The New World

When Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean islands, a chain of events was set off. The acts of exploration, pillaging, and colonization would permanently affect the Americas. What exactly was the New World? Who lived there before it was "discovered" by European men? Why did Europeans want to go there so badly? Let's look at the history of the Americas and the Europeans who explored and settled in it.

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Table of contents

    Words to Know

    Here are some keywords and phrases that we will use throughout this article.

    AssimilationRemoving someone's culture and traditions and replacing them with one's own culture.
    PillagingViolently stealing from a person or group.
    VinelandThe name that the Vikings used for North America when they tried to settle in the continent around 1000 EC.
    ConquistadorSpanish conquers, active in Central and South America.

    The First People to Discover the Americas

    Before Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World, people were already living fulfilling lives in the Americas. In Central America, there were organized societies in vast empires, like the Aztecs and Mayans, or the Incas in South America. These empires did not spread to North America, but there were plenty of tribes each with unique structures, religions, and cultures.

    Central America and the Aztecs

    Let's look at the Aztecs of Central America. While we call them Aztecs now, that is only a word that historians use to identify them. They called themselves the Mexica.

    Did you know. . .

    The word Aztec was taken from the word aztecatl, meaning people from Aztlan, which is where historians believed the Mexica originated from.

    The Mexica lived in city-states ruled by a Tlatoani, who was similar to a king. Beneath him were dignitaries who acted as advisors, priests, nobility, commoners, landless peasants, then enslaved people.

    The New World Aztec Hierarchy Chart StudySmarterFig 1: Mexica Hierarchy Chart

    The capital city-state was Tenochtitlan, where the Emperor, Montezuma II, lived and ruled. The Mexica had a vibrant culture shown in Tenochtitlan's art, architecture, and people. Much of this would be destroyed in 1521 when Hernán Cortés, with the help of the Aztec's indigenous enemies, defeated the Mexica and pillaged the city.

    North American Indigenous Tribes

    Instead of looking at a specific tribe, let's look at the differences in culture to appreciate the diversity of North American indigenous tribes. Indigenous American groups could be as small as a family who hunted together or as large as the Iroquois Confederacy, which comprised five different nations. Some tribes were led by a chief, while others had a council. Tribes in wooded areas might hunt deer, but a tribe by the sea would fish. The tribes were vastly different in language, culture, religion, and types of social organization.

    Europeans in the New World

    Europeans began exploring the New World after Columbus sailed to it in 1492. Let's look at the below timeline for an overall idea of the exploration and colonialization of the Americas.

    The New World Timeline

    1492Christopher ColumbusFirst European to set foot on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea.
    1497Amerigo VespucciExplored the northern part of South America, first believing it was a New World and not Asia.
    1497John CabotExplored part of Canada and declared that it was Newfoundland (a newfound land).
    1513Nunez de BalboaFirst European to see the Pacific Ocean.
    1513Ponce de LeonClaimed Florida for the Spanish monarchy.
    1520Ferdinand MagellanEuropean who named the Pacific Ocean.
    1521Hernán Cortés Defeated the Aztec Empire.
    1524Giovanni VerrazanoExplored from North Carolina to Maine.
    1533Francisco Pizzaro Conquered the Incas.
    1534Jacques CartierClaimed part of North America for France.
    1539Hernando de SotoExplored and colonized Florida.
    1585Sir Walter RaleighSir Walter Raleigh established the Roanoke Colony.
    1565Pedro Menéndez de AvilésEstablish the St. Augustine colony in Florida.
    1578Sir Francis DrakeClaimed San Francisco Bay for England.
    1585John WhiteRoanoke and the Lost Colony.
    1587Sir Walter RaleighClaimed Virginia for England, established colony.
    1609Samuel de ChamplainThe first European to find Lake Champlain and mapped out most of the northeastern part of North America.
    1609 Henry HudsonThe first European to find the Hudson River, Hudson Strait, and Hudson Bay.
    1673Jacques Marquette and Louis JolietMissionaries who mapped out the Mississippi River.
    1679Robert de La SalleSailed from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

    New World Definition

    Now that we've seen who lived in and the timeline of the New World, let's define it. The New World was the term used for the Americas starting in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. It included the Caribbean islands, North, Central, and South America, and other landmasses in the Western Hemisphere.

    New World Fact: The continent was named America by German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. He called it the Americas after Amerigo Vespucci, the first European to suggest that the continent was not India.

    The New World North America Map StudySmarterFig 2: Map of North America.

    Christopher Columbus Lands in the New World

    In 1492, Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover Hispaniola in the Caribbean islands, which the Taino people already populated. On his second voyage, Columbus established and was the governor of a colony on Hispaniola. This colony would become the template for colonies established throughout the New World.

    The New World Taino Women StudySmarterTaino Women.

    Columbus was arrested in 1500 for his cruelties towards the colonists and the indigenous islanders. While the Spanish monarchy immediately freed him, the colony was given to someone else. Many European explorers followed suit with his discovery of a sea route to the New World.

    Spanish Exploration of the New World

    After the Spanish settled Hispaniola, they began to spread to the surrounding islands. Juan Ponce de León was the governor of Puerto Rico. León decided to leave the island and explore the continent. Some historians think he was looking for riches, but others believe it was the mythical "fountain of youth" he was after.

    In 1513, León sailed to Florida and mistook it for an island. He claimed this territory for Spain and named it Terra de Pascua, Florida, for the growing flowers. León was chased from the island by indigenous warriors. He returned in 1521 to colonize the territory. Once again, the indigenous warriors chased him away, fatally wounding him. A colony would not be established in Florida until 1565.

    New World Ponce de Leon StudySmarterFig 4: Ponce de León

    The Spanish explorers were often called conquistadors. Two of the most known conquistadors were Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro. Cortés defeated the Aztecs while Pizarro defeated the Incas.

    Early French Exploration of the New World

    Giovanni Verrazano was an Italian explorer hired by the French to search for the Northwest Passage in 1524. Verrazano never found the passage, but he did explore much of the New World, from North Carolina to Nova Scotia, Canada. Verrazano's accounts helped mapmakers make more accurate maps that later explorers would use.

    New World Giovanni Verrazano StudySmarterFig 5: Giovanni Verrazano

    The French sent Jacques Cartier in search of the Northwest Passage in 1534. While he did not find the passage, he did find the St. Lawrence Gulf and St Lawrence River. Cartier tried to establish a colony in Canada, but it was unsuccessful. His discoveries did lead to later French colonies and gave France a way to claim land in Canada.

    English Exploration of the New World

    Henry VII sent John Cabot, an Italian explorer, to search for a northwest passage in 1497. While Cabot did not discover the passage, he did claim Newfoundland, Canada, for England. This claim would allow England to establish colonies later on.

    Sir Walter Raleigh was one of the first English men to try just that. His first attempt to establish a colony in Roanoke in 1585 failed. He sponsored a second attempt in 1587, with John White acting as governor. This colony disappeared completely. Raleigh's last effort at adventure was when he went to Central America to find the fabled El Dorado, the city of gold. This attempt was also a failure that cost him his life.

    New World John White StudySmarterFig 6: John White beside the tree marked "Croatan"

    The Lost Colony

    The Roanoke colony was established and doing well, but John White had to return to England for supplies. His daughter just gave birth to the first European born in America and named her Virginia. White could not return for three years, and the colony was gone by the time he got back. The only evidence left was the word "CROATOAN" carved into a pillar. The Lost Colony was never heard from again and faded into folklore.

    The New World - Key takeaways

    • Europeans did not discover the Americas because people already lived there
    • Christopher Columbus's colonialization of Hispaniola was the template for other colonies
    • The Spanish did a lot of the early exploration of the Americas
    • The French and English exploration of the New World was centered around colonizing
    Frequently Asked Questions about The New World

    Why did Europe want to explore the new world? 

    Europeans wanted to explore the New World in search of wealth and glory. They also wanted to spread Christianity. 

    Was Columbus the first European to reach the new world? 

    Columbus was not the first European to reach the New World; it is believed that it was the Viking explorer Leif Erickson.

    What was Columbus looking for in the new world? 

    Columbus was not searching for the New World at all but a northwest sea passage to India.

    What kept France from exploring the New World? 

    France did not explore the New World to the same degree as other European nations because of internal politics and conflicts in France.

    Why did Spain explore the New World? 

    Spain explored the New World for the three Gs: "For Gold, For Glory, and For God". 

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