Investigative Question

Who moved to and settled in North America? Why did they choose to live where they did?

Students can begin their studies of North America by examining these questions: Who moved to and settled in North America? Why did they choose to live where they did? A brief overview of French and Spanish colonization in the New World introduces students to the different groups of people who met on the North American continent. Unlike British colonies populated by colonists who made money primarily through agriculture, Spanish and French colonies were, in general, more transient, less focused on profiting from agricultural commodities, and more focused on extracting mineral wealth and hides. These different purposes for the colonies affected the administration and settlement of the British, French, and Spanish colonies. This unit emphasizes the English colonies, where the settlers and colonists shaped the economic and political values and institutions of the new nation. Students chronicle and evaluate how the British colonial period created the basis for the development of political self-government and a market-oriented economic system.

Sustained encounters between the peoples of the Americas and Europe began with the voyage of Columbus in 1492. Beginning with Spain, various European powers tried to incorporate large numbers of the peoples of the Americas and large sections of their lands into the European imperial domains. These encounters had a number of significant effects.

First, the millions of people who lived in the Americas were decimated by (a) diseases to which they had no immunities; (b) oppressive treatment as they were forced, by people who invaded their lands with technologically superior weaponry, to work at various tasks, including the extraction of precious metals and the growth of crops that were in demand in Europe; and (c) enforced removal from their ancestral lands.

Second, the European powers erected various colonial empires. Spain began empire building in the Caribbean in the 1490s, in what is now Mexico in the 1520s, and in the lands that would become part of the United States in New Mexico (1607), Texas (late 1600s) and California (mid-1700s). France set up its own empire in what is now Canada in the early 1600s. England established a series of colonies along the Atlantic coast, between areas claimed by France in the north and Spain in the south, beginning in the Chesapeake Bay region (Jamestown) in 1607 and in what is now New England, at Plymouth (1620) and Boston (1630). Overall, England established 13 separate colonies along the Atlantic Coast, culminating in the establishment of Georgia in 1733.

Third, the demand for labor in the Americas, especially agricultural labor on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and Brazil, led to development of the African slave trade. The first Africans forcibly removed from their homelands were taken to Europe by Portuguese traders in the 1400s. As labor-intensive agriculture in sugar and, later, tobacco and rice developed in parts of the Americas, laborers from Africa were purchased by Europeans from African slave traders and were forcibly removed to the Americas. The slave trade lasted for more than three centuries, and slavery became an integral part of many American economies in North and South America.

The British colonies were founded for a number of different reasons. Virginia was founded by a commercial group interested in obtaining wealth. After a period of trial and error, it was discovered that a strain of tobacco prized in Europe could grow in Virginia's soil, and Virginia became a slave economy devoted to the production of tobacco. New England was founded mostly by religious dissenters who hoped to make their colony a "city on a hill" in which true religion would be practiced. The Dutch established several posts engaged in the fur trade along the Hudson River; the headquarters of their network was New Amsterdam, at the mouth of that river. William Penn established a Quaker colony between New York and Virginia as a place in which his coreligionists could safely worship. Penn, as opposed to most other British colonists, tried to respect Indian rights to the land and purchased parts of it from them.

The Spanish colonies in what later became the United States were established for a mix of religious and economic reasons. The national identity of early modern Spain was based on the reconquista, the expulsion of Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula, a struggle that continued from the 700s until 1492. Because Spain's conception of itself had an important religious dimension, the conversion of the indigenous peoples of the Americas became an integral part of the Spanish colonization process. Mission chains were established in New Mexico, Texas, and California. When the Mexican government abolished the mission system in the 1830s, much of the land that had been controlled by the missions was broken up into ranchos, generally controlled by the leading colonial families.

This set offers primary source material relating to the daily life of the peoples who lived in the Americas. Some of those people were on slave ships or working as slaves on plantations. Some were Native people struggling to make sense of their dramatically changed environment. Some were Dutch traders who were dependent upon the goodwill of the Native people for the success of the fur trade, while at the same time they were aware that they were interlopers on the lands of others and fearful of retaliation from the Native people. Some were children who were being taught what it meant to live as British colonists in this "new world." Some were multicultural immigrants from Mexico who were attempting to forge a new life on what was the extreme and isolated northern frontier of New Spain. The primary source material gives an indication of the tremendous variety of peoples and experiences that constituted the colonial Americas.

As a reminder, the inquiry question assumes there was choice in how North America was populated during colonization. For the colonizers,whether for economic gain, religious freedom, or other reasons “pulling” their migration, they moved freely by personal design. For the majority of Africans, slave traders forcibly transported them to the Americas as uncompensated laborers. As the term suggests, the “enslaved” did not have a choice in their movement. This source set sets the stage for how people came together. This context will help students understand why colonial North America was a violent mix of people who fought over land, natural resources, and the right to freedom (over the course of the year). Colonialism in North America involved both depopulating the Native peoples and bending them to the will of the colonizers, while at the same time populating the continent with unfree labor and fellow colonists.

The student handout is designed to guide students through their analysis of the primary sources. First, they are asked to defend why each document (visual or text) is a primary source as it relates to the question (column A). This is purposeful as some sources were created after the historical moment. ​(Note: Some sources can be both primary and secondary sources, based on the question historians are studying. For example, a second-grade social studies textbook from 1972 could be considered a secondary source (because it was written by people without first-hand knowledge of an event or time period) and a primary source (if the question historians were asking was What did social studies education in the 1970s look like?)

5.4 The People of Colonial North America - Student Handout

5.4 The People of Colonial North America - Teacher Key

The inquiry question assumes there was choice in how North America was populated during colonization. The colonizers — whether for economic gain, religious freedom, or other reasons “pulling” their migration, — moved freely by personal design. For the majority of Africans, slave traders forcibly transported them to the Americas as uncompensated laborers. As the term suggests, the “enslaved” did not have a choice in their movement, and this is a critical point that teachers should clarify for their students. This point is addressed in the literacy activity. Colonialism in North America involved both depopulating the Native peoples and bending them to the will of the colonizers, while at the same time populating the continent with unfree labor and fellow colonists.

In addition, the discussion of the relationship between African slaves along the East Coast and indigenous people in the Spanish and Mexican areas of the Southwest, including California, needs to be handled very carefully. Many historians find the chattel slavery of Africans along the East Coast to be dissimilar to the coerced labor of indigenous people in the Spanish areas. However, many indigenous people in California, especially, use the word slavery​ to describe the coercion that was used on the Native people in the missions. The issue does concern some scholars who think that calling both situations slavery tends to disregard what they see as the unique nature of slavery along the East Coast and the African slave trade in general.

Teachers and parents may also have concerns about Source 4 (​Las Castas​), which deals with miscegenation.Some may view it as too adult of a theme for students to tackle. The paintings provide an important window into how Spanish colonizers classified and privileged people based upon their race, class, and nationality. How systems of economic, social, and political power were formed throughout time and place are themes students will continue to explore in their history and social science classes. Many of California’s students are a diverse mix of racial, ethnic, national, religious, and linguistic backgrounds. Analyzing the artist’s depiction of people in the paintings may lead to rich discussions about the societal norms and racial privileges and assumptions in the Spanish empire, and, quite possibly, today.