustine, Florida (1565) and Santa Fe, New Mexico (1610). Indians were encouraged to settle near the mission communities, where Catholic priests would give them religious instruction and supervise their labor. 

The Spanish missions were often harsh places for Native Americans. The Spanish required Indians to attend the mission schools and churches as well as labor in the mission fields. The priests also harshly punished Indians who continued to practice their own religious ceremonies. Such punishments were frequently physical, including whippings and even the removal of hands or feet. Spanish priests also destroyed native religious objects and places of worship, such as the Pueblos’ kivas (circular, partially underground ceremonial structures) and kachinas (small carved figures representing an ancestral spirit) (Figure 2.13).

Figure 2.13: Drawings of Kachinas, 1894. [9]

Despite the harsh and oppressive conditions, some native peoples chose to associate with the missions. Some did so because they hoped to find stability in a chaotic world. Others wanted Spanish protection from their enemies. Some Native Americans hoped that the Christian God would protect them from the deadly illnesses imported by the Spanish. Still others used the missions for secular purposes—they wanted to learn to read and write so that they could understand Spanish documents and trade records. In terms of religion, some converted to Catholicism, while others incorporated selected Catholic beliefs into their own belief system. Many times, Indians resisted covertly (hidden from Spanish eyes) at the missions; for example, some continued to hold their own religious ceremonies in secret or worked slowly in the mission fields.

Question 2.15

2.15 - Level 4

What explains the difference between Spanish settlements in South and Central America on the one hand and North America on the other? What key factors determined the type of colony the Spaniards established?

Click here to see answer to Question 2.15.

The Pueblo Rebellion of 1680

In addition to covert defiance, some native peoples also overtly resisted Spanish colonization and mission settlements (Figure 2.14). Perhaps the best example of military resistance occurred in 1680 among the Pueblos of New Mexico. There were many reasons for the Pueblo to rebel. First, the Spanish refused to allow the Pueblo to practice their traditional religious ceremonies, punishing those who continued to do so. The Spanish also raided the Pueblos’ sacred kivas, destroyed their religious objects, and physically punished religious leaders. For example, the Spanish arrested 47 Pueblo religious leaders for “idolatry” and “sorcery” in 1675. They hanged three religious leaders, whipped several others, and sentenced many to slavery. Second, the Spanish also demanded Pueblo corn and labor, which enriched the Spanish, but impoverished the Pueblo. Third, the Spanish abused Pueblo women. Finally, Spanish abuses and diseases led to a drastic decline in the Pueblo population; the number of Pueblo fell from as many as 100,000 in late sixteenth century to around 17,000 by 1680.

Figure 2.14: Mission Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe de Zuni, Zuni Pueblo, Zuni, McKinley County, New Mexico [10]

A religious leader that the Spanish called Popé (Po’pay in some sources), who had been arrested and publicly whipped for practicing his religion, helped to plan the rebellion. His goal was to drive the Spanish from New Mexico and especially Santa Fe, their largest colony. However, coordinating the separate Pueblo communities to carry out his plan was a daunting task. Over seventy Pueblo settlements were spread over several hundred miles. Many of them also spoke different languages. Popé solved the language problem by dispatching runners carrying knotted ropes to each community. A knot would be untied each day until they arrived at the chosen day of the rebellion. The Spanish learned of the rebellion, but Popé was able to send new runners to change the date.

On August 10, 1680, the Pueblos launched a coordinated attack against Santa Fe and other Spanish settlements. Approximately 2,500 Pueblo warriors laid siege to Santa Fe for nine days. During the siege, they burned mission churches and destroyed Catholic religious objects, much as the Spanish had done to the Pueblos. They also cut off the town’s water supply. On August 21, they allowed colonists (especially women and children) to leave Santa Fe. The majority of Spanish colonists left New Mexico and fled to El Paso.

Overall, the rebellion was a success for the Pueblo. They liberated their land from the Spanish, at least for the time. Pueblo leaders restored their own religious institutions and set up a government that lasted until 1692. In 1692, the Spanish returned and once against took control of the region. However, the new Spanish settlement adopted a somewhat more tolerant approach to Pueblo religion. They also ended many of the worst abuses which had led the Pueblo to rebel in the first place. Thus, the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 is an example of a moderately successful act of resistance led by Native Americans against European colonization.

2.16 - Level 2

Which of the following is true about the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680?


It occurred (among other things) because the Spanish exploited Pueblo labor and punished them harshly for practicing their religion.


It was not successful as the Spanish returned and treated the Pueblo as harshly as before.


It was organized by a Pueblo religious leader named Popé.


It was easy to plan because the Pueblos were united and all spoke the same language.

2.17 - Level 2

Which of the following figures challenged Spanish treatment of native peoples?


Bartolomé de Las Casas


Christopher Columbus


Hernán Cortés


Vasco Núñez de Balboa

The French in North America

Like the Spanish, the French first explored, and later set up colonies, in North America. While Spanish explorations focused on the southern section of what would become the United States, the French explored the northern regions. As already mentioned, Jacques Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River in 1534. In 1603, Samuel de Champlain followed the same route. Other French explorers traveled through present day Canada, across the Northeastern portion of the United States, and down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. For example, Louis Joliet and Jacques Marquette reached present day Green Bay in 1673 and continued their explorations down the Mississippi River. In 1682, Robert de la Salle followed the Mississippi River all of the way to the Gulf of Mexico and claimed the entire region for the King of France. France formed its first permanent settlement in America at Québec in 1608, followed by Montréal in 1642.

Although the French explored large areas of North America and settled Québec, Montréal, and other small villages and forts, the French colonies grew very slowly. In fact, the French colonies in America always had a much smaller population than their Spanish, or eventually English, counterparts. Despite their small numbers, however, the French established a very important fur trade empire in the Americas.

The fur trade was based on a partnership between Native Americans and French traders. Native American allies trapped furs (especially the coveted beaver fur, used to make felt hats) and traded them to the French. At first, Indians brought their furs to Québec or Montréal, where they received French goods such as guns, ammunition, metal knives, awls, kettles, steel flints for starting fires, blankets, beads, and cloth.

This process was relatively inefficient, however, so voyageurs and coureurs de bois (French fur traders) took the trade to the Indians instead of requiring Indian traders to come to them (Figure 2.15). The traders traveled on long circuits (as many as 1,200 miles), stopping at numerous Indian villages along the way. At each village on their circuit, the French traders exchanged French trade goods for Indian-trapped furs. When their goods ran out, they returned to Montréal or Québec, regrouped, and started the process again. These traders were supposed to get permits from the French government to trade, but many of them traded illicitly without acquiring the required documents. 

2.18 - Level 1

What were the two names for French fur traders?




Coureurs de Bois





The French fur traders succeeded in obtaining furs because they often adopted the technology and social customs of native peoples. For example, many learned to speak the native language, dressed like the Indians, traveled in canoes along pre-existing Indian trade routes, and ate Indian foods. They often brought gifts to important tribal leaders and participated in reciprocal relations which played a very important role in native societies. Many even married Indian women. Out of these unions came a second-generation of French/Indian children known as métis, who often became traders in their own right. Unlike the Spanish colonial system that rested on exploiting Indian labor, French traders relied on Native Americans for their furs and were often little more than go-betweens for the Indians. Moreover, both sides first attempted to resolve disputes through diplomacy and negotiation rather than warfare.

Figure 2.15: Coureur de Bois in typical dress [11]

The fur trade system, however, also had its problems, especially for Native Americans. For example, if fur traders were sick with smallpox or other diseases, they could transfer their illness across thousands of miles and to dozens of Indian villages. While coureurs de bois married Indian women, the French traders also could exploit native women, perhaps having multiple wives and families across multiple villages. Some métis children grew up accepted by both cultures, but others grew up in between, perhaps accepted by neither. While diplomacy was the ideal, if mediation failed the French could, and did, used military power and violence to achieve their goals. The fur trade could lead to inter-tribal warfare over access to French goods, especially guns and ammunition. Disputes between tribes also arose over hunting grounds as animals were depleted in many regions. Finally, over time, alcohol became the favored item of trade, which brought large amounts of alcohol to Indian villages across Canada and down into the present day United States.

Question 2.19

2.19 - Level 5

First, define the term métis. Second, explain why a métis might be welcome or rejected by the two cultures he/she straddled.

Click here to see answer to Question 2.19.

The Dutch in North America

The Dutch also explored and founded a relatively small colony in America. In the seventeenth century, Holland had taken over much of the old Portuguese trade route, allowing them to dominate trade with the East Indies. In 1609, the Dutch wanted to expand their trading empire into the Americas and hired an English explorer named Henry Hudson to find the mythical “Northwest Passage” that would allow the Dutch to easily reach Asia by water. Hudson sailed up what would soon become his namesake—the Hudson River—in present day New York state. Hudson traveled as far as present day Albany, New York, before the river became too shallow for him to continue. While Hudson did not find the Northwest Passage, he claimed the entire Hudson River Valley for Holland, creating the basis for the “New Netherland” colony later renamed by the English as New York.

For a decade after Hudson’s voyage, the Dutch traded furs in and around New Netherland, much as the French traded with Native Americans further north. They established several small fur trading posts throughout upstate New York, including Fort Orange, their most successful post, located at present day Albany, New York.

In addition to their small fur-trade outposts, the Dutch West India Company encouraged settlers to colonize the region. In 1624, the Company sponsored thirty families to establish a permanent colony on present day Manhattan called New Amsterdam. Because Holland was a relatively rich country at the time, the Company could not convince many Dutch settlers to move to America. To increase the number of settlers, the Company encouraged immigrants from Belgium, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and other countries to settle in New Netherland. While its population was diverse, the Dutch colony remained small throughout its existence.

Like other European powers, Dutch settlers had economic, political, and social disputes with Native Americans. Perhaps the best known example is the clash over land ownership. Every school-child learns about the “sale” of Manhattan by Indians for about twenty-four dollars-worth of trade goods (Figure 2.16). This transaction, however, resulted from a divergent view of land “ownership.” In 1626, Peter Minuit, the Dutch colonial governor, indeed “purchased” Manhattan from the Lenni Lenape Indians for about sixty guilders worth of trade goods. The Lenni Lenape, however, did not believe that land could be “owned;” they interpreted the trade goods given to them by Minuit not as a purchase, but as gifts in appreciation of their sharing the land. The Lenni Lenape did not realize that the trade goods allowed the Dutch to exclude them entirely from Manhattan.

Figure 2.16: Peter Minuit (Dutch) “purchases” Manhattan by Alfred Fredericks. [12]

2.20 - Level 2

Which of the following are true about the Dutch empire in America?


The Dutch wanted to establish missions to convert Native Americans to Catholicism


The Dutch empire rested on the fur trade and small settlements


The Dutch settlements were extremely diverse


The Dutch treated Native Americans fairly by giving them large payments when they purchased their lands

The Columbian Exchange

Spanish, French, Dutch, and English (discussed in Chapter 3) exploration and colonization produced vast changes for both Native Americans and Europeans. In 1972, historian Alfred Crosby wrote a book entitled The Columbian Exchange. According to Crosby, Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean brought Europe and the Americas together, “and almost immediately and continually ever since, we have had an exchange of native plants, animals, and diseases moving back and forth across the oceans between the two worlds.” Later, historians expanded the definition to include not just exchanges between Europe and the Americas, but among the entire Western and Eastern hemispheres. This exchange brought gains (mainly for Europeans) as well as losses (especially for native peoples). Listed in the chart below are selected examples of animals, crops and plants, and diseases “exchanged” between the Americas and Europe (Figure 2.17).

Figure 2.17: The Columbian Exchange​

In general, Europeans wanted to remake America in the image of the land they left behind. For example, besides dogs (used by some Great Plains tribes) and llamas and alpacas (in South America), Native Americans did not have domesticated animals. Because of this lack of domesticated animals, Europeans brought horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens with them when they established colonies. They also inadvertently brought unwanted pests with them in the holds of their ships, such as rats and cockroaches. None of these animals were indigenous to the Americas.

Consequences, both positive and negative, arose from the importation of European animals. On the positive side, many native peoples, especially in the southwest and Great Plains, developed a profound relationship with European-imported horses. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the horse was not indigenous to the Americas. In 1493, Columbus brought a herd of 25 horses on his second voyage to the Americas. Other Spanish conquistadors rode into villages on large, decorated horses as a way to intimidate Native Americans, gaining power and control. After the initial shock, however, natives integrated horses into their cultural and economic system, even naming them based on familiar animals, such as the domesticated dog (Assiniboine: thongatch-shonga or sho-a-thin-ga (“big dog”); Lakota (Sioux): Sunkakhan (“holy dog” or “mystery dog”). Over time, many tribes in the southwest and plains became expert horsemen, using the animal for hunting and even turning the horse against the Spanish (and other European invaders) to fight for their lands.

On the negative side, the introduction of cattle, goats, horses, sheep, and swine disrupted indigenous systems of agriculture. In colonial times, Europeans did not fence in their animals, instead allowing their cows and pigs to roam freely. As European livestock wandered the countryside, they often ate native crops. The new animals also stripped native vegetation and pushed out indigenous animals. In some cases, this led to starvation in Indian villages as European livestock destroyed main sources of food. For example, European pigs multiplied very quickly and disrupted ecosystems. In the Caribbean, early explorers left a few pigs on Cuba; by 1514, there were over 30,000. Likewise, De Soto brought 13 pigs to Florida and there were 700 three years later. Native Americans in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Illinois dreaded the sight of honey bees (another European importation) because they preceded the arrival of colonists and indicated that settlers would soon arrive to take their lands.

New foods also went both ways across the Atlantic. American foods, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, maize (corn), squash, pumpkins, peanuts, cacao (used to make chocolate), pineapple, and vanilla, reshaped the European diet. Historians argue that these products led to higher calorie consumption and better overall nutrition throughout Europe. For example, in Ireland, the potato became a staple crop and helped to end starvation. Over time, these nutritional improvements caused populations to increase throughout Europe. Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, in “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas,” argue that other “new world” foods, such as chili peppers, tomatoes, and cacao did not add many calories, but they improved the taste and increased the vitamin content of existing European and Asian foods.

Of course, tobacco is one American plant that ultimately did not improve the health and diets of Europeans (Figure 2.18). While many Native Americans used tobacco in religious ceremonies and as a painkiller, there is little evidence that they used tobacco recreationally. At first, when Europeans brought tobacco back with them to Europe, they also used the plant as a medicine, believing that it cured anything from joint pain to epilepsy and the plague. Quickly, however, recreational tobacco use spread across Europe even though many continued to question the benefits of smoking the “stinking weed.”

Figure 2.18: Tobacco label depicting Christopher Columbus and a Native American [14]​

Europeans also introduced foods to the Americas, including sugar, rice, wheat, barley, oats, coffee, sugar cane, and citrus fruits. Like their importation of domestic animals, these crops changed the American landscape as European farmers cleared vast tracks of land to plant their crops (especially sugar cane, wheat, oats, and barley). Europeans also inadvertently brought over “old world” weeds, such as dandelions, ragweed, and clover. American plants had been relatively isolated from competition for thousands of years and were quickly pushed aside by the hearty European weeds. Native Americans realized the environmental impact of these new seeds. For example, New England Indians called the plantain, an English-imported weed, “the Englishman’s foot” because it grew wherever new settlers stepped.

2.21 - Level 1

Match the following products according to their places of origin (Europe or the Americas)


















Honey Bees















While “old world” foods, weeds, and animals certainly changed the landscape, European imported diseases were arguably the most important (and deadly) consequence of the Columbian Exchange for native peoples. Because they had been isolated from Europe, native peoples had no natural immunity to European diseases including smallpox, measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, bubonic plague, and typhus. Because of their lack immunity, they experienced “virgin soil epidemics” when these diseases arrived in the Americas. Death rates ranged from 50% to as high as 90-95% for some infected villages.

As discussed in Chapter 1, historians will never know the exact number of deaths that occurred from European imported diseases. However, most historians agree that about a century after Columbus’s arrival, the Native American population had plummeted by as much as 80-95%. For example, within 30 years of Columbus’s arrival, historians estimate that all but 30,000 of approximately six million Taínos had died. Historians also estimate that the native population of Mexico declined from approximately 15 million in 1519 to perhaps 1.5 million a century later. While warfare, colonialism, and other factors certainly contributed to the population decline, the primary cause was disease.

Smallpox was the most deadly of the European-imported diseases (Figure 2.19). The first known case of smallpox in the Americas was brought by a Spanish sailor to Hispaniola in 1518. From there, it spread like wildfire to other islands in the Caribbean, to the mainland of Mexico and Central America, and down to South America. Smallpox is a horrible viral infection that affects the lungs, lymphatic system, and skin. Large, painful, fluid-filled pustules appear toward the end of the disease. Other symptoms include a high fever, headache, and severe fatigue and back pain. While many native peoples died from smallpox, those who survived suffered from deep scars caused by the pustules. Others lost their eyesight or were left sterile.

Figure 2.19: Aztecs suffering from smallpox by Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590).​ [14]

The high death rates had long-lasting consequences for native communities. Historian Alfred Crosby argues that those most affected by smallpox were between the ages of 18-40. Of course, this generation is the one most involved in food production and reproduction. Without men to hunt, or adults to create and raise children, populations had difficulty rebounding. Moreover, because they passed their history and culture orally, the high death rates often led to a loss of cultural, religious, and historical knowledge.

Many historians also argue that smallpox and other diseases contributed to the military defeat of native peoples, especially the Aztecs and Incas. When Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors entered the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlán, they encountered the horrible results of a smallpox epidemic that recently had swept through the city. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a Spaniard who traveled with Cortés wrote that “all the houses on the lake were full of heads and corpses.… The streets, squares, houses, and courts were filled with bodies, so much so that it was almost impossible to pass. Even Cortés was sick.” Likewise, Francisco Pizarro encountered high death rates from smallpox during his conquest of the Incas. When the Pilgrims arrived in what they named Plymouth Colony in 1620, they found a region largely depopulated of natives. Smallpox had swept through the area between 1616 and 1619, just prior to their arrival. The Pilgrims attributed this to divine providence, believing that God had prepared the way for them to settle in the region by sending the plague to the Indians. They immediately set about planting in fields that natives had cleared but abandoned due to the terrible disease.

European imported diseases proved to be deadly for native peoples. Was the reverse also true? Did American diseases transfer to Europe? One disease—syphilis—is generally believed to have started in the Americas and moved to Europe after 1492. However, the origin of syphilis is debated. Two theories exist that place the origin of the disease in different hemispheres. The first theory, referred to as the “Columbian hypothesis” argues that syphilis originated in the Americas and was spread to Europe in 1493 by Christopher Columbus and his crew, who acquired it from the native women through sexual contact. The second theory, called the “Pre-Columbian hypothesis,” asserts that the disease had always existed in Europe, but just had not been recognized as a separate disease. Currently, most historians believe that syphilis originated in the Americas rather than Europe, although not everyone is convinced.

2.22 - Level 1

The video squarely places the origin of syphilis in the Americas. However, another hypothesis also exists that places the origin of syphilis in Europe. What is that hypothesis called?

Question 2.23

2.23 - Level 2

What additional information did you learn from the video about the Columbian Exchange that was not covered in the chapter text?

Click here to see the answer to Question 2.23.

2.24 - Level 4

Which of the following was a consequence of the introduction of Old World diseases to New World populations?


Widespread suffering and death


Expediting European conquest and colonization


Some questioned their traditional religious and cultural beliefs


In 1893, 27 million visitors, comprising about one-quarter of the United States’ population at the time, attended the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fair was a sight to behold. Visitors strolled across 633 acres of fairground, viewed 65,000 exhibits, including Native American encampments and model schools, and ate at restaurants with seating for 7,000. The overall theme of this spectacle was the four hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas as well as how America had advanced since that time. The exhibition portrayed Columbus as a mythical “founding father” of the United States (although he never actually set foot in what would become the United States) and a brave explorer who brought Christian civilization across the Atlantic Ocean (Figure 2.20). The Dedicatory and Opening Ceremonies of the World's Columbian Exposition stated that “Columbus lifted the veil that hid the New World from the Old and opened the gateway of the future of mankind” (260).

Figure 2.20: A fountain commemorating Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas. This mythical fountain, created by Frederick MacMonnies for the World’s Columbian Exposition, commemorates Columbus’s arrival in America. The trumpeter at the bow of the ship proudly announces Columbus’s approach to land.​ Photographs of the World’s Fair: An Elaborate Collection of Photographs of the Buildings, Grounds and the Exhibits of the World’s Columbian Exposition with a special description of The Famous Midway Exposition.[15]

In 1992, the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s expedition to the Americas was much more contested than the celebratory Chicago Columbian Exposition. While many still lauded Columbus’s achievements, others focused on the negative results that followed in the wake of his arrival, including disease, conquest, and the expansion of the slave trade. Indeed, many argued that Columbus’s arrival was not a “discovery” but an invasion, which led, in the words of author David Stannard, to an “American Holocaust.” Many Native American activists refused to celebrate Columbus Day, which had become a federal holiday in 1937.

Currently, Columbus’s legacy is still debated. Many states, cities, and municipalities across the United States, such as Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and South Dakota, as well as Minneapolis/St. Paul and Seattle, have passed resolutions replacing Columbus Day with “Indigenous People’s Day.” Historians also have published numerous books reexamining Columbus’s skills as a sailor and colonial administrator as well as his relations with natives, including his use of what he called “Indios” as slaves.

How will Columbus be remembered in 2092, the six hundredth anniversary of his arrival in the Americas? Certainly, historians and the public will continue to debate Columbus’s legacy. In order to fully understand the controversy, it is important to study the first extended encounter between Europeans (explorers, colonists, and missionaries) and Native peoples that began in 1492. The significance of this encounter cannot be overstated: it irreparably changed both Europeans and native peoples. After 1492, peoples from Europe, Africa, and North and South America became inextricably linked through extensive trade, colonization, religion, and war. Americans today still grapple with issues that arose from this social, cultural, economic, religious, and political collision.

Questions for Pre-Class Discussion

Class Discussion 2.01

Class Discussion 2.01 - Level 5

Discuss the conflicting interpretations of Columbus and his "discovery" of the Americas. How was his discovery interpreted in 1892? In 1992? How do you think he will be remembered in 2092? Why do you think that these interpretations have changed? How would you personally evaluate Columbus?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 2.01.

Class Discussion 2.02

Class Discussion 2.02 - Level 5

What were the reasons for European exploration of the Americas? Which do you personally think was the most important? Why?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 2.02.

Class Discussion 2.03

Class Discussion 2.03 - Level 5

Think about what you ate today. What would you not have eaten if you lived in Europe in 1492? How did the Columbian Exchange change diets of people on both side of the Atlantic? Who do you think benefitted the most?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 2.03.

Class Discussion 2.04

Class Discussion 2.04 - Level 4

Imagine you are a Taíno and Spanish sailors have brought smallpox to your village. What are the political, economic, cultural, and religious results of the disease? How will your community survive with death rates that could reach as high as 90%?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 2.04.

Class Discussion 2.05

Class Discussion 2.05 - Level 4

How did European views of Native American societies shape their treatment of the tribes they first contacted? Did all of the European groups treat Native Americans the same way? Why or why not?

Click here to see the answer to Class Discussion 2.05.

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Referenced Readings

Ned Blackhawk, “Teaching the Columbian Exchange,” OAH Magazine of History 27:4 (2013): 31-34.

Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers. New York: Random House, 1983.

Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Greenwood Publishers, 1972.

Dedicatory and Opening Ceremonies of the World's Columbian Exposition. Chicago: Stone, Kastler and Painter, 1893.

Megan Gambino, “Alfred W. Crosby on the Columbian Exchange.” Smithsonian Magazine (October 2011).

Bryan F. Le Beau, “Christopher Columbus and the Study of Religion,” Kripke Center for the Study of Religion 4:1 (October 1992); http://moses.creighton.edu/csrs/news/F92-1.html.

Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 24:2 (spring 2010): 163-188.

National Museum of the American Indian, “A Song for the Horse Nation,” http://nmai.si.edu/exhibitions/horsenation/.

Robert M. Poole. “What Became of the Taíno?” Smithsonian Magazine (October 2011).

David E. Stannard. American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Mary Stout, Aztec. New York: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2004.

John Nobel Wilford, “Discovering Columbus,” New York Times, 11 August 1991.

Suggested Additional Material

Jeffrey M. Conrad, Religion and Empire: The Dynamics and Aztec and Inca Expansionism (Cambridge University Press, 1984).

Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Vintage: 2012)

Claiborne A. Skinner. The Upper Country: French Enterprise in the Colonial Great Lakes. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

David J. Weber and Henry Warner Bowden, What Caused the Pueblo Revolt of 1680? Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999.

Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 2.01

This question focuses on perspective—certainly, from a European point of view, the Americas were a “new world.” From a Native American perspective, however, it was not a “new world;” rather, Europe was the “new world.” Many native activists today caution that terms need to be examined from multiple perspectives.

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Answer to Question 2.05

(1) the nation-state created a more sophisticated and centralized bureaucracy that could support and promote exploration; (2) the leaders of these new nations were in competition to augment their power and wealth

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Answer to Question 2.11

  • Columbus initially described the “Indios” he encountered as peaceful, simple, and willing to help the sailors. He writes numerous times about the Indians bringing them foods and other presents, especially cotton
  • He wanted gold (and silver, but mainly gold) from them. He also claimed all of their lands from the Spanish king and queen (Oct. 12/15)
  • He believed that they did not have “any religion,” (Nov. 1) and that they would be easily converted to Catholicism (Oct. 12)

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Answer to Question 2.13

This question could have multiple responses. Students could mention the encomienda, which took native lands and used them as slave labor; the Requerimiento, which was read in a language most did not understand and was used to, again, justify taking their lands. The Doctrine of Discovery also justified taking native lands. 

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Answer to Question 2.14

He described the Indians as innocent, simple, and “gentle sheep.” He viewed them as ready to be converted to Catholicism.

He described the Spanish treatment of native peoples as extremely brutal and cruel.

Many others defended the actions of Spanish conquistadors as just, or, denied that abuse of natives occurred. They also claimed that his charges were over-exaggerated.

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Answer to Question 2.15

The Spanish searched for gold and other sources of wealth in the Americas. They also wanted to convert natives to Christianity. Both of these necessitated large groups of native peoples to use for labor and to convert to Christianity. In their explorations into the present-day United States, the Spanish did not find gold (or other wealth), nor did they find large settlements of native peoples to exploit for labor or to convert to Catholicism. This led the Spanish to create small mission settlements in the southwest and southeast, instead of the larger settlements they formed further south.

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Answer to Question 2.19

Definition: second generation French/Indian children

Some métis children grew up and became traders in their own right, using language skills and cultural practices learned from both parents. However, others grew up in between cultures, perhaps accepted by neither due to conflicting religious traditions, cultural practices, and language.

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Answer to Question 2.23

There will be multiple responses to this question. For example, students could note that the Columbian exchange began “world history.” The exchange also led to the homogenization of the world landscape the sharp decline in genetic and biodiversity.  

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 2.01

Beginning in 1492, and ever since, Columbus’s legacy has been contested. In 1892, at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Columbus’s “discovery” of America was lauded and honored. He was portrayed as one of the founding fathers of America and praised for bringing “civilization” and Christianity to America.

In 1992, the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s expedition to the Americas was much more contested than the celebratory Chicago Columbian Exposition. While many still lauded Columbus’s achievements, others focused on the negative results that followed in the wake of his arrival, including disease, conquest, and the expansion of the slave trade. Indeed, many argued that Columbus’s arrival was not a “discovery” but an invasion.

There are many different possibilities to answer the question of why these interpretations have changed over time. For example, interpretations have changed in light of historical developments such as the American Indian Movement in the 1960s, which brought to national awareness issues facing native peoples as a result of the legacy of conquest.

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Answer to Class Discussion 2.02

Some of the reasons for exploration included: the desire for cheaper trade goods from Europe; the development of nation-states across Europe; the Renaissance; new technologies that aided exploration; and initial explorations of the African coast. Answers can vary about which of these is the most important, but should include a specific reason why the choice was made.

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Answer to Class Discussion 2.03

New foods went both ways across the Atlantic. American foods, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, maize (corn), squash, pumpkins, peanuts, cacao (used to make chocolate), pineapple, and vanilla, reshaped the European diet. Historians argue that these products led to higher calorie consumption and better overall nutrition throughout Europe. For example, in Ireland, the potato became a staple crop and helped to end starvation. Over time, these nutritional improvements caused populations to increase throughout Europe.

In the Americas, Europeans brought over sugar, rice, wheat, barley, oats, coffee, sugar cane, and citrus fruits. Like their importation of domestic animals, these crops changed the American landscape as European farmers cleared vast tracks of land to plant their crops (especially sugar cane, wheat, oats, and barley). Many of these new crops also overwhelmed indigenous plants.

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Answer to Class Discussion 2.04

The high death rates had long-lasting consequences for native communities. Historian Alfred Crosby argues that those most affected by smallpox were between the ages of 18-40. Of course, this generation is the one most involved in food production and reproduction. Without men to hunt, or adults to create and raise children, populations had difficulty rebounding. Moreover, because they passed their history and culture orally, the high death rates often led to a loss of cultural, religious, and historical knowledge. Many historians also argue that smallpox and other diseases contributed to the military defeat of native peoples, especially the Aztecs and Incas.

Tribes might survive by combining with other tribes. Some native peoples also might form alliances with the Europeans—for example moving to missions—in an attempt to survive.

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Answer to Class Discussion 2.05

No matter their country of origin, Europeans tended to view native cultures in stereotyped ways: for example, as primitive, simplistic, “uncivilized,” and as having invalid religions. This led European missionaries to attempt to convert native peoples to Christianity. These stereotypes were also used to justify taking their lands. Specific references could be made to Spanish, French, or Dutch interaction with native peoples in this response.

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Image Credits

[1] Image courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson under CC BY-SA 3.0.

[2] Image by Nicolaus Germanus in the Public Domain.

[3] Image courtesy of Walrasiad in the Public Domain. 

[4] Image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection in the Public Domain.

[5] Image courtesy of Architect of the Capitol in the Public Domain.

[6] Image courtesy of Michal Zalewski under CC BY-SA 2.5.

[7] Image courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France in the Public Domain.

[8] Image by Frederic Remington under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

[9] Image by Jesse Walter Fewkes in the Public Domain.

[10] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[11] Image courtesy of Heming, National Archives of Canada in the Public Domain.

[12] Image by Alfred Fredericks in the Public Domain.

[13] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress in the Public Domain.

[14] Image by Bernardino de Sahagún in the Public Domain.

[15] Image courtesy of the Werner Company in the Public Domain.