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4.2: North American History and Settlement

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    Although Christopher Columbus is often credited with “discovering” America, the landmass was inhabited long before Europeans made contact. Most likely, early migrants to the Americas traveled from Asia through the Beringia land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska over 10,000 years ago. These indigenous peoples, known as First Nations in Canada or Native Americans in the United States, were divided into a number of different groups, some consisting only of a few small families and others encompassing vast territories and empires (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Some groups practiced hunting and gathering but many practiced settled agriculture. Before European contact, there were an estimated 50 million indigenous people living in North and South America.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): North American Indigenous Cultural Areas (Derivative work from original by Spacenut525, Wikimedia Commons)

    European colonization completely changed the cultural landscape of North America. In 1492 CE, Columbus made contact with what are now the Bahamas, Cuba, and the island of Hispaniola, spurring Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the Americas. The term “Indian” was actually originally used by Columbus who thought he had arrived in the East Indies, what we now refer to as East and Southeast Asia. Early French and English settlements were not successful, but over time, they too gained control of territory and founded permanent colonies. The easternmost indigenous groups were the first to experience the impacts of European invasion. Many were relocated, often forcibly, to the interior of North America to free up land for European settlement. Disease and war would have a devastating effect on the indigenous groups of the Americas. European settlers and explorers brought smallpox, measles, and cholera – diseases previously unknown to North America. In some areas, 90 percent of the indigenous population died.

    By the early 1700s, France, the United Kingdom, and Spain had established formal colonies in the Americas (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)) and the population geography of North America today is largely rooted in the colonial developments during this time period. The British primarily set up settlements along the coast, including the thirteen colonies that would declare independence from the United Kingdom and form the basis of the United States. The French colonized much of Canada and the area surrounding the Mississippi River. Their primary objective was fur trading, and they founded a fur trading outpost at what would later become the city of Quebec. The Spanish colonized present-day Florida as well as much of Middle America, stretching into what is now the southwestern United States. They sought resources like gold, the expansion of trade, and opportunities to spread the Roman Catholic faith to indigenous groups.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Map of North American Colonies, 1750 (Derivative work from original by Pinpin, Wikimedia Commons)

    The early British colonies had highly specialized economies, not unlike the patterns seen in present-day North America. The New England colonies, around the Massachusetts Bay area, were centers of commerce. The Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia and Maryland had a number of tobacco plantations. In the Middle Atlantic, around New York, New Jersey, and eastern Pennsylvania, were a number of small, independent-farmer colonies. Further south, the Carolinas were home to large plantations cultivating crops like cotton.

    These large plantations relied on slave labor, a dark legacy that would last for 250 years in North America. Initially, colonists partnered with indentured servants. These laborers paid to their passage to North America by agreeing to work for an employer under contract for a set number of years. These indentured servants often worked on farms, and once their contract expired, they were free to work on their own. Over half of all European immigrants to the Americas before the American Revolution were indentured servants.

    As indentured servants gradually earned their freedom, the system of indentured servitude was replaced with slavery. The Portuguese were the first to bring slaves from Africa to the Americas during the 1500s. England, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands would all later join in the transatlantic slave trade, with England dominating the slave trade by the late 17th century. The vast majority of slaves were destined for sugar colonies in the Caribbean and Brazil. Less than 10 percent would be brought to the North American colonies, but this number still represented hundreds of thousands of people. It is estimated that a total of 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World as slaves.

    During British colonization, slaves worked as house servants or laborers in the northern colonies and farm workers in the south. Britain formally abolished slavery in 1833, but slavery was so entrenched in the economies of the southern United States that it would take a civil war to end the practice. In their secession statement, Mississippi explained its reasoning for leaving the union: “In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course. Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth” (

    When we think about the Civil War, it is important to understand the geographical differences between the north and south and to remember that the northern states profited on slavery in the south. Just as geographers can divide the world into core and peripheral countries today, the early United States can similarly be analyzed in terms of its core and periphery. The southern states were indeed peripheral in terms of their economic development. Slavery, essentially free labor, provided the southern states with the maximum profit for their commodities and the notion of “othering,” the idea that people who look different from you are definitively not you, combined to create an institution that was deeply a part of the southern culture and economy. Even after slavery was abolished in the United States in 1865 with the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the legacy of slavery and the tendency to consider African Americans as “other” remained. It would be another 100 years before laws were passed in the United States that would bar discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Even still, racial and ethnic prejudices continue to be a significant social issue.

    This page titled 4.2: North American History and Settlement is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Caitlin Finlayson.

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