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America's History in the Making

Mapping Initial Encounters

Unit Overview

Sioux Dog Feast

The history of initial encounters between Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans in the land that would become the United States is extraordinarily complicated. These diverse encounters occurred across a vast continent and over a span of several hundred years.

Columbus arrived in the Americas while trying to get to the rich markets of Asia; many later navigators sought a water passage to China and Japan through some part of North America. Not until the voyages of Britain’s Captain James Cook, nearly three centuries after Columbus, was it clear that no Northwest Passage existed. But, newcomers found much of value in the Americas: the gold, silver, and gems of central Mexico; crops; possible sources of labor; and potential religious converts. North America’s indigenous peoples (who are also referred to as Indians and Native Americans) inhabited every part of the continent. Consequently, as Europeans and Africans explored this new land, they had a wide variety of encounters.

The Spanish began spreading across Florida and other parts of the Gulf Coast in the early 1500s, shortly after Columbus landed in the Caribbean, and soon they ranged far into the interior of North America. The French, Dutch, Swedish, English, and other western Europeans soon joined the Spanish. Russians, and even representatives from the young United States joined, later joined them. But the size and difficulty of travel postponed some initial encounters in the American interior until the early 1800s, some 300 years after Columbus’s arrival.

The linking of the eastern and western hemispheres marked the beginning of a truly global and interconnected human history, a process known as the Columbian Exchange. It involved many positive and intentional exchanges of goods and people across the Atlantic Ocean, but it included accidental and devastating transfers as well, such as the introduction of new diseases. Europeans ships carried American crops that would eventually prove highly significant in Europe and Africa, and Europeans integrated trade with North America into their expanding economy. These encounters dramatically changed the economies and societies of the world in ways that no one would have predicted in 1492. Native Americans adopted European animals, such as horses and cattle, and tools, such as metal knives or guns. They did so even as invasive diseases—such as measles, typhus, whooping cough, and smallpox—killed millions. These encounters also had profound effects on populations across the Atlantic, as foods from the Americas such as corn, tomatoes, chilies, and potatoes were adopted and embraced globally.

Europeans, Asians, and Africans had traded with each other for centuries; similarly, the many indigenous societies in the Americas had created a web of trade routes connecting from modern day Canada through South America.

These complex events and processes would unfold over long stretches of years and miles, under conditions so varied and unpredictable that power sometimes shifted swiftly between Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans.

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