Modern history

Colonization and Conflicts



Born in 1580 to a yeoman farm family in Lincolnshire, the adventurer John Smith left England as a young man "to learne the life of a Souldier." After fighting and traveling in Europe, the Mediterranean, and North Africa for several years, Captain Smith returned to England around 1605. There he joined the Virginia Company, whose investors planned to establish a private settlement on mainland North America. In December 1606, Captain Smith sailed with a contingent of 104 men, arriving in Chesapeake Bay the following April. The group founded Jamestown, named in honor of King James I. In doing so, they claimed the land for themselves and their country. However, whatever abstract claims Captain Smith and his comrades believed they were making to the region, their settlement was located in an area already controlled by a powerful leader, Chief Powhatan, who headed a confederation of local tribes.

In December 1607, when Powhatan's younger brother discovered Smith and two of his Jamestown comrades in the chief's territory, the Indians executed the two comrades but eventually released Smith. It is likely that before sending him back to Jamestown, Powhatan performed an adoption ceremony in an effort to bring Smith and the English under his authority.

A typical ceremony would have involved Powhatan sending out one of his daughters—in this case, Pocahontas, who was about twelve years old—to indicate that the captive was spared. But Smith either did not understand

or refused to accept his new status. He later claimed that Pocahontas saved him out of love. At the time, however, he simply returned to Jamestown and urged the residents to build fortifications to enhance their strength and security.

The following fall, the colonists elected Smith president of the Jamestown council. Holding the power of a colonial governor, he argued that intimidating the Indians was the way to win Powhatan's respect. He also demanded that the English labor on farms and fortifications six hours a day. Many colonists resisted. Like Smith himself, most of the men were adventurers; they had little skill—and even less interest—in farming. They came to America not to settle down but to gain wealth and glory. Despite improvements in conditions in the colony under Smith's regime, the Virginia Company soon replaced him with a new set of leaders. In October 1609, angry and bitter, Smith returned to England.

Captain Smith criticized Virginia Company policies on a number of fronts, publishing his views in 1612, which brought him widespread attention. Smith then set out to map the northern Atlantic coast, and in 1616 he published a tract that emphasized the similarity of the area's climate and terrain to the British Isles, calling it New England. He argued that colonies there could be made commercially viable but that success depended on recruiting settlers with the necessary skills and offering them land and a say in the colony's management.

English men and women settled New England in the 1620s, but they did not invite Smith to join them. The first colonists to the region sought religious sanctuary, not commercial success or military dominance. Yet they, too, suffered schisms in their ranks. Anne Hutchinson, a forty-five-year-old wife and mother, was at the center of one such division. Also born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1591, about a decade after Smith, Anne was well educated by her father, a minister in the Church of England. In 1612 she married William Hutchinson, a merchant, and over the next twenty years she gave birth to thirteen children. The Hutchinsons began attending Puritan sermons and by 1630 had embraced the new faith. Four years later, they followed the Reverend John Cotton to Massachusetts Bay.

The Reverend Cotton was soon urging Anne Hutchinson to use her exceptional knowledge of the Bible to hold prayer meetings in her home on Sundays for pregnant and nursing women who could not attend regular services. Hutchinson, like Cotton, preached a covenant of grace, by which individuals must rely solely on God's grace and could play no part in their own salvation. By contrast, mainstream Puritan leaders claimed that a man or woman could cooperate with God's grace by leading a saintly life and performing good works.

Hutchinson began challenging Puritan ministers who opposed a pure covenant of grace, charging that they posed a threat to their congregations. She soon attracted a loyal following that included men as well as women. The growing size of her Sunday meetings helped convince Puritan leaders to call the first synod of their Congregational Church in August 1637. The synod denounced Hutchinson's views and condemned her Sunday meetings. When she refused to recant, she was put on trial. Standing alone to face a panel of forty-nine powerful men in November 1637, Hutchinson defended herself against charges that she presumed to teach men and failed to honor the ministers of the colony. Unmoved by her defense, the Puritan judges convicted her of heresy and banished her from Massachusetts Bay. Hutchinson, her husband, and their six youngest children, along with dozens of followers, then settled in the recently established colony of Rhode Island.

THE AMERICAN HISTORIES of John Smith and Anne Hutchinson illustrate the diversity of motives that drew English men and women to North America in the seventeenth century. Smith led a group of soldiers and adventurers seeking wealth and glory, both for themselves and for their king. In many ways, their efforts to colonize Virginia were an extension of a larger competition between European states. The roots of Hutchinson’s journey to North America can be traced to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, a massive religious upheaval that divided Europe into rival religious factions. The Puritan faith that was so central to her life was an outgrowth of the Reformation. Yet as different as these two people and their motives were, both worked to further English settlement in North America even as they generated conflict within their own communities. At the same time, those communities confronted the needs and desires of diverse native peoples as well as the colonial aspirations of other Europeans. These contending forces reshaped the landscape of North America between 1550 and 1680.

English captain Bartholomew Gosnold trading with Indians, Virginia, 1634.

© British Library/HIP/Art Resource, NY

Religious and Imperial Transformations

The Puritans were part of a relatively new religious movement known as Protestantism that had emerged around 1520. Protestants challenged Catholic policies and practices but did not form a single church of their own. Instead, a number of theologians, including Martin Luther and John Calvin, formed distinct denominations in various regions of Europe, especially the German states, Switzerland, France, England, and the Netherlands. Catholics sought to counter their claims by revitalizing their faith and reasserting control. These religious conflicts shaped developments in North America as groups with competing visions worked to claim lands and sometimes souls.

The Protestant Reformation

Critiques of the Catholic Church multiplied in the early sixteenth century, driven by papal involvement in conflicts among monarchs and corruption among church officials. But the most vocal critics focused on immorality, ignorance, and absenteeism among clergy. These anticlerical views appeared in popular songs and printed images as well as in learned texts by theologians such as Martin Luther.

Luther, a professor of theology in Germany, believed that faith alone led to salvation, which could be granted only by God. He challenged the claims of Pope Leo X and his bishop in Germany that individuals could achieve salvation by buying indulgences, which were documents that absolved the buyer of sin. The church profited enormously from these sales, but they suggested that God’s grace could be purchased. In 1517 Luther wrote an extended argument against indulgences and sent it to the local bishop. Although intended for learned clerics and academics, his writings soon gained a wider audience.

Luther’s followers, who protested Catholic practices, became known as Protestants. His teachings circulated widely through sermons and printed texts, and his claim that ordinary people should read and reflect on the Scriptures appealed to the literate middle classes. Meanwhile his attacks on indulgences and corruption attracted those who resented the church’s wealth and priests’ lack of attention to their flock. In Switzerland, John Calvin developed a version of Protestantism in which civil magistrates and reformed ministers ruled over a Christian society. According to Calvinist beliefs, God was allknowing and absolutely sovereign, while man was weak and sinful. Calvin argued that God had decided at the beginning of time who was saved and who was damned. Calvin’s idea, known as predestination, energized Protestants who understood salvation as a gift from an all-knowing God in which human “works” played no part.

The Protestant Reformation quickly spread through central and northern Europe. England, too, came under the influence of Protestantism in the 1530s, although for different reasons. When the pope refused to annul the marriage of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Henry denounced papal authority and established the Church of England, or Anglicanism, with himself as “defender of the faith.” Despite the king’s conversion to Protestantism, the Church of England retained many Catholic practices.

In countries like Spain and France with strong central governments and powerful ties to the Catholic Church, a strong Catholic Counter-Reformation largely quashed Protestantism. At the same time, Catholic leaders initiated reforms to counter their critics. In 1545 Pope Paul II called together a commission of cardinals, known as the Council of Trent (1545—1563), to address contentious issues such as corrupt bishops and priests, indulgences, and other financial abuses. The council initiated reforms, such as the founding of seminaries to train priests and the return of monastic orders to their spiritual foundations.

Religious upheavals in Europe contributed significantly to empire building in North America. Protestant and Catholic leaders urged followers to spread their faith across the Atlantic, while religious minorities sought a safe haven in North America. Just as important, political struggles erupted between Catholic and Protestant rulers in Europe following the Reformation. The politicization of religious divisions resulted in peasant unrest, economic crises, and military conflicts that pushed (or forced) people to seek new opportunities in the Americas. Thus in a variety of ways, religious transformations in Europe fueled the construction of empires in America.

Spain’s Global Empire Declines

As religious conflicts escalated in Europe, the Spaniards in America continued to push north from Florida and Mexico in hopes of expanding their empire. At times, they confronted Protestants seeking to gain a foothold in the New World. For example, French Protestants, known as Huguenots, settled in Florida in the 1550s. By 1565, Spanish soldiers had constructed a fort at St. Augustine and massacred some three hundred Huguenots. The fort’s main purpose, however, was to limit raids on Spanish ships by French and English privateers seeking to enrich themselves and their monarchs.

Yet as a result of the Council of Trent and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Spain increasingly emphasized its religious mission. Thus Spanish authorities decided in 1573 that missionaries rather than soldiers should direct all new settlements. Franciscan priests began founding missions on the margins of Pueblo villages north of Mexico. They named the area Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico), and many learned Indian languages. Over the following decades, as many as twenty thousand Pueblos officially converted to Catholicism, although many still retained traditional beliefs and practices. Thus they continued to practice religious ceremonies at sacred shrines known as kivas. Missionaries periodically destroyed the shrines and flogged Pueblo ceremonial leaders, but to no avail.

At the same time, the Franciscans tried to force the Pueblo people to adopt European ways. They insisted that men rather than women farm the land and that the Pueblos speak, cook, and dress like the Spaniards. Yet the missionaries largely ignored Spanish laws intended to protect Indians from coerced labor. Indeed, the Franciscans forced the Pueblos to build churches, provide the missions with food, and carry their goods to market. Wealthy landowners who followed the missionaries into New Mexico also demanded tribute in the form of goods and labor.

Then in 1598 Juan de Onate, a member of a wealthy mining family, established a trading post and fort in the upper Rio Grande valley. The 500 soldiers who accompanied him seized corn and clothing from Pueblo villages and murdered or raped those who resisted. When the Spanish force was confronted by Indians at the Acoma pueblo, 11 soldiers were killed. The Spanish retaliated, slaughtering 500 men and 300 women and children. But fearing reprisals from outraged Indians, most Spanish settlers withdrew from the region.

In 1610 the Spanish returned, founded Santa Fe, and established a network of missions and estates owned by encomenderos, Spanish elites granted land and the right to exploit local Indian labor. The Pueblo people largely accepted the new situation. In part, they feared military reprisals if they challenged Spanish authorities. But they were also faced with droughts and disease, as well as raids by hostile Apache and Navajo tribes. The Pueblos hoped to gain protection from Spanish soldiers and priests. Yet their faith in the Franciscans’ spiritual power soon began to fade when conditions did not improve. Although Spain maintained a firm hold on Florida and its colonies in the West Indies, it began focusing most of its efforts on staving off growing resistance among the Pueblo people. Thus as other European powers expanded their reach into North America, the Spaniards were left with few resources to protect their eastern frontier.

France Enters the Race for Empire

In the late sixteenth century, French, Dutch, and English investors became increasingly interested in gaining a foothold in North America. But until Catholic Spain’s grip on the Atlantic world was broken, other nations could not hope to compete for an American empire. It was the Protestant Reformation that helped shape the alliances that shattered Spain’s American monopoly. As head of the Church of England, King Henry VIII and then his daughter Queen Elizabeth I sought closer political and commercial ties with Protestant nations like the Netherlands. At the same time, the queen assented to, and benefited from, Francis Drake’s raids on Spanish ships. She rewarded him with a knighthood for services to the crown. In 1588 King Philip II of Spain decided to punish England for its attacks against Spanish shipping and intervention in the Netherlands and sent a massive armada to spearhead the invasion of England. Instead, the English, aided by Dutch ships that were smaller and more mobile, defeated the armada and ensured that other nations could compete for riches and colonies in North America.

Although French rulers shared Spain’s Catholic faith, the two nations were rivals, and the defeat of the armada provided them as well as the Dutch and English with greater access to North American colonies. Moreover, once in North America, the French adopted attitudes and policies that were significantly different from those of Spain. This was due in part to their greater interest in trade than in conquest. They needed to develop alliances with local inhabitants who could supply them with fish and furs to be sold in Europe. The French had fished the North Atlantic since the mid-sixteenth century, but in the 1580s they built stations along the Newfoundland coast for drying codfish. French traders then established relations with local Indians and eagerly exchanged iron kettles, which the native peoples desired, for beaver skins, which were highly prized in Europe.

By the early seventeenth century, France’s King Henry IV sought to profit more directly from the resources in North America. With the Edict of Nantes (1598), the king ended decades of religious wars by granting political rights and limited toleration to French Protestants, the Huguenots. Now he could focus on developing the increasingly lucrative trade in American fish and furs. Samuel de Champlain, an experienced soldier and sailor, founded the first permanent French settlement in North America in 1608 at Quebec. Accompanied by several dozen of his men, Champlain joined a Huron raid on the Iroquois, who resided south of the Great Lakes. Using guns, which had rarely been seen in the region, the French helped ensure a Huron victory and a powerful ally for the French. But the battle also fueled lasting bitterness among the Iroquois.

Trade relations flourished between the French and their Indian allies, but relatively few French men and even fewer French women settled in North America in the seventeenth century. Government policies discouraged mass migration, and peasants were also concerned by reports of short growing seasons and severe winters in Canada. Cardinal Richelieu, the kings powerful chief minister, urged priests and nuns to migrate to New France and establish missions among the Indians, but he barred Huguenots from emigrating, which further limited colonization. Thus into the 1630s, French settlements in North America consisted largely of fishermen, fur traders, and Catholic missionaries.

Fur traders were critical to sustaining the French presence and warding off encroachment by the English. They journeyed along lakes and rivers throughout eastern Canada, aided by the Huron tribe. Some Frenchmen took Indian wives, who provided them with both domestic labor and kinship ties to powerful trading partners. These marriages also helped forge a middle ground in the Great Lakes region as French traders pushed westward and gained new Indian allies among the Ojibwe and Dakota tribes. The middle ground was a space in which shared economic interest motivated a remarkable degree of cultural exchange and mutual adaptation. Some French learned native languages and recognized the incredible value of canoes to their trade. They also came to appreciate Indian women’s importance in gathering and preparing food, scraping beaver pelts, and weaving. At the same time, Indian communities adopted iron cooking pots and needles and European cloth. Jesuit missionaries, who entered New France in 1625, frowned on these marriages and the cultural exchanges they fostered. Nonetheless, they followed the path set out by fur traders and established missions among the Hurons and later the Ojibwes.

In their ongoing search for new sources of furs, the French established a fortified trading post at Montreal in 1643, and over the next three decades they continued to push farther west. However, in extending the fur trade beyond the St. Lawrence River valley, the French left their Huron allies open to attacks from the Iroquois. The Iroquois suffered from the same diseases that decimated other tribes, and they also wanted to keep the Huron tribe from trading their high-quality furs to the Dutch. With guns supplied by Dutch merchants, the Iroquois could fend off economic competition and secure captives to restore their population. The result was a series of devastating assaults on Huron villages in which dozens of Jesuits died alongside the Indians they had converted.

The ongoing wars among native rivals limited the ability of France to capitalize on its North American colonies. Indeed, the only hope of maintaining profits from the fur trade was to continue to move westward. But in doing so, the French carried European diseases into new areas, ignited warfare among more native groups, and stretched their always small population of settlers ever thinner. Still, French explorers, traders, and priests extended their reach across Canada and by 1681 moved southward along the Mississippi to a territory they named Louisiana in honor of King Louis XIV. There they would find themselves face-to-face with Spanish adventurers heading east from New Mexico.

The conflicts between commerce and conversion so evident in Spanish America were far less severe in New France. Not only did French traders rely on Indian allies, but French missionaries also sought to build on native beliefs and to learn their language and customs. Although the Jesuits assumed that their own religious beliefs and cultural values were superior to those of the Indians, they did seek to engage Indians on their own terms. Thus one French Jesuit employed the Huron belief that “our souls have desires which are inborn and concealed” to explain Christian doctrines of sin and salvation to potential converts. Still, French traders and missionaries carried deadly germs, and Catholics sought conversion, not mutual adaptation. Thus while Indians clearly benefited from their alliances with the French in the short term, the long-term costs were devastating.

The Dutch Expand into North America

The Dutch, who eagerly embraced the Protestant Reformation at home, made no pretense of bringing religion to Indians in America. From the beginning, their goals were primarily economic. As Spain’s shipbuilding center, the Netherlands benefited from the wealth pouring in from South America. The affluent merchant class that emerged among the Dutch promoted the arts, and artists like Salomon van Ruysdael and Johannes Vermeer in turn captured the importance of trade in their work. But the Dutch also embraced Calvinism and sought to separate themselves from Catholic Spain. In 1581 the Netherlands declared its independence from King Philip II, although Spain refused to recognize the new status for several decades. Still, by 1600 the Netherlands was both a Protestant haven and the trading hub of Europe. Indeed, the Dutch East India Company controlled trade routes to much of Asia and parts of Africa.

With the technology and skills developed under Spanish control, the Dutch decided to acquire their own American colonies. In 1609 the Dutch established a trading center on the Hudson River in present-day New York, where they could trade with Iroquois to the west as well as with Indians who gathered beaver skins along Lake Champlain and farther north. The small number of Dutch traders developed especially friendly relations with the powerful Mohawk nation, and in 1614 the trading post was relocated to Fort Orange, near present-day Albany.

In 1624, to fend off French and English raids on ships sent downriver from Fort Orange, the Dutch established New Amsterdam on Manhattan Island, which they purchased from the Lenape Indians. The new settlement was organized by the Dutch West Indies Company, which had been chartered three years earlier. New Amsterdam was the centerpiece of the larger New Netherland colony and attracted a diverse community of traders, fishermen, and farmers. It was noted for its representative government and religious toleration, which ensured that religious differences did not get in the way of making money.

The European settlers of New Netherland may have gotten along with one another, but the same could not be said for the settlers and the local Indian populations. Tensions increased as Dutch colonists carved out farms north of New Amsterdam where larger communities of Algonquian Indians lived and where European pigs and cattle foraged in Indian cornfields. Algonquians in turn killed and ate Dutch livestock. In 1639 conflict escalated when Governor William Kieft demanded an annual tribute in wampum or grain. Local Algonquians resisted, raiding Dutch farms on the frontier and killing at least two colonists. Then in 1643 Kieft launched a surprise attack on an Indian encampment on Manhattan Island, murdering eighty people, mostly women and children. Outraged Algonquians burned and looted homes north of the city, killed livestock, and murdered settlers. For two decades, sporadic warfare continued, but eventually the Algonquians were defeated.

At the same time, the Dutch eagerly traded for furs with Mohawk Indians along the upper Hudson River. The Mohawks were a powerful tribe that had the backing of the even more powerful Iroquois Confederacy. Their ties to Indian nations farther west allowed them to provide beaver skins to Dutch traders long after beavers had died out in the Hudson valley. Still, the Mohawk people did not deceive themselves. As one chief proclaimed in 1659, “The Dutch say we are brothers and that we are joined together with chains, but that lasts only so long as we have beavers.”

Meanwhile reports of atrocities by both Indians and the Dutch circulated in the Netherlands. These damaged New Amsterdam’s reputation and slowed migration dramatically. Exhausted by the unrelenting conflicts, the Dutch surrendered New Amsterdam to the English without a fight when the latter sent a convoy to oust their former allies in 1664.


• How did the Protestant Reformation shape the course of European expansion in the Americas?

• How did the French and Dutch colonies in North America differ from the Spanish empire to the south?

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