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By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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America is a vast land mass spanning two continents.

Human settlement

Migrationbefore 10,000 BCThe first migrants into America must have arrived before 10,000 BC, when Beringia was submerged under glacier melt. It is known that in 16,000 BC there was an ice free corridor between glaciers. An extreme estimate is 68,000 BC (Dr. Cressman), while 40,000 to 20,000 BC contains the usual estimates (Dean Snow, Linda Newton).
Charcoal in Brazil30,000 BCEarliest estimates of hearth charcoal in Brazilian rock shelters.
Charcoal in California28,000 BCEarliest estimates of hearth charcoal on Santa Rosa Island, off California coast.
Meadowcroft Rockshelter12,000 BCDating of Meadowcroft Rockshelter near Pittsburgh.
Beringia Submerged10,000 BCBeringia is submerged under glacial melt.
Clovis people

Approximately 11,000 years ago, people crossed an ancient land bridge called the Bering Strait and thus immigrated from Asia into North America (what is now Alaska). These land-based immigrants from modern-day Siberia of a Mongolian stock, and are today called the Clovis people after the New Mexico site where their material culture was first excavated in the 1930s.

These migrations were permitted by the development of new stone implements -- spears and other hunting tools -- to pursue the large animals at the land where Asia and North America met.

The common but simplistic concept of Clovis people belies an undiscovered, tremendously diverse history.

The first settlement of the Americas was not by the Clovis people. Indeed it was even earlier, when some Asian immigrants settled as far south as Chile and Peru and likely arrived directly via boat. Native Americans are genetically similar to Siberians and Mongolians, but this does not mean that they were the only immigrants.

The Clovis people could have intermingled and eventually dominated, or even replaced, other population groups. Indeed, DNA evidence has revealed that there was a European-like population. Perhaps there had been European migration as well.

Indigenous civilizations

Tehuacan Valley Villages~ 3000 BCVillages appeared in Tehuacan Valley.
3000 - 1000 BCUto-Aztecan migration created Nahuatl-speaking urban culture in Mexico.
Olmec Trade~ 1400 - 900 BCOlmec Trade flourished.
Olmec1200 - 400 BCBy 1200 BC the Olmec civilization arose in Mexico's southern lowlands on moist, rich soil that allowed: extensive agriculture, mainly with maize; complex cities that were religious centers; and a culture of ballgame, bloodletting and human sacrifice. Excavated at the ancient Olmec city La Venta are a great pyramid, altars, colossal heads and three elaborate serpentine mosaics. La Venta was a ceremonial and civic center and the non-elites lived in outlying areas. From 400-350 BC the eastern Olmec territory underwent a devastating recension that led to a flourish of successor cultures in the lowlands within a few hundred years.
Maya1800 / 1000 BC - AD 1697The Maya area has three general zones: the southern Maya highlands; the southern (aka central) Maya lowlands; and the northern Maya lowlands. Maya civilization included many independent city-states under the hegemony of a single hereditary ruler, though some larger cities seized control over others. The Maya word tz'ib describes both writing and painting, as they were a single entity. Their complex writing system used pictographs and phonetic or syllabic elements; mediums included stone stelae, door lintels, architectural stuccos, painted murals and incised pottery. Mayan religion was polytheistic and the numerous gods were worshipped by all classes.
Zapotec500 BC - AD 800One of ancient Mexico's first civilizations, the Zapotec flourished in the valley of Oaxaca with the ancient city of Monte Albán as its nucleus. Zapotec society was hierarchical and religious. Priests were esteemed, and cared for temples and performed sacred ceremonies (including bloodletting). The Zapotec economy relied upon agriculture (maize), plant collecting, hunting and tribute by vassals. The Zapotec produced lovely weavings, pottery and goldwork. Monte Albán is renowned for its ~150 Danzantes figures representing the corpses of prisoners captured in battle. Some of the earliest evidence of calendars and writing in Latin America is from Monte Albán.
Teotihuacán200 BC - AD 750

Established by the Teotihuacános, the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacán is renowned for its 600 pyramids, 2,000 apartment compounds, numerous workshops and great market compound. At its hight in 500 CE it was one of the largest cities in the world with a population perhaps reaching 200,000 people. It was a site of pilgrimage for the Teotihuacános, as evidenced by the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon and the offerings beneath the Pyramid of the Sun.

~ AD 1Teotihuacan rises to prominence.
~ 750Teotihuacan abandoned.
ToltecAD 900 - 1200 After the collapse of Teotihuacán, the Toltecs emerged and by 900 CE had established Tula as their capital, where they flourished. Tula sits on a limestone promontory with steep banks on three sides. Their material culture included pottery vessels, mold-made figurines and obsidian blades. Toltec strength relied upon hegemony over significant obsidian deposits and was grown by military might. Records of Spaniards in Mexico reveal that the Aztecs praised the Toltecs for the military might and adopted much of their culture. Toltec influence extended as north as Casas Grandes in Mexico and as south as the Northern Maya Lowlands and the Guatemala Highlands.
AztecLate 1100s - 1521The Aztecs entered the Valley of Mexico in the late 1200s CE and in 1325 founded a new capital on Tenochtitlán, an island in the center of Lake Texcoco. Aztec emperors ruled with supreme power and quickly subdued their neighbors into vassals. Military roads were built to link distant regions with the capital. The population of Tenochtitlán reached 100,000 by 1500 CE. Aztecs believed that the gods gave their own blood and hearts to create the world; in exchange, Aztec priests oversaw similar sacrifices to the gods to keep the universe in balance. The Aztec empire thrived for ~200 years until the Spanish and Hemán Cortés arrived in 1519. Tenochtitlán was later built over and became present-day Mexico City.
1132City of Texcoco founded according to Sahagun's informants.
Tlatelolco founded1358
1428Alliance of Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco, and Texcoco defeated Azcapotzalco.
1430Ruler Itzcoatl ordered destruction and substitution of Tenochtitlan's records.
1473Tenochtitlan triumphed over Tlatelolco.
1486Huitzilopochtli's new temple dedicated in Tenochtitlan.
1490Spain begins colonizing the Canary Islands.
1492Carribeans discover lost ships trying to find a sea route from Europe to India. (The captain of these ships is Christopher Columbus.)
1493Pope Alexander VI granted Amerindian lands to the Spanish crown.
1494Columbus sent 500 enslaved Indians to the market in Seville. Rome was invaded by French King Charles VIII.
1498Census by Bartholomew Columbus listed 1,100,000 natives in half of Hispaniola.
1500Royal decree arrived in Hispaniola making Indians vassals of the crown, otherwise personally free; it was generally ignored.
1502Las Casas arrived in Hispaniola.
Beginning around 8,000 BC, the so-called archaic period was at first dominated by hunter-gatherer cultures that used the same tools brought from Asia.
Population groups eventually developed new tools and activities -- fishing with nets and hooks; traps for small animals; and baskets for gathering edible plants material.
Farming began to spread.

This required sedentary communities, and these in turn were the basis for more complex civilizations.

The most complex civilizations developed in the south, in modern-day South America, Central America and Mexico.

South America

In Peru, the Incas created the largest empire in the Americas.

It stretched 2,000 miles along western South America. They welded together disparate tribes under a central bureaucracy.


The Olmecs emerged around 1,000 BC.

Mesoamerican (modern Mexico and Central America) societies emerged around 10,000 BC, but it was the Olmecs in 1,000 BC who are credited as the first complex civilization.

Around 800 CE, a more complex civilization known as Maya emerged in Central America and the Yucatan peninsula.

Mayans had trade routes throughout the Americas.

The Mayan civilization was superseded by various Mesoamerican tribes, which were eventually dominated by the Mexica (based at Tenochtitlan, modern Mexico City), known in English as the Aztec.

North America

North American civilization were primarily based on hunting, gathering and fishing.

North America is a tremendously broad term for a region of the world that includes every climate found on earth. Inhabitants include the Eskimo/Inuit seal-hunters of the Arctic Circle; the nomads who hunted moose and caribou in the northern forests; the Pacific Northwest tribes who fished salmon and had substantial permanent coastal settlements; the Far West tribes who survived the arid climate by fishing, hunting small animals and gathering edible plants; the highly developed sedentary agricultural Southwest, Great Plains and South tribes; and in the eastern third of North America, the Woodland Indians who simultaneously farmed, hunted, gathered and fished. The most northeastern tribes were more mobile and would agriculturally exploit the land and then move.

This mosaic of groups living vastly different lifestyles was united by religion. They shared an animist, polytheist cult. Cahokia (near modern St Louis) was a major city that had about 40,000 inhabitants at its peak around 1200 CE. East of the Mississippi were various tribes loosely linked by linguistic roots: mainly the Algonquian tribes along the Atlantic coast from Virginia to Canada; the Iroquois tribes, centered at modern-day upstate New York; and the Muskogean tribes, in the far south of the Atlantic coast.



European seafaring

Columbus' voyage1492Columbus finds the Americas.
Cabot's voyage1497Cabot explores North America.
Magellan's voyage1519 - 1522Magellan circumnavigates the globe.
Before the late Renaissance, Europe lacked the resource to launch global explorations -- despite a very limited awareness that they had not charted all the lands.

Europeans were almost entirely unaware of the existence of the Americas before the fifteenth century. A few early wanderers -- Leif Eriksson, an eleventh-century Norse seaman, and others -- had glimpsed parts of the new World on their voyages. But even if their discoveries had become common knowledge (and they did not), there would have been little incentive for others to follow. Europe in the Middle Ages (roughly A.D. 500-1500) was too weak, divided, and decentralized to inspire many great ventures. Brinkley, p 7

However, circumstances had changed and mercantilism and bullionism demanded better alternatives to overland trade routes: sea exploration was the next frontier.

Two changes in particular encouraged Europeans to look toward new lands. One was the significant growth in Europe's population ... With that growth came a reawakening of commerce. A new merchant class was emerging to meet the rising demand for goods from abroad. ... The second change was the emergence of new governments that were more united and powerful than the feeble political entities of the feudal past. ... Strong new monarchs were eager to enhance the commercial development of their nations. Brinkley, p 8

The Portuguese were the top maritime explorers of the age, and they sponsored many expeditions to make new trade contacts and establish improved sea routes. Driven by European mercantilism, it was against this backdrop that the age of Euro-American contact began.

Early explorers

Christopher Columbus is credited as the European explorer who started Europe's contact with America.

Columbus had a theory: he believed he could sail west cross the Atlantic to reach East Asia, as opposed to sailing east around Africa. He did not realize that America and two oceans separated Asia and Europe. Columbus shopped this theory to his sponsors in the Portuguese monarchy, but they declined to support him. Next he turned to Europe's latest hegemony, the ambitious new monarchy of Spain.

In 1492, Spanish queen Isabella pledged her support to Columbus and in August he sailed from Spain with ninety men and three ships -- the Niña, Pinta and Santa María.

After ten weeks at sea, Columbus encountered the Americas, which he thought were Asia. Two voyages later he realized the Americas were in fact lands unbeknownst to Europeans.

Columbus found what he assumed was an island off Asia; in fact, it was the Bahamas. Next he found what he thought was China; in fact, it was Cuba. He returned to Spain with tokens from his journey, including maize and several captured Americans. He used Indians to label the Americans because he believed they were from the Pacific's East Indies. However, he had not yet found the wealthy parts of Asia, so a year later he returned again. He discovered other islands and established an ephemeral colony on Hispaniola.

In 1498, his third voyage brought him for the first time to the mainland He cruised along South America's northern coast. He realized then that the land was in fact not part of Asia.

Maritime exploration now had an added continent on the map.

The Florentine merchant Amerigo Vespucci made expeditions to the lands described by Columbus, and Vespucci's vivid, popular writings led the territory to be named America. In 1513, the Spaniard Vasco de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and was the first known European to sight the Pacific from its eastern shores.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese hired by the Spanish, found at the tip of South America what is now called the Magellanic Strait (he died later during the expedition, which continued and completed the first global circumnavigation.

European colonization

Europeans introduced influenza, measles, typhus and smallpox. Americans were decimated. Europeans viewed this as evidence that God wanted the Europeans to dominate the Americas and the Americans.

In some areas, native populations were virtually wiped out within a few decades of their first contact with whites. On Hispaniola, where Columbus had landed in the 1490s, the native population quickly declined from approximately 1 million to about 500. In the Maya area of Mexico, as much as 95 percent of the population perished within a few years of the natives' first contact with the Spanish. Many (although not all) of the tribes north of Mexico, whose contact with European settlers came later, were spared the worst of the epidemics. Brinkley, p 13 - 14

Americans also died under harsh European subjugation and extermination.

Virtually all the enterprises of the Spanish and Portuguese colonists depended on an Indian workforce. In some places, Indians were sold into slavery. More often, colonists used a coercive (or "indentured") wage system, under which Indians worked in the mines and on the plantations under duress for fixed periods. That was not, in the end, enough to meet the labor needs of the colonists. As early as 1502, therefore, European settlers began importing slaves from Africa. Brinkley, p 17

Many crops and livestock were exchanged between the Americas and Europe.

Maize, squash, pumpkins, beans, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes and tobacco all originated in America and were brought to Europe. Europeans brought sugar, bananas, cattle, pigs, sheep and horses to America. American civilizations were transformed by these introductions.

Europeans had become aware of tobacco soon after Columbus's first return from the West Indies, where he had seen the Cuban natives smoking small cigars (tabacos), which they inserted in the nostril. By the early seventeenth century, tobacco from the Spanish colonies was already in wide use in Europe. ... Tobacco growers needed large areas of farmland, and because tobacco exhausted the soil very quickly, the demand for land increased rapidly. ... The tobacco economy also created a heavy demand for labor. Brinkley, p 31

Intermarriage in Spanish regions was frequent, albeit it often forced.

Before long, the population in Spanish-controlled regions became primarily mestizo. In English-controlled regions, however, intermarriage was relatively rare.

Virreinato de Nueva España

African slavery1502African slaves arrived in Spanish America. Between 1500 and 1800, over half of all immigrants to America were Africans, almost entirely brought against their will as slaves from Guinea.
Smallpox outbreak1518 - 1530A smallpox outbreak decimates the Indigenous.
St Augustineest 1565
Spanish fort
This small military outpost was the first Spanish settlement in what is now the United States.
Santa Feest 1609
America's strong empires, and the paucity of European cartographic knowledge, confined European colonies to small, weak outposts. But thirst for America's gold and silver prompted Spain to ramp up its machinations.

Spanish explorers in the New World stopped thinking of America simply as an obstacle to their search for a route to Asia and began instead to consider it a possible source of wealth in itself. The Spanish claimed for themselves the whole of the New World, except for a piece of it (today's Brazil) that was reserved by a papal decree for the Portuguese. Brinkley, p 10

When American civilizations quickly toppled under the weight of European diseases and military victorious, the continents were now open to exploitation.

In 1518, Hernándo Cortés, who had been an unsuccessful Spanish government official in Cuba for fourteen years, led a small military expedition (about 600 men) against the Aztecs in Mexico and their powerful emperor, Montezuma, after hearing stories of great treasures there. His first assault on Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, failed. But Cortés and his army had unwittingly exposed the natives to smallpox, to which the natives, unlike the Europeans, had developed no immunity. The epidemic decimated the Aztec population and made it possible for the Spanish to triumph in their second attempt at conquest. Through his ruthless suppression of the surviving natives, Cortés established himself as one of the most brutal of the Spanish "conquistadores" (conquerors). Twenty years later, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas in Peru and opened the way for other Spanish advances into South America. Brinkle, p 10 - 11

Gold and silver poured out of America and into Spain and Portugal's coffers. These monarchies began the centuries-long process of replacing American societies with European-run institutions.

American gold mines produced most of the world's gold during this era. But the Spaniards sought not just to exploit America, but also to bring it under Spanish bureaucratic control. Through permission and authority from the Spanish monarchy, Spanish settlements sprang up across America into the 19th century. Catholic missions spread the church across America. Spanish settlers established agricultural pueblos. The missions and pueblos were supported by Spanish military forts called presidios.

By the end of the 16th century, the Spanish Empire included not just most of South America, but also the Caribbean, Mexico and southern North America.

The principal Spanish colonies north of Mexico -- Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California -- were relatively unimportant economically to the empire. They attracted religious minorities, Catholic missionaries, independent ranchers fleeing the heavy hand of imperial authority, and Spanish troops defending the northern flank of the empire. But they remained weak and peripheral parts of the great empire to their south. New Mexico was the most prosperous and populous of these Spanish outposts -- even if far less successful than Spanish settlements in Mexico and South America. Brinkley, p 48

By the end of the 17th century, there were over a million Spanish residents in America. But the Spaniards were not alone.

The Spanish enjoyed much greater prosperity than other Europeans in America. However, they still faced encroachment. They considered the French to be their greatest threat in the north. In the 1680s, French explorers had traveled down the Mississippi Valley to the river's mouth, named the territory Louisiana, and claimed Louisiana for France (all the way west to the Rocky Mountains). Spain responded by bringing the Southwest under tighter control of the regional capital, Santa Fe.

Also, French and Russian furriers had begun establishing trade posts in Alta California (later the United States' California state). To reassert Spanish hegemony, Spain compelled the Baja Californias' governor -- a Catholic monk - to begin building missions in Alta California.

Nouvelle France

Quebecest 1608
The colony's population grew slowly.
France established its first colony (Quebec) just one year after England's first colony (Jamestown), but the French exercised a disproportionate influence by forging close ties between colonists and Native Americans.

Unlike the early English settlers, the French forged close ties with Native Americans deep into the continent. French Jesuit missionaries established some of the first contacts. More important were the coureurs de bois (fur traders and trappers) who penetrated deep into the land. Oftentimes living and intermarrying with the natives, they established an extensive trade network that fed the French colonial economy.

The fur trade provided resources to establish seigneuries (French agricultural estates) along the St Lawrence River, and for the development of trade and military centers at Quebec and Montreal.


1624Dutch settle Manhattan
One the world's leading nations at the time, Holland established its presence in what is today the region of New York state.

In 1609, English explorer (in Dutch hire) Henry Hudson sailed up his eponymous river. His explorations led the Dutch to claim the territory. In 1624, the Dutch sought to disrupt English advances in the area. The Dutch West India Company established a series of permanent trade posts on the Hudson, Delaware and Connecticut rivers.

These posts would form New Netherland, with its principal town being New Amsterdam.

Русская Америка

English colonies

Roanokeest 1585CrownThe Lost Colony failed and its settlers disappeared.
Jamestownest 1607
Virginia CompanyEventually prospered.
Plymouthest 1620
New England
Puritan SeparatistsFounded by Puritans.
Saint Mary'sest 1634
CatholicsFounded by English Catholics.
Port Royalest 1670
New Yorkest 1664Taken from the Dutch.
Pennsylvaniaest 1682QuakersFounded by Quakers. In 1703 the lower counties established their own representative assembly, in effect a separate colony called Delaware.
Georgiaest 1773CrownFounded to hedge against Spanish hegemony to the southwest.

England had begun to engage in colonization in the 16th century, but was kept in check by Spain. In 1588, Spain sent its enormous Armada to crush England's colonial aspirations, but was obliterated by the smaller English fleet (aided by bad weather and a rocky coast). The gates were thus flung open for America to be colonized by England.

There were different threads: the Puritans, Catholics, crown and others.

Colonial conflicts

European - Indigenous tensions

In some areas, such as Virginia and New England, Europeans quickly eradicated the Indigenous. In other areas, the Indigenous were able to persist and a balance was reached. The French were especially adept at cooperating with the tribes. But while early European colonists faced a harsh America and adapted, later settlers shifted the balance and subjugated the Indigenous. Nonetheless, for a limited time, and in limited areas, the Europeans and Indigenous were able to stably accommodate and tolerate each other.

English - Spanish tensions in the southeast

Though formal war did not erupt, English and Spanish colonists had frequent skirmishes in the Florida region.

Spain laid claim to Florida in the 1560s and Spanish missionaries and traders quickly settled the region, even as far north as what would later be known as Georgia. There seemed little in the way of even more Spanish expansion. But in 1607, the English founded Jamestown; as the English colonies in America thrived, the Spanish saw a growing threat to their territory. (Not to mention the growing pressure from Louisiana.) The Spanish built forts in the Florida and Georgia regions to protect their claims. The English were concerned about their North American empire's southern boundary. Throughout the 17th century there were constant hostilities in the area, though no formal war.

English pirates harassed the Spaniards, and in 1668 actually sacked St Augustine; also, the English encouraged Indigenous uprisings against Spanish missions. Spain offered freedom to English-owned African slaves who converted to Catholicism (only about a hundred slaves did so, and Spain put some of them in a military regiment to defend the region). By the early 18th century, almost all the Spaniards had left the region, except for St Augustine and Pensacola. Eventually, the English prevailed over all the regional powers by winning the Seven Years' War.

African slaves

In the sixteenth century ... the market for slaves increased dramatically as a result of the growing European demand for sugarcane. The small areas of sugar cultivation in the Mediterranean could not meet the demand, and production soon spread to new areas: to the island of Madeira off the African coast, which became a Portuguese colony, and not long thereafter (still in the sixteenth century) to the Caribbean islands and Brazil. Sugar was a labor-intensive crop, and the demand for African workers in these new areas of cultivation was high. At first the slave traders were overwhelmingly Portuguese. By the seventeenth century, the Dutch had won control of most of the market. In the eighteenth century, the English dominated it. (Despite some recent claims, Jews were never significantly involved in the slave trade.) By 1700, slavery had spread well beyond its original locations in the Caribbean and South America and into the English colonies to the north. Brinkley, p 18 - 19

Modern nations

United States


Is it possible that the reason Canada developed as a separate nation, is that English revolutionaries were indebted to France's support and thus it was outside their best interest to throw their hat into Francophone regions?



Archaic periodScholarly term for American era beginning approximately 8,000 BC.
CahokiaTrading center near modern-day St Louis. At it peak (c 1200 CE) it had a population of about 40,000.
Clovis peopleEarly migrants into America. They were of Mongolian descent. They were named after the New Mexico town where archaeologists excavated their tools and weapons.
ConquistadoresSpanish for conquerors, they were Spain's agents who exerted Spanish control in America.
Coureurs de boisFrench fur traders and trappers in America.
EncominedasPermission from Spain to extract labor and tribute from the Indigenous.
MercantilismAn economic system that places the nation at the heart of the economy, and advocates a trade surplus and colonial empire.
MestizosPeopled of mixed Spanish and Indigenous race.
Henry HudsonEnglish explorer in Dutch employ who explored what would become New Netherlands and later New York.