To the Home Page of the National Humanities Center Web Site National Humanities Center Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature  contact us | site guide | search 
Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersAmerican Beginnings: 1492-1690
American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Settlement
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Settlement
Text 1. First Arrivals
Text 2. Hardships
Text 3. Q&AS for Potential Settlers
Text 4. Instructions for Leaders
Text 5. Missions to the Indians
Text 6. Enslaved Peoples
Text 7. Go Ahead?

Reading Guide
Insula hyspana, 1494
Insula hyspana, 1494
First Arrivals
- Spanish: Columbus's first settlement in the New World, 1493 (PDF)
- English: The first months of the Jamestown colony, 1607 (PDF)
- English: The first year of the Plymouth colony, 1620-21 (PDF)
- Artifacts:


When we talk about the European settling of North America, the word "first" creeps into the discussion very soon—the first ever, the first "permanent," the first "permanent" that still exists today, the first with women and children, the first Spanish/French/English, etc. While the discussion may force us to define our terms, a valuable exercise, we will begin this topic, SETTLEMENT, with "first arrivals"—Europeans who cross the Atlantic, disembark on land unsettled by Europeans, find a suitable site, and begin to build with the intention of staying, not merely exploring.
  • ISABELLA was a small town that Columbus ordered his men to build on the northeastern shore of Hispaniola (in present-day Dominican Republic) during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Hunger and disease soon led to mutiny, punishment, disillusion, and more hunger and disease. Isabella barely survived until 1496 when Columbus ordered a new town built on the island as the Spanish capital (now Santo Domingo). Isabella was the "first of the Indies," declares Antonio de Herrera, the seventeenth-century historian who compiled this history of early New Spain from state archives.
    [Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas, Historia general de los hechos de los Castellanos en las islas y tierra firme del Mar Oceano (General History of the Deeds of the Castilians on the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea), Madrid, 1601-1615]

  • JAMESTOWN is justifiably called "the first permanent English settlement" in the New World—a hard-won designation. As historian Alan Taylor recounts, of the first 104 colonists who landed in April 1607, only thirty-eight survived the winter. Of the 10,000 who left England for Jamestown in its first fifteen years, only twenty percent were still alive, and still in Jamestown, in 1622. The first months of the colony were chronicled by John Smith, Edward Wingfield, and in this selection by George Percy, who twice served as the colony's governor. After writing several accounts to justify his actions as governor, Percy left Jamestown for good in 1612. (John Smith, who also felt compelled to defend his leadership, had left for good in 1609.)
    [George Percy, Observations Gathered out of a Discourse of the Plantation of the Southern Colony in Virginia by the English, 1606, publ. 1608]

  • PLYMOUTH. To American schoolchildren of many generations, the term "colonist" spurs images of stalwart Pilgrims setting sail on the Mayflower to land at Plymouth Rock—an epic tale of adventure and determination. And it's true. Unlike the single men—the courtiers, soldiers, and adventurers—who built Isabella, Jamestown, and many other early European settlements, the Pilgrims were skilled, hardworking, and self-disciplined. In addition, they settled as families for the most part, unique in Atlantic coast settlement at this point. Here we read from the journal of the colony's longtime governor, William Bradford, of the colonists' hard first year after landing in November 1620 to the first harvest in autumn 1621.
    [William Bradford, History of Plymouth Plantation, written between 1630 and 1647]
To gain a fresh perspective on these well-known "first arrivals," view the European and Indian artifacts unearthed from each settlement before you read the documents. (13 pages, excluding the artifacts.)

Discussion questions
  1. Which experiences are shared by the "first arrivals"? Which are unique?
  2. What obstacles to settlement do these accounts describe?
  3. How does each settlement's purpose and leadership affect its outcome?
  4. What is the role of the environment? the native inhabitants? the European sponsors?
  5. Which decisions made in the first months of a settlement prove critical to its outcome? Do they seem critical at the time they are made?
  6. What surprised you in reading primary texts from these settlements? How do they compare with the cultural icons of "Columbus," "Jamestown," and "Plymouth"?
  7. In comparing settlement accounts with exploration narratives, what would you define as the major difference?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What motivated the Europeans in their initial settlements?
  •  How did the European nations differ in their vision of a successful settlement?
  •  How did they differ in the institutions they created to maintain their settlements?
  •  What factors led to the survival or abandonment of a settlement?
  •  What relationships evolved among European settlers, Native Americans, and enslaved Africans?
  •  What did "America" signify to Europe in 1630? What did "Europe" signify to Native Americans and enslaved Africans?

Isabella:  3
Jamestown:  6
Plymouth:  4
13 pages, excluding the artifact collections
Supplemental Sites
European Voyages of Exploration: Christopher Columbus, from the University of Calgary

The Second Voyage of Columbus, 1493, from Keith A. Pickering

Virtual Jamestown, from the University of Virginia et al.

Jamestown Rediscovery, from the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities

The English Establish a Foothold at Jamestown, from the Library of Congress Learning Page

Texts of Imagination and Empire: The Founding of Jamestown in Its Atlantic Context, from the Folger Shakespeare Library

The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, from the University of Virginia

Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, Massachusetts

American Journeys: Eyewitness Accounts of Early American Exploration and Settlement, from the Wisconsin Historical Society

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

  Isabella, Jamestown,
   & Plymouth:

National Humanities Center

Underwater Science Program, University of Indiana
Virtual Jamestown, from the University of Virginia et al.
The Plymouth Colony Archive Project, from the University of Virginia

Image: Insula hyspana, woodcut in Carlo Cerardi, [Historia Baetica] In laudem serenissimi Ferdinandi Hispania [rum] regis, Bethicae [et] regni Granatae, 1494. Reproduced by permission of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, #0229-6.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Contact | Exploration | Settlement | Permanence | Power

Contact Us | Site Guide | Search

Toolbox Library: Primary Resources in U.S. History and Literature
National Humanities Center
Web site comments and questions, contact:
Copyright © 2006 National Humanities Center. All rights reserved.
Revised: October 2013