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Colonial Settlement, 1600s-1763



When the London Company sent out its first expedition to begin colonizing Virginia on December 20, 1606, it was by no means the first European attempt to exploit North America. In 1564, for example, French Protestants (Huguenots) built a colony near what is now Jacksonville, Florida. This intrusion did not go unnoticed by the Spanish, who had previously claimed the region. The next year, the Spanish established a military post at St. Augustine; Spanish troops soon wiped out the French interlopers residing but 40 miles away.

Meanwhile, Basque, English, and French fishing fleets became regular visitors to the coasts from Newfoundland to Cape Cod. Some of these fishing fleets even set up semi-permanent camps on the coasts to dry their catches and to trade with local Indians, exchanging furs for manufactured goods. For the next two decades, Europeans' presence in North America was limited to these semi-permanent incursions. Then in the 1580s, the English tried to plant a permanent colony on Roanoke Island (on the outer banks of present-day North Carolina), but their effort was short-lived.

In the early 1600s, in rapid succession, the English began a colony (Jamestown) in Chesapeake Bay in 1607, the French built Quebec in 1608, and the Dutch began their interest in the region that became present-day New York. Within another generation, the Plymouth Company (1620), the Massachusetts Bay Company (1629), the Company of New France (1627), and the Dutch West India Company (1621) began to send thousands of colonists, including families, to North America. Successful colonization was not inevitable. Rather, interest in North America was a halting, yet global, contest among European powers to exploit these lands.

There is another very important point to keep in mind:  European colonization and settlement of North America (and other areas of the so-called "new world") was an invasion of territory controlled and settled for centuries by Native Americans. To be sure, Indian control and settlement of that land looked different to European, as compared to Indian, eyes. Nonetheless, Indian groups perceived the Europeans' arrival as an encroachment and they pursued any number of avenues to deal with that invasion. That the Indians were unsuccessful in the long run in resisting or in establishing a more favorable accommodation with the Europeans was as much the result of the impact on Indians of European diseases as superior force of arms. Moreover, to view the situation from Indian perspectives ("facing east from Indian country," in historian Daniel K. Richter's wonderful phrase) is essential in understanding the complex interaction of these very different peoples.

Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that yet a third group of people--in this case Africans--played an active role in the European invasion (or colonization) of the western hemisphere. From the very beginning, Europeans' attempts to establish colonies in the western hemisphere foundered on the lack of laborers to do the hard work of colony-building. The Spanish, for example, enslaved the Indians in regions under their control. The English struck upon the idea of indentured servitude to solve the labor problem in Virginia. Virtually all the European powers eventually turned to African slavery to provide labor on their islands in the West Indies. Slavery was eventually transferred to other colonies in both South and North America.

Because of the interactions of these very diverse peoples, the process of European colonization of the western hemisphere was a complex one, indeed. Individual members of each group confronted situations that were most often not of their own making or choosing. These individuals responded with the means available to them. For most, these means were not sufficient to prevail. Yet these people were not simply victims; they were active agents trying to shape their own destinies. That many of them failed should not detract from their efforts.

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