Native American History For Dummies
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Spain’s early explorations of the New World gave that country a great head start over its European rivals. Spanish conquerors defeated mighty empires in Mexico and Peru — the Aztecs and Incas. Both empires had huge caches of gold and silver and sophisticated cultures with built-in labor classes.

All the Spanish had to do was kill the old bosses and become the new bosses, so they didn’t have to import slaves as they had done in the Caribbean. Moreover, the conquests spawned a herd of adelantadaos (or “advancers”), who roamed all over the lower half of America in search of the next big empire.

But Spain’s position of preeminence was short-lived. In 1588, Spanish plans to invade England with an armada of ships blew up when the fleet was scattered by the English navy and a fierce storm. Within 30 years, both England and France had established colonies in the New World.

Eventually, a growing spirit of independence would strip Spain of its New World empire. Early on, it was pretty clear that war-weary Europe would soon be fighting again over the spoils of the New World.

In an effort to head that off — and also find a way to put his mark of authority over matters in the Americas — Pope Alexander VI divided the Americas between Spain and Portugal by drawing a line on the map.

This decision left Portugal with what’s now Brazil, Spain with everything else, and the rest of Europe pretty peeved. King Henry VII of England declared that he would ignore the papal edict. King Francis I of France sniffed, “We fail to find this clause in Adam’s will.”

Of course, the countries left empty-handed by the Pope’s decree got over it in part by picking off Spanish ships laden with treasure on their way home.


Throughout much of the 16th century, France’s efforts to get its share of the Americas were marred by civil wars and inept leadership. The French forays to the New World were limited to fishermen who came each year to mine the cod-rich banks off Newfoundland and explorations of areas that are now New England and eastern Canada.

Moreover, while the Spanish were in it for the loot and the English for the land, the French weren’t quite sure what they wanted. They eventually settled on a little of both. Fur franchises were awarded private companies on the condition that they also start permanent colonies.

But the companies didn’t try very hard, and as the 1500s came to a close, the French had little more than a tenuous hold on its New World dominion.


Despite early explorations by John Cabot just on the heels of Columbus’s voyages, England lagged behind Spain when it came to exploring and exploiting the New World. Part of the problem was that the English were broke, and part of it was that England feared Spain’s military might.

By the end of the 16th century, however, the English were encouraged by the success of raids against Spanish-American cities and ships by privateers (a cross between patriots and pirates) such as John Hawkins and Francis Drake. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, the invasion fleet that met with disaster off the coast of England, encouraged England even more.

In 1587, Walter Raleigh, who had the royal right to colonize in the Americas, sent a group that consisted of 89 men, 7 women, and 11 children to what is now North Carolina. They called their colony Roanoke.

Unfortunately, the looming threat of the Spanish invasion meant the little colony got no support from the homeland. In 1590, when a relief expedition finally arrived, the colonists had vanished. They left behind only rotting and rummaged junk and a single word carved in a tree: Croatoan.

The word referred to an island about 100 miles south of Roanoke. No one knows the meaning behind the word. And no one knows exactly what happened to the first English colony in the New World.

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