The Making and Shaping of North America


The North American legacy is a tale of struggle, exploitation, and endurance. North America bears a rich and complex history that continues to elicit the interest of scholars. The history of the continent spans thousands of years. The history of North America started from the tide of immigration that swept across Europe to America as a consequence of the 16th century (Clark, et. al., 2008). Powerful and diverse motivation propelled the emergence of North America built out of the wilderness to become a product of varied ideas, customs, and beliefs. Successive groups of Englishmen, Frenchmen, Dutchmen, the Spanish, and others came across the Atlantic Ocean with the intention of transplanting their traditions to the New World (Polk, 2006). However, the interplay of the diverse national groups upon one another made it impossible to maintain the Old World’s ways in a new continent.

Consequently, the merging of the Old World and the New World resulted in new social patterns that became independent America as we know it today. Overall, understanding of the making and shaping of America requires an in-depth knowledge of the continent’s history, origin, colonialism and the European experience.

The Origin of North America

The most common theory suggests that a land bridge emerged, and it linked Asia and Northern America across what is currently the Bering Sea. Historical evidence shows that the original inhabitants of North America migrated along the Bering Sea around 17000-40000 years ago (Axtell, 2001). It emerges that the first inhabitants could have been chasing game when they crossed into new continent. The earliest evidence of settlement in the region came from the Clovis site in New Mexico where historians found finely crafted spear points and other items (Foner, 2012). The Mayans and Aztecs were among the earliest inhabitants of the region. The tribes developed their own unique ways of life, and they had their distinct cultures. However, the tribes were not exposed to the civilization that was evolving in other continents.

The Indigenous Native Americans in the northern part of the mainland were hunters and gatherers. Their history dates back to 1500 BC – 1500 AD (Foner, 2012). Most of the natives settled on the east side, the grass plains of the Midwest, the desert regions, the Arctic north and the southwest of the continent. The tribes along the Mississippi Valley and the Southwest grew corn which they got from the advanced communities (Polk, 2006). The development of agriculture in these areas caused an emergence of significant cultural advancements. During the pre-Columbian era, the indigenous natives of North America lived in several cultural areas in groups and large empires.
The Maya civilization of North America developed a unique and distinct culture, and it is attributed to the development of writing system. The Aztecs built elaborate structures including palaces and pyramid shaped structures in their capital Tenochtitlan in which they put large stone carvings and paintings. The Maya and Aztec developed sophisticated mathematical and calendar systems (Axtell, 2001). The civilizations developed an advanced numbering system including the mathematical concept of zero and the development of the 365-day calendar used in the modern society. Historians believe that the indigenous tribes had diverse cultures (Clark, et. al., 2008). They would trade and enjoy formal relationships based on friendship and hostility. However, the arrival of the Europeans changed the lives of the natives considerably (Polk, 2006). Their cultures changed drastically, and there was an overall disruption of the locals’ lives. Most linguistic groups became extinct such as the Algonquians and the Iroquois.

The Colonization of North America

North America first came into contact with foreigners when the Vikings from Northern Europe first came to the eastern coast (Axtell, 2001). However, their stay did not last long because disease and resistance from the natives drove them away. Historical records show that Vikings landed in present-day Massachusetts, and they also settled at L’Anse Aux Meadow, in Newfoundland, Canada. However, historians consider the age of exploration as the beginning of the European interest in the Americas. There is a famous phrase that most American children learn at a tender age which goes “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Columbus was one of the earliest explorers who would go on voyages under the sponsorship of the European monarchs. Before 1492, North America did not enjoy much contact with the rest of the world (Polk, 2006). Other explorers who followed Columbus include John Cabot from England, Giovanni da Verrazano from France and Vasco Nunez de Balboa from Spain (Foner, 2012). By the turn of the century, news about the Newfoundland had spread fast. North America was under the dominance of three prominent European powers including Great Britain, France, and Spain. Their main agendas contained the need to spread civilization by expanding their territories, trade, and assimilation purposes also known as the “God, Glory, and Gold” phenomenon.

The rise of colonialism of North America began when Spain sent Columbus on a voyage to find a new trade route to Asia but he stumbled upon the Americas in 1942, and he landed in the Bahamas. Henceforth, Columbus discovered what the Europeans came to know as the “New World” (Clark, et. al., 2008). Columbus sent back the news of what he had found to his homeland of Spain, and they sent military personnel who settled in broad areas of the Southwestern and Northwestern parts of North America such as Florida, California and Mexico from 1492 to 1898. The Spanish wanted to conquer, colonize and politically dominate North America by establishing trading posts and missions in the New World (Polk, 2006). Spain gained control of most lands, and they dominated the Aztecs and other tribes in North America. In 1519, the Spanish established settlements in Veracruz followed by Colonial New Spain and Spanish Florida (Taylor, 2001). After creating, maintaining and dominating the region for almost 400 years, France and England joined in the quest to dominate the region during the late 1600s and early 1700s.

Many of the settlers came for economic reasons. By this time, the Europeans’ inspiration came from the riches amassed by Spain, and they all wanted a share of the cake. England had failed in their colonization missions miserably in the 1500s, but they did not surrender. The onset of the 17th century saw the arrival of the British colonizers in the New World with the intention of expanding their territorial domains (Taylor, 2001). The British settlers came under the sponsorship of common stock companies including the chartered Virginia Company and the Somers Isles Company. The financiers of theses missions were wealthy Englishmen, who understood the economic benefits that came with the discovery of the New World.

The first successful English settlements happened in Jamestown, Bermuda (which is today Virginia) and Plymouth (Massachusetts) in 1607-1609 (Taylor, 2001). Britain gained the most territory due to their aggressiveness and resilience, and the country became the most dominant power in the region. The influx of English settlers in North America was evident because John Smith and other explorers gave a dreamlike descriptions of North America and this lured the others. Smith claimed that there were vast lands and numerous resources in the Newfoundland. Smith in his book A Description of New England claimed that the land was very fertile and thus very favorable for farming (Polk, 2006). The alluring stories made many settlers leave their homes and come to the Americas. The explorers charmed potential immigrants with the promises of joy and wealth while countries offered incentives to their people to travel to the Newfoundland. Hence, many individuals who read the settlers’ accounts left for the New World with the illusion that it was the modern day Promised Land.

The Europeans relied on the locals during settling since they wanted to learn some survival tactics due to the harsh climate and terrain. For instance, the local Indian tribes showed the English how to plant and survive the harsh winter climates (Polk, 2006). However, the friendly relations later turned into animosity as the settlers learned to survive on their own. The relationships between them turned from being friendly to trade based. The Indians would give food and other luxurious items in exchange for the settlers’ guns and ammunitions. As more settlers arrived to settle in the New World, a need for more land and disputes arose as the settlers tried to push the locals out of their ancestral lands (Taylor, 2001). The British settlers were very greedy, and they wanted to own the land, yet the locals were initially willing to share. Consequently, the locals learned from the settlers to view the land as property, and they started to protect it.

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France sent explorers and colonists to claim some settlements in North America. The French under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain first settled in Port Royal and Quebec City in 1604-1608 (Polk, 2006). The French mainly wanted to trade, and their specialty was the fur trade In 1604 they established the fur trading post of Tadoussac (Clark, et. al., 2008). The French became friends with the local tribes and learned their languages with the intention of forming solid trading ties.

There were other Europeans who also wanted a share of North America. For example, the Dutch came to the continent to trade, and they founded colonies along the American Coasts. They declared the area around the Hudson River as new Netherlands in 1624 (Foner, 2012). The Dutch settlers made their first permanent settlement at Fort Orange, which is currently Albany. Later they conquered the area of Manhattan that they called New Amsterdam. However, the British became envious of the Dutch, and they took over the colonies from them. The British conquered the territory which they later renamed into New York. The less wealthy German and Scot-Irish colonists settled in the areas around Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and the Appalachian Mountains. They grew corn and wheat in these areas which were agriculturally viable (Clark, et. al., 2008). Most of the settlers came with their whole families, and they tried to recreate their lives in their native homes. The European intrusion into the Americas altered the ways of life of the natives, and as the European populations increased rapidly, more colonies came into existence.

The Colonial Era in North America

Gradually, there dawned a new era of formalized colonialism in the continent. England seemed to dominate the area and this period saw thousands of Europeans immigrate to England’s colonies in search of freedom from hunger, war, unemployment, and religious persecutions. Others came from Africa mostly as slaves, and some came on adventures. Trade was one of the major ways through which the Europeans strengthened their ties with the locals. The British mainly wanted land since they wanted new areas for their fast growing population and new economic ventures. The French were in search of fur and other luxuries which they believed the untamed lands inhabited by Indians could provide (Foner, 2012). The Spanish mainly came for conquests since they wanted gold, slaves, land and the glory that comes with conquering others. The Europeans had different agendas for their interaction with the locals and this circumstance shaped the way they did it (Clark, et. al., 2008). Therefore, it was inevitable that the life would change for both the natives and the Europeans when their paths crossed. The encounter that happened over 500 years ago between the two shaped the United States to become what it is today.

The period 1620-1670 witnessed an emergence of mass immigration and the formation of some of the thirteen original colonies including the New England colonies consisting of areas such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire (Taylor, 2001). Moreover, there was another group of the middle colonies which included states such as New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. The southern colonies incorporated areas such as Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. The New England colonies were mainly infertile areas that could not support large scale agriculture, and they mostly relied on subsistence farming for survival. The middle colonies had fertile soils and grew vegetables, fruits, and grain, and they had a surplus. The southern colonies greatly supported the colonial economies because of the tobacco growing phenomenon that spread and manifested itself in Virginia (Foner, 2012). Tobacco became one of the most lucrative trade items along with rice and indigo. At this stage, it is important to highlight that the thirteen colonies were the most influential and their interaction with the Europeans significantly shaped the American destiny.

There was a rising competition between the Europeans for the colonies. Consequently, rivalries between the European colonies became inevitable, and they all wanted to take control of the continent. The 18th century saw an outbreak of skirmishes among the European colonizers. The most notable clash happened between the French and the English settlers. From 1689, there were numerous wars between the two with each wanting to take control of the region (Taylor, 2001). The English colonists were eager for a new land through which they could expand their territory and as such, they wanted to conquer French territories which looked appealing, especially the Ohio Valley. In 1752, the hostility over the area exaggerated as it grew into violence after the French destroyed a British trading center located at Pickawillany (Taylor, 2001). The French had the backing of their Indian allies, and they seized and evicted all the English-speaking settlers in the areas of upper Ohio.

It was officially the beginning of the French and Indian Wars. The British together with their allies consisting of native American tribes fought against the French, who also had the assistance of their Indian allies (Taylor, 2001). At first, the battle seemed to work in favor of the French, but things revolved. The French would sneak up on the English strike and then run into hiding. However, things finally worked for the English, and they went ahead to defeat the French. Between 1689 and 1697 England and French fought the King William’s War followed by Queen Anne’s War from 1701 to 1713 and from 1744 to 1748 they fought King George’s War (Polk, 2006). The turnaround of events propelled the two rivals to sign the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The Treaty stipulated that France had to pass nearly all the land it had claimed to England. Moreover, the Treaty declared that Spain, who was backing France, had to transfer Florida to Britain.

The Impacts of Colonization

The arrival of Columbus in 1492 and the subsequent settlement of other Europeans created some challenges for the original inhabitants. The invasion of diseases became imminent as the natives succumbed to unfamiliar illnesses following their contact with the Europeans. The settlers tried to establish closer ties with the natives, but such relationships were exploitative (Polk, 2006). The Europeans tricked and tormented the locals with the intention to dominate over them. The Europeans were ruthless and strong because they possessed guns and had unshakeable convictions of their cause. The supremacy wars between the Europeans arose from their greed and selfishness. They all wanted to dominate North America.

There were some adverse effects of the colonialism on the various groups in North America. For example, the subarctic hunters and fishers felt the wrath of the colonialists. The Europeans hunted for furs, and they killed the wildlife aimlessly since they would kill the animals and leave the meat to rot. Consequently, this caused a shortage of food for the locals and most ended up migrating to other areas. The Northwest coast fishermen came into contact with the European ships in 1741 (Taylor, 2001). Diseases, guns, and alcohol posed a threat to them. The interaction between the Europeans and the natives led to a cultural collapse. The Interior Plateau foragers faced the wrath of the Europeans most (Axtell, 2001). The indigenous people engaged in bloody fights with the settlers over the resources. The introduction of horses caused most of them to migrate, and rivalry with other groups erupted. By 1860, battles and diseases almost wiped out the group. The California foragers came into contact with the Europeans in 1542 after which the settlers forcefully took their land and massacred most of them, especially during the Gold Rush of 1849 (Polk, 2006). The tribes discussed reflect of the tribulations encountered by the indigenous people of North America following the European invasion.

The European colonization of North America had some devastating outcomes on the indigenous people. Within a span of such a short time, the lives of the natives changed forever arising from the loss of their land, disease and the enforced laws that changed their cultural beliefs (Polk, 2006). The initial encounter between the natives and the Europeans resulted in losses and the people perished from war, slavery and diseases. 1494 to 1508 saw a massive eradication of the local people from the reasons mentioned. The continent had previously been free from the infectious diseases such as smallpox, influenza, and measles that were common in Europe (Foner, 2012). Therefore, the indigenous people did not have any resistance to the diseases and when the Europeans came such ailments started spreading and killing the natives. However, the continued settlement of the Europeans resulted in further interaction.

As the Europeans settled in significant numbers in North America, their presence did not come without an effect. For example, food exchanges between the two happened immediately. The Indians and the Europeans exchanged food items including bananas, fish, cattle supplies, chicken, sweet potatoes, sugarcane, tomatoes, wheat, and tobacco (Taylor, 2001). The effect of the food exchange is that it led to a wider availability of foodstuffs for both the Native Americans and the Europeans. However, food scarcity also became evident since more people were now sharing fewer resources and this made new means of production necessary.

The interaction resulted in the advancement of tools. For instance, the Europeans introduced steel tools and weapons which proved superior to those previously used by the natives. Although some of the natives were advanced in Astronomy and Agriculture, they still used Stone Age tools made from bones, wood, or stone due to the limited knowledge of metalworking (Polk, 2006). The Native Americans were initially hunters and gatherers, and they usually used bows and arrows. The Europeans introduced the rifle which they used to hunt and engage in battles with the locals. Over time, the Indians abandoned their bows and arrows since they noticed that the European rifles were far stronger than their traditional hunting tools. Therefore, the natives were engaged in trade for the sophisticated European weapons, and this changed the hunting and the warfare.

The Native Americans lived in villages where there were no boundaries to keep people out. They lived as large communities that were sharing everything. However, the Europeans invented new building styles. For example, the English built small villages which they fortified with walls to exclude the Native Americans. The effect of this change in architecture is that it changed the landscape of North America as the European settlers established themselves by building communities resembling those in their homelands in Europe (Taylor, 2001). The cropping of new structures resulted in the destruction of Indian settlements as the Europeans pushed them to the west. The colonists introduced the concept of land ownership which was alien to the natives since they believed in the collective ownership of land. The creation of boundaries by the Europeans meant that the indigenous people could not forage for food as easily as they did before and tensions began to rise between the indigenous locals and the settlers.

The interaction between the natives and the Europeans had an impact on the locals’ spiritual lives. Before the coming of the colonizers, the natives led strong religious rituals. For instance, they prayed for rain, good health, bounty harvests and all the wonderful things in life (Foner, 2012). However, the Europeans brought new religions to the natives such as the Puritan religion of New England which it introduced in its colonies. The Spanish also introduced Catholic Religion in its colonies with the hope of converting the locals to their beliefs. Over time, the European settlers tried to change the religious lives of the tribes by converting them to Christianity. However, this change did not come without resistance from the Native Americans since they wanted to uphold and maintain their culture.

During the European invasion of North America, there were very many native languages. However, as expected, the European settlers brought the different languages that they spoke in their homeland (Polk, 2006). The Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and English came with their own languages which they introduced to their colonies. Consequently, most of the local dialects became extinct, and the European languages took over. The Europeans renamed all the areas that had previously held local names, and this effect remains evident in the modern day America. For instance, the Europeans renamed the American cities and gave them European names such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, which are Spanish words. Moreover, Plymouth and Needham are English words while Quebec and Trois-Rivieres are French words (Taylor, 2001). Over time, native languages disappeared from common use and European languages came in their place, especially English which continues to thrive in most modern day American cities.

The colonial era gave rise to one of the most distressing issues in the American history — slavery. As the economic value of North America dawned on the Europeans, they realized that they needed more labor to work on the plantations. From 1587 to the 1680s they mostly thrived on indentured servants who were looking for passageway to the New World (Taylor, 2001). American land owners were in desperate need of laborers and as such, they were willing to pay for the laborers passage to America in exchange for many years of services. The English were the most notorious for indenturing servants since they were mainly interested in the farming. However, with time, the Europeans started searching for cheaper laborers in Africa, and they would import the Africans through large commercial trade (The Trans-Atlantic Trade). The Europeans used slaves for manual labor ranging from African slaves in Barbados, Native Americans mining gold and even orphaned children and families working on farms.

The effects of colonization are many, but they all reflect the Europeans’ greed and attitude towards the locals. All the evidence shows that the colonists were willing to suppress the natives. The resounding effect of the colonial activities is that it eliminated the native cultural identity (Taylor, 2001). The settlers introduced certain laws that banned some of the locals’ ceremonies, they required the indigenous to enroll their children in the European education system, and also they wanted to take their native land (Polk, 2006). The Europeans wanted to deny the natives’ cultural identity and assimilate them into the European way of life. Although some of the Native Americans tried to resist the change, they had to obey finally, and it became hard to restore their culture.

The End of Colonialism and the Dawn of a New Era in America

In the early years of colonization, the Europeans thought of themselves as British, Germans, French, or Dutch living in a foreign land. The intermarriages between the Europeans and the natives gave rise to a new cultures. Thus, the sons and daughters of the settlers started identifying themselves by their colonies such as Rhode Islanders, Pennsylvanians, and New Yorkers among others (Taylor, 2001). Come the 1700s, and it appeared that the colonists from the diverse backgrounds were creating a new culture which we call American today.

The colonial power planned carefully on how they would dominate and control the natives. However, they did not foresee a situation where a new breed of Americans that did not care about their European origins would emerge. That is exactly what transpired. Intermarriages arose among the natives and the immigrants (Taylor, 2001). By 1690 the population was about quarter a million since many immigrants were still coming from Europe including those from Germany, Scotland, Switzerland, and France among other European nations. By 1725, the population had tripled. As such, there continued to develop new customs, languages, and laws modified by the American conditions (Polk, 2006). Amalgamations and modifications of the different cultures gave rise to a new cultural breed inspired by the English, native, and the European continental characteristics.

During this period the English government which was now dominating North America still tried to maintain control over the colonies. The English government continued to pass laws governing the commercial and general life of the colonies. They crafted the laws in ways that favored them at the expense of the Americans, and that did not satisfy the colonies (Polk, 2006). England wanted to subdue all the manufacturing activities in its territories so that all the raw materials could go back to the mother country. Therefore, tensions started to merge, and the colonists began to rebel against England. The large measure of independence enjoyed by the colonies made them become more independent from Britain (Taylor, 2001). As such, the colonies started to become more American rather than English. Inevitably, a new breed of Americans was cropping up, and this laid the foundation of a new nation.

1763 saw the beginning of the parting of ways between England and America. By that time more than half a century had elapsed since the English first set foot in America and established the first settlement in Jamestown. The several colonies continued to grow both economically and in cultural attainments (Polk, 2006). The combined population stood at around 1.5 million inhabitants compared to 250000 since 1700. It was becoming hard to govern from London, and there were recurring clashes between the provincial governors who were the symbol of monarchical powers and the assembly. Therefore, the colonial administration shifted its powers from London to the capitals of the American provinces hoping that they would quell the power struggles. England continued to impose major taxes on the colonies since they wanted to manage the massive debts that they had accumulated, and this created major resistance across the colonies. The resistance against the tough tax laws grew from Massachusetts and Boston, and it spread all over the thirteen colonies.

During this time Americans cared only for one thing — freedom. Americans showed an aggressive determination to live their lives in America they had toiled to build from a wilderness into the home they now loved. It was the rise of organized resistance which highlighted the uprising of America during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) (Polk, 2006). The thirteen colonies declared themselves the United States of America and they united to combat a common enemy — Great Britain. In 1778, France was eager for revenge against England due to the previous humiliation and defeat and they took the side of the colonies, formed an alliance, and emerged victorious (Polk, 2006).

July 4, 1776, remains embalmed in the lives of all Americans since it saw a Declaration of Independence from the Great Britain (Polk, 2006). The independence left America free from external domination. Country was ready for political concepts born out of its ideology of self-government as the core principle of the American democracy. It is the America we know and take pride in.


It is evident that North America played a crucial role in the making and shaping of America. The history of the continent reflects the struggle to survive against all odds. The Europeans’ arrival in North America signified the beginning of an era that would ultimately shape the destiny of America. The interaction between the colonists and the natives passed with several challenges. From the loss of cultural identities, loss of life arising from unknown diseases, and the loss of land due to displacements it seemed as if the locals had experienced the worst. Evidently, the Europeans were longing to dominate the indigenous tribes by disrupting all the aspects of life. However, after all trial and struggles one thing emerged — America as a united and stronger force that took the world by storm.

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