History of the United States
thousands of years, Indians were the only inhabitants of the Western
Hemisphere. They had wandered into North America from Asia about 15,000
years ago. They spread across the hemisphere to the tip of South
America. Probably about 6,000 years ago, the Inuit--another Asian
people--moved to the Western Hemisphere. They soon spread eastward
across the Arctic part of North America. They remained only in the far
north, near the Arctic Circle.
America before colonial times
Vikings were probably the first white people to reach America. A band of
these venturesome seafarers is believed to have explored part of the
east coast of North America about 1,000 years ago. However, the
exploration and settlement of America by Europeans did not begin for
another 500 years. Then, in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed westward
from Spain, seeking a short sea route to the Orient. He found, instead,
a vast New World. Following Columbus' voyage, explorers, soldiers, and
settlers from several European countries flocked to America. The process
through which white people would take control of the Indian homeland was
The first Americans
many as 80 million Indians may have been living in the Americas when
Columbus reached the New World. As many as 65 million Indians lived
between what is now Mexico and the tip of South America. As many as 15
million Indians lived in what are now the United States and Canada.
American Indians formed hundreds of tribes, with many different
languages and ways of life. Some tribes in Central and South
America--including the Aztec, Inca, and Maya--established advanced
civilizations. They founded magnificent cities and accumulated gold,
jewels, and other riches. Most American Indians north of Mexico lived in
small villages. They hunted game and grew such crops as maize, beans,
and gourds. Some tribes travelled continuously in search of food and
never established permanent settlements.
Indian tribes of North America helped the early European settlers
survive in the wilderness of the New World. But as the settlers pushed
steadily westward, they became a threat to the Indian way of life, and
Indians and whites became enemies.
Vikings. About A.D. 1000, Vikings from Greenland explored part of the
North American mainland--probably what is now Newfoundland, Canada. Led
by Leif Ericson, they were probably the first white people to reach the
mainland of the continent. But the Vikings did not establish permanent
settlements, and their voyages were soon forgotten.
Columbus. Before Columbus' voyage, Europeans did not know the Western
Hemisphere existed. During the 1400's, Europeans became interested in
finding a short sea route to the Far East--a region of spices and other
Columbus, an Italian navigator, believed he could find a short route to
the East by sailing west. Financed by the Spanish king and queen, he set
sail westward from Spain on Aug. 3, 1492. Columbus reached land on
October 12, and assumed he had arrived in the Far East. Actually, he
landed on San Salvador, one of the islands just east of the North
Before he died in 1506, Columbus made three more voyages to the Western
Hemisphere. He came to believe he had discovered a vast, unknown
continent which he called an "Other World." Other Europeans called this
unexplored area the New World and honoured Columbus as its
discoverer. Europeans also called the Western Hemisphere America, after
Amerigo Vespucci. An Italian, Vespucci claimed he made voyages to the
New World for Spain and Portugal beginning in 1497.
Exploration and early settlement
discovery of the existence of America caused a wave of excitement in
Europe. To many Europeans, the New World offered opportunities for
wealth, power, and adventure. European rulers and merchants wanted to
gain control of the hemisphere's resources in order to add to their
wealth. Rulers also sought to gain New World territory, and thus
increase their power. Christian clergymen were eager to spread their
religion to the Indians. Explorers and others viewed the New World as a
place to seek adventure, as well as gain personal fame and
fortune. Before long, Europeans from several countries sailed across the
Atlantic to explore America and set up trading posts and colonies.
Spanish and Portuguese. During the 1500's, the Spanish and Portuguese
spread out over the southern part of the Western Hemisphere in search of
gold and other riches. The Spaniards quickly conquered the Inca of Peru,
the Maya of Central America, and the Aztec of Mexico. The Portuguese
took control of what is now Brazil. By 1600, Spain and Portugal
controlled most of the hemisphere from Mexico southward.
during the 1500's, Spaniards moved into what is now the Southeastern and
Western United States. They did not discover riches there, as they did
farther south. But they took control of Florida and of the land west of
the Mississippi River. In
1565, the Spanish founded St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest permanent
settlement by Europeans in what is now the United States. They also
established missions and other settlements in the West and South.
English and French began exploring eastern North America in about 1500.
At first, both nations sent only explorers and fur traders to the New
World. But after 1600, they began establishing permanent settlements
French settlements were chiefly in what is now Canada. The English
settlements included the 13 colonies that later became the United
many years, Britain and France struggled for control of the land between
the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River, and for Canada. Britain
finally won the struggle in 1763 when it defeated France in the Seven
The land that became the United States
explorers who came to the northern part of the hemisphere did not find
gold and other riches, as did the Spanish in the south. Nor did these
explorers find large Indian civilizations to help supply their
needs. Instead, they found a wilderness sparsely inhabited by Indians.
first settlers encountered many hardships as they attempted to establish
colonies along the eastern coast. They had no way of knowing that beyond
their settlements lay a vast and unbelievably rich and varied land. But
later, the resources of this new land--its fertile soils, abundant water
supplies, and plentiful minerals--would help the United States grow into
one of the world's largest and most prosperous nations.