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The Spanish, French, and English Colonization

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Have you ever wondered where why the many different countries in Europe came to America to explore and colonize? There were two main concepts that drew the Europeans to America: the excitement and profit of the “New World”, and the past histories of their countries. The English, French, and Spanish each came to the Americas in search of a new beginning; a fresh start in which they could escape past torment and capture new wealth. However, each motive defined the character of each settlement.

With the inventions of more efficient ships and the perfection of navigational instruments, the Spanish (as well as England and France) gained a curiosity to explore and find a way to Asia by water and avoiding the land paths, and were the first to explore the discoveries of the Americas#. With this, they soon discovered the Americas along with the riches that it offered. The natives were kind (for the most part) to the Spanish in the beginning, and looked at them as gods. To these “gods”, the Indians would give gold and jewelry at their command. Yet, much of the Spanish’s profit was taken from the Indians by force.

In the late 15th century, Spain went through a “cleansing” period in which all religions other than Catholicism (mainly Muslims and Jews) were expelled.# Therefore, at this time, Spain was very strongly Catholic, and had an intense desire to spread this Catholicism to the new world. The Spanish constructed many missions made to convert the Indians to Catholicism in the New World. They converted the Indians because they felt that by doing this, they were saving the them from hell since they were not of the faith.

Though many Indians did convert to Catholicism, the Spanish began to use force upon the Indians by turning them into slaves and conquering their lands. The Spanish believed the Native Americans to be inferior and savage, therefore ravaging villages and enslaving entire tribes. Soon after the they committed these horrible acts of violence, Spain got wind of the “Black Legend.” Spain in turn tried to discourage these actions by sending a set of laws to the New World. The Spanish government told them that there would be no more mistreatment of the Indians, for example: “We ordain and command that from henceforward for no cause of war nor any other whatsoever, though it be under title of rebellion, nor by ransom nor in other manner can an Indian be made slave, and we will that they be treated as our vassals of the Crown of Castile since such they are.”# Basically, the Spanish people in the Americas were murdering all of the Native Americans, and their government in Spain did not approve of these actions at all. So, they told the those whom were governing “New Spain” that they were to let the Indians be, otherwise they would be in a lot of trouble with the Crown. However, these new laws were futile due to little enforcement. This resulted in the Spanish still forcing the natives into slavery.

However, the Spanish were not only reliant on the natives as their main source of profit, they also relied on silver mining and sugar plantations as main economic resources.# Many forts along the East Coast were difficult to populate (due to disease and difficulties with Indians) and were not economically profitable (without silver mines or proper conditions for sugar plantations), so the Spanish basically gave up colonizing there and concentrated on West America and Latin America.#

The English, on the other hand, took more care to make sure that they did not disturb the native peoples. In fact, the Virginia Company directions gave the explorers very specific instructions on what they should do to form the Virginia Colony. Exact commands on where to place the colony and proper steps of what to do afterward were given. The Virginia Company directions explicitly said that the settlers were not to upset the Indian life, but to make peace and trade with them, “In all your passages you must have great care not to offend the naturals [natives], if you can eschew it; and imploy some few of your company to trade with them…”# Many instructions given helped explain some of the goals of the Virginia Colony, such as:

“Neither must you plant in a low or moist place, because it will prove unhealthful. You shall judge of the good air by the people; for some part of that coast where the lands are low, have their people blear eyed and with swollen bellies and legs; but if the naturals he strong and clean make, it is a true sign of a wholesome soil.”#

This displays a very important objective of the English colonists that they wanted to be successful; possibly even an imitation of Spain and their achievements.

These statements suggest that the English didn’t come to the Americas simply to plunder gold and riches from the native Indians. As stated in A People and a Nation, “Unlike the Spanish, other European nations did not immediately start to colonize the coasts their sailors had explored. They were interested in exploiting the natural wealth of the region, not in conquering territories.”# However, the English did, at times, exploit the Indians for their profit. Actually, they came to America for a number of reasons, but mainly to escape religious persecution and seek a new start in the world. People whom were mere peasants in England, and possessed no land, would soon become owners of many acres of their very own property.

In England, trades grew poor due to the inability to trade with Spain due to religious separation. During the early 16th century, King Henry VIII of England split from the Roman Catholic church and deemed himself head of the new church of England: the Anglican church. The strictly Catholic Spain was greatly displeased with this action, and cut all trade with the English. This paid heavy toll on the trades of England, for now those who bartered with Spain either had to give up their jobs, or renounce their religion and their obedience to England.# By coming to America, they escaped these restrictions, and lived much easier lives. The English trades looked enviously at the Spanish for their riches that came from the new world. Hakluyt also points out that those who were once peasants and out of jobs would find work and money in the new world: “That this enterprise will be for the manifolde imploymente of numbers of idle men, and for bredinge of many sufficient, and for utterance of the greate quantitie of the commodities of our Realme.”# In coming to America, they hoped to duplicate Spain’s successes.

Unlike both the Spanish and the English, the French did not try to populate a colony, due to many reasons. One of which is that the king was just simply not interested in exploration, and others included reasons such as fears of Canadian winters and violent Indians. The only Frenchmen to come to the colonies in the beginning were fur-traders and missionaries. Unlike the British Puritans, the French government would not provide a religious haven for Huguenots, which affected the population of French colonists very much.#

The French, like the Spanish, devoted much attention to converting native Americans to Christianity. The French missionaries known as “Black Robes,” tried to persuade the Indians to change religions and failed. However, the French concluded that they could try to convert them into Roman Catholics without having to force them to alter their lifestyles.# This attempt worked much better than the first, and resulted in Jesuit missions as far west as Illinois.

The French also came to the New World because of the large profit of the fur trade. In fact, they determined furs and pelts so precious that in order so they could gain from the expedition, the French explorers were commanded not to trade with the natives. For example, Samuel de Champlain writes, “Sieur de Monts, for the purpose of defraying the expenses of the expedition, obtaining letters from his majesty for one year, by which all persons were forbidden to traffic in pelts with the savages, on penalties stated in the following commission.”# But these orders proved very hard to enforce, and in 1608, the king of France gave permission for Champlain to trade furs:

“Acting upon the information which has been given us by those who have returned from New France, respecting the good quality and fertility of the lands of that country, and the disposition of the people to accept the knowledge of God, we have resolved to continue the settlement previously undertaken there, in order that our subjects may go there to trade without hindrance.”#

The King of France tried to enforce these laws so that he could form what he called a Crown Monopoly, which would bring in profit directly to France. We can deduce from this information that on main reason the French explored the New World was to reap the benefits in which the fertile lands provided (I.e. furs). DeGannes describes the fruitful lands in his memoirs: “Plums are also very abundant here, and not inferior to those of France” and “The Illinois country is undeniably the most beautiful that is known anywhere between the mouth of the St. Lawrence Tiber and that of the Mississippi, which are a thousand leagues apart. You begin to see its fertility at Chicago…”# All in all, the French were mostly attracted to the New World by its benefits and fertile lands.

In the end, each of the three European countries came to America for their own separate reasons, but both with the underlying hope of gaining in some way. The Spanish came to conquer the lands of the New World, and in turn receive gold and riches from the Indians. Whereas the English colonized so that they could escape religious persecution and to seek freedom of trade. Lastly, the French came to the New World in order to reap the benefits of its rich and fruitful soils. Each country was motivated to colonize America for different reasons, yet they all received the same thing; profit.


“The Colonization of North America.” In Modern History Sourcebook. April 1999- [cited 17 September 2002] Available from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall.mod/modsbook.html., http://curry.eduschool.virginia.edu.

“The DeGannes Memoir.” In Modern History Sourcebook. June 1998- [cited 19 September 2002] Available from http://www.imsa.edu//edy/socsci/skinner/the%20/degannes%20memoir.html.

“Discourse of Western Planting.” In The American Revolution- an HTML project. 3 June 1997- [cited 8 August 2002]. Available from wysiwyg://12http:odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/D/1501-1600/hakluyt/plant.html.

Houghton Mifflin Company. A People and a Nation. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990.

“Instructions for the Virginia Colony.” In The American Revolution- an .HTML project. 3 June 1997- [cited 19 September 2002]. Available from wysiwyg://23/http://odur.let.rug.nl/~usa/D/1601-1650/Virginia/instru.html.

“The New Laws of the Indies, 1542.” In Modern History Sourcebook. Paul Halsall. July 1998- [cited 19 September 2002] Available from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall.mod/modsbook.html.

Oliver J Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co., 1907), Vol. v: 9th to 16th Centuries, pp. 342-345.

“Samuel de Champlain: The foundation of Quebec, 1608.” In Modern History sourcebook. June 1998- [cited 19 September 2002]. Available from http://www.fordham.edu/halsall.mod/modsbook.html.

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