Europe’s period of exploration and colonization was fueled largely by necessity. Europeans had become accustomed to the goods from Asia, such as the silk, spices, and pottery that had for centuries traveled the Silk Road. By the middle of the 16th century, however, this trade was under threat. The rise in power of the Ottoman Turks and the decline of the Mongol Empire disrupted traditional trade routes. At the same time, there were a number of improvements in shipbuilding and navigation, making it possible to travel farther and for longer periods of time. European countries recognized the potential profits of securing better trade with Asia and sought new routes by sea.

Commissioned by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus was among the first who sought a faster, more direct route to Asia by sailing west rather than east. In 1492, Columbus landed on an island in the Caribbean. Although Columbus mistakenly believed he had landed on an island in East Asia, later explorers added to the knowledge of the land, and—thanks in part to the voyages of fellow Italian Amerigo Vespucci—determined that Columbus had reached a “New World.” Each of the major European powers—Spain, France, the Netherlands, and England—sent explorers to the New World. Colonization, or the desire to establish permanent settlements, soon followed.

Some of these European countries fought one another for control over trade and the riches of the New World. While they all shared a desire for wealth and power, their motivations for colonization differed somewhat, and thus the pattern and success of their colonies varied significantly.

God, Gold, and Glory

Spain was driven by three main motivations. Columbus, in his voyage, sought fame and fortune, as did his Spanish sponsors. To this end, Spain built a fort in 1565 at what is now St. Augustine, Florida; today, this is the oldest permanent European settlement in the United States. A few fledgling Spanish settlements were established nearby, but clashes with Native Americans who lived there, and the lack of gold or other riches made many of them short-lived. Spanish conquistadors had better success in South America, where they conquered the Aztec and Inca Empires and claimed the land for Spain. Spain soon grew rich from ample deposits of gold and silver in Mexico, Central America, and South America.

In addition to the quest for gold, however, Spain sought to spread Christianity. To this end, missions were founded in present-day Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—indeed, anywhere the Spaniards had influence. The first mission was founded in New Mexico by friars who accompanied a 1598 expedition by Don Juan Oñante, who explored the southwest in search of gold. It would take another 70 years before the Spanish began to settle in California; Father Junipero Serra built Mission San Diego, the first mission in present-day California, in 1769. To protect these missions, the Spanish established presidios, where soldiers lived.

The main goal of these missions was to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Missionaries worked in schools to convert Native Americans to Christianity and also how to farm and adopt other European ways. Some missions also served as posts where explorers set out on the quest for riches. Many claimed larger areas of land around them to farm and raise animals. Over time, these missions grew into villages and then cities. Some of today’s largest cities in the southwestern United States began hundreds of years ago as missions.

Fur Fervor

In 1534, navigator Jacques Cartier claimed northern North America for France; in 1608, fellow explorer Samuel de Champlain founded the first French settlement of Quebec on the cliffs over the St. Lawrence River. France focused its attention on establishing commercially viable trading posts in the New World to supply Europe with its seemingly never-ending demand for furs. To this end, France fostered good relationships with Native Americans, and built on mutual benefits of the trade of beaver furs for French goods. In comparison with England, the colonial population of New France was relatively small.

The Netherlands also became interested in the New World because of its economic promise. For such a small country, the Netherlands was a naval powerhouse. The Dutch East India Company controlled trade with the so-called Spice Islands, which are now part of Indonesia, making the Netherlands one of the world’s foremost commercial centers. The Dutch government gave the company the power to establish colonies, which enabled the company to control trade. Its foray into North America began in 1609, when the Dutch East India Company employed English explorer Henry Hudson to search for a water route by which it could reach its markets in Indonesia more quickly. Hudson did not find the so-called Northwest Passage, but he explored the river bearing his name.

The Dutch established settlements in what it called New Netherland. It purchased the island of Manhattan from the Native Americans in 1626 and renamed it New Amsterdam. The primary motivation for Dutch settlement of this area was financial—the country wanted to add to its treasury. To this end, Dutch traders formed powerful alliances with Native Americans based on the trade of beaver pelts and furs. Farmers and merchants followed. Success was short-lived, however. In 1664, Britain took over the colony of New Netherland and renamed it New York. 

England Establishes Permanent Colonies

Of all the European countries, England established the firmest foothold in North America. Like the other European countries, England was motivated in part by the lure of both riches and the Northwest Passage. In 1606, King James I granted a charter to colonize Virginia to the Virginia Company of London, a joint-stock company of investors who believed there was a profit to be made. They settled the colony of Jamestown. Yet, Britain soon had populated permanent settlements in the new world for a different reason.

The settlement of these colonies was motivated by religion. In 1620, a group of settlers left Plymouth, England, to join the settlers in Jamestown. Among them were the separatists, a group of people who believed the Church of England to be corrupt and thus sought to break from it. They believed the New World would offer them an opportunity to live and worship in accordance with their beliefs. They left England later than they had planned, and their ship was blown off course. They landed on the coast of present-day Massachusetts and named their settlement after the town from which they had set sail.

These Pilgrims were followed by countless others who settled along the Atlantic Coast. Britain encouraged these settlements, benefiting from the vast array of raw materials the colonies found and cultivated. In New England, the colonies engaged in fishing, lumber, and shipbuilding. Farther south, colonies provided tobacco, rice, and indigo. For almost 200 years, until the colonies fought and won their independence, England benefited financially from the relationship with its North American colonies.

Motivations for Colonization

The opportunity to make money was one of the primary motivators for the colonization of the New World. The Virginia Company of London established the Jamestown colony to make a profit for its investors.

charter
Noun

document that outlines rules for how a state or other organization will be organized.

colony
Noun

people and land separated by distance or culture from the government that controls them.

conquistador
Noun

Spanish explorer or conqueror of Latin America in the 16th century.

friar
Noun

member (always male) of a mendicant order, namely one of the Dominican, Franciscan, Carmelite, and Augustinian Orders.

independence
Noun

state or situation of being free.

joint stock company
Noun

company organized by investors in which each investor has a share in the profits.

mission
Noun

religious and military outpost, often associated with Spanish Catholic exploration of North America.

missionary
Noun

member of a religion who travels to a different community in order to convert new people to their faith.

Northwest Passage
Noun

waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

pilgrim
Noun

person who travels to a place for a religious or spiritual reason.

presidio
Noun

military fort or garrison.

separatist
Noun

person who withdraws, or secedes, from an established order or church.

settlement
Noun

community or village.

settler
Noun

person who migrates and establishes a residence in a largely unpopulated area.