The Age of Exploration
Though Columbus was not the first to discover the New
World, his landing in the New World in 1492 is important: it ushered
in an era of unprecedented European exploration and settlement of
the Americas. This period is known as the Age of Exploration. During this
age, European explorers searched for trade routes, overseas wealth,
and adventure. Technological innovations spurred the exploration
boom. A “maritime revolution” in Europe saw the invention of the
the astrolabe, a device used to determine latitude; the caravel,
an large ship of unprecedented speed; and the magnetic compass.
|Important Names in The
Age of Exploration
||1492: Reached Bahamas; explored Cuba, Haiti
Established Santo Domingo
||1497/8: Claimed Nova Scotia, Newfoundland for England
||1499: Explored coast of S. America for Spain
Explored coast of S. America for Portugal
|Ponce de Leon
||1513/21: Explored Florida
||1519: Began the first circumnavigation of the
||1519–1522: Conquered the Aztecs in Mexico
||1530–1536: Conquered the Incas in Peru
|Hernando de Soto
||1539–1542: Explored coast between Mississippi River
||1542: Traveled St. Lawrence River to Montreal
|Samuel de Champlain
||1608–1615: Explored Great Lakes, founded Quebec,
established fur trade with Native Americans
||1609–1611: Sailed up Hudson River
The Major Players in the Age of Exploration
The individual explorers often get the glory, but for
the SAT II test, it is more important that you know the broader
context: the nations that sponsored those explorers; the reasons those
nations were so interested in exploring and settling the New World;
and the geographical territories that each nation claimed as its
own. Don’t get us wrong: familiarity with the individual explorers
is helpful (that’s why we gave you the chart), but you should understand
the explorer’s contributions within the larger context of the age.
The Spanish monarchy began the Age of Exploration when
it sponsored Christopher Columbus’s journey westward, across the
Atlantic Ocean, in search of Asia. Columbus failed to reach Asia,
landing instead on the Bahama Islands in 1492. He returned to the New
World in 1493 and established the settlement of Santo Domingo as
a base for further exploration. In 1493, the Pope declared that
all lands west of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands belonged
to Spain, but Portugal, another great sea power, disputed the papal decree.
The two countries reached a compromise with the Treaty of
Tordesillas in 1494, which divided all future discoveries
between Castile (a region of Spain) and Portugal.
The Treaty of Tordesillas reveals that both Portugal and
Spain led the charge in exploring the New World. But while the Portuguese
focused on navigation and geographical observation, the Spanish
put their efforts into expedition and colonization.
After the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain quickly established
itself as the premier European power in the New World, sending wave
after wave of explorers into South America. These Spanish expeditions,
led by conquistadors, set out in search of gold, slaves,
lucrative trade routes, and fame. Indeed, they succeeded in creating
an enormous empire. By 1522, the Spaniard Hernando Cortez had conquered
the Aztecs in Mexico and by 1536, under the leadership of Francisco
Pizaro, Spain had conquered the Incas in Peru. Conquistadors
plundered the indigenous tribes for treasure and slave labor. They
established numerous encomiendas—sprawling estates
populated with native slaves. Under Conquistador rule, many of the natives
died from disease, malnutrition, and fatigue, and they were soon
replaced on the encomiendas by African slaves brought in by Portuguese
In North America, Spain initially proved just as dominant.
Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain in 1513, and Hernando de
Soto led a Spanish exploration of the southeastern United States
in 1539, discovering the Mississippi River. In 1565, Spain established the
first successful European settlement in North America—a fortress
in St. Augustine, Florida. Around the turn of the seventeenth century,
Spanish settlers moved into the Southwest, establishing the colony
of Santa Fe in 1610. In an effort to maintain control of North America,
the Spanish attacked many British and French settlements and destroyed forts.
Spain saw its claim on Florida as particularly important in the
effort to diminish English and French expansion southward.
France also played a strong role in the New World, though
its efforts were mainly confined to North America. The French led
the charge to find a Northwest Passage, a much-hoped-for water
route through which ships might be able to cross the Americas to
access Asia. In three voyages between 1534 and 1542, French explorer Jacques
Cartier traveled the St. Lawrence River as far as Montreal.
The Northwest Passage eluded him (it doesn’t exist), but his explorations
established France’s early dominance of North America’s
major waterways. In 1562, French settlers briefly and unsuccessfully
attempted to settle in what is now South Carolina, and in 1564,
the Spanish attacked and destroyed a French settlement near Jacksonville,
Despite its failures, France continued to be
a major player in North America. Most notably, the French engaged
in the highly profitable fur trade, setting up trading outposts
throughout Newfoundland, Maine, and regions farther west. Samuel
de Champlain founded the first permanent French settlement
in 1608 at Quebec, and established a fur trade with the region’s Native
American tribes. By the end of the seventeenth century the French
controlled the St. Lawrence River, the Mississippi River, the Great
Lakes and, therefore, much of the land in the heart of the continent.
Of all the European colonial powers, the French enjoyed
the best relationship with Native Americans.
The Dutch East India Company became interested in North
American settlement in 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed
up the river that now carries his name. In 1625, the Dutch bought
Manhattan island from the natives who lived there and established
the settlement of New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson River.
While the colony flourished on account of the fur trade, the Dutch
did little to expand their landholdings beyond their domain around
the Hudson. A European conflict between England and the Netherlands spread
to the New World in 1664, during which the English took over New
Amsterdam, renaming it New York. After 1664, Dutch influence waned.
Compared to other European powers, England got a relatively
late start in the exploration and colonization of the New World.
True, King Henry VII of England did send explorer John Cabot across
the Atlantic in 1497, and Cabot claimed Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and
the Grand Banks for England. But after Cabot’s efforts, the English
became more concerned with domestic issues and generally ceased
exploring. For much of the sixteenth century, England had no real
presence in the New World.
English interest in the New World increased in the second
half of the sixteenth century. Religious groups (such as the Puritans,
who disagreed with the practices of the Church of England) saw the
New World as a place where they could practice their religion without persecution.
The English monarchy was enticed by the wealth pouring into Spain
from Mexico, South America, and the West Indies; and the riches
Captain Francis Drake and others plundered from Spanish ships off
of Central America in the late 1570s particularly piqued England’s
interest. Catholic Spain felt threatened by British sea power and
the influx of English Protestants, and the two European powers quickly
became bitter rivals, each scheming to position strategic bases
throughout the New World.
England’s first effort to establish a settlement in the
New World ended badly. In 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh gained a royal
charter to found the settlement of Roanoke, located on an island
off the coast of North Carolina. Raids by Native American tribes
and disease devastated the settlement, and it was eventually abandoned.
Still, the Spanish monarchy, determined to eliminate their New World
rivals, dispatched the great Spanish Armada in 1588 to attack the
British off the coast of England. Through luck and ingenuity, a
fleet of outgunned English ships decimated the Armada. With this
victory, England began its ascent as a premier naval power, which
bolstered its colonial efforts, and Spain fell into a slow decline.
The struggle between Britain and Spain dragged on throughout
the end of the sixteenth century, so that by 1600 the English crown
and Parliament were hesitant to spend money on colonization. In
place of government funding, joint-stock companies formed
to gather funding for colonization through the sale of public stock.
Along with religious groups—who saw the rise of the English navy
as a real opportunity to move to the New World and escape religious
persecution—these companies were responsible for most English colonization
throughout the seventeenth century.
Effects of Colonization on the Natives
Colonization had a disastrous effect on the native
population. War, slavery, and starvation claimed many lives, but
disease, especially smallpox, had the most devastating effect. In
Mexico, the native population plummeted from 25 million in 1519
to 2 million by 1600. European settlement physically displaced numerous
tribes, setting in motion the sad fate of Native Americans throughout
The Spanish, however, provided the Native Americans of
the Great Plains with an unintended gift: horses. During the conquistadors’
expeditions into the Southwest, some horses escaped and formed large
herds on the Great Plains. Within a few generations, Native Americans
in the plains region became experts on horseback, expanding their
hunting and trading capabilities and dramatically transforming Native