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Between 1497 and 1607, the rulers and leading citizens of European nations fought to establish their own empires in North America, as Spain had been doing for 100 years in South America. Learn about influential explorers and their failed attempts to establish their own New World colonies.
In the 12th century, Spanish Muslims, known as Moors, conquered the city of Mérida, Spain. According to legend, seven Catholic bishops fled the city in order to protect the relics of the church. They went to a faraway land across the sea known as Antilia and each of the bishops founded a city. The cities mined jewels and became so rich that they were made entirely of gold. At least, that's what the legend said?
Beginning in the 1400s, explorers from just about every seafaring European nation sought the legendary cities of gold. These explorations were paid for by rich European merchants or by monarchs with their own motives; they wanted to catch up with Spain. An economic policy called mercantilism dominated the era, in which nations competed for the most favorable balance of trade. The goal was to amass the most silver and gold.
You've already learned that Spain had an extensive colonial empire, mostly in Central and South America, that was making them wealthy under mercantilism. It wasn't just the resources in the colonies that made Spain rich. By dominating South America, Spain had control of the only known western route to Asia, at the southern tip of the continent. So the other European merchants and monarchs really wanted to find a fast, safe, western route to Asia that completely avoided Spanish territory. This goal became known as the Northwest Passage.
In 1497, just five years after Columbus's first voyage, England sent John Cabot exploring for this Northwest Passage. He did set foot in a 'New Found Land' (soon called Newfoundland, but also rumored to be the legendary island of Antilia). But English investors weren't interested since he didn't find what they were looking for. And England had too much turmoil in the 16th century to pay much attention to colonies. So the task of exploration was left to other countries.
Sailing for France, Giovanni da Verrazzano made three trips, exploring most of the North American coastline, as well as South America and many Caribbean islands. He didn't find the Northwest Passage or any cities of gold, but his knowledge, combined with that of a Portuguese explorer a few years earlier, was instrumental in creating a widely distributed outline map of the east coast of the continent. Unfortunately, much of Verrazzano's work was overshadowed by other men at the same time, and since he was eaten by Caribbean cannibals in 1528, he didn't get a hero's welcome back home.
Jacques Cartier was also sent by the king of France to find a northwest passage and to discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold and other precious things are to be found. Upon Cartier's return from his second exploration of Canada, he brought an Indian chief back home with him to tell the king about a city full of gold and gemstones, where the natives were blonde-haired. Cartier set off on a third trip in 1541 to establish a North American settlement that would act as a base to find the city of gold. He returned to France with a shipload of what he thought were gold and diamonds. They turned out to be pyrite - Fool's Gold - and quartz. The settlement was abandoned two years later.
The French tried again several times to colonize North America, but failed due to disease, weather, conflict with Indians or with other European powers. Their most infamous failure may have been at Charlesfort in 1562. Their leader left to resupply the colony, but he was arrested on returning to France. All but one of the abandoned colonists decided to build an open boat and set sail for home, guided only by stars and intuition. When the refugees ran out of food, they drew lots and murdered the loser to eat him. The survivors made it across the Atlantic Ocean and were rescued near England. After many other failed attempts, the French finally turned most of their attention to the Caribbean islands.
While France and other European nations were working hard to supplant Spain as the world's colonial superpower, the English had been mostly content to simply steal gold from Spanish ships. And in the end, these English pirates, nicknamed 'Sea Dogs,' finally turned the tide of world history in favor of England.
It was one of these Sea Dogs, Sir Francis Drake, that first sailed around the world for England. Queen Elizabeth had sent Drake on a mission to raid Spanish ports on the western coast of the new world. After capturing millions of dollars' worth of plunder, and burying it as far north as San Francisco, Drake knew his tiny fleet of six ships would certainly be destroyed if he tried to retrace his steps back home. His only option was to head west across the Pacific and hope for the best.
He arrived back in England in 1580. What Francis Drake managed to carry back to England, with only one surviving ship and a third of his men, was still twice the Queen's income for a year. This bounty led Queen Elizabeth to consider establishing a permanent New World colony of her own, as a base for launching even more raids.
After financing a settlement in Newfoundland, which his half-brother failed to establish, Sea Dog Sir Walter Raleigh tried again farther south in 1585. He financed a group of settlers to a small island called Roanoke off the coast of North Carolina. After conflict with the natives, in which they beheaded the Indian chief, the colonists caught a ride back to England with Francis Drake who was going home after raiding some Caribbean islands.
The fleeing colonists just missed the supply shipment sent to them from England. A detachment of soldiers from this supply ship stayed behind to guard the Queen's claim to the land. Then, Raleigh arranged for a second colony attempt nearby. Sending 150 people with Governor John White, the new settlers were supposed to meet up with the guards who had remained from the supply ship. But the new settlers found no soldiers, just one bleached out skeleton.
Since the commander of the fleet wouldn't allow the frightened colonists back on the ships, they convinced their new Governor to go back to England and return to them with reinforcements. Governor White agreed, possibly motivated by the birth of his granddaughter. Born in Roanoke on August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the new world. Before leaving, Governor White suggested that if the colonists had to relocate, they carve the name of their new location on a tree. With this arrangement, Governor White headed back to England.
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White's return to Roanoke was delayed by the English Sea Dogs in two ways. Spain's King Phillip II had finally had enough of English ships stealing his gold. So he built a massive new navy fleet and set sail for England, determined to make a show of strength. With the Spanish Armada at her doorstep, Queen Elizabeth wouldn't allow any English boat to leave port, wanting all ships on hand to help with the nation's defense.
In the end, Sir Francis Drake led the English fleet not only in a defense of the homeland, they decimated the Spanish Armada in 1588, despite being outnumbered nearly 2:1. Since Spain was off their backs, and France was losing interest in the North American continent, and with their own internal problems resolved, England could finally turn its full attention outward.
Even though ships were allowed again to leave English ports in 1588, the relief fleet bound for Roanoke decided to make a side trip to Cuba, hoping to capture a little Spanish treasure on the way. It wasn't until 1590 that Governor White finally returned to Roanoke, searching unsuccessfully for his daughter and granddaughter. The village was abandoned without sign of obvious struggle, and without human remains, eliminating the likelihood of war or disease. All he found was the word 'Croatoan' engraved on a fence post, and the letters 'Cro' hastily carved into a tree. There was a nearby island known as Croatoan, but White was unable to search it since a hurricane was moving in. Though there are plenty of theories, the fate of the Roanoke settlers is one of history's true mysteries.
Since Roanoke was a failure, Sir Walter Raleigh turned his attention to the legendary cities of gold. In 1594, he sailed to South America on new information, and even published a book about what he found, an entirely fictional account of 'El Dorado.' When a second expedition turned into a raid on a Spanish outpost, Raleigh returned home to find himself out of favor with the new king, who agreed to Spanish demands that Raleigh be executed for piracy. After his head was cut off, it was embalmed and presented to his wife, who kept it until her death.
Walter Raleigh's nephew, Raleigh Gilbert, was second-in-command of an expedition to start Popham colony in modern-day Maine in 1607. They were well-prepared, and their governor was the only casualty they suffered, leaving Gilbert in command. Popham was unusually successful, and the colonists even built a 25-ton ship that crossed the Atlantic twice, giving investors a new idea about how the American colonies could make money. But in 1608, Gilbert's father died, leaving Gilbert to inherit the family fortune and titles back in England. He packed up the colony and headed home, taking all of the Popham settlers with him.
Popham went down in history as just one in a long line of abandoned colonies whose names you've never heard. The fate of their settlers is forgotten, their explorers never found cities of gold or a Northwest Passage, their investors lost all of their money, and their governors aren't studied in American schools. But even the failures taught valuable lessons. And in the same year that Popham was being settled, another colony was planted farther south in Virginia. This one took hold, and earned the honor of becoming England's first permanent American colony. It was called Jamestown.
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