Textbook Chapter Notes:

America Past and Present


A.P. U.S. History Notes

Chapter 1:

CHAPTER 1 New World Encounters
The “discovery” of America by Columbus initiated a series of cultural contacts between
Indians, Europeans, and Africans in the Western Hemisphere. Each of these peoples
brought preconceptions molded by their long histories into their contacts with other
peoples, and each people was molded by contact with others.
America first became inhabited some twenty thousand years ago when small bands of
nomadic Siberian hunters chased large mammals across the land bridge between Asia and
America. During this long migration, the people who became known as the American
Indians escaped some of the most common diseases of humankind, such as smallpox and
measles, but their children and grandchildren lost the immunities that would have protected
them against such diseases.
A. The Environmental Challenge: Food, Climate, and Culture
During the thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans, the
continents of North and South America experienced tremendous geologic
and climate changes. As the weather warmed, the great mammals died off,
and the Indians who hunted them turned increasingly to growing crops,
bringing about an Agricultural Revolution.
B. Mysterious Disappearances
Agriculture allowed Indians to concentrate in large numbers in urban
complexes, such as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Cahokia in Illinois.
By the time Europeans reached these areas, the great urban centers had
disappeared, either because of climate changes or overcrowding.
C. Aztec Dominance
In central America, the Aztecs settled in the fertile valley of Mexico and
conquered a large and powerful empire, which they ruled through fear and
B. Eastern Woodland Cultures
Elsewhere, along the Atlantic coast of North America for example, Native
Americans lived in smaller bands and supplemented agriculture with hunting and
gathering. In some cases, women owned the farming fields, and men the hunting
The arrival of Europeans profoundly affected Native Americans, who could be said to have
entered a new world.
A. Cultural Negotiation
Native Americans were not passive in their dealings with the Europeans.
They eagerly traded for products that made life easier, but they did not
accept the notion that Europeans were in any way culturally superior, and
most efforts by the Europeans to convert or “civilize” the Indians failed.
A. Threats to Survival: Trade and Disease
Wherever Indians and Europeans came into contact, the Indian population declined
at a rapid rate due to diseases like smallpox, measles, and typhus. The rate of
depopulation along the Atlantic coast, from death or migration westward, may have
been as high as 95 percent. An entire way of life disappeared.
Contrary to ill-informed opinion, sub-Saharan West Africa was never an isolated part of the
world where only simple societies developed. As elsewhere, West Africa had seen the rise
and fall of empires, such as Ghana or Dahomey. West Africa had also been heavily
influenced by the coming of Islam. The arrival of Europeans was just the latest of many
foreign influences that helped shape African culture.
The Portuguese came first, pioneering the sea lanes from Europe to sub-Saharan Africa in
the fifteenth century. They found profit in gold and slaves, supplied willingly by native
rulers who sold their prisoners of war. The Atlantic slave trade began taking about 1,000
persons each year from Africa, but the volume steadily increased. In the eighteenth
century, an estimated five and one-half million were taken away. Altogether, Africa lost
almost eleven million of her children to the Atlantic slave trade. Before 1831, more
Africans than Europeans came to the Americas.
The Vikings discovered America before Columbus, but European colonization of the New
World began only after 1492 because only then were the preconditions for successful
overseas set tlement at tained. These conditions were the rise of nation-states and the spread
of the new technologies and old knowledge.
A. Building New Nation-States
During the fifteenth century, powerful monarchs in western Europe began to forge
nations from what had been loosely associated provinces and regions. The “new
monarchs” of Spain, France and England tapped new sources of revenue from the
growing middle class and deployed powerful military forces, both necessary actions
in order to establish outposts across the Atlantic.
A. Technical Knowledge
Just as necessary to colonization was the advance in technology, especially in the
art of naval construction. The lateen sail allowed ships to sail into the wind, bet ter
techniques were devised for calculating position at sea, ancient scientific works were
reexamined and the printing press disseminated the new knowledge rapidly.
Spain was the first European nation to meet all of the preconditions for successful
colonization. After hundreds of years of fighting Moorish rule, she had become a unified
nation-state under Ferdinand and Isabella. In 1492, the year made famous by Columbus’
discovery of America, Spain expelled her Jews and Muslims in a crusade to obliterate all
non-Christian elements in Spanish life. Spain had also experienced the difficulties of
colonization in her conquest of the Canary Islands before turning her attention to America.
A. Myths and Realities
Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo), born in Genoa in 1451, typified the
questing dreamers of the fifteenth century. He believed it was possible to reach the
Orient, the goal of all adventurers, by sailing westward from Europe. Undeterred by
those who told him the voyage would be so long that the crews would perish from
lack of food and water, Columbus finally persuaded Queen Isabella to finance his
exploration. Although Columbus found in America a vast treasure-house of gold and
silver, he had expected to find the great cities of China, and even after four separate
expeditions to America, he refused to believe he had not reached the Orient. He
died in poverty and disgrace after having lived to see his discovery claimed by
another, Amerigo Vespucci, for whom America is named. As a further cruel irony,
the all-water route to the East Indies that Columbus hoped to find was actually
discovered by Vasco da Gama, who sailed from Portugal around the southern tip of
Africa. The net result of his efforts had been frustration and ignominy for
Columbus; however, he paved the way to world power for Spain, which claimed all
of the New World except for Brazil, conceded to Portugal by treaty in 1494.
B. The Conquistadores: Faith and Greed
To expand Spain’s territories in the New World, the Crown commissioned
independent adventurers (conquistadores) to subdue new lands. For God, glory, and
gold they came. Within two decades they decimated the major Caribbean islands,
where most of the Indians died from exploitation and disease. The Spaniards then
moved onto the mainland and continued the work of conquest. Hernan Cortes
destroyed the Aztec Empire in 1521 and the conquest of South America followed in
the next two decades.
C. From Plunder to Set tlement
The Spanish crown kept her unruly subjects in America loyal by rewarding the
conquistadores with large land grants that contained entire villages of Indians (the
encomienda system). As pacification of the natives progressed, the Spanish Crown
limited the autonomy of the conquistadores by adding layer upon layer of
bureaucrats, whose livelihoods derived directly from the Crown and whose loyalty
was therefore to the officials who ruled America from Spain. The Catholic Church
also became an integral part of the administrative system and brought order to the
empire by protecting Indian rights and by performing mass conversions. By 1650,
about half a million Spaniards immigrated to the New World. Since most were
unmarried males, they mated with Indian or African women and produced a
mixed-blood population that was much less racist than the English colonists who
settled North America.
Spain’s empire proved to be a mixed blessing. The great influx of gold and silver
made Spain rich and powerful, but set off a massive inflation and encouraged the
Spanish Crown to launch a series of costly wars in Europe.
France lacked the most important precondition for successful colonization, the interest of
the Crown. French kings sent several expeditions to America, most notably that of Samuel
de Champlain, who founded Quebec in 1608, and even established an empire in America
that stretched along the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes, and down the
Mississippi, but the French Crown made little effort to foster settlement.
England had as valid a claim to America as Spain, but did not push colonization until the
late sixteenth century, when it, too, achieved the necessary preconditions for transatlantic
A. Birth of English Protestantism
England began to achieve political unity under the Tudor monarchs who suppressed
the powerful barons. Henry VIII strengthened the Crown even further by leading the
English Reformation, an immensely popular event for the average men and women
who hated the corrupt clergy. Henry’s reason for breaking with the Pope was to
obtain a divorce, but he began a liberating movement that outlived him. During the
reign of Queen Mary, Protestants were severely persecuted, but the Reformation
could not be undone.
B. Militant Protestantism
The Protestant Reformation had begun in 1517 in Germany when Martin Luther
preached that humans were saved by faith alone, as a gift from God, and not
through the sacraments and rituals of the Church. Other Reformers followed, most
notably John Calvin, who stressed the doctrine of predestination, the belief that
humans could do nothing to change their fate in the afterlife. The Reformers
shat tered the unity of the Christian world and religious wars broke out all over
C. Woman in Power
Elizabeth II, the second daughter of Henry VIII, inherited the crown in
1558 and ruled England successfully for nearly fifty years. She avoided a
religious civil war by reconciling her subjects to an established church that
was Protestant in doctrine, but still Catholic in many of its ceremonies.
When the Pope excommunicated her in 1570, she became more firmly
attached to the Protestant cause.
D. Religion, War and Nationalism
Spain, the most powerful European nation at the time, was determined to crush
Protestantism in Europe. In retaliation, English “seadogs” at tacked the Spanish in
the Caribbean. By 1588, the king of Spain decided to invade England and launched
the famous Armada. England’s providential victory over the great fleet convinced
the English people that they had a special commission from God to preserve the
Protestant religion.
Each nation took along its own peculiar traditions and perceptions for the task of
colonizing America. For the English, Ireland was used as a laboratory in which the
techniques of conquest were tested.
A. English Conquest of Ireland
The English went into Ireland convinced that theirs was a superior way of life. The
Irish, of course, disagreed and refused to change their own ways.
B. English Brutality
When the English seized Irish land by force, the Irish resisted. The English resorted
to massacres of women and children. In Ireland, men like Sir Humphrey Gilbert, Sir
Walter Raleigh and Sir Richard Grenville learned the techniques of colonization that
they would later apply in America.
Although England had the capacity for transatlantic colonization by the late sixteenth
century, its first efforts were failures.
Sir Walter Raleigh began England’s colonization of America in 1584 when he sent a fleet to
colonize Roanoke in North Carolina. The effort failed, despite Ralegh’s continued
at tempts to reinforce it, and by 1600 there were no English settlements in the Western
Despite Raleigh’s failure, Richard Hakluyt kept English interest in America alive by
tirelessly advertising the benefits of colonization. He did not mention, however, that those
English people who went to America would encounter other peoples with deterrent dreams
about what America should be.


Updated August 6, 2008