america before colonial times

America Before

Colonial Times



wonder voyage Western Hemisphere
wander inhabitant spread across
found establish accumulate
crop game (2) magnificent
maize wave (3) hemisphere
spice attempt commodity
set sail assume mainland
gourd monarch adventure
seek eager clergy
gain fame trading post
set up conquer conquistador
fur struggle mission (2)
sparse colony wilderness
route hardship encounter
soil fertile abundant


The first Americans

For thousands of years, Indians were the only inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere. They had wandered into North America from Asia about 15,000 years ago. Soon they spread across the hemisphere to the tip of South America.

The American Indians formed hundreds of tribes, with many different languages and ways of life.

Some tribes in Central and South America — including the Aztec, Inca, and Maya — became nations and established advanced civilizations. They founded magnificent cities and accumulated gold, jewels, and other riches.

Most American Indians north of Mexico lived in small villages. They hunted game and grew such crops as maize, beans, and gourds. Some tribes travelled continuously in search of food and never established permanent settlements.

European Discoverers

The Vikings. About A.D. 1000, Scandinavian Vikings from their settlement in Greenland explored part of what is now Newfoundland, Canada.

They were probably the first Europeans to reach the mainland of North America. But the Vikings did not establish permanent settlements, and their voyages were soon forgotten.

Columbus. Then, in 1492, an Italian navigator Christopher Columbus became the first known European to reach North America.

Before Columbus

Before Columbus’ voyage, Europeans did not know the Western Hemisphere existed. During the 1400’s, they had become interested in finding a short sea route to the Far East — a region of spices and other valuable commodities.

Columbus believed he could find a short route to the East by sailing west. Financed by the Spanish king and queen, he set sail westward from Spain on his first voyage.

When his ships reached land, Columbus assumed he had arrived in the Far East. Actually, he landed on San Salvador, one of the islands just east of the North American mainland. Eventually, he realized that this was a new continent.

The discovery of the existence of America caused a wave of excitement in Europe.

The New World

To many Europeans, the New World offered opportunities for wealth, power, and adventure. Monarchs and merchants wanted to gain control of the hemisphere’s resources in order to add to their wealth.

Rulers also sought to gain New World territory, and thus increase their power. Christian clergymen were eager to spread their religion to the Indians.

Explorers and others viewed the New World as a place to seek adventure, as well as gain personal fame and fortune.

Following Columbus’ voyages, explorers, soldiers, and settlers from several European countries sailed across the Atlantic to explore and set up trading posts and colonies in America

Spanish Exploration and Conquests

The Spanish and Portuguese. During the 1500’s, the Spanish and Portuguese spread out over the southern part of the Western Hemisphere in search of gold and other riches.

In the early 1500’s, Spanish conquistadors conquered the vast Aztec and Incan Empires. By 1600, Spain and Portugal controlled most of the hemisphere from Mexico southward.

Also during the 1500’s, Spaniards moved into what is now the Southeastern and Western United States.

They did not discover riches there, as they did farther south. But they took control of Florida and of the land west of the Mississippi River. The Spanish also established missions and other settlements in the West and South.

English and French Settlements

The English and French began exploring eastern North America in about 1500. At first, both nations sent only explorers and fur traders to the New World.

But after 1600, they began establishing permanent settlements there. The French settlements were chiefly in what is now Canada. The English settlements included the 13 colonies that later became the United States.

For many years, Britain and France struggled for control of the land between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River, and for Canada. Britain finally won the struggle in 1763 when it defeated France in the Seven Years’ War.

The Land that Became the United States

The explorers who came to the northern part of the hemisphere did not find gold and other riches, as did the Spanish in the south. Nor did these explorers find large Indian civilizations to conquer and help supply their needs. Instead, they found a wilderness sparsely inhabited by Indians.

The first settlers encountered many hardships as they attempted to establish colonies along the eastern coast. They had no way of knowing that beyond their settlements lay a vast and rich and varied land.

But later, the resources of this new land — its fertile soils, abundant water supplies, and plentiful minerals — would help the United States grow into one of the world’s largest and most prosperous nations.

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1. The American Indians or Native Americans had always lived in the Americas. True or false?

2. All Indians were primitive and lived a simple lifestyle. Yes or no?

3. Was Christopher Columbus the first person to reach the Americas? Did he “discover” America?

4. Europeans were keen sailing and exploring. Why were they motivated and enthusiastic about sailing and exploring?

5. What can you say about the Portuguese and Spanish? Where did they go? What did they do?

6. Did the English and French venture into the same areas as the Spaniards?

7. There were major differences between North America (what are today United States and Canada) and Latin America (Mexico, Central and South America). Is this right or wrong? What were the differences?

8. Compared to today’s immigrants, was it easy to move and establish settlements and colonies in North America?


A. What drove and motivated Europeans to explore, settle and colonize the New World?

B. Why didn’t Asians explore, settle, conquer and colonize the Americas?

C. Was it “good or bad” that Europeans found and colonized North and South America?

D. What may have happened if Columbus had turned back before he reached the Americas?

E. What will happen in the future?


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