(HRS) Indiginous America 1492

Chapter 1 gives us an understanding of the three main cultures that interacted with each other as a result of the European voyages of exploration and discovery of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The examination of the political, social, economic, and religious beliefs of Native Americans, West Africans, and Europeans helps us understand the interaction among the peoples of these cultures and the impact each had on the other. Although this interaction and its impact are major themes in Chapter 1, the chapter also focuses on the impact of geography and environment on peoples and the societies they build.

The first section of the chapter (American Societies and North America in 1492) deal primarily with the emergence and development of a variety of Native American cultures. In American Societies we first learn about American Indian origins, but we are quickly introduced to the theme that geography and environment have an impact on people and the societies they build. The geography and natural environment of Mesoamerica, for example, made settled agriculture possible in that area. In turn, the practice of settled agriculture created a human-made environment conducive to the emergence of more complex civilizations. The wealth of and the political, social, and economic complexities of the Aztec civilization encountered by the Spanish when they invaded Mexico in 1519 were, in large measure, due to the development of agriculture in Mesoamerica thousands of years earlier.

The theme that the political, social, economic, and religious ideas of a culture directly relate to how the people of that culture obtain food necessary for survival continues in section two, North America in 1492. The diversity of Indian cultures in North America developed when the Native Americans north of Mexico adapted their once-similar ways of life to very different climates and terrains. This, therefore, explains the emergence of small hunter-gatherer bands in areas not well suited to agriculture and the emergence of larger semi-nomadic bands that combined agriculture with hunting-and-gathering in areas with a more favorable environment. A culture's means of subsistence also serves to explain the similarities in social organization between the agricultural Pueblo society of the southwest and the agricultural societies of the East. Furthermore, the way in which each tribe obtained food affected the political structure, the gender roles, and the religious beliefs of various tribes.

Fifteenth-century Africa, like fifteenth-century America, housed a variety of cultures adapted to different terrains and climates.This statement carries the theme used in the discussion of pre-Columbian Native-American societies into the section on fifteenth-century African societies. After a brief mention of the Berbers of North Africa, the Muslim city states of the East coast, and the interior kingdoms of West Africa, our attention focuses on the societies along the Guinea coast, the area from which most slaves destined for sale in the Americas came. Here we learn of the religious beliefs and practices, the sexual division of labor, and the social systems of West African societies in the coastal area between the Senegal and Niger Rivers.

European societies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries explores the devastating social, political, and economic impact of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War on European society. That discussion returns us to the recurring theme concerning the impact of environment on peoples and their societies.

The chapter's focus then shifts to the political and technological changes in fifteenth-century Europe that paved the way for the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century voyages of exploration. But to achieve their primary goal of easy access to Asian and African goods and their secondary goal of spreading Christianity throughout the world, the early explorers had to overcome certain obstacles posed by nature. As they learned to master their environment, problems posed by the prevailing winds in the Mediterranean Atlantic (the Northeast Trades) led to the tactic of sailing around the wind and, subsequently, to discovery of the Westerlies. This knowledge eventually allowed the Spanish and Portuguese to exploit for profit the islands off the coast of Africa (the Azores, the Madeiras, the Canaries, and São Tomé). In the discussion about the use of these islands and the lessons European explorers learned there, a new theme is introduced: the desire of Europeans to extract profits from the Americas led them to exploit the plants, animals, and peoples in the societies they encountered. This new theme is further developed in the discussion of Christopher Columbus's voyages and the first encounter between Europeans and Americans.

The exploitation theme continues into sections seven (Spanish Exploration and Conquest), eight (The Columbian Exchange), and nine (Europeans in North America). After a discussion of the elements that were part of the Spanish model of colonization and an explanation of the consequences of the interaction between the Spanish and the Mesoamerican peoples, we turn to a discussion of the transfer of diseases, plants, and animals among the three worlds that met in the Americas and the impact of these transfers on the societies in question. Our attention then shifts to attempts by the Portuguese, French, and English to exploit the natural resources of the Americas. Because they were primarily interested in profits from the natural wealth of the sea and land rather than in territorial conquest, European traders and fishermen descended upon the east coast of North America and the waters off that coast. After a discussion of the impact of the fur trade on the Europeans and Indians, the chapter turns to the reasons for England's first attempt to plant a permanent settlement on the North American coast. The chapter concludes with an explanation of why this colonization attempt by England, under the supervision of Sir Walter Raleigh, failed.

1469 Aragon and Castile unite to create Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella.

1492 Spain expels the Moors and Jews. Columbus's first voyage to America.

1493-96 Columbus's second voyage to America.

1494 Treaty of Tordesillas divides Western Hemisphere between Spain and Portugal.

1497-1509 John Cabot and Sebastian Cabot explore North American coast for England.

1498-1500 Columbus's third voyage to America.

1502-04 Columbus's fourth voyage to America.

1524-36 Giovanni de Verrazano and Jacques Cartier explore North American coast for France.

1519-21 Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés conquers Tenochtitlán and creates Mexico City.

1533-35  Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro conquers Incan empire.

1535 Spain creates New Spain.

1544 Spain creates New Castile.


American Diversity: Pre-English colonization in the Americas points particularly to the influence of the Spanish, French, Native Americans, and Africans in North America. Early settlement explains the presence of these cultures in the United States.

 The cultural diversity represented in early America created both synthesis and tension. All groups adopted ways of the others, whether wittingly or not, but conflict was perhaps more prevalent between the groups. Non-European cultures were either subsumed, but more commonly almost destroyed by their contact with the English; the French and Spanish made greater attempts to accommodate non-Europeans. 

Religion The introduction of Catholicism to the Americas is the most significant religious development, followed by the Treaty of Tordesilas dividing the Americas between the Spanish and the Portuguese. Catholicism on the continents has lured Catholics to the Americas as well as creating religious conflict in both politics and society.

Slavery The introduction of slaves to the Americas by the Dutch and the Portuguese established a model that was followed by the North American colonies. Acceptance of a racial hierarchy provided the Americas with an ample labor supply, but its legacy of white supremacy did, and continues to, contradict principles upon which the nation was founded. 

Digital History

Exploration and Discovery

Approximately 30,000 years ago, the Paleo-Indians, the ancestors of Native Americans, followed herds of animals from Siberia across Beringia, a land bridge connecting Asia and North America, into Alaska. By 8,000 B.C.E., these peoples had spread across North and South America. No one knows for sure how many Indians lived in the Western Hemisphere in 1492, but the number was in the millions. In no sense were the Americas empty lands.  Although few textbooks today use the word "primitive" to describe pre-contact Native Americans, many still convey the impression that North American Indians consisted simply of small migratory bands that subsisted through hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants. As we shall see, this view is incorrect; in fact, Native American societies were rich, diverse, and sophisticated. Food discovered and domesticated by Native Americans would transform the diet of Europe and Asia. Native Americans also made many crucial--though often neglected--contributions to modern medicine, art, architecture, and ecology. During the thousands of years preceding European contact, the Native American people developed inventive and creative cultures. They cultivated plants for food, dyes, medicines, and textiles; domesticated animals; established extensive patterns of trade; built cities; produced monumental architecture; developed intricate systems of religious beliefs; and constructed a wide variety of systems of social and political organization ranging from kin-based bands and tribes to city-states and confederations. Native Americans not only adapted to diverse and demanding environments, they also reshaped the natural environments to meet their needs. And after the arrival of Europeans in the New World, Native Americans struggled intently to preserve the essentials of their diverse cultures while adapting to radically changing conditions.

1. At least 2,000 distinct languages were spoken in the Americas in 1492. Cultural differences were marked. Some Indian peoples belonged to small bands of hunters and gatherers; some practiced sophisticated irrigated agriculture.

2. Complex, agriculturally-based cultures developed in a number of regions, including the Mayas and Aztecs in Mesoamerica, the Incas in Peru, and the Moundbuilders and Mississippians in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys.

3. All Indians lived in organized societies with political structures, moral codes, and religious beliefs. All had adapted to the particular environments in which they lived. The idea of private land ownership was foreign; land was held communally and worked collectively.

4. The largest domesticated animals were dogs, llamas, and alpacas, and therefore the Indians could not rely on such animal by-products such as wool, leather, milk, and meat. Although some societies had developed the wheel, it was used as a toy. No society had shaped metal into guns, swords, or tools; none had gunpowder, sailing ships, or mounted warriors.

5. Deadly epidemics also aided the European conquest. The Indians were highly susceptible to European diseases. Smallpox, typhus, diphtheria, plague, cholera, measles, and influenza appear to have been unknown. Measles, mumps, whooping cough, and other epidemics dramatically reduced the Indian population.  

Lecture Outlines

Three Worlds Collide 1492

Multimedia Presentations 

Discovery and Settlement of the New World

Europe and the Impulse for Exploration

Spanish and French Exploration

PowerPoint Presentations 

American History: The First Americans 

Europe Exploration 

Student Assignments (series 1)

BOA #1  New World Encounters

People's History of the United States C1

Web Links

Discovery and Exploration
This Library of Congress sites includes relevant maps and historical manuscripts.
Hernando DeSoto's Trail thru the Southeast

Maps are highlighted on this site covering DeSoto's adventures through Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama.
Sir Francis Drake
This site includes a wide-range of topics relating to Drake's exploration of the New World by the author of an upcoming book on the topic.
Index of Native American Resources
A good gateway site for links to information on Native Americans.
1492: An Ongoing Voyage
Good example of an online exhibit about Columbus's voyage.
Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico
Brief text overview from Aztec accounts of the Spanish conquest of this portion of the New World.