The New World: 1492-1690

When European nations established colonies in America, the Spanish went to Central and South America, where they found gold and silver. The British had to deal with Spanish power, including the Armada, but eventually they went north, where they found mostly rocks and swamps and some farm land. Clearing their way through some lean years, British settlers built homes and livings in ways that differed in significant ways among the different colonies. These colonies forged a new path toward religious and political freedom, even while the institution of slavery became more entrenched. These trends helped make the New World a major influence on the Old World. In this chapter, you discover history from Columbus through the establishment of the early colonies and on to the Salem witch trials on the eve of the 1700s.


Don't miss the forest for the trees. The AP exam concentrates on overall political, economic, and social trends, not so much on individual personal or state history. You need to understand the whole story to have the right background for writing essays. Don't try so hard to memorize everything that you lose the big picture. Pay special attention to early U.S. colonial trends; questions about this period are bound to show up on the AP test.


Explorer Christopher Columbus (1492) originally intended to land in the East Indies, but after six weeks at sea, the East Indies were still really 10,000 miles away, and his sailors were beginning to get a little testy. Just when Columbus looked as though he may end up on the sharp end of a pike, over the horizon loomed history's greatest consolation prize, the New World of North and South America.

The far-reaching impact of Columbus's discovery

The settlement that began with Columbus eventually changed nearly all the world's continents in the following ways:

- North and South America through conquest and new communities

- Europe through gold and food from the Americas

- Africa through slavery and trade

- Asia, Australia, and the South Seas through commerce encouraged by New World discoveries

Settling the New World was actually more of a team effort: Europe provided the money and the markets; Africa furnished some of the labor; and North and South America produced gold and land for growing high-profit crops like sugar cane and tobacco. (More than half of all the kinds of food grown around the globe today originated in the New World.) Fed by potatoes, tomatoes, corn, and beans first grown in the Americas, the population of Europe doubled. Although Africa suffered from slavery, it also benefited from new foods like cassava and sweet potatoes. For better or worse, the Old World changed through the influence of the New World.

In addition to colonization, the biggest impact that the European colonists had on the New World was the introduction of diseases against which American Indians had no defense. Within a few hundred years of the October morning when Columbus's ship sighted land, as much as 90 percent of the Indian population in North and South America was dead. This situation made the conquest of America much easier for the Europeans, leaving room for settlement and not just military victory. Many of the American Indians whom the Europeans did meet were dazed and confused survivors of ancient cultures that had been lost forever. Tribes moved and intermingled, but they had limited resources for taking united action against the European invaders.


The AP U.S. History exam isn't going to dwell much on Columbus. He gets competition from Leif Eriksson and his voyaging Vikings of 1,000 CE for first-discoverer naming rights. In addition, we now realize that American Indians discovered the Americas thousands of years before. The AP likes to concentrate instead on what Columbus's discovery meant. Columbus in 1492 was important because he represented the beginning of permanent European settlement in the New World.

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