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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
Spanish fort of San Agustin, 1589
Spanish fort of San Agustín, 1589
Go Ahead?
- Spanish: On keeping St. Augustine and New Mexico, 1602-1611 (PDF)
- French: On cultivating New France, 1616 (PDF)
- English: On saving Jamestown, 1624 (PDF)

In 1592, a century after Columbus's first voyage, the European presence in the western hemisphere could be represented by dividing a map at 30° north latitude (near St. Augustine, Florida). South of the line, the Spanish dominated Central America, the Caribbean, and most of South America, while the Portuguese controlled Brazil. North of the line, however, there was minimal European presence. Attempts by the Spanish, French, and English to place settlements on the Atlantic coast had failed (Fort Caroline, Ajacan, and Roanoke among the failures). The French dominated the northern fur trade and joined in the Grand Banks fishing off Newfoundland, but they had yet to build a significant settlement in the hemisphere. The English, in effect, had no presence on the continent.

In a space of two years, however, in 1607 and 1608, the Spanish, English, and French founded settlements north of the 30th latitude that survived despite the odds against them—Santa Fé in New Mexico (1607), Jamestown on the Atlantic coast (1607), and Quebec on the St. Lawrence River (1608). Earlier, the Spanish had built a small fort named San Agustín on the Atlantic coast of Florida. All foundered in their early years, their continued existence a matter of luck as well as policy. Finally, decisions to nurture or abandon these fledgling colonies had to be made.
  • ST. AUGUSTINE and NEW MEXICO. By 1610 it appeared likely that the Spanish would abandon the San Agustín on the Florida coast and the Santa Fé in New Mexico. They cost too much money, attracted too few settlers, and returned too little economic or strategic benefit. Only the Franciscan missionaries held on, spreading missions beyond each settlement. In correspondence between officials in Spain and Spanish America, the fate of these settlements was debated. In the end, the colonies were not abandoned.
    [Selections from the correspondence of the Council of the Indies, the Governor of Florida, the Viceroy of Mexico, and others to King Philip III of Spain and other officials, 1602-1611]

  • NEW FRANCE. For decades the primary residents of New France were missionaries and fur traders, never in large numbers. Writing in a report to France in 1616, a Catholic missionary urged rigorous "cultivation" of the territory, nearly pleading that his advice be taken seriously. "We are letting this poor new France lie fallow," he warns. "If we give up or become indifferent, we have before our eyes many others [i.e., the Spanish and English] who have shown us that they have courage." Eleven years later, however, the French population of New France was 85 (while the population of Jamestown was over 2,000).
    [Father Pierre Biard, S.J., Relation of New France, 1616]

  • JAMESTOWN. It is remarkable that Jamestown survived its first years. Hunger, disease, frigid winters, failed harvests, Indian wars, feuding leaders, ill-chosen settlers, and the prevalence of what would today be called "gross mismanagement" nearly doomed the colony. In 1610 the situation was so dire that Jamestown was abandoned by its sixty surviving settlers who, as fate would have it, sailed only a short distance down the James River before meeting the new governor, arriving with supplies from England, who ordered them back to Jamestown. Still, Jamestown's population could not stabilize and grow until the cultivation of tobacco began after 1613. Even then the colony never returned profits for its investors in the Virginia Company. In 1624 a commission formed by King James to investigate the colony's failure questioned John Smith, one of the colony's early governors, and sought his advice on saving the colony. Although writing with his usual self-serving prose, Smith delivered clear point-by-point recommendations to the commission. The decision: Jamestown was put under the control of the crown and the Virginia Company ceased to exist.
    [John Smith, Answers to Seven Questions Presented by King James's Commission for the Reformation of Virginia, 1624]
While these documents reflect different circumstances, of course, and are couched in the bureaucratese of their day, the authors' heartfelt warnings are apparent. Abandoning or neglecting the colony would be a great loss to the home country economically, strategically, and for the Catholic nations, morally. (10 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What reasons are presented for keeping the colonies and promoting their growth?
  2. What arguments are presented or implied for abandoning the colonies?
  3. What personal interests of the authors are reflected in the documents?
  4. As is always significant, how does the audience for each document affect its argument?
  5. In your estimation, what were the most persuasive arguments for the decision-makers in Europe?
  6. To what extent are these issues relevant to each country's decision: (a) the territorial proximity of other European countries, (b) the natural resources of the region, (c) the strategic value of the colony, (d) the extent of Indian conversion, and (e) the danger to a country's image of abandoning a colony?
  7. Are there significant differences between these four colonies of the 1600s and the failed colonies of the 1500s? (See EXPLORATION: Failed Colonies.)
  8. From this section on early settlement in North America, predict the determining factors for a colony's success or failure by 1690.

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?

St. Augustine & New Mexico:  4
New France:  2
Jamestown:  4
10 pages
Supplemental Sites
Spanish colonization of the Americas, from Wikipedia

St. Augustine: America's Ancient City, from the Florida Museum of Natural History

English (British) colonization of the Americas, from Wikipedia

The Virginia Company of London: Success or Failure?, from the National Park Service

French colonial empires, from Wikipedia

Tracing the History of New France, from Library and Archives Canada

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Texts:   National Humanities Center

Image: Fort of St. Augustine, detail of John White, S. Augustini: pars est terra Florida, sub latitudine 30 grad, ora vero maritima humilior est, lancinata et insulosa, depicting the attack of Sir Francis Drake on St. Augustine, 1589. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Hans and Hanni Kraus Sir Francis Drake Collection, G3934.S2 1589 .W4.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
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