Although conventional narratives often have begun this topic with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, it is critical to note the presence of an estimated 37 million inhabitants in North and South America at the time of European exploration. It is also important, given what we know about the varied peoples and civilizations of the Americas, and the aims and consequences of Europeans sailing to the Americas, to characterize this period not as “discovery” of the Americas but as “exploration,” “colonization,” and/or “conquest.”
The historical details of European exploration of the Americas are many, and difficult to summarize. There is archaeological evidence of Viking exploration and temporary settlement in Eastern Canada and New England around the year 1000. Unconfirmed tales of Irish, African, and Polynesian exploration of the Americas prior to 1492 also exist. But, without a doubt, the onslaught of European colonization began in 1492 with the arrival of Christopher Columbus, and quickly accelerated as the Spanish claimed land in the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, and South America, the French claimed land in the Caribbean and the central and northern portions of North America, and the British claimed land in what is today the eastern United States as well as Canada. Portugal and the Netherlands also, for a time, held significant “new world” colonies.
The consequences of this period of exploration and early colonization are many. The “Columbian Exchange” led to a rapid introduction of new flora and fauna in Europe and the Americas. European nations gained wealth, power, and vast lands in which to re-settle excess populations. But surely, the largest consequences were felt by the native peoples of the Americas, who experienced a genocide that diminished their populations by more than 90 percent within a century of European arrival, and on the peoples of West Africa, who were enslaved by the millions to build a captive labor force in the newly colonized Americas.
Additional resources for research
- Exploring the Early Americas: Explorations and Encounters exhibition, Library of Congress.
- American Beginnings: The European Presence in North America: 1492-1690, The National Humanities Center.
- Early European Exploration and Colonization, Virginia Center for Digital History.