Your Highnesses have an Other World here, by which our holy faith can be so greatly advanced and from which such great wealth can be drawn," wrote Christopher Columbus to the king and queen of Spain following his third voyage to the Americas in 1498 (Brinkley 1). But even after visiting the New World three times he still had no idea what he had truly started, and he certainly saw no sign that he had began a new era in history. Yet, the history of European involvement in America had begun. Over the next several decades Spanish conquistadores made more and more voyages to the New World, and the royal treasuries grew. Settlements were established and the other European powers, seeing their opportunity, soon made efforts to establish colonies of their own.
In the midst of all of this, the native inhabitants were removed from their lands and sometimes massacred on large scales. Ancient civilizations like that of the Aztecs, in what is now Mexico City, were obliterated -- sometimes by just a handful of European soldiers. Before 1492 it is estimated that the American Indian population was over seventy-five million strong, with more than three-hundred cultures and two-hundred languages (Brinkley 18). Unfortunately, "some demographics estimate that by the seventeenth century more than fifty million indigenous people in North and South America had perished as a result of war, disease, and enslavement," in what could easily be labeled "history's greatest holocaust by far." (Brinkley 18).
Despite the fact that Spain had reached the New World several decades ahead of the rest of Europe, the other European powers -- by the 1570's -- were making legitimate vies for the lands and riches in America. Among these emerging nations was Britain, whose economy had been slowed to a halt during the costly War of the Roses. But, the potential wealth that could be acquired through exploration and colonization could not be passed-up. Eventually, Britain gained an upper-hand in America because of its powerful navy. "It is not surprising that Virginia, set on the eastern seaboard was chosen as the first place in North America to colonize." (Gutman 142). Jamestown was founded in 1607 by English colonists; with its huge supply of natural resources and opportunities colonists came in tidal waves. Today you can visit full-sized restorations of the first for the British built in North America, and replicas of the ships the first colonists arrived in from England -- both in Jamestown.
In 1700, however, "the capital was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg, and Virginia had become the largest of the English colonies with some 58,000 residents." (Gutman 142). Today tourists can visit a restoration of a colonial village at Williamsburg, with some buildings that are over two-hundred years old.
Another early British colony was founded in Plymouth, Massachusetts by the Pilgrims. A company based out of Virginia -- Plymouth Company -- had been given permission by the British Crown to exploit the resources in present-day New England. However, at that time they found few willing settlers. That was, of course, until they contacted a group of religious dissenters from East Anglia who called themselves the "Pilgrims." They were seeking to escape religious persecution in Europe and were eager to establish themselves in an English colony.
The Pilgrims had originally been scheduled to land in Virginia to become stockholders in Plymouth Company, but a storm blew them north and the "famed Mayflower arrived in 1620 not in Virginia but in Massachusetts, where the new settlers established a small town they named Plymouth." (Brinkley 34). Presently, "At the restored Plymouth Plantation, visitors can see what life was like in colonial America, as well as view a replica of the Mayflower." (Gutman 67). Another important historical site is the first college in any of the colonies -- Harvard -- which was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1638 (Gutman 67).
British settlements continued to extend across the east coast well into the first half of the eighteenth century. Another religious group called the Puritans came to dominate the landscape of New England, and became important political and social leaders. However, life in these colonies was crude and difficult. Agriculture was the primary source of income for the early settlers, but often times the colonists were unsure of what crops would do well on these new lands. It took several decades of settlement in Virginia before it was realized that tobacco...
In Massachusetts, on the other hand, settlers were not prepared for the severe New England winters and, "It was not until the Native Americans showed the Pilgrims how to grow corn and catch fish that life began getting easier." (Gutman 67).
In the early years of the British colonies most of the settlers still considered themselves to be British, and subjects of the royal crown. But, that identity slowly began to change as these colonists became their own distinct culture: Americans. In fact, "over time, all the British settlers came to have more in common with one another than they did with their former countrymen." (Brinkley 49). The formation of the Continental Congress in 1774 marked "an important turning point in the minds of the delegates. The congress passed a declaration of the rights of the colonists and wrote a polite mention to King George asking him to consider their grievances." (Davis 37). These grievances included the Sugar Act, the Boston Port Act, the Quartering Act, the Administration of Justice Act and the Stamp Act, which soon became known as "the Intolerable Acts." (Brinkley 63).
The rift between the British and the Americans grew, until July of 1776 when the Continental Congress formally declared their independence from the British Empire. "Independence Hall, which still stands in Philadelphia, was the first place where the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776, and it now houses a small museum. The Liberty Bell, which announced America's independence, stands in a pavilion at a mall adjacent to Independence Hall." (Gutman 120).
The following Revolutionary War of the United States at first looked very bleak for the colonists. The Americans were fragmented, inexperienced, undermanned, outgunned and had virtually no navy. However, an alliance with the French, and political complications in England eventually allowed for an American victory.
With their independence from Britain on more solid ground the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to put into writing the basis for the nation they had recently founded. The basic principles upon which the authors of the Constitution agreed upon included: the concept of limited government, majority rule, preservation of minority rights, and the fundamentals of American society should be preserved. Essentially, the Constitution became "a set of rules with laws to back them up." (Brinkley 104). This document was written in what is now historic Independence Hall.
Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, the ideals of government that were put forth in these documents have come to be known as Jeffersonian Democracy. Essentially, Jefferson believed in a limited government that is based upon rational principles and rights, rather than divine right or military rule. Upon his election as president in 1800, he saw that the power of this new nation was in the farmers and the working class. Therefore he directed his efforts towards improving their living standards and opportunities. He urged Americans to expand west and "wrote or inspired most of the legislation pertaining to the region." (Brinkley 95).
Out of this legislation emerged the Corp of Discovery. "In May of 1803 two of President Jefferson's advisors bought the Louisiana Territory, land that stretched from the Mississippi River west to the Rocky Mountains, from French Dictator Napoleon Bonaparte." (Davis 59). Jefferson was curious to discover what the west could offer his budding nation, and he organized an expiation headed by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, "to make careful scientific records of the land, plants, and animals they saw; to make peaceful contact with any Indians they met; and specifically to look for a northwest passage, an all-water route to the Pacific." (Davis 59). The two explorers were the first Americans to reach the Pacific by land, and their trail covered modern-day Kansas, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State. You can still visit the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, in North Dakota, where large Native American villages exist near those where Lewis and Clark spent their winters (Gutman 108).
Jefferson was able to open the western wilderness to America. He was criticized by his opponents for the Louisiana Purchase, but Jefferson had grand visions for the future and sought to destroy the establishment. He desired to "see slavery gradually abolished and popular education provided... "In short, Jeffersonian Democracy, with its idea of separation of church and state, its wish to popularize education, and its dislike of special privilege, was deeply affected by the Western society of…
Brinkley, Douglas. American Heritage: History of the United States. New York: Viking, 1998.
Davis, Kenneth. American History. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.
Gutman, Bill and Anne Wertheim. The Look-It-Up Book of the 50 States. New York: Random House, 2002.
Turner, Frederick. The Frontier in American History. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.
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