American Beginnings: The European Presence in North America, 1492–1690 | National Humanities Center

Primary Source Guides

American Beginnings: The European Presence in North America, 1492–1690

Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Map of North America and its colonial areas from 1685
Map of North America and its colonial areas from 1685

American Beginnings: The European Presence in North America, 1492–1690” is an open educational resource that examines the early interactions and developments in North America following the arrival of Europeans in the late 15th century through the end of the 17th century. This primary source guide is organized into five sub-topics and each section contains a vast collection of primary source materials including historical documents, literary texts, and works of art which have been contextualized with annotations and notes, and feature a set of discussion questions for classroom use.


  • Explores the initial encounters between Europeans and Native Americans.
  • Delves into how Europeans interpreted the “New World” and how Native Americans responded to their presence.
  • Examines how these early interactions shaped future relationships between the two groups and how perceptions of the “New World” evolved in Europe over time.


  • Focuses on the motivations behind European exploration of North America and what they were seeking.
  • Considers how Europeans evaluated the success or failure of their expeditions and how they perceived and adapted to the natural world they encountered.
  • Examines changes in the relationships between Europeans and Native Americans after their initial meetings.


  • Explores the reasons behind the establishment of European settlements in North America.
  • Highlights differences among European nations in their visions of successful settlements and the institutions they created to sustain them.
  • Examines factors influencing the survival or abandonment of settlements
  • Considers the evolving relationships among European settlers, Native Americans, and enslaved Africans.


  • Explores the factors that led to the establishment of a permanent European presence in North America by the mid-1600s.
  • Considers how Europeans adapted their cultures and institutions to create stable colonies, with a focus on commerce, religion, geography, population diversity, and cultural perspectives.


  • Investigates the power dynamics that had developed among the various peoples in North America by 1690.
  • Examines how European rivalries in North America during the 1690s set the stage for later imperial conflicts in the 1700s.
  • Explores how “North America” was perceived by Europe and the inhabitants of North America in 1690.

This educational resource provides a comprehensive exploration of the early European presence in North America and the complex interactions and transformations that occurred from 1492–1690.

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History / American History / Colonialism / Indigenous Peoples of the Americas / Age of Exploration / Thirteen Colonies / United States of America /


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