Introduction to European Colonialism

The Colonial Age of North America is, like most historical processes, is difficult to place on a timeline.  While, for our purposes, it extends from the establishment of the first Spanish colonies to end of the American War of Independence (the early 1500s to 1783).  That approach, however, places a fairly heavy British perspective on the colonial experience.  The Spanish did not relinquish their hold on Mexico until 1821, for example.

It is important to keep in mind that the colonization of North America was not a solely British (or British and Spanish) affair.  The French played a vital role as did the Dutch.  Different colonial powers expanded into North America for different reasons.  The Spanish sought to exploit natural wealth such as gold and silver.  The French sought wealth through fur pelts.  British colonists in Virginia grew tobacco.

Not all colonists were primarily concerned with economic acquisition.  The British colonies in New England had a foundation in their desire to establish a society and political system which would allow them to fully embrace their religious beliefs.  Roman Catholic missionaries accompanying Spanish Conquistadors brought their faith with them and imposed in on the indigenous population with varying degrees of success.

One constant amongst all the colonizing powers is that their presence and activities had a significant effect on the Native American population—devastating their culture, society, economy, and population.

The resources in this section attempt to illustrate the diversity of the colonial experience in the lands that would, eventually, become the United States.