1. Describe societal life in feudal Europe, including the important role of religion 

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2. Discuss the motives for early European exploration

3. Why might a travel account like the one below has influenced an explorer like Columbus? 

4. What does this tell us about European explorers’ motivations and goals?

5. Explain the changes brought by the Protestant Reformation and how it influenced the development of the Atlantic World

6. Explain the beginnings ofU racial slavery leading to the Atlantic slave trade

7.  Describe Portuguese exploration of the Atlantic and the importance of these

8. voyages to the developing Atlantic World

Module1: Indigenous America and Early European

Exploration (Before 1492)


Introduction to Indigenous Americans

GUIDED READING QUESTIONS will appear in bolded red throughout each module reading. The
answers for each question will be found in the section after the questions. You will find all
information needed to answer questions here. As you read, answer the questions as thorough as
possible in a separate document that you will submit in the Guided Reading Assignment for each

1. Describe the social and cultural achievements of major early American civilizations
(Olmec, Maya)

Figure 1. 1912 image of Shoshone people taken by Benedicte Wrensted in Pocatello, Idaho.

Europeans called the Americas “the New World” — but for the millions of Native Americans they
encountered, it was anything but “new.” Humans have lived in the Americas for over ten thousand
years. Dynamic and diverse, they spoke hundreds of languages and created thousands of distinct
cultures. Native Americans settled communities and followed seasonal migration patterns, maintained
peace through alliances and warred with their neighbors, developed self-sufficient economies, and
maintained vast trade networks. They cultivated distinct art forms and spiritual values and kinship ties
that knit their communities together. But the arrival of Europeans and the resulting global exchange of
people, animals, plants, and microbes—what scholars call the Columbian Exchange—bridged more
than ten thousand years of geographic separation, inaugurated centuries of violence, unleashed the
greatest biological terror the world had ever seen, and revolutionized the history of the world.


In this course, we often use the term Indigenous American when referring to the people inhabiting America
before the arrival of European colonists, though we also use the terms American Indian, Native American, and
Indian interchangeably throughout the text. The National Museum of the American Indian answers a
question about using these various terms and recommends using the tribal name whenever possible.




Since 2020, The Chicago Manual of Style recommends capitalizing racial categories, such as Black or
White. We attempt to follow these guidelines throughout the course. Note that the terminology to describe
groups of people, particularly marginalized groups, has evolved throughout American History, and some terms
that were acceptable hundreds of years ago are no longer used today. You may still encounter this dated
language in original documents and readings throughout the course.

Figure 1. A brief timeline of major events prior to the exploration of the American continent by Europeans (credit: modification of

work by Architect of the Capitol).

Between nine and fifteen thousand years ago, scholars believe that a land bridge existed between
Asia and North America in the region that we now call Beringia. The first inhabitants of what would
be named the Americas migrated across this bridge in search of food. When the glaciers melted,
water engulfed Beringia, and the Bering Strait was formed. Later settlers came by boat across the
narrow strait. (The fact that Asians and American Indians share genetic markers on a Y chromosome
lends credibility to this migration theory.) Continually moving southward, the settlers eventually
populated both North and South America, creating unique cultures that ranged from the highly
complex and urban Aztec civilization, in what is now Mexico City, to the woodland tribes of eastern
North America. Recent research along the west coast of South America suggests that migrant
populations may have traveled down this coast by water as well as by land.

Evidence found at Monte Verde, a site in modern-day Chile, suggests that human activity began there
at least 14,500 years ago. Similar evidence hints at human settlement in the Florida panhandle at the
same time. On many points, archaeological and traditional knowledge sources converge: the dental,
archaeological, linguistic, oral, ecological, and genetic evidence illustrates a great deal of diversity,
with numerous groups settling and migrating over thousands of years, potentially from many different
points of origin. Whether emerging from the earth, water, or sky; being made by a creator; or
migrating to their homelands, modern Native American communities recount histories in America that
predate human memory.

In the Northwest, Native groups exploited the great salmon-filled rivers. On the plains and prairie
lands, hunting communities followed bison herds and moved according to seasonal patterns. In
mountains, prairies, deserts, and forests, the cultures and ways of life of paleo-era ancestors were as
varied as the geography. These groups spoke hundreds of languages and adopted distinct cultural
practices. Rich and diverse diets fueled massive population growth across the continent.

Agriculture arose sometime between five thousand and nine thousand years ago, almost
simultaneously in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Mesoamericans in modern-day Mexico and
Central America relied on domesticated maize (corn) to develop the hemisphere’s first settled
population around 1200 BCE. Corn was high in caloric content, easily dried and stored, and, in
Mesoamerica’s warm and fertile Gulf Coast, could sometimes be harvested twice in a year. Corn—as
well as other Mesoamerican crops—spread across North America and continues to hold an important
spiritual and cultural place in many Native communities.

Agriculture flourished in the fertile river valleys between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean,
an area known as the Eastern Woodlands. There, three crops in particular—corn, beans, and squash,
known as the Three Sisters—provided nutritional needs necessary to sustain cities and civilizations.
In Woodland areas from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River to the Atlantic coast, Native
communities managed their forest resources by burning underbrush to create vast open hunting
grounds and to clear the ground for planting the Three Sisters. Many groups used shifting cultivation,
in which farmers cut the forest, burned the undergrowth, and then planted seeds in the nutrient-rich
ashes. When crop yields began to decline, farmers moved to another field and allowed the land to
recover and the forest to regrow before again cutting the forest, burning the undergrowth, and
restarting the cycle. This technique was particularly useful in areas with difficult soil. But in the fertile
regions of the Eastern Woodlands, Native American farmers engaged in permanent, intensive
agriculture, using hand tools rather than European-style plows. The rich soil and use of hand tools
enabled effective and sustainable farming practices, producing high yields without overburdening the
soil. Typically in Woodland communities, women practiced agriculture while men hunted and fished.

Figure 2. This map shows the extent of the major civilizations of the Western Hemisphere. Though the Olmec area is hard to see

on the map, it is the small area between the Aztec and Mayan areas. In South America, early civilizations developed along the

coast because the high Andes and the inhospitable Amazon Basin made the interior of the continent less favorable for settlement.

The Olmec

Mesoamerica is the geographic area stretching from north of Panama up to the desert of central
Mexico. Although marked by great topographic, linguistic, and cultural diversity, this region cradled a
number of civilizations with similar characteristics. Mesoamericans were polytheistic. Their gods
possessed both male and female traits and demanded blood sacrifices, whether of enemies taken in
battle or in the form of ritual bloodletting. Corn, or maize, domesticated by 5000 BCE, formed the
basis of their diet. They developed a mathematical system, built huge edifices, and devised a
calendar that accurately predicted eclipses and solstices and that priest-astronomers used to direct
the planting and harvesting of crops. Most important for our knowledge of these peoples, they created
the only known written language in the Western Hemisphere. Researchers have made much
progress in interpreting the inscriptions on their temples and pyramids. Though the area had no
overarching political structure, trade over long distances helped diffuse culture. Weapons made of
obsidian, jewelry crafted from jade, feathers woven into clothing and ornaments, and cacao beans
that were whipped into a chocolate drink formed the basis of commerce. The mother of
Mesoamerican cultures was the Olmec civilization.

Figure 3. The Olmec carved heads from giant boulders that ranged from four to eleven feet in height and could weigh up to fifty

tons. All these figures have flat noses, slightly crossed eyes, and large lips. These physical features can be seen today in some

of the peoples indigenous to the area.

Flourishing along the hot Gulf Coast of Mexico from about 1200 to about 400 BCE, the Olmec
produced a number of major works of art, architecture, pottery, and sculpture. Most recognizable are
their giant head sculptures and the pyramid in La Venta. The Olmec built aqueducts to transport
water into their cities and irrigate their fields. They grew maize, squash, beans, and tomatoes. They
also bred small domesticated dogs which, along with fish, provided their protein. Although no one
knows what happened to the Olmec after about 400 BCE, in part because the jungle reclaimed many
of their cities, their culture was the base upon which the Maya and the Aztec built. It was the Olmec
who worshipped a rain god, a maize god, and the feathered serpent that was so important in the
future pantheons of the Aztecs (who called him Quetzalcoatl) and the Maya (to whom he was
Kukulkan). The Olmec also developed a system of trade throughout Mesoamerica, giving rise to an
elite class.

The Maya

Figure 4. El Castillo, located at Chichen Itza in the eastern Yucatán peninsula, served as a temple for the god Kukulkan. Each

side contains ninety-one steps to the top. When counting the top platform, the total number of stairs is three hundred and sixty-

five, the number of days in a year. (credit: Ken Thomas)

After the decline of the Olmec, a city rose in the fertile central highlands of Mesoamerica. One of the
largest population centers in pre-Columbian America and home to more than 100,000 people at its
height in about 500 CE, Teotihuacan was located about thirty miles northeast of modern Mexico City.
The ethnicity of this settlement’s inhabitants is debated; some scholars believe it was a multiethnic
city. Large-scale agriculture and the resultant abundance of food allowed time for people to develop
special trades and skills other than farming. Builders constructed over twenty-two hundred apartment
compounds for multiple families, as well as more than a hundred temples. Among these were the
Pyramid of the Sun (which is two hundred feet high) and the Pyramid of the Moon (one hundred and
fifty feet high). Near the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, graves have been uncovered that suggest
humans were sacrificed for religious purposes. The city was also the center for trade, which extended
to settlements on Mesoamerica’s Gulf Coast.

The Maya were one Mesoamerican culture that had strong ties to Teotihuacan. The Maya’s
architectural and mathematical contributions were significant. Flourishing from roughly 750 BCE to
900 CE (though earlier Mayan settlements date even before 2000 BCE) in what is now Mexico,
Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, the Maya perfected the calendar and written language started by
the Olmec. The Maya devised a written mathematical system to record crop yields, document the size
of the population, and assist in trade. Surrounded by farms relying on primitive agriculture, they built
the city-states of Copan, Tikal, and Chichen Itza along their major trade routes, as well as temples,
statues of gods, pyramids, and astronomical observatories. However, because of poor soil and a
drought that lasted nearly two centuries, their civilization declined by about 900 CE and they
abandoned their large population centers.

The Spanish found little organized resistance among the weakened Maya upon their arrival in the
1520s. However, they did find Mayan history, in the form of glyphs, or pictures representing words,
recorded in folding books called codices (the singular is codex). In 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa,
who feared that the newly Christianized Natives had reverted to their traditional religious practices,
collected and burned every codex he could find. Today only a few survive.

Figure 5. Mayan writing and drawings from the Dresden codex. It is called the Dresden codex because it was purchased by a

German theologian and director of the Royal Library at Dresden, Johann Christian Götze (1692–1749) from an Italian in 1739 and

has remained in Dresden. Mesoamerican archaeologist and ethnohistorian J. Eric S. Thompson speculates that the codex was

sent as a tribute to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor by Hernán Cortés, governor of Mexico, since examples of local writings and

other Maya items were sent to the king in 1519 when he was living in Vienna. The document was written sometime between the

twelfth and fourteenth centuries.


• 2. Describe the social and cultural achievements of major early American civilizations
(Aztec, Inca)

Figure 1. A brief timeline (shown again) of major events prior to the exploration of the American continent by Europeans (credit:

modification of work by Architect of the Capitol).

The Aztec

Figure 2. This map shows the city of Tenochtitlan, built upon an island surrounded by Lake Texcoco. Note that the city of

Teotihuacan, the largest Mayan city, is located further to the northeast.

When the Spaniard Hernán Cortés arrived on the coast of Mexico in the sixteenth century, at the site
of present-day Veracruz, he soon heard of a great city ruled by an emperor named Moctezuma. This
city was tremendously wealthy—filled with gold—and took in tribute from surrounding tribes. The


riches and cultural complexity Cortés found when he arrived at that city, known as Tenochtitlán, were
far beyond anything he or his men had ever seen.

Figure 3. In this illustration, an Aztec priest cuts out the beating heart of a sacrificial victim before throwing the body down from

the temple. Aztec belief centered on supplying the gods with human blood—the ultimate sacrifice—to keep them strong and well.

According to legend, a warlike people called the Aztec (also known as the Mexica) had left a city
called Aztlán and traveled south to the site of present-day Mexico City. In 1325, they began
construction of Tenochtitlán on an island in Lake Texcoco. By 1519, when Cortés arrived, this
settlement contained upwards of 200,000 inhabitants and was certainly the largest city in the Western
Hemisphere at that time and probably larger than any European city. One of Cortés’s soldiers, Bernal
Díaz del Castillo, recorded his impressions upon first seeing it: “When we saw so many cities and
villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said it was like the
enchantments . . . on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and
all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a
dream? . . . I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or
seen before, not even dreamed about.”

Unlike the dirty, fetid cities of Europe at the time, Tenochtitlán was well planned, clean, and orderly.
The city had neighborhoods for specific occupations, a trash collection system, markets, two
aqueducts bringing in fresh water, and public buildings and temples. Unlike the Spanish, Aztecs
bathed daily, and wealthy homes might even contain a steam bath. A labor force of enslaved people
from subjugated neighboring tribes had built the fabulous city and the three causeways that
connected it to the mainland. To farm, the Aztec constructed barges made of reeds and filled them
with fertile soil. Lake water constantly irrigated these chinampas, or “floating gardens,” which are still
in use and can be seen today in Xochimilco, a district of Mexico City.

The Aztec people possessed a complex religious belief system. Each god in their pantheon
represented and ruled an aspect of the natural world, such as the heavens, farming, rain, fertility,
sacrifice, and combat. A ruling class of warrior nobles and priests performed ritual human sacrifice
daily to sustain the sun on its long journey across the sky, to appease or feed the gods, and to
stimulate agricultural production. The sacrificial ceremony included cutting open the chest of a
criminal or captured warrior with an obsidian knife and removing the still-beating heart.

Figure 4. This rendering of the Aztec island city of Tenochtitlán depicts the causeways that connected the central city to the

surrounding land. Envoys from surrounding tribes brought tributes to the Emperor.


The following is an excerpt from the sixteenth-century Florentine Codex of the writings of Fray Bernardino de
Sahagun, a priest and early chronicler of Aztec history. When an old man from Xochimilco first saw the
Spanish in Veracruz, he recounted an earlier dream to Moctezuma, the ruler of the Aztecs:

Said Quzatli to the sovereign, “Oh mighty lord, if because I tell you the truth I am to die, nevertheless I am here in your presence

and you may do what you wish to me!” He narrated that mounted men would come to this land in a great wooden house [ships].

This structure was to lodge many men, serving them as a home; within they would eat and sleep. On the surface of this house

they would cook their food, walk, and play as if they were on firm land. They were to be white, bearded men, dressed in different

colors, and on their heads they would wear round coverings.

Ten years before the arrival of the Spanish, Moctezuma received several omens which at the time he could not
interpret. A fiery object appeared in the night sky, a spontaneous fire broke out in a religious temple and could
not be extinguished with water, a water spout appeared in Lake Texcoco, and a woman could be heard
wailing, “O my children we are about to go forever.” Moctezuma also had dreams and premonitions of
impending disaster. These foretellings were recorded after the Aztecs’ destruction. They do, however, give us
insight into the importance placed upon signs and omens in the pre-Columbian world.

Figure 5. The Inca had no written language. Instead, they communicated and kept records by means of a system of knots and

colored strings called the quipu. Each of these knots and strings possessed a distinct meaning intelligible to those educated in

their significance.

The Inca

In South America, the most highly developed and complex society was that of the Inca, which means
“lord” or “ruler” in the Andean language called Quechua. At its height in the fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries, the Inca Empire, located on the Pacific coast and straddling the Andes Mountains,
extended some 2,500 miles. It stretched from modern-day Colombia in the north to Chile in the south
and included cities built at an altitude of 14,000 feet above sea level. Its road system, kept free of
debris and repaired by workers stationed at varying intervals, rivaled that of the Romans and
efficiently connected the sprawling empire. The Inca, like all other pre-Columbian societies, did not
use axle-mounted wheels for transportation. They built stepped roads to ascend and descend the
steep slopes of the Andes; these would have been impractical for wheeled vehicles but worked well
for pedestrians. These roads enabled the rapid movement of the highly trained Incan army. Also like
the Romans, the Inca were effective administrators. Runners called chasquis traversed the roads in
a continuous relay system, ensuring quick communication over long distances. The Inca had no
system of writing, however. They communicated and kept records using a system of colored strings
and knots called the quipu.

Figure 6. Located in modern-day Peru at an altitude of nearly 8,000 feet, Machu Picchu was a ceremonial Incan city built about

1450 CE.

The Inca people worshipped their lord who, as a member of an elite ruling class, had absolute
authority over every aspect of life. Much like feudal lords in Europe at the time, the ruling class lived
off the labor of the peasants, collecting vast wealth that accompanied them as they went, mummified,
into the next life. The Inca farmed corn, beans, squash, quinoa (a grain cultivated for its seeds), and
the indigenous potato on terraced land they hacked from the steep mountains. Peasants received
only one-third of their crops for themselves. The Inca ruler required a third, and a third was set aside
in a kind of welfare system for those unable to work. Huge storehouses were filled with food for times
of need. Each peasant also worked for the Inca ruler a number of days per month on public works
projects, a requirement known as the mita. For example, peasants constructed rope bridges made of
grass to span the mountains above fast-flowing icy rivers. In return, the lord provided laws, protection,
and relief in times of famine.

The Inca worshipped the sun god Inti and called gold the “sweat” of the sun. Unlike the Maya and the
Aztecs, they rarely practiced human sacrifice and usually offered the gods food, clothing, and coca
leaves. In times of dire emergency, however, such as in the aftermath of earthquakes, volcanoes, or

crop failure, they resorted to sacrificing prisoners. The ultimate sacrifice was children, who were
specially selected and well-fed. The Inca believed these children would immediately go to a much
better afterlife.

In 1911, the American historian Hiram Bingham uncovered the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu.
Located about fifty miles northwest of Cusco, Peru, at an altitude of about 8,000 feet, the city had
been built in 1450 and inexplicably abandoned roughly a hundred years later. Scholars believe the
city was used for religious ceremonial purposes and housed the priesthood. The architectural beauty
of this city is unrivaled. Using only the strength of human labor and no machines, the Inca constructed
walls and buildings of polished stones, some weighing over fifty tons, that were fitted together
perfectly without the use of mortar. In 1983, UNESCO designated the ruined city a World Heritage


• 3. Describe the cultural achievements, lifestyles, religious practices, and customs
among Native American peoples

• 4. Explain the location and environmental adaptations made by some Native

North American Indians

With few exceptions, the North American Native cultures were much more widely dispersed than the
Mayan, Aztec, and Incan societies, and did not have their population size or organized social
structures. Although the cultivation of corn had made its way north, many Indians still practiced
hunting and gathering. Horses, first introduced by the Spanish, allowed the Plains Indians to more
easily follow and hunt the huge herds of bison. A few societies had developed into relatively complex
forms, but they were already in decline at the time of Christopher Columbus’s arrival.

North America’s Indigenous peoples shared some broad traits. Spiritual practices, understandings
of property, and kinship networks differed markedly from European arrangements. Most Native
Americans did not neatly distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. Spiritual power
permeated their world and was both tangible and accessible. It could be appealed to and harnessed.
Kinship bound most Native North American people together. Many Native cultures understood
ancestry as matrilineal: family and clan identity proceeded along the female line, through mothers
and daughters, rather than fathers and sons. Fathers, for instance, would often join mothers’
extended families and sometimes even a mother’s brothers would take a more direct role in child-
raising than biological fathers. Mothers could therefore often wield enormous influence at local levels
and men’s identities and influence often depended on their relationships to women. Native American
culture meanwhile generally afforded greater sexual and marital freedom than European cultures did.
Women often chose their husbands, and divorce often was a relatively simple and straightforward
process. Moreover, most Native peoples’ notions of property rights differed markedly from Europeans’
notions of property. Native Americans generally felt a personal ownership of tools, weapons, or other
items that were actively used, and this same rule applied to land and crops. Groups and individuals
exploited particular pieces of land, and used violence or negotiation to exclude others. But the right to
the use of land did not imply the right to its permanent possession.

Native Americans had many ways of communicating, including graphic ones, and some of these
artistic and communicative technologies are still used today. For example, Algonkian-speaking
Ojibwes used birch-bark scrolls to record medical treatments, recipes, songs, stories, and more.

Other Eastern Woodland peoples wove plant fibers, embroidered skins with porcupine quills, and
modeled the earth to make sites of complex ceremonial meaning. On the plains, artisans wove
buffalo hair and painted on buffalo skins. In the Pacific Northwest weavers wove goat hair into soft
textiles with particular patterns. Maya, Zapotec, and Nahua ancestors in Mesoamerica painted their
histories on plant-derived textiles and carved them into stone. In the Andes, Inca recorders noted
information in the form of knotted strings, or quipu.

Puebloan People

Figure 1. Native peoples in the Southwest began constructing these highly defensible cliff dwellings in 1190 CE and continued

expanding and refurbishing them until 1260 CE before abandoning them around 1300 CE.

Two thousand years ago, some of the largest culture groups in North America were the Puebloan
groups, centered in the current-day Greater Southwest (the southwestern U.S. and northwestern
Mexico), the Mississippian groups located along the Great River and its Woodland tributaries, and the
Mesoamerican groups of the areas now known as central Mexico and the Yucatan. Previous
developments in agricultural technology enabled the explosive growth of the large early societies,
such as those in Tenochtitlan in the Central Mexican Valley, Cahokia along the Mississippi River, and
in the desert oasis areas of the Greater Southwest.

Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico was home to ancestral Puebloan people between 900 and
1300 CE. As many as 15,000 people lived in the Chaco Canyon complex in present-day New Mexico.
The Spanish first gave these people the name “Pueblo,” which means “town” or “village,” because
they lived in settlements of permanent stone-and-mud buildings with thatched roofs. Like present-day
apartment houses, these buildings had multiple stories, each with multiple rooms. The three main
groups of the Pueblo people were the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi.

The Mogollon thrived in the Mimbres Valley (present-day New Mexico) from about 150 BCE to 1450
CE. They developed a distinctive artistic style for painting bowls with finely drawn geometric figures
and wildlife, especially birds, in black on a white background. Beginning about 600 CE, the Hohokam
built an extensive irrigation system of canals to irrigate the desert and grow fields of corn, beans, and
squash. By 1300, their crop yields were supporting the most highly populated settlements in the
southwest. The Hohokam decorated pottery with a red-on-buff design and made jewelry of turquoise.
In the high desert of New Mexico, the Anasazi, whose name means “ancient enemy” or “ancient
ones,” carved homes from steep cliffs accessed by ladders or ropes that could be pulled in at night or
in case of enemy attack.


Rise and Decline of the Puebloan People

Sophisticated agricultural practices, extensive trading networks, and even the domestication of
animals like turkeys allowed the population to swell. Massive residential structures, built from
sandstone blocks and lumber carried across great distances, housed hundreds of Puebloan people.
One single building, Pueblo Bonito, stretched over two acres and rose five stories. Its 600 rooms
were decorated with copper bells, turquoise decorations, and bright macaws. Homes like those at
Pueblo Bonito included a small, dugout room, called a kiva, which played an important role in a
variety of ceremonies and served as an important center for Puebloan life and culture. Puebloan
spirituality was tied both to the earth and to the heavens, as generations carefully charted the stars
and designed homes in line with the path of the sun and moon.

The Puebloan people of Chaco Canyon faced several ecological challenges, including deforestation
and over-irrigation, which ultimately caused this community to collapse and its people to disperse to
smaller settlements. An extreme fifty-year drought began in 1130; shortly thereafter, Chaco Canyon
was deserted. New groups filled this land, including the Apache and Navajo, both of whom adopted
several Puebloan customs. The same drought that plagued the Pueblo also likely affected the
Mississippian peoples of the American Midwest and South. The Mississippians developed one of the
largest civilizations north of modern-day Mexico.


Roughly one thousand years ago, the largest Mississippian settlement, Cahokia, located just east of
present-day St. Louis, peaked at a population of between 10,000 and 30,000. It rivaled contemporary
European cities in size. No American city, in fact, would match Cahokia’s peak population levels until
after the American Revolution. The city itself spanned 2,000 acres and centered around Monks
Mound, a large earthen hill that rose ten stories and was larger at its base than the great pyramids of
Egypt. As with many of the peoples who lived in the Woodlands, life and death in Cahokia were linked
to the movement of the stars, sun, and moon, and their ceremonial earthwork structures reflect these
important organizing forces.

The society of the Cahokia people was politically organized around the concept of chiefdom, a
hierarchical, clan-based system that endowed leaders with both secular and sacred authority. The
size of the city and the extent of its influence suggests that the city relied on a number of lesser
chiefdoms under the authority of a paramount leader. Social stratification was partly preserved
through frequent warfare. War captives would be enslaved, and these captives formed an important
part of the economy in the North American southeast. Native American slavery was not based on
holding people as property. Instead, Native Americans understood enslaved people as those who
lacked kinship networks. Slavery, then, was not always a permanent condition. Adoption or marriage
could enable an enslaved person to become a member of the community and to enter a kinship
network. Very often, a former slave could become a fully integrated member of the community.


and captive trading became an important way that many Native communities regrew and
gained or maintained power.

Figure 2. Cahokia, by Bill Iseminger. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Cahokia Trade and “Big Bang”

North American communities were connected through complex kin, political, and cultural relationships
and sustained by long-distance trading routes. The Mississippi River served as a particularly
important artery, but all of the continent’s waterways were vital to transportation and communication.
From its position near the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers, which created networks that
stretched from the Great Lakes to the American Southeast, Cahokia became a key trading center.
Archaeologists can identify materials, like seashells, that traveled over a thousand miles to reach the
center of this civilization. 3,500 years ago, the community at what is now Poverty Point, Louisiana,
had access to copper from present-day Canada and flint from modern-day Indiana. Sheets of Mica
found at the sacred Woodland Serpent Mound site near the Ohio River came from the Allegheny
Mountains, and obsidian from nearby earthworks came from Mexico. Turquoise from the Greater
Southwest was used at Teotihuacan 1200 years ago.

Around the year 1050, Cahokia experienced what one archeologist has called a “big bang,” which
included “a virtually instantaneous and pervasive shift in all things political, social, and
ideological.” The population grew almost 500 percent in only one generation, and new groups of
peoples were absorbed into the city and its supporting communities. By 1300, the once-powerful city
had undergone a series of strains that led to its collapse. Scholars previously pointed to ecological
disaster or slow depopulation through emigration, but new research instead emphasizes mounting
warfare, or internal political tensions. Environmental explanations suggest that population growth
placed too great a burden on the arable land. Others suggest the demand for fuel and building
materials led to deforestation, erosion, and or an extended drought. Recent evidence suggests that
political turmoil among the ruling elite and threats from external enemies, as evidenced in the remains
of defensive stockades, may explain the end of the once-sprawling civilization.

New Home


Figure 3. This map indicates the locations of the three Pueblo cultures the major Eastern Woodland Indian tribes, and the tribes

of the Southeast, as well as the location of the ancient city of Cahokia.

The Eastern Woodlands

Encouraged by the wealth found by the Spanish in the settled civilizations to the south, fifteenth- and
sixteenth-century English, Dutch, and French explorers expected to discover the same in North
America. What they found instead were small, disparate communities, many already ravaged by
European diseases brought by the Spanish and transmitted among the Natives. Rather than gold and
silver, there was an abundance of land, and with it came all the timber and fur that land could

In the Eastern Woodlands, many Native American societies lived in smaller dispersed communities in
order to take advantage of the rich soils and abundant rivers and streams. The Lenapes, also known
as Delawares, farmed the bottomlands throughout the Hudson and Delaware River watersheds in

New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Their hundreds of settlements, stretching from
southern Massachusetts through Delaware, were loosely bound together by oral histories, ceremonial
traditions, consensus-based political organization, kinship networks, and a shared clan system.

Societal Structure of the Eastern Woodlands

Society was organized along matrilineal lines. When marriage occurred between clans, a married
man would join the clan of his wife. Lenape women extended authority over marriages, households,
agricultural production, and may even have played a significant part in determining the selection of a
regional tribal leader, a chief called the sachem. Dispersed authority, small settlements, and kin-
based organization contributed to the long-lasting stability and resilience of Lenape communities. One
or more sachems governed Lenape communities by the consent of their people. Unlike the
hierarchical organization of many Mississippian cultures, Lenape sachems acquired their authority by
demonstrating wisdom and experience. Communities and their leaders gathered together in times of
council or for ceremonial purposes. Sachems spoke for their people in larger councils that included
men, women, and elders. The Lenape experienced occasional tensions with other Indigenous groups
like the Iroquois to the north or Susquehannock to the south, but the lack of defensive fortifications
near Lenape communities leads archeologists to believe that the Lenapes avoided large-scale

The continued longevity of Lenape societies, which began centuries before European contact, was
also due to their skills as farmers and fishers. Along with the “Three Sisters,” Lenape women planted
tobacco, sunflowers, and gourds. They harvested fruits and nuts from trees and also cultivated
numerous medicinal plants which they used with great proficiency. The Lenapes organized their
communities to take advantage of growing seasons and also the migration patterns of animals and
fowl that were a part of their diet. During planting and harvesting seasons, Lenapes gathered together
in larger groups to coordinate their labor and take advantage of local abundance. As proficient
fishers, they organized seasonal fish camps to net shellfish and catch shad, a type of herring
common to the North Atlantic coast. Lenapes wove nets, baskets, mats, and a variety of household
materials from the readily available rushes found along the streams, rivers, and coasts. They made
their homes in some of the most fertile and abundant lands in the Eastern Woodlands and used their
skills to create a stable and prosperous civilization. The first Dutch and Swedish settlers who
encountered the Lenapes in the seventeenth century recognized Lenape prosperity and quickly
sought their friendship. Their lives came to depend on it.

Most Native Americans living east of the Mississippi lived in small autonomous clans or tribal units,
each group adapted to the specific environment in which it lived. Though they shared common traits,
these groups were by no means unified, and warfare among tribes was common as they sought to
increase their hunting and fishing areas.

Figure 4. Intricately carved masks, like the Crooked Beak of Heaven Mask, used natural elements like animals to represent

supernatural forces during ceremonial dances and festivals. 19th century brooked beak of heaven mask from the Kwakwaka’wakw

(Pacific NW).

The Pacific Northwest

In the Pacific Northwest, the Kwakwaka’wakw, Tlingits, Haidas, and hundreds of other peoples,
speaking dozens of languages, thrived due to the moderate climate, lush forests, and many rivers.
The peoples of this region depended upon salmon for survival and valued it accordingly. Images of
salmon decorated totem poles, baskets, canoes, oars, and other tools. The fish was treated with
spiritual respect and its image represented prosperity, life, and renewal. Sustainable harvesting
practices ensured the survival of salmon populations. The Coast Salish people and several others
celebrated the First Salmon Ceremony when the first migrating salmon was spotted each season.
Elders closely observed the size of the salmon run and would delay harvesting to ensure that a
sufficient number survived to spawn and return in the future. Men commonly used nets, hooks, and
other small tools to capture salmon as they migrated upriver to spawn. Massive cedar canoes, as
long as fifty feet and carrying as many as twenty men, also enabled extensive fishing expeditions in
the Pacific Ocean, where skilled fishermen caught halibut, sturgeon, and other fish, sometimes
hauling thousands of pounds in a single canoe.

Food surpluses enabled significant population growth, and the Pacific Northwest became one of the
most densely populated regions of North America. The combination of population density and food
surplus created a unique social organization centered around an elaborate feast called a potlatch.
These potlatches celebrated births and weddings and also demonstrated social status. A party would
last for days and the host would demonstrate his wealth and power by feeding and entertaining
guests with food, artwork, and performances. The more the host gave away, the more prestige and
power they had within the group. Some men saved for decades to host an extravagant potlach that
would in turn give him greater respect and power within the community.

Many peoples of the Pacific Northwest built finely detailed plank houses out of the region’s abundant
cedar trees. The 500-foot-long Suquamish Oleman House (or Old Man House), for instance, rested
on the banks of Puget Sound in present-day Washington state. Giant cedar trees were also carved
and painted in the shape of animals or other figures to tell stories and express identities. These totem


poles became the most recognizable artistic form of the Pacific Northwest, but peoples also carved
masks, and other wooden items, such as hand drums and rattles, out of the great trees of the region.

Despite commonalities, Native cultures varied greatly. The New World was marked by diversity and
contrast. By the time Europeans were poised to cross the Atlantic, Native Americans spoke hundreds
of languages and lived in keeping with the hemisphere’s many climates and regional ecosystems.
Some lived in cities, others in small rural bands. Some migrated seasonally, others settled
permanently. All Native peoples had long histories and well-formed, unique cultures that had
developed over millennia. But the arrival of the Europeans changed everything.

Introduction to the Age of Exploration

Europe during the Middle Ages was marked by agricultural and feudal societies with major
differences between the haves and have nots. Kings and queens dominated the political landscape
and religious authorities, particularly the Catholic Church, and had a far-reaching influence on every
aspect of life. Conflicts between the Catholic Church and Islam led to the Crusades, which resulted in
enduring cultural conflicts while also opening western Europe to more trade from the East. A lively
trade subsequently developed along a variety of routes known collectively as the Silk Road to supply
the demand for often novel products. Highway robbers and greedy middlemen made the trip along
this route expensive and dangerous. By 1492, Europe—recovered from the Black Death (1346-1353)
and in search of new products and new wealth—was anxious to improve trade and communication
with the rest of the world. Venice and Genoa led the way in trading with the East. The lure of profit
pushed explorers to seek new trade routes to the Spice Islands and eliminate Muslim middlemen.

The sixteenth century also witnessed a new challenge to the powerful Catholic Church. The reformist
doctrines of Martin Luther and John Calvin attracted many people dissatisfied with Catholicism, and
Protestantism spread across northern Europe, spawning many subgroups with conflicting beliefs.


Spain was the chief opponent of Protestantism, leading to decades of undeclared religious wars
between Spain and England. Overall, a growing religious intolerance and cycles of associated
violence characterized much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Despite the efforts of the
Catholic Church and Catholic nations, however, Protestantism had taken hold by 1600.

These shifts in political, economic, and religious interests led to state-sponsored exploration that
eventually brought Europeans and European priorities to the Americas across a vast trans-oceanic
region known as the Atlantic World. Trade in the New World would be shaped by the policies of
mercantilism, a system where states sought to gain a competitive advantage over other states by
amassing resources and expanding their spheres of territorial control. Ultimately, one of the most
important state resources for building wealth and dominating markets would be a steady supply of
labor in the form of slavery.


• 5. Describe societal life in feudal Europe, including the important role of religion

• 6. Discuss the motives for early European exploration

Figure 1. This image depicts the bodily swellings, or buboes, characteristic of the Black Death.

The fall of the Roman Empire (476 CE) and the beginning of the European Renaissance in the late
fourteenth century roughly bookends the period we call the Middle Ages. Without a dominant
centralized power or overarching cultural hub, Europe experienced political and military discord
during this time. Its inhabitants retreated into walled cities, fearing marauding pillagers such as the
Vikings, Mongols, Arabs, and Magyars. In return for protection, they submitted to powerful lords and
their armies of knights. In their brief, hard lives, few people traveled more than ten miles from the
place they were born.

The Christian Church remained intact, however, and emerged from the period as a unified and
powerful institution. Priests, tucked away in monasteries, kept knowledge alive by collecting and
copying religious and secular manuscripts, often adding beautiful drawings or artwork. Social and
economic devastation arrived in the 1340s, however, when Genoese merchants returning from the
Black Sea unwittingly brought with them a rat-borne and highly contagious disease, known as the
bubonic plague. In a few short years, it had killed many millions, about one-third of Europe’s
population. A different strain, spread by airborne germs, also killed many. Together these two are
collectively called the Black Death. Entire villages disappeared. A high birth rate, however, coupled

with bountiful harvests, meant that the population grew during the next century. By 1450, a newly
rejuvenated European society was on the brink of tremendous change.

Life in Feudal Europe

During the Middle Ages, most Europeans lived in small villages that consisted of a manorial house or
castle for the lord, a church, and simple homes for the peasants or serfs, who made up about 60
percent of western Europe’s population. Hundreds of these castles and walled cities remain all over

Figure 2. One of the most beautifully preserved medieval walled cities is Carcassonne, France. Notice the use of a double wall.

Europe’s feudal society was a mutually supportive system. The lords owned the land; knights gave
military service to a lord and carried out his justice; serfs worked the land in return for the protection
offered by the lord’s castle or the walls of his city, into which they fled in times of danger from
invaders. Much land was communally farmed at first, but as lords became more powerful they
extended their ownership and rented land to their subjects. Thus, although they were technically free,
serfs were effectively bound to the land they worked, which supported them and their families as well
as the lord and all who depended on him. The Catholic Church, the only church in Europe at the time,
also owned vast tracts of land and became very wealthy by collecting a tax known as a tithe (which
consisted of 10 percent of annual earnings) and rents on its lands.

Life as a Serf

A serf’s life was difficult. Women often died in childbirth, and perhaps one-third of children died before
the age of five. Without sanitation or medicine, many people perished from diseases we consider
inconsequential today; few lived to be older than forty-five. Entire families, usually including
grandparents, lived in one- or two-room hovels that were cold, dark, and dirty. A fire was kept lit and
was always a danger to the thatched roofs, while its constant smoke affected the inhabitants’ health
and eyesight. Most individuals owned no more than two sets of clothing, consisting of a woolen jacket
or tunic and linen undergarments, and bathed only when the waters melted in spring.

In an agrarian society, the seasons dictate the rhythm of life. Everyone in Europe’s feudal society had
a job to do and worked hard. The father was the unquestioned head of the family. Idleness meant

hunger. When the land began to thaw in early spring, peasants started tilling the soil with primitive
wooden plows and crude rakes and hoes. Then they planted crops of wheat, rye, barley, and oats,
reaping small yields that barely sustained the population. Bad weather, crop disease, or insect
infestation could cause an entire village to starve or force the survivors to move to another location.

Early summer saw the first harvesting of hay, which was stored until needed to feed the animals in
winter. Men and boys sheared the sheep, now heavy with wool from the cold weather, while women
and children washed the wool and spun it into yarn. The coming of fall meant crops needed to be
harvested and prepared for winter. Livestock was butchered and the meat smoked or salted to
preserve it. With the harvest in and the provisions stored, fall was also the time for celebrating and
giving thanks to God. Winter brought the people indoors to weave yarn into fabric, sew clothing,
thresh grain, and keep the fires going. Everyone celebrated the birth of Christ in conjunction with the
winter solstice.

The Church and Society

After the fall of Rome, the Christian Church—united in dogma but unofficially divided into western and
eastern branches—was the only organized institution in medieval Europe. In 1054, the eastern
branch of Christianity, led by the Patriarch of Constantinople (a title that because roughly equivalent
to the western Church’s pope), established its center in Constantinople and adopted the Greek
language for its services. The western branch, under the pope, remained in Rome, becoming known
as the Roman Catholic Church and continuing to use Latin. Following this split, known as the Great
Schism, each branch of Christianity maintained a strict organizational hierarchy. The pope in Rome,
for example, oversaw a huge bureaucracy led by cardinals, known as “princes of the church,” who
were followed by archbishops, bishops, and then priests. During this period, the Roman Church
became the most powerful international organization in western Europe.

Just as agrarian life depended on the seasons, village and family life revolved around the Church.
The sacraments, or special ceremonies of the Church, marked every stage of life, from birth to
maturation, marriage, and burial, and brought people into the church on a regular basis. As
Christianity spread throughout Europe, it replaced pagan and animistic views, explaining supernatural
events and forces of nature in its own terms. A benevolent God in heaven, a creator of the universe,
controlled all events, warring against the force of darkness, known as the Devil or Satan, here on
earth. Although ultimately defeated, Satan still had the power to trick humans and cause them to
commit evil or sin.

All events had a spiritual connotation. Sickness, for example, might be a sign that a person had
sinned, while crop failure could result from the villagers not saying their prayers. Penitents confessed
their sins to the priest, who absolved them and assigned them to penance to atone for their acts and
save themselves from eternal damnation. Thus the parish priest held enormous power over the lives
of his parishioners.

Ultimately, the pope decided all matters of theology, interpreting the will of God to the people, but he
also had authority over temporal matters. Because the Church had the ability to excommunicate
people, or send a soul to hell forever, even monarchs feared to challenge its power. It was also the
seat of all knowledge. Latin, the language of the Church, served as a unifying factor for a continent of
isolated regions, each with its own dialect; in the early Middle Ages, nations as we know them today
did not yet exist. The mostly illiterate serfs were thus dependent on those literate priests to read and
interpret the Bible, the word of God, for them.

Christianity Encounters Islam

The year 622 brought a new challenge to Christendom. Near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, a prophet named
Muhammad received a revelation that became a cornerstone of the Islamic faith. The Koran, which
Muhammad wrote in Arabic, contained his message, affirming monotheism but identifying Christ not
as God but as a prophet like Moses, Abraham, David, and Muhammad. Following Muhammad’s
death in 632, Islam spread by both conversion and military conquest across the Middle East and Asia
Minor to India and northern Africa, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain in the year 711.

Figure 3. In the seventh and eighth centuries, Islam spread quickly across North Africa and into the Middle East. The religion

arrived in Europe via Spain in 711 and remained there until 1492, when Catholic monarchs reconquered the last of Muslim-held

territory after a long war.

The Islamic conquest of Europe continued until 732. Then, at the Battle of Tours (in modern France),
Charles Martel, nicknamed the Hammer, led a Christian force in defeating the army of Abdul Rahman
al-Ghafiqi. Muslims, however, retained control of much of Spain, where Córdoba, known for leather
and wool production, became a major center of learning and trade. By the eleventh century, a major
Christian holy war called the Reconquista, or reconquest, which had been underway since the early
eighth century, had begun to slowly push the Muslims from Spain. This drive was actually an
extension of the earlier military conflict between Christians and Muslims for domination of the Holy
Land (the Biblical region of Palestine), known as the Crusades.

Jerusalem and the Crusades

The city of Jerusalem is a holy site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It was here King Solomon built
the Temple in the tenth century BCE. It was here the Romans crucified Jesus in 33 CE, and from
here, Christians maintain, he ascended into heaven, promising to return. From here, Muslims believe,
Muhammad traveled to heaven in 621 to receive instructions about prayer. Thus claims on the area

go deep, and emotions about it run high, among followers of all three faiths. Evidence exists that the
three religions lived in harmony for centuries. In 1095, however, European Christians decided not
only to retake the holy city from the Muslim rulers but also to conquer what they called the Holy
Lands, an area that extended from modern-day Turkey in the north along the Mediterranean coast to
the Sinai Peninsula, an area partly held by Muslim forces. The Crusades had begun.

Religious zeal motivated the knights who participated in the four Crusades. Adventure, the chance to
win land and a title, and the Church’s promise of wholesale forgiveness of sins were also powerful
incentives. The Crusaders, mostly French knights, retook Jerusalem in June 1099 amid horrific
slaughter. A French writer who accompanied them recorded this eyewitness account: “On the top of
Solomon’s Temple, to which they had climbed in fleeing, many were shot to death with arrows and
cast down headlong from the roof. Within this Temple, about ten thousand were beheaded. If you had
been there, your feet would have been stained up to the ankles with the blood of the slain. What more
shall I tell? Not one of them was allowed to live. They did not spare the women and children.” A
Muslim eyewitness also described how the conquerors stripped the temple of its wealth and looted
private homes.

In 1187, under the legendary leader Saladin, Muslim forces took back the city. Reaction from Europe
was swift as King Richard I of England, the Lionheart, joined others to mount yet another action. The
battle for the Holy Lands did not conclude until the Crusaders lost their Mediterranean stronghold at
Acre (in present-day Israel) in 1291. The last of the Christians left the area a few years later.

Effect of the Crusades

The Crusades had lasting influence, both positive and negative. On the negative side, the wide-scale
persecution of Jews began. Christians classed them with the infidel Muslims and labeled them “the
killers of Christ.” In the coming centuries, kings either expelled Jews from their kingdoms or forced
them to pay heavy tributes for the privilege of remaining. Muslim-Christian hatred also festered, and
intolerance grew.

On the positive side, maritime trade between East and West expanded. As Crusaders experienced
the feel of silk, the taste of spices, and the utility of porcelain, the desire for these products created
new markets for merchants. In particular, the Adriatic port city of Venice prospered enormously from
trade with Islamic merchants. Merchants’ ships brought Europeans valuable goods, traveling between
the port cities of western Europe and the East from the tenth century on, along routes collectively
labeled the Silk Road. From the days of the early adventurer Marco Polo, Venetian sailors had
traveled to ports on the Black Sea and established their own colonies along the Mediterranean Coast.
However, transporting goods along the old Silk Road was costly, slow, and unprofitable. Muslim
middlemen collected taxes as the goods changed hands. Robbers waited to ambush the treasure-
laden caravans. A direct water route to the East, cutting out the land portion of the trip, had to be
found. As well as seeking a water passage to the wealthy cities in the East, sailors wanted to find a
route to the exotic and wealthy Spice Islands in modern-day Indonesia, whose location was kept
secret by Muslim rulers. Longtime rivals of Venice, the merchants of Genoa and Florence also looked

Exploration from the Iberian Peninsula

Although Norse explorers such as Leif Ericson, the son of Eric the Red who first settled Greenland,
had reached and established a colony in northern Canada roughly five hundred years prior to
Christopher Columbus’s voyage, it was explorers sailing for Portugal and Spain who traversed the

Atlantic throughout the fifteenth century and ushered in an unprecedented age of exploration and
permanent contact with North America.

Located on the far western edge of Europe, Portugal, with its port city of Lisbon, soon became the
center for merchants desiring to undercut the Venetians’ hold on trade. With a population of about
one million and supported by its ruler Prince Henry, whom historians call “the Navigator,” this
independent kingdom fostered exploration of and trade with western Africa. Skilled shipbuilders and
navigators who took advantage of maps from across Europe, innovative Portuguese sailors used
triangular sails on lighter vessels called caravels that could sail down the African coast.

Just to the east of Portugal, King Ferdinand of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile in 1469,
uniting two of the most powerful independent kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula and laying the
foundation for the modern nation of Spain. Isabella, motivated by strong religious zeal, was
instrumental in beginning the Inquisition in 1480, a brutal campaign to root out Jews and Muslims
who had seemingly converted to Christianity but secretly continued to practice their faith, as well as
other heretics. This powerful couple ruled for the next twenty-five years, centralizing authority and
funding exploration and trade with the East. One of their daughters, Catherine of Aragon, became the
first wife of King Henry VIII of England.

Motives for European Exploration

Historians generally recognize three motives for European exploration—God, glory, and gold.
Particularly in the strongly Catholic nations of Spain and Portugal, religious zeal motivated the rulers
to make converts and retake land from the Muslims. Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal described
his “great desire to make increase in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and to bring him all the souls
that should be saved.”


7. Why might a travel account like the one below have influenced an explorer like


8. What does this tell us about European explorers’ motivations and goals?


Sailors’ tales about fabulous monsters and fantasy literature about exotic worlds filled with gold, silver, and
jewels captured the minds of men who desired to explore these lands and return with untold wealth and the
glory of adventure and discovery. They sparked the imagination of merchants like Marco Polo, who made the
long and dangerous trip to the realm of the great Mongol ruler Kublai Khan in 1271. The story of his trip,

printed in a book entitled Travels, inspired Columbus, who had a copy in his possession during his voyage
more than two hundred years later. Passages such as the following, which describes China’s imperial palace,

are typical of the Travels:
You must know that it is the greatest Palace that ever was. . . . The roof is very lofty, and the walls of the
Palace are all covered with gold and silver. They are also adorned with representations of dragons
[sculptured and gilt], beasts and birds, knights and idols, and sundry other subjects. And on the ceiling too
you see nothing but gold and silver and painting. [On each of the four sides there is a great marble staircase
leading to the top of the marble wall, and forming the approach to the Palace.]

The hall of the Palace is so large that it could easily dine 6,000 people; and it is quite a marvel to see how
many rooms there are besides. The building is altogether so vast, so rich, and so beautiful, that no man on
earth could design anything superior to it. The outside of the roof also is all colored with vermilion and yellow
and green and blue and other hues, which are fixed with a varnish so fine and exquisite that they shine like

crystal, and lend a resplendent lustre to the Palace as seen for a great way round. This roof is made too
with such strength and solidity that it is fit to last forever.

Figure 4. Columbus sailed in three caravels such as these. The Santa Maria, his largest, was only 58 feet long.

The year 1492 witnessed some of the most significant events of Ferdinand and Isabella’s reign. The
couple oversaw the final expulsion of North African Muslims (Moors) from the Kingdom of Granada,
bringing the nearly eight-hundred-year Reconquista to an end. In this same year, they also ordered all
unconverted Jews to leave Spain.

Also in 1492, after six years of lobbying, a Genoese sailor named Christopher Columbus persuaded
the monarchs to fund his expedition to the Far East. Columbus had already pitched his plan to the
rulers of Genoa and Venice without success, so the Spanish monarchy was his last hope. Christian
zeal was the prime motivating factor for Isabella, as she imagined her faith spreading to the East.
Ferdinand, preoccupied with more earthly priorities, hoped to acquire wealth from trade.

Columbus Sets Sail

Most educated individuals at the time knew the earth was round, so Columbus’s plan to reach the
East by sailing west was plausible. Though the calculations of Earth’s circumference made by the
Greek geographer Eratosthenes in the second century BCE were known (and, as we now know,
nearly accurate), most scholars did not believe they were dependable. Thus Columbus would have
no way of knowing when he had traveled far enough around the earth to reach his goal—and in fact,
Columbus greatly underestimated the earth’s circumference.

In August 1492, Columbus set sail with his three small caravels. After a voyage of about three
thousand miles lasting six weeks, he landed on an island in the Bahamas named Guanahani by the
native Lucayans. He promptly christened it San Salvador, the name it bears today.

Religious Upheavals in the Developing Atlantic World


• 9. Explain the changes brought by the Protestant Reformation and how it influenced
the development of the Atlantic World

Until the 1500s, the Catholic Church provided a unifying religious structure for Christian Europe. The
Vatican in Rome exercised great power over the lives of Europeans; it controlled not only learning
and scholarship but also finances, because it levied taxes on the faithful. Spain, with its New World
wealth, was the bastion of the Catholic faith. Beginning with the reform efforts of Martin Luther in
1517 and John Calvin in the 1530s, however, Catholic dominance came under attack as
the Protestant Reformation, a split among European Christians, began.

During the sixteenth century, Protestantism spread through northern Europe, and Catholic countries
responded by attempting to extinguish what was seen as the Protestant menace. Religious turmoil
between Catholics and Protestants influenced the history of the Atlantic World as well, since different
nation-states competed not only for control of new territories but also for the preeminence of their
religious beliefs there. Just as the history of Spain’s rise to power is linked to the Reconquista, so too
is the history of early globalization connected to the history of competing Christian groups in the
Atlantic World.

Figure 1. Martin Luther, a German Catholic monk and leader of the Protestant Reformation, was a close friend of the German

painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach painted this and several other portraits of Luther.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was a German Catholic monk who took issue with the Catholic Church’s practice of
selling indulgences, documents that absolved sinners of their errant behavior. He also objected to
the Catholic Church’s taxation of ordinary Germans and the delivery of Mass in Latin, arguing that it
failed to instruct German Catholics, who did not understand the language.

Many Europeans had called for reforms of the Catholic Church before Martin Luther did, but his
protest had the unintended consequence of splitting European Christianity. Luther compiled a list of
what he viewed as needed Church reforms, a document that came to be known as The Ninety-Five

Theses, and nailed it to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517. He called for the
publication of the Bible in everyday language, took issue with the Church’s policy of imposing tithes (a
required payment to the Church that appeared to enrich the clergy), and denounced the buying and
selling of indulgences. Although he had hoped to reform the Catholic Church while remaining a part of
it, Luther’s action instead triggered a movement called the Protestant Reformation that divided the
Church in two. The Catholic Church condemned him as a heretic, but a doctrine based on his
reforms, called Lutheranism, spread through northern Germany and Scandinavia.

John Calvin

Like Luther, the French lawyer John Calvin advocated making the Bible accessible to ordinary
people; only by reading scripture and reflecting daily about their spiritual condition, he argued, could
believers begin to understand the power of God. In 1535, Calvin fled Catholic France and led the
Reformation movement from Geneva, Switzerland.

Calvinism emphasized human powerlessness before an omniscient God and stressed the idea of
predestination, the belief that God selected a few chosen people for salvation while everyone else
was predestined to damnation. Calvinists believed that reading scripture prepared sinners, if they
were among the elect, to receive God’s grace. In Geneva, Calvin established a Bible commonwealth,
a community of believers whose sole source of authority was their interpretation of the Bible, not the
authority of any prince or monarch. Soon Calvin’s ideas spread to the Netherlands and Scotland.

Protestantism in England

Protestantism spread beyond the German states and Geneva to England, which had been a Catholic
nation for centuries. Luther’s idea that scripture should be available in the everyday language of
worshippers inspired English scholar William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English in 1526. The
seismic break with the Catholic Church in England occurred in the 1530s, when Henry VIII
established a new, Protestant state religion.

A devout Catholic, Henry had initially stood in opposition to the Reformation. Pope Leo X even
awarded him the title “Defender of the Faith.” The tides turned, however, when Henry desired a male
heir to the Tudor monarchy. When his Spanish Catholic wife, Catherine (the daughter of Ferdinand
and Isabella), did not give birth to a boy, the king sought an annulment to their marriage. When the
Pope refused his request, Henry created a new national Protestant church, the Church of England,
with himself at its head. This left him free to annul his own marriage and marry Anne Boleyn.

Anne Boleyn also failed to produce a male heir, and when she was accused of adultery, Henry had
her executed. His third wife, Jane Seymour, at long last delivered a son, Edward, who ruled for only a
short time before dying in 1553 at the age of fifteen. Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII and his
discarded first wife Catherine, then came to the throne, committed to restoring Catholicism. She
earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” for the many executions of Protestants, often by burning alive,
that she ordered during her reign.

Figure 2. This portrait of Elizabeth I of England, painted by George Gower in about 1588, shows Elizabeth with her hand on a

globe, signifying her power over the world. The pictures in the background show the English defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Religious turbulence in England was finally quieted when Elizabeth, the Protestant daughter of Henry
VIII and Anne Boleyn, ascended the throne in 1558. Under Elizabeth, the Church of England again
became the state church, retaining the hierarchical structure and many of the rituals of the Catholic
Church. However, by the late 1500s, some English members of the Church began to agitate for more
reform. Known as Puritans, they worked to erase all vestiges of Catholicism from the Church of
England. At the time, the term “puritan” was a pejorative one; many people saw Puritans as holier-
than-thou frauds who used religion to swindle their neighbors. Worse still, many in power saw
Puritans as a security threat because of their opposition to the national church.

Under Elizabeth, whose long reign lasted from 1558 to 1603, Puritans grew steadily in number. After
James I died in 1625 and his son Charles I ascended the throne, Puritans became the target of
increasing state pressure to conform. Many crossed the Atlantic in the 1620s and 1630s instead to
create a New England, a haven for reformed Protestantism where Puritan was no longer a term of
abuse. Thus, the religious upheavals that affected England so much had equally momentous
consequences for the Americas.

Religious War

By the early 1500s, the Protestant Reformation threatened the massive Spanish Catholic empire. As
the preeminent Catholic power, Spain would not tolerate any challenge to the Holy Catholic Church.
Over the course of the 1500s, it devoted vast amounts of treasure and labor to leading an
unsuccessful effort to eradicate Protestantism in Europe.

Figure 3. Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1772-84), by François Dubois, shows the horrific violence of the St. Bartholomew’s

Day Massacre. In this scene, French Catholic troops slaughter French Protestant Calvinists.

Spain’s main enemies at this time were the runaway Spanish provinces of the North Netherlands. By
1581, these seven northern provinces had declared their independence from Spain and created the
Dutch Republic, also called Holland, where Protestantism was tolerated. Determined to deal a death
blow to Protestantism in England and Holland, King Philip of Spain assembled a massive force of
over thirty thousand men and 130 ships, and in 1588 he sent this navy, the Spanish Armada, north.
But English sea power combined with a maritime storm destroyed the fleet.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was but one part of a larger but undeclared war between
Protestant England and Catholic Spain. Between 1585 and 1604, the two rivals sparred repeatedly.
England launched its own armada in 1589 in an effort to cripple the Spanish fleet and capture
Spanish treasure. However, the foray ended in disaster for the English, with storms, disease, and the
strength of the Spanish Armada combining to bring about defeat.

The conflict between Spain and England dragged on into the early seventeenth century, and the
newly Protestant nations, especially England and the Dutch Republic, posed a significant challenge to
Spain (and also to Catholic France) as imperial rivalries played out in the Atlantic World. Spain
retained its mighty American empire, but by the early 1600s, the nation could no longer keep England
and other European rivals—the French and Dutch—from colonizing smaller islands in the Caribbean.

Religious intolerance characterized the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, an age of powerful state
religions with the authority to impose and enforce belief systems on the population. In this climate,
religious violence was common. One of the most striking examples is the St. Bartholomew’s Day
Massacre of 1572, in which French Catholic troops, first in Paris and later in the countryside, began to
kill unarmed French Protestants. The murders touched off mob violence that ultimately claimed nine
thousand lives, a bloody episode that highlights the degree of religious turmoil that gripped Europe in
the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation.

West Africa and the Beginnings of the Slave Trade


• 10. Explain the beginnings of racial slavery leading to the Atlantic slave trade

It is difficult to generalize West Africa. This geographical unit, central to the rise of the Atlantic World,
stretches from modern-day Mauritania to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and encompasses
lush rainforests along the equator, savannas on either side of the forest, and much drier land to the
north. Until about 600 CE, most Africans were hunter-gatherers. Where water was too scarce for
farming, herders maintained sheep, goats, cattle, or camels. In the more heavily wooded area near
the equator, farmers raised yams, palm products, or plantains. The savanna areas, however,
provided additional variety by yielding rice, millet, and sorghum. Sub-Saharan Africans had little
experience in maritime matters. Most of the population lived away from the coast, which is connected
to the interior by five main rivers—the Senegal, Gambia, Niger, Volta, and Congo.

Although there were large trading centers along these rivers, most West Africans lived in small
villages and identified with their extended family or their clan. Wives, children, and dependents
(including slaves) were a sign of wealth among men, and polygyny, the practice of having more than
one wife at a time, was widespread. In time of need, relatives, however far away, were counted upon
to assist in supplying food or security. Because of the clannish nature of African society, “we” was
associated with the village and family members, while “they” included everyone else. Hundreds of
separate dialects emerged; in modern Nigeria, nearly five hundred are still spoken.

The Major African Empires

Following the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, Islam continued to spread quickly across
North Africa, bringing not only a unifying faith but a political and legal structure as well. As lands fell
under the control of Muslim armies, they instituted Islamic rule and legal structures as local chieftains
converted, usually under penalty of death. Only those who had converted to Islam could rule or be
engaged in trade. The first major empire to emerge in West Africa was the Ghana Empire. By 750,
the Soninke farmers of the sub-Sahara had become wealthy by taxing the trade that passed through
their area. For instance, the Niger River basin supplied gold to the Berber and Arab traders from west
of the Nile Valley, who brought cloth, weapons, and manufactured goods into the interior. Huge
Saharan salt mines supplied the life-sustaining mineral to the Mediterranean coast of Africa and
inland areas. By 900, the monotheistic Muslims controlled most of this trade and had converted many
of the African ruling elite. The majority of the population, however, maintained their tribal animistic
practices, which gave living attributes to nonliving objects such as mountains, rivers, and wind.
Because Ghana’s king controlled the gold supply, he was able to maintain price controls and afford a
strong military. Soon, however, a new kingdom emerged.

Figure 1. This map shows the locations of the major West African empires before 1492. Along the Mediterranean coast, Muslim

states prevailed.

By 1200 CE, under the leadership of Sundiata Keita, Mali had replaced Ghana as the leading state in
West Africa. After Sundiata’s rule, the court converted to Islam, and Muslim scribes played a large
part in administration and government. Miners then discovered huge new deposits of gold east of the
Niger River. By the fourteenth century, the empire was so wealthy that while on a hajj, or pilgrimage
to the holy city of Mecca, Mali’s ruler Mansu Musa gave away enough gold to create serious price
inflation in the cities along his route. Timbuktu, the capital city, became a leading Islamic center for
education, commerce, and the slave trade. Meanwhile, in the east, the city of Gao became
increasingly strong under the leadership of Sonni Ali and soon eclipsed Mali’s power. Timbuktu
sought Ali’s assistance in repelling the Tuaregs from the north. By 1500, however, the Tuareg empire
of Songhay had eclipsed Mali, where weak and ineffective leadership prevailed.


Figure 2. Traders with a group of enslaved people. Note how the enslaved people are connected at the neck. Muslim traders

brought enslaved persons to the North African coast, where they might be sent to Europe or other parts of Africa.

The institution of slavery is not a recent phenomenon. Most civilizations have practiced some form of
human bondage and servitude, and African empires were no different. Famine or fear of stronger
enemies might force one tribe to ask another for help and give themselves in a type of bondage in
exchange. Similar to the European serf system, those seeking protection, or relief from starvation,
would become the servants of those who provided relief. Debt might also be worked off through a
form of servitude. Typically, these servants became a part of the extended tribal family. There is
some evidence of chattel slavery, in which people are treated as personal property to be bought and
sold, in the Nile Valley. It appears there was a slave-trade route through the Sahara that brought sub-
Saharan Africans to Rome, which had enslaved people from all over the world.

Arab slave trading, which exchanged enslaved people for goods from the Mediterranean, existed long
before Islam’s spread across North Africa. Muslims later expanded this trade and enslaved not only
Africans but also Europeans, especially from Spain, Sicily, and Italy. Male captives were forced to
build coastal fortifications and serve as galley slaves. Women were added to the harem.

The major European slave trade began with Portugal’s exploration of the west coast of Africa in
search of a trade route to the East. By 1444, enslaved workers were being brought from Africa to
work on the sugar plantations of the Madeira Islands, off the coast of modern Morocco. The slave
trade then expanded greatly as European colonies in the New World demanded an ever-increasing
number of workers for the extensive plantations growing tobacco, sugar, and eventually rice and

Figure 3. This map shows the routes that were used in the course of the slave trade and the number of enslaved people who

traveled each route. As the figures indicate, most of the enslaved Africans were bound for Brazil and the Caribbean. While West

Africans made up the vast majority of the enslaved, the east coast of Africa, too, supplied captives for the trade.

In the New World, the institution of slavery assumed a new aspect when the mercantilist system
demanded a permanent, identifiable, and plentiful labor supply. Enslaved Africans were both easily
identified (by their skin color) and plentiful, because of the thriving slave trade. This led to a race-
based slavery system in the New World, unlike any bondage system that had come before. Initially,
the Spanish tried to force Indians to farm their crops. Most Spanish and Portuguese settlers coming
to the New World were gentlemen and did not perform physical labor. They came to “serve God, but
also to get rich,” as noted by Bernal Díaz del Castillo. However, enslaved natives tended to sicken or
die from disease or from the overwork and cruel treatment they were subjected to, and so the
indigenous peoples proved not to be a dependable source of labor. Although he later repented of his
ideas, the great defender of the Indians, Bartolomé de Las Casas, seeing the near extinction of the
native population, suggested the Spanish send Black (and White) laborers to the Indies. These
workers proved hardier, and within fifty years, a change took place: the profitability of the African
slave trade, coupled with the seemingly limitless number of potential slaves and the Catholic Church’s
denunciation of the enslavement of Christians, led race to become a dominant factor in the institution
of slavery.

In the English colonies along the Atlantic coast, indentured servants initially filled the need for labor in
the North, where family farms were the norm. In the South, however, labor-intensive crops such as
tobacco, rice, and indigo prevailed, and eventually, the supply of indentured servants was insufficient
to meet the demand. These workers served only for periods of three to seven years before being
freed; a more permanent labor supply was needed. Thus in Africa permanent, inherited slavery was
unknown, and children of those bound in slavery to the tribe usually were free and intermarried with


their captors. This changed in the Americas, where slavery became permanent, and children born to
enslaved people became enslaved themselves. This development, along with slavery’s identification
with race, forever changed the institution and shaped its unique character in the New World.

The Beginnings of Racial Slavery

Slavery has a long history. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle posited that some peoples
were homunculi, or humanlike but not really people—for instance, if they did not speak Greek. Both
the Bible and the Koran permit slavery. Vikings who raided from Ireland to Russia brought back
enslaved people of all nationalities. During the Middle Ages, traders from the interior of Africa brought
enslaved people along well-established routes to sell them along the Mediterranean coast. Initially,
enslavers also brought European enslaved workers to the Caribbean. Many of these were orphaned
or homeless children captured in the cities of Ireland. The question is, when did slavery become
based on race? This appears to have developed in the New World, with the introduction of gruelingly
labor-intensive crops such as sugar and coffee. Unable to fill their growing need from the ranks of
prisoners or indentured servants, the European colonists turned to African laborers. The Portuguese,
although seeking a trade route to India, also set up forts along the West African coast for the purpose
of exporting enslaved laborers to Europe. Historians believe that by the year 1500, ten percent of the
population of Lisbon and Seville consisted of Black enslaved people. Because of the influence of the
Catholic Church, which frowned on the enslavement of Christians, European slave traders expanded
their reach down the coast of Africa.

When Europeans settled Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America, they thus established a system of
racially based slavery. Here, the need for a massive labor force was greater than in western Europe.
The land was ripe for growing tobacco, sugar, coffee, rice, and ultimately cotton. To fulfill the ever-
growing demand for these crops, large plantations were created. The success of these plantations
depended upon the availability of a permanent, plentiful, identifiable, and skilled labor supply. As
Africans were already familiar with animal husbandry as well as farming, had an identifying skin color,
and could be readily supplied by the existing African slave trade, they proved the answer to this need.
This process set the stage for the expansion of New World slavery into North America.

Introduction to Early European Expansion

Figure 1. After Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World, he sent letters home to Spain describing the wonders he

beheld. These letters were quickly circulated throughout Europe and translated into Italian, German, and Latin. This woodcut is

from the first Italian verse translation of the letter Columbus sent to the Spanish court after his first voyage, Lettera delle isole

nuovamente trovata by Giuliano Dati.

Portuguese colonization of Atlantic islands in the 1400s inaugurated an era of aggressive European
expansion across the Atlantic. In the 1500s, Spain surpassed Portugal as the dominant European
power. This age of exploration and the subsequent creation of an Atlantic World marked the earliest
phase of globalization, in which previously isolated groups—Africans, Native Americans, and
Europeans—first came into contact with each other, sometimes with disastrous results.

The story of the Atlantic World is the story of global migration, a migration driven in large part by the
actions and aspirations of the ruling heads of Europe. Columbus is hardly visible in this illustration of
his ships making landfall on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Instead, Ferdinand II of Spain (in the
foreground) sits on his throne and points toward Columbus’s landing. As the ships arrive, the Arawak
people tower over the Spanish, suggesting the native population density of the islands.

This historic moment in 1492 sparked new rivalries among European powers as they scrambled to
create New World colonies, fueled by the quest for wealth and power as well as by religious passions.
Almost continuous war resulted. Spain achieved early preeminence, creating a far-flung empire and
growing rich with treasures from the Americas. Native Americans who confronted the newcomers
from Europe suffered unprecedented losses of life, however, as previously unknown diseases sliced
through their populations. They also were victims of the arrogance of the Europeans, who viewed
themselves as uncontested masters of the New World, sent by God to bring Christianity to the
“Indians.” The Spanish enslaved Native Americans, forcing them to bring whatever gold could be
found to fill Spanish coffers.

Portuguese Exploration


• 11. Describe Portuguese exploration of the Atlantic and the importance of these
voyages to the developing Atlantic World

Portuguese Exploration

Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator spearheaded his country’s exploration of Africa and the Atlantic
in the 1400s. With his support, Portuguese mariners successfully navigated an eastward route to
Africa, establishing a foothold that became a foundation of their nation’s trade empire in the fifteenth
and sixteenth centuries.

Portuguese mariners built an Atlantic empire by colonizing the Canary, Cape Verde, and Azores
Islands, as well as the island of Madeira. Merchants then used these Atlantic outposts as departure
points for subsequent journeys. From these strategic ports, Portugal spread its empire down the
western coast of Africa to the Congo, along the western coast of India, and eventually to Brazil on the
eastern coast of South America. It also established trading posts in China and Japan. While the
Portuguese didn’t rule over an immense landmass, their strategic holdings of islands and coastal
ports gave them almost unrivaled control of nautical trade routes and a global empire of trading posts
during the 1400s.

Figure 1. Elmina Castle on the west coast of Ghana was used as a holding pen for enslaved people before they were brought

across the Atlantic and sold. Originally built by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century, it appears in this image as it was in the

1660s, after being seized by Dutch slave traders in 1637.

The travels of Portuguese traders to western Africa introduced them to the African slave trade,
already brisk among African states. Seeing the value of this source of labor in growing the profitable
crop of sugar on their Atlantic islands, the Portuguese soon began exporting African slaves along with
African ivory and gold. Sugar fueled the Atlantic slave trade, and the Portuguese islands quickly
became home to sugar plantations. The Portuguese also traded enslaved people, introducing human
capital to other European nations. In the following years, as European exploration spread, slavery
spread as well. In time, much of the Atlantic World would become a gargantuan sugar-plantation
complex in which Africans labored to produce the highly profitable commodity for European

Elmina Castle

In 1482, Portuguese traders built Elmina Castle (also called São Jorge da Mina, or Saint George’s of
the Mine) in present-day Ghana, on the west coast of Africa. A fortified trading post, it had mounted
cannons facing out to sea, not inland toward continental Africa; the Portuguese had greater fear of a
naval attack from other Europeans than of a land attack from Africans. Portuguese traders soon
began to settle around the fort and established the town of Elmina.

Although the Portuguese originally used the fort primarily for trading gold, by the sixteenth century
they had shifted their focus. The dungeon of the fort eventually served as a holding pen for enslaved
Africans from the interior of the continent, while on the upper floors Portuguese traders ate, slept, and
prayed in a chapel. These enslaved workers lived in the dungeon for weeks or months until ships
arrived to transport them to Europe or the Americas. For them, the dungeon of Elmina was their last
sight of their home country.

Spanish Conquest


• 12. Describe the journeys, discoveries, and controversies surrounding prominent
Spanish explorers

• 13. Describe the expansion of Spain’s empire and the development of Spanish
Renaissance culture

• 14. Explain the consequences of the cultural collision among the Spanish and the

Spanish Exploration and Conquest

The Spanish established the first European settlements in the Americas, beginning in the Caribbean
and, by 1600, extending throughout Central and South America. Thousands of Spaniards flocked to
the Americas seeking wealth and status. The most famous of these Spanish adventurers are
Christopher Columbus (who, though Italian himself, explored on behalf of the Spanish monarchs),
Hernán Cortés, and Francisco Pizarro.

The history of Spanish exploration begins with the history of Spain itself. During the fifteenth century,
Spain hoped to gain advantage over its rival, Portugal. The marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and
Isabella of Castile in 1469 unified Catholic Spain and began the process of building a nation that
could compete for worldwide power. Since the 700s, much of Spain had been under Islamic rule, and
King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, arch-defenders of the Catholic Church against Islam, were
determined to defeat the Muslims in Granada, the last Islamic stronghold in Spain. In 1492, they
completed the Reconquista, the centuries-long Christian conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The
Reconquista marked another step forward in the process of making Spain an imperial power, and
Ferdinand and Isabella were now ready to look further afield.

Christopher Columbus

Ferdinand and Isabella’s goals were to expand Catholicism and to gain a commercial advantage over
Portugal. To those ends, Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored extensive Atlantic exploration. Spain’s
most famous explorer, Christopher Columbus, was actually from Genoa, Italy. He believed that by
using calculations based on other mariners’ journeys, he could chart a westward route to India, which
could be used to expand European trade and spread Christianity. Starting in 1485, he approached
Genoese, Venetian, Portuguese, English, and Spanish monarchs, asking for ships and funding to
explore this westward route. All those he petitioned—including Ferdinand and Isabella at first—
refused him; their nautical experts all concurred that Columbus’s estimates of the width of the Atlantic
Ocean were far too low. However, after three years of entreaties, and, more important, the completion
of the Reconquista, Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to finance Columbus’s expedition in 1492,
supplying him with three ships: the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. The Spanish monarchs
knew that Portuguese mariners had reached the southern tip of Africa and sailed the Indian Ocean.
They understood that the Portuguese would soon reach Asia and, in this competitive race to reach
the Far East, the Spanish rulers decided to act.

Figure 1. This sixteenth-century map shows the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic). Note the various

fanciful elements, such as the large-scale ships and sea creatures, and consider what the creator of this map hoped to convey. In

addition to navigation, what purpose would such a map have served?

Columbus held inaccurate views that shaped his thinking about what he would encounter as he sailed
west. He believed the earth to be much smaller than its actual size and, since he did not know of the
existence of the Americas, he fully expected to land in Asia. On October 12, 1492, however, he made
landfall on an island in the Bahamas. He then sailed to an island he named Hispaniola (present-day
Dominican Republic and Haiti). Believing he had landed in the East Indies, Columbus called the
native Taínos he found there “Indios,” giving rise to the term “Indian” for any native people of the New
World. Upon Columbus’s return to Spain, the Spanish crown bestowed on him the title of Admiral of
the Ocean Sea and named him governor and viceroy of the lands he had discovered. As a devoted
Catholic, Columbus had agreed with Ferdinand and Isabella prior to sailing west that part of the
expected wealth from his voyage would be used to continue the fight against Islam.

Probanza de Mérito

Columbus’s 1493 letter—or probanza de mérito (proof of merit)—describing his “discovery” of a New
World did much to inspire excitement in Europe. Probanzas de méritos were reports and letters
written by Spaniards in the New World to the Spanish crown, designed to win royal patronage. Today
they highlight the difficult task of historical work. While the letters are primary sources, historians need
to understand the context and the culture in which the conquistadors, as the Spanish adventurers
came to be called, wrote them and distinguish their bias and subjective nature. While they are filled
with distortions and fabrications, probanzas de méritos are still useful in illustrating the expectation of
wealth among the explorers as well as their view that native peoples would not pose a serious
obstacle to colonization.

In 1493, Columbus sent two copies of a probanza de mérito to the Spanish king and queen and their
minister of finance, Luis de Santángel. Santángel had supported Columbus’s voyage, helping him to
obtain funding from Ferdinand and Isabella. Copies of the letter were soon circulating all over Europe,
spreading news of the wondrous new land that Columbus had “discovered.” Columbus would make
three more voyages over the next decade, establishing Spain’s first settlement in the New World on
the island of Hispaniola. Many other Europeans followed in Columbus’s footsteps, drawn by dreams
of winning wealth by sailing west.


The exploits of the most famous Spanish explorers have provided Western civilization with a narrative of
European supremacy and Indian savagery. However, these stories are based on the self-aggrandizing efforts

of conquistadors to secure royal favor through the writing of probanzas de méritos (proofs of merit). Below
are excerpts from Columbus’s 1493 letter to Luis de Santángel, which illustrates how fantastic reports from
European explorers gave rise to many myths surrounding the Spanish conquest and the New World.

This island, like all the others, is most extensive. It has many ports along the sea-coast excelling any in Christendom—and many

fine, large, flowing rivers. The land there is elevated, with many mountains and peaks incomparably higher than in the centre isle.

They are most beautiful, of a thousand varied forms, accessible, and full of trees of endless varieties, so high that they seem to

touch the sky, and I have been told that they never lose their foliage. . . . There is honey, and there are many kinds of birds, and

a great variety of fruits. Inland there are numerous mines of metals and innumerable people. Hispaniola is a marvel. Its hills and

mountains, fine plains and open country, are rich and fertile for planting and for pasturage, and for building towns and villages.

The seaports there are incredibly fine, as also the magnificent rivers, most of which bear gold. The trees, fruits and grasses differ

widely from those in Juana. There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals in this island. They have no iron, nor

steel, nor weapons, nor are they fit for them, because although they are well-made men of commanding stature, they appear

extraordinarily timid. The only arms they have are sticks of cane, cut when in seed, with a sharpened stick at the end, and they

are afraid to use these. Often I have sent two or three men ashore to some town to converse with them, and the natives came out

in great numbers, and as soon as they saw our men arrive, fled without a moment’s delay although I protected them from all injury.

Interest in the New World

Another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, sailing for the Portuguese crown, explored the South American
coastline between 1499 and 1502. Unlike Columbus, he realized that the Americas were not part of
Asia but lands unknown to Europeans. Vespucci’s widely published accounts of his voyages fueled
speculation and intense interest in the New World among Europeans. Among those who read
Vespucci’s reports was the German mapmaker Martin Waldseemuller. Using the explorer’s first name
as a label for the new landmass, Waldseemuller attached “America” to his map of the New World in
1507, and the name stuck.

The 1492 Columbus landfall accelerated the rivalry between Spain and Portugal, and the two powers
vied for domination through the acquisition of new lands. In the 1480s, Pope Sixtus IV had granted
Portugal the right to all land south of the Cape Verde islands, leading the Portuguese king to claim
that the lands discovered by Columbus belonged to Portugal, not Spain. Seeking to ensure that
Columbus’s finds would remain Spanish, Spain’s monarchs turned to the Spanish-born Pope
Alexander VI, who issued two papal decrees in 1493 that gave legitimacy to Spain’s Atlantic claims at
the expense of Portugal. Hoping to salvage Portugal’s Atlantic holdings, King João II began
negotiations with Spain. The resulting Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 drew a north-to-south line through
South America; Spain gained territory west of the line, while Portugal retained the lands east of the
line, including the east coast of Brazil.

Figure 2. This 1502 map, known as the Cantino World Map, depicts the cartographer’s interpretation of the world in light of recent

discoveries. The map shows areas of Portuguese and Spanish exploration, the two nations’ claims under the Treaty of Tordesillas,

and a variety of flora, fauna, figures, and structures. What does it reveal about the state of geographical knowledge, as well as

European perceptions of the New World, at the beginning of the sixteenth century?

Cortés and Aztec Conquest

Columbus’s discovery opened a floodgate of Spanish exploration. Inspired by tales of rivers of gold
and timid, malleable natives, later Spanish explorers were relentless in their quest for land and gold.
Hernán Cortés hoped to gain hereditary privilege for his family, tribute payments and labor from
natives, and an annual pension for his service to the crown. Cortés arrived on Hispaniola in 1504 and
took part in the conquest of that island. In anticipation of winning his own honor and riches, Cortés
later explored the Yucatán Peninsula. In 1519, he entered Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec
(Mexica) Empire. He and his men were astonished by the incredibly sophisticated causeways,
gardens, and temples in the city, but they were horrified by the practice of human sacrifice that was
part of the Aztec religion. Above all else, the Aztec wealth in gold fascinated the Spanish adventurers.

Hoping to gain power over the city, Cortés took Moctezuma, the Aztec ruler, hostage. The Spanish
then murdered hundreds of high-ranking Mexica during a festival to celebrate Huitzilopochtli, the god
of war. This angered the people of Tenochtitlán, who rose up against the intruders in their city. Cortés
and his people fled for their lives, running down one of Tenochtitlán’s causeways to safety on the
shore. Smarting from their defeat at the hands of the Aztec, Cortés slowly created alliances with
native peoples who resented Aztec rule. It took nearly a year for the Spanish and the tens of
thousands of native allies who joined them to defeat the Mexica in Tenochtitlán, which they did by
laying siege to the city. Only by playing upon the disunity among the diverse groups in the Aztec
Empire were the Spanish able to capture the grand city of Tenochtitlán. In August 1521, having
successfully provoked civil war as well as fended off rival Spanish explorers, Cortés claimed
Tenochtitlán for Spain and renamed it Mexico City.

Conflict in Mexico

The traditional European narrative of exploration presents the victory of the Spanish over the Aztec
as an example of the “superiority of the Europeans over the savage Indians.” However, the reality is

far more complex. When Cortés explored central Mexico, he encountered a region simmering with
native conflict. Far from being unified and content under Aztec rule, many peoples in Mexico resented
it and were ready to rebel. One group in particular, the Tlaxcalan, threw their lot in with the Spanish,
providing as many as 200,000 fighters in the siege of Tenochtitlán. The Spanish also brought
smallpox into the valley of Mexico. The disease took a heavy toll on the people in Tenochtitlán,
playing a much greater role in the city’s demise than did Spanish force of arms.

Cortés was also aided by a Nahua woman called Malintzin (also known as La Malinche or Doña
Marina, her Spanish name), whom the natives of Tabasco gave him as tribute. Malintzin translated for
Cortés in his dealings with Moctezuma and, whether willingly or under pressure, entered into a
physical relationship with him. Their son, Martín, may have been the first mestizo (person of mixed
indigenous American and European descent). Malintzin remains a controversial figure in the history of
the Atlantic World; some people view her as a traitor because she helped Cortés conquer the Aztecs,
while others see her as a victim of European expansion. In either case, she demonstrates one way in
which native peoples responded to the arrival of the Spanish. Without her, Cortés would not have
been able to communicate, and without her translating help, he surely would have been less
successful in destabilizing the Aztec Empire. By this and other means, native people helped shape
the conquest of the Americas.

Pizarro, De Soto, and Coronado

Spain’s acquisitiveness seemingly knew no bounds as groups of its explorers searched for the next
trove of instant riches. One such explorer, Francisco Pizarro, made his way to the Spanish Caribbean
in 1509, drawn by the promise of wealth and titles. He participated in successful expeditions in
Panama before following rumors of Inca wealth to the south. Although his first efforts against the Inca
Empire in the 1520s failed, Pizarro captured the Inca emperor Atahualpa in 1532 and executed him
one year later. In 1533, Pizarro founded Lima, Peru. Like Cortés, Pizarro had to combat not only the
natives of the new worlds he was conquering, but also competitors from his own country; a Spanish
rival assassinated him in 1541.

Spain’s drive to enlarge its empire led other hopeful conquistadors to push further into the Americas,
hoping to replicate the success of Cortés and Pizarro. Hernando de Soto had participated in Pizarro’s
conquest of the Inca, and from 1539 to 1542 he led expeditions to what is today the southeastern
United States, looking for gold. He and his followers explored what is now Florida, Georgia, the
Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Texas.
Everywhere they traveled, they brought European diseases, which claimed thousands of native lives
as well as the lives of the explorers. In 1542, de Soto himself died during the expedition. The
surviving Spaniards, numbering a little over three hundred, returned to Mexico City without finding the
much-anticipated mountains of gold and silver.

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was born into a noble family and went to Mexico, then called New
Spain, in 1535. He presided as governor over the province of Nueva Galicia, where he heard rumors
of wealth to the north: a golden city called Quivira. Between 1540 and 1542, Coronado led a large
expedition of Spaniards and native allies to the lands north of Mexico City, and for the next several
years, they explored the area that is now the southwestern United States. During the winter of 1540–
41, the explorers waged war against the Tiwa in present-day New Mexico. Rather than leading to the
discovery of gold and silver, however, the expedition simply left Coronado bankrupt.

Figure 3. This map traces Coronado’s path through the American Southwest and the Great Plains. The regions through which he

traveled were not empty areas waiting to be “discovered”: rather, they were populated and controlled by the groups of native

peoples indicated. (credit: modification of work by National Park Service)

Figure 4. Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), painted by Diego Velázquez in 1656, is unique for its time because it places the

viewer in the place of King Philip IV and his wife, Queen Mariana.

The Spanish Golden Age

The exploits of European explorers had a profound impact both in the Americas and back in Europe.
An exchange of ideas, fueled and financed in part by New World commodities, began to connect
European nations and, in turn, to touch the parts of the world that Europeans conquered. In Spain,
gold and silver from the Americas helped to fuel a golden age, the Siglo de Oro, when Spanish art
and literature flourished. Riches poured in from the colonies, and new ideas poured in from other
countries and new lands. The Hapsburg dynasty, which ruled a collection of territories including
Austria, the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily, and Spain, encouraged and financed the work of painters,
sculptors, musicians, architects, and writers, resulting in a blooming of Spanish Renaissance culture.

One of this period’s most famous works is the novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La
Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes. This two-volume book (1605 and 1618) told a colorful tale of
an hidalgo (gentleman) who reads so many tales of chivalry and knighthood that he becomes unable
to tell reality from fiction. With his faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, Don Quixote leaves reality behind
and sets out to revive chivalry by doing battle with what he perceives as the enemies of Spain.

Spain attracted innovative foreign painters such as El Greco, a Greek who had studied with Italian
Renaissance masters like Titian and Michelangelo before moving to Toledo. Native Spaniards
created equally enduring works. Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), painted by Diego Velázquez in
1656, is one of the best-known paintings in history. Velázquez painted himself into this imposingly
large royal portrait (he’s shown holding his brush and easel on the left) and boldly placed the viewer
where the king and queen would stand in the scene.

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