Fascinating Facts About the Colonization of the Americas


During his 1492 journey to find what he believed would be a more expedient sea route to the Indies, the Genovese sailor Christopher Columbus kept a journal meant to serve as a record for the financiers of his voyage, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. He writes that he made port on “the most fertile, temperate, level, and beautiful countries in all the world.”

Now, of course, we know Columbus hadn’t reached the Indies. His “countries” were actually continents, where Native Americans inhabited land he intended to claim for Spain. In this list, we will revisit the colonization of the Americas to determine why it inspires such fascination… and controversy.

10. The First Map Showing America Owes its Accuracy to the French

As mentioned in a previous list, 16th century German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller was the first mapmaker to include America (which we would later call South America), and the Pacific Ocean on a map. He deserves sole credit for producing the map. However, scholars in the French village of Saint Dié-des-Voges (commonly called Saint Dié) deserve some credit for its accuracy.

In the first decade of the 16th century, these scholars completed an ambitious endeavor. They gathered, recorded, and shared all of the most recent geographical and topographical information European explorers discovered during their travels. Waldeseemueller’s map, which is now hanging in the United States of America’s Library of Congress, was the most accurate map produced as a result of this project.

9. Christopher Columbus “Discovered” North America by Accident

We’ve talked before about how Christopher Columbus knew that the Earth was round. Though he was right about the shape of the Earth, he was wrong about the circumference of the globe. Based on his (incorrect) measurements, Columbus believed he had discovered an expedient sea trade route to Asia. When he landed in North America in 1492, he believed Haiti was Japan and Cuba was China. In his 2009 article for Smithsonian Magazine, “Columbus’ Confusion About The New World,” Edward S. Morgan argues that Columbus refused to believe he had discovered a new land, as opposed to a route to the Indies, because the truth lessened his triumph.

Columbus relied on the accounts of other explorers, both contemporaries and ancients, when he was determining his navigation course. An admission that he had not reached the Indies could also be taken as an admission that Columbus, a self-taught man, may have interpreted those explorers’ accounts incorrectly. More importantly, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain were disappointed that Columbus did not bring back as much gold as he had anticipated he would. Perhaps he did not wish to further diminish his achievement by admitting it was not the one he had originally hoped to accomplish. 

8. Spanish Explorers Were Primarily Interested in Resources for Spain

Arguably, the most well known Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) are Hernán Cortés, who decimated the Aztec population circa 1521, and Francisco Pizarro, who did the same to the Incan population circa 1533. Even if the Spaniards did not know how to interpret them, the Aztecs and the Incans had complex sociocultural structuresThe Aztecs, who built their empire in the Valley of Mexico, were fierce warriors and skilled farmers. They developed an early version of hydroponics, a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water instead of soil. Their capital city, Tenochtitlán, was notable for its easily navigable design and its thriving marketplace. (After Cortés laid siege to the Aztecs’ capital, the Spaniards built Mexico City over a portion of its ruins.) The Incans, who lived in Perú, Bolívia, and Ecuador, were accomplished conquerors and impressive architects. They built their capital city, Cuzco, and indeed their entire empire, without the use of wheels, iron tools, or animal labor.

However, there was only one asset that was of interest to the Spanish conquistadors: gold. Cortés and Pizarro both adhered to the belief system historians describe succinctly as gold, God, and glory.” The conquistadors believed that God had ordained them to claim natives’ gold for the Spanish crown, and any personal glory they achieved as a result of doing God’s work was justly earned. The circumstances of 16th century Spain’s geographical, sociopolitical, and sociocultural development could be interpreted by the conquistadors as supporting their worldview. Spain faces the Atlantic Ocean and North Africa, making it ideally located for maritime travel. Since many of the communities in medieval Spain were fishing communities, many Spaniards were experienced sailors, and Spain possessed ships and navigational tools that were arguably the best in Europe.

As Columbus first encountered the native populations of North America while undertaking an expedition financed by Spain, the Spanish conquistadors who traveled to South America were strongly motivated to “civilize” any natives they found by forcing them to convert to Christianity. Contemporary historians may debate whether it is possible to empathize with the Spaniards’ actions, even while refusing to condone them. However, the conquistadors actions are understandable when they are contextualized within the sociocultural ideologies of the 16th century, even if those actions cannot be easily forgiven.    

7. French Settlers Both Traded With and Married Native Americans

Unlike the English and the Spanish, the French were more interested in trading with the Native Americans than they were in colonizing them. Beginning in the mid-16th century, French fur traders set up trading posts near the St. Lawrence River and the Saguenay River, where they traded goods with Native American tribes living in what is now Canada. (Before we give too much credit to the French for supporting the sociocultural and sociopolitical autonomy of non-Europeans, we should note that France established a colonial empire spanning Africa, Asia, and the Middle East beginning in the 18th century.)

Because it was based on mutual trade deals, the partnership between the French and the Native Americans could sometimes be beneficial to both parties. Though the British won the Seven Years War (1756-1763), a war fought because the British and the French contested ownership of the Ohio River Valley, most of the Native American tribes whose members did not choose to remain neutral fought for the French. The alliances between the French and the Native Americans were not restricted to war time. The Native Americans were more likely to intermarry with the French than with any other Europeans. As Ann McGrath, a history professor at Australian National University, notes in her 2016 article “Making Love –And Nations,” intermarriages allow for intercultural exchanges that can create mutual respect between nations. However, in the case of the French traders and the Native American tribes, intermarriage also weakened the Native Americans’ ability to argue for sociocultural and sociopolitical independence from the Europeans.

6. North America Was Viewed as Prime Settlement Territory by the English

Unlike the Spanish conquistadors, who were primarily interested in plundering the New World for gold, the English traveled to North America to settle. Whole families sailed to the New World. Sometimes, they sought to escape religious persecution, as was the case for the Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts in 1620. Sometimes, they founded a settlement intended to enrich England through trade. The first North American settlement established with the support of the English monarch, Jamestown, Virginia (named for King James I) was founded by the Virginia Company in 1606. The company established a thriving tobacco trade in Jamestown, but the relationships between the English and the Native American tribes whose lives the settlers’ constantly increasing need for goods, land, and labor disrupted did not thrive equally well. For example, in 1675, the initially generous Wampanoag tribe, incensed by the Pilgrims’ unrepentant encroachment on Native American territory, initiated King Philip’s War. 5,000 inhabitants of New England died in that war, including both English and Native American casualties.

 The Jamestown settlers were arguably more deliberate in their displacement of  the Powhatan tribe. After all, the English settlers in Jamestown had come to Virginia to claim land, grow tobacco, and profit from trading that tobacco. By 1622, the peace agreement solidified by Powhatan Pocahontas’ 1614 Christian conversion and (post-kidnapping) marriage to the English tobacco planter, John Rolfe, was no longer enforced. That year, Powhatan chief Opechancanough successfully coordinated a Powhatan attack on Jamestown. The Powhatan killed roughly 400 Jamestown settlers. The English retaliated, and the English settlers and the Powhatan tribe warred sporadically until 1632. In 1644, Opechancanough planned another attack, but it was not equally successful. In 1646, he was captured and  shot in the back by a Jamestown guard who was acting against the orders of his superior. After Opechancanough’s death, his successor signed treaties with Jamestown’s governor that effectively made the Powhatan English subjects.

5. Native Americans Were Termed “Indians” Because Columbus Was Lost

15th century European sailors used the term “the East Indies” to collectively refer to China, Japan and India. Columbus died believing he had landed not on a continent new to Europeans, but in the Indies. Accordingly, he referred to the native tribes living there as “indios,” the word the Spanish use to refer to natives of India. (Contemporary use of the phrase “American Indian” to refer to Native Americans also dehumanizes Americans of Indian [as in, from India] descent.)

If contemporary Native Americans consider the term “Indian” derogatory, it is  partially because, with one incorrect word, Columbus erased the various cultures of the various tribes he encountered in North America. Columbus’ symbolic erasure of Native Americans’ identities became literal as more European settlers encroached on tribal territories. Further, any identity marker used by Columbus carries the connotation of his Eurocentric supremacy. Columbus wrote of the Arawak, the tribe he most admired, “They would make fine servants […W]ith fifty men we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want.”  

4. Bartolomé de las Casas Didn’t Think South American Natives Were as Well Suited for Slavery as Africans

Dominican historian and missionary Friar Bartolomé de las Casas is one of the few colonialist figures whose worldview would likely be familiar to contemporary Americans on both continents. From 1515 until his death in 1566, las Casas petitioned the Spanish government, asking the monarch to stop conquistadors from enslaving and killing Native Americans. Las Casas was a prolific writer. He produced histories, religious treatises, and humanitarian treatises on the natives’ treatment. In one of his essays, “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” las Casas said the Spanish “dismember, slay, perturb, afflict, torment, and destroy the Indians by all manner of cruelty,” and begged his king to demand they be treated humanely.

In his early writings, las Casas argued that Africans would be more ideal slaves than Native Americans. Like most Europeans, he believed Africans were naturally built for hard physical labor. The average lifespan for an enslaved African was longer than that of an enslaved Native American. Unlike the Native Americans, the Africans had previous exposure to European diseases, such as malaria and smallpox. Many Europeans claimed the Africans’ immunity demonstrated that God had designed them for slavery. Las Casas, however, did not remain one of those Europeans. Eventually, he campaigned for the abolition of slavery. Though his campaign was unsuccessful, he did earn the Native American slaves the right to arbitrate their own disputes using their own laws and customs.

3. The Americas Were Named by a German and an Alsatian

As previously noted, Martin Waldseemuller was the first person to write the name “America” on a map. The map was included in a 1507 book, Introduction to Cosmography with Certain Principles of Geometry and Astronomy Necessary for this Matter. Additionally the Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, a title most scholars shorten to Introduction to Cosmography. The book doesn’t include an author’s name.

However, the most likely author is Matthias Ringmann, an Alsatian scholar and poet who had previously collaborated with Waldseemuller to produce a map of the world as it was understood by the Greek philosopher, Ptolemy. As the unabridged title of the book makes clear, it contains four letters allegedly written by Florentine merchant Amerigo Vespucci, only one of which contemporary scholars believe is authentic. In the authentic letter, Vespucci says he has passed a “new land,” a term 16th century explorers commonly used to refer to unnamed places they hadn’t passed before. Vespucci says in his letter that he has passed somewhere new, but he never directly states that land isn’t a part of Asia. Ringmann and Waldseemuller (probably primarily Ringmann) named what is now South America, “America,” to honor Vespucci, but it is they who deserve credit for realizing it was an entirely new continent.

Though it may be difficult to imagine the two western continents by any other name, “America” wasn’t universally popular. In 1538, cartographer Gerardus Mercator published a map naming the northern continent as well as the southern one; it is Mercator who gave the continents their contemporary names, North and South America. The Spanish, for their part, didn’t care for the name “America” at all. Believing Vespucci was trying to usurp a glory that rightfully belonged to Christopher Columbus — whose discovery had been financed by Spanish monarchs — by naming the land after himself, the Spanish refused to put “America” on their maps until two centuries after Ringmann and Waldseemuller published their 1507 book. In fact, Vespucci was never aware of the honor. The book didn’t reach the Iberian Peninsula until after his death in 1512.

2. The Use of the Term “American” is Contentious

People who live in the United States, one of the three countries in North America, call themselves “Americans.” Technically, the term could accurately refer to anyone who resides in North or South America, as it did in the 16th century. Within the context of U.S. history, “American” is derived from British American,” a term used to differentiate Britons living in England from British colonists.

The differentiation became irrelevant after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, because the colonies separated from England, but “American” stayed in the lexicon. In her 2013 article for The Atlantic, “What Does ‘American’ Actually Mean?” Karina Martinez-Carter says that some Latin Americans and South Americans perceive the U.S. monopoly over the term as a symbolic extension of U.S. colonialism.

1. Europeans Brought Native Americans to Europe in Order to Display Them as Curiosities

A researcher named Nancy Egan estimates 25,000 Native Americans were brought to American and European world fairs between 1880 and 1930. In 1891, members of the Creek tribes gathered over 100 signatures to petition the U.S. government to allow Native American-directed exhibits. The petition was denied. Instead, the Eurocentric exhibitions showcased Native Americans’ “savagery” or the “civilizing” effects of  European or American imperialism.

In their 1992 performance art piece, Couple In A Cage: Two Undiscovered Amerindians Visit the West, performance artists Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez Peña played two Native Americans placed in an exhibit. Though the piece was intended as a satire, audiences, who believed Fusco and Peña were genuinely members of an undiscovered tribe, willingly participated in the degradation of the supposed Amerindians.

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