European Explorations in North America

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European Explorations in North America

In the aftermath of Christopher Columbus's (1451–1506) voyages to the Western Hemisphere, the monarchs of western European nations sent explorers seeking a faster, more direct passage to Asia. Although these explorers failed in this mission, they helped map out a rich land for Europeans to control and colonize.

English exploration differed from that of Spain, Portugal, and France. The English monarchs did not have the wealth of their counterparts, so English merchants played a large role in English exploration and colonization. In addition, English kings for many decades were more involved in securing control over the British Isles than in seeking to expand to a New World. Nonetheless, while beginning in more fits and starts than its neighbors, England established a strong set of colonies that in time would come to dominate North America, albeit as the independent countries of the United States and Canada.

In 1497 and 1498, an Italian explorer, Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot, ca. 1450–1499) explored North America on behalf of King Henry VII (1457–1509) of England. In this first expedition, Cabot left Bristol on May 2, 1497, with one small ship, the Matthew, and only eighteen men. He reached Newfoundland, which he claimed for the king, believing it to be an island off Asia. King Henry approved a second voyage and provided one ship; English merchants funded four more. The expedition set out in May 1498; one ship soon returned for repairs and the other four, as well as Cabot, disappeared, never to return.

King Henry VIII (1491–1547) followed his father, and was not as supportive of such expeditions or expenses. Sebastian Cabot (ca. 1484–1557), John's son, left in 1508 and returned to England when his crew threatened mutiny. He found that Henry VII had died and Henry VIII declined to finance a return. In time, Sebastian Cabot moved to Spain and sailed under the sponsorship of the Spanish Crown.

English exploration and adventuring in the Americas increased after Elizabeth I (1533–1603) succeeded her father, Henry VIII, in 1558. The search for a Northwest Passage to Asia continued to influence explorers: From 1576 to 1578 Martin Frobisher (ca. 1535–1594) made several transatlantic voyages in search of a Northwest Passage. After his failure, John Davis (1543–1605) made several more abortive quests for such a passage in 1585 to 1887.

During the same period, the English also became more active in intruding into Spanish domains in the Americas. Francis Drake (ca. 1543–1596) set sail in 1577 with five ships to explore the Americas and to bring home treasure and spices. He lost several ships but continued in his flagship, the Golden Hind, around South America. He reached California in June 1579, and there-after sailed around Asia and Africa and returned to England, where Elizabeth knighted him on his ship.

The next year, Elizabeth authorized Sir Humphrey Gilbert (ca. 1539–1583) to "plant" an English colony in America. He envisioned a colony as a place to dispose of England's surplus population, and he aimed for what he called "Norumbega," a region later called North Virginia, and finally New England. Gilbert's first attempt, in September 1578, failed when storms forced the ships to seek refuge in Plymouth. He tried again in 1583, and he reached Newfoundland on August 3. He returned to England on one of the smaller ships in his small fleet, and as they neared the English coast that ship, the Squirrel, disappeared with Gilbert. But he had involved his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh (ca. 1554–1618), who subsequently continued to pursue schemes for English colonization in the Americas.

Raleigh received a charter similar to Gilbert's from Elizabeth I, and he sought to colonize North America to serve England and to make profit. In 1584 Raleigh sent an expedition that sailed along the Atlantic Coast of North America, and he named this area Virginia after Elizabeth, England's "Virgin queen." The expedition explored Roanoke Island, off present-day North Carolina. Three years later, Raleigh sent a colonizing expedition of men, women, and children to settle Roanoke. He intended to send more supplies the following year, but 1588 marked the appearance of the first Spanish Armada, a fleet of warships sent by Spain to invade England. For several years, England was consumed in the great effort of battling Spain, and Raleigh's supply ships could not return until 1590. When the ships arrived, the colonists had vanished, and no sign of them, save for one word, "Croatan," carved on a post, has ever been found—an enduring mystery.

North American discoveries
1497Voyage of Cabot to North America
1498Second Voyage of Cabot to North America
1524Verrazanno: Cape Fear to Newfoundland
1534–1541Cartier: Gulf of St. Lawrence
1539–1543De Soto: Mississippi River

This experience halted English efforts at colonization until James I (1566–1625) succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. As gold and other wealth from Spanish America flowed through Spain, sometimes to English merchants, these merchants formed early versions of limited liability corporations, so-called joint-stock companies, to explore and settle the New World and to create riches for their investors.

Equally important, one Englishman helped make a strong case for colonial settlements in North America. Richard Hakluyt (ca. 1552–1616) was an English geographer, editor, and clergyman. In 1589 he published The Principal Navigations, Voyages, and Discoveries of the English Nation, which consisted of eyewitness accounts and other records of more than two hundred overseas voyages. These accounts created interest in colonizing North America, and Hakluyt himself helped organize the settling of the Jamestown colony.

The idea of limited liability and Hakluyt as propagandist combined to lead to the two principal English settlements in North America, which subsequently expanded to create the thirteen colonies that existed on the eve of the American Revolution in the 1770s. Two joint-stock companies received charters in 1606. One, the Virginia Company of Plymouth, sent two ships that made landfall in August 1607 along the coast of Maine. After two months spent building a small settlement and fort and befriending local Indians for supplies, the colonists faced the harsh Maine winter; a fire destroyed the storehouse and several other buildings, and the men soon sailed for home.

The other company, the Virginia Company of London, had better luck though the venture was not without difficulties. In 1609 the company sent an expedition to present-day Virginia, and established Jamestown, named in honor of James I. After a rough start, John Smith (1580–1631) took control and provided needed discipline, and the settlers discovered what at the time seemed a novel crop, tobacco, which helped the colony survive and prosper. Colonies in Massachusetts, Maryland, and elsewhere followed the colony in Virginia, and eventually helped establish a line of English settlements along the Atlantic Coast.

Meanwhile, as the English struggled to establish settlements along the North American coast, French explorers fared better. The French king, François I (1494–1547), sent Jacques Cartier (1491–1557), who left Saint Malo in 1534 with two ships seeking a passage to Asia and new lands to claim for France. Cartier passed Newfoundland and found the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. On his second voyage in 1535, he explored the Saint Lawrence and passed the sites that became the cities of Quebec and Montreal. He sailed back to France in 1536.

While French kings became caught up in warfare on the European continent, two explorers followed the path that Cartier had blazed. Samuel de Champlain (ca. 1570–1635) established France's first permanent settlement at Quebec in 1608, and further explored the upper Saint Lawrence, as well as the coasts of Nova Scotia and Maine. He found the lake reaching south of Montreal that was later named after him, and made his way along the Great Lakes to Lake Huron. In the 1680s Sieur de La Salle (1643–1687) built upon Champlain's explorations to reach the Mississippi River by portage. He claimed that great basin for the French king, Louis XIV (1638–1715), and named it Louisiana.

Missionaries, soldiers, and fur traders followed these explorers, and they interacted with American Indian tribes far better than the English colonists to the south. In many ways, the great voyages of exploration were ending, and the era of colonial exploitation and war for territory would soon begin.

see also Biological Impacts of European Expansion in the Americas; Columbus, Christopher; Empire in the Americas, British; Empire in the Americas, Dutch; Empire in the Americas, French; Empire in the Americas, Portuguese; Empire in the Americas, Spanish; Hakluyt, Richard; Mission, Civilizing.


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European Explorations in North America

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European Explorations in North America