Chapter 16 The World in the Age of European Expansion 1492-1763

Section 3 The Dutch, French, and English in the Americas

As Spain and Portugal consolidated their empires in the Americas, the Dutch, English, and French established competing empires of their own. The nature of their colonization reflected their different goals and priorities. While the Dutch and French were interested primarily in trade along mercantilist lines, English colonization reflected a variety of different goals. Although many Native American peoples tried to adapt to the changing environment created by European colonization, disease and competition over land drastically affected their traditional ways of life.

Northern Explorations

Spain’s and Portugal's profitable overseas colonies prompted other European countries to send out explorers of their own. With royal support, French and English expeditions sailed across the Atlantic in the early 1500s. Like the Spanish and Portuguese, these countries were primarily interested in finding a route to the treasures of Asia. With Spain and Portugal in firm control of the southern routes, however, they sought a Northwest Passage—a waterway around or through North America.

            In 1497 John Cabot, an Italian navigator in the pay of England’s King Henry VII of England, sailed west to the coasts of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. When Cabot found no passage to China, however, English seafarers spent the next half-century vainly searching for a northeastern route through the Baltic Sea or around Scandinavia. By the 1580s they had turned back to the west. In 1585 and 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh established short-lived colonies on Roanoke Island, off the coast of what is now North Carolina.

            Meanwhile, French explorers concentrated exclusively on the northwestern route. In 1534 French explorer Jacques Cartier set sail with a twofold mission: to search for the Northwest Passage, and to discover new lands.[xlvi] Although he never discovered a Northwest Passage, Cartier sailed up the St. Lawrence River as far as present-day Montreal, and established France's claims to eastern Canada, or New France, as he called it.

            As the Northwest Passage continued to elude them, France, England, and the Netherlands eventually turned to colonization to make a profit. During the 1600s all three countries took valuable sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean from Spain and Portugal. The major thrust of colonization, however, was aimed at North America.

Dutch and French Colonization

The French and the Dutch were primarily interested in trade along mercantilist lines. The French also hoped to spread French Catholic culture to the Native Americans. After initial unsuccessful attempts under the patronage of the French clergy to establish colonization for missionary purposes, eventually French colonization was organized by the Crown, which preferred only loyal Catholics to settle in New France. The French attempted to exclude potential dissidents, such as the Huguenots, from the colony. The Dutch preferred to encourage private companies like the Dutch West Indies Company and the Dutch East Indies Company to establish colonies by granting them a monopoly on any trade they might develop.


Map of the main WIC (West Indies Company) settlements in the Atlantic Ocean (1640s/1650s.). Taken from

            Critical to both French and Dutch colonization was the fur trade. In 1603 Samuel de Champlain arrived in New France to trade for furs, specifically beaver pelts. Champlain began exploring the Great Lakes region and made agreements with local tribes to trade their furs for European goods at a string of trading posts he established. In 1608 he founded a permanent French settlement at Quebec to act as a central collection point. French colonists also settled at Montreal and in present-day Nova Scotia. From Canada, the French gradually moved south. Between 1679 and 1683 René-Robert de La Salle traveled down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. He claimed the entire inland region of North America for France, calling it Louisiana after Louis XIV.

            Meanwhile, sailing for a Dutch company in 1609, Henry Hudson sighted present-day Manhattan Island and sailed up "as fine a river as can be found, wide and deep, with good anchoring ground on both sides."[xlvii] In 1624 the newly chartered Dutch West India Company sent some 30 families to establish the colony of New Netherland in this Hudson River Valley. [xlviii] [xlix] 


New Netherland Colony, taken from; Nieuw Amsterdam, Long Island and environs 1664. Taken from

In 1626 Peter Minuit, the first governor of the colony, bought Manhattan Island from the local Canarsee tribes and founded New Amsterdam, which later became New York City. By the early 1650s, New Netherland contained some 2,000 settlers from all over Europe. Clashes over land with local Native Americans, who were being squeezed out of their own territory, convinced the company to restrict further immigration and stick to fur trading.

            French settlement was also relatively light. By 1750 only about 70,000 French lived in all of North America. With trade as their first priority,[l] French officials encouraged traders to live among the Native Americans, learning their ways and teaching them French ways. Many traders married Native American women. French missionaries also did their best to spread French Catholic culture. Both priests and nuns learned Native American languages and customs. As Father Ragueneau, a Jesuit priest, warned, "One must be very careful before condemning a thousand things among their customs, which greatly offend minds brought up and nourished in another world."[li]

English Colonialism

English colonization was more haphazard than that of the French and Dutch. Like the Dutch government, the English Crown preferred not to risk its own money on colonization ventures. Instead, it granted royal charters to private English companies to establish the first settlements. Also, unlike France, for many years the English government was happy to see dissidents and troublemakers leave for the colonies, often encouraging such migration to rid the country of disruptive elements. With such loose royal control, private companies soon established the first English colonies along the North American coast.

Settlement for profit. The first permanent colony was established at Jamestown in Virginia by the London Company in 1607, to find gold or other precious metals. As John Smith, one of the leaders, put it, "There was no talk, no hope, no work, but dig gold, wash gold, refine gold, load gold." [lii] When no gold was found, however, the company turned to tobacco to recover its costs.[liii] Tobacco had become popular in Europe. Although King James described smoking as "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs,"[liv] England imported 3 million pounds of the "noxious weed" in 1638 alone. With huge profits from tobacco, the Virginia colony began to grow.

            To attract new sources of labor, company officials offered people free passage to the colony in exchange for a set number of years of work, a system known as indentured servitude. The company also encouraged women to immigrate, since "the plantation can never flourish till families be planted, and the respect of their wives and children fix [keep] the people on the soil."[lv] Free Africans were among the early indentured servants, but as labor demands rose the colonists resorted to importing African slaves.

            Virginia's success encouraged others. By 1732 three colonies—North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia—were organized along similar economic lines. Some of the new settlers came from the West Indies, bringing with them their knowledge of plantation farming—and their African slaves. Along the coast and in the interior, colonists established large plantations and small farms. Besides tobacco, they grew export crops such as indigo, for blue dye, and rice, which they learned to cultivate from West African slaves. The forests provided wood and naval stores such as tar and pitch.[lvi]  

Religious colonization. The search for wealth was not the sole motivation for European colonization. As the Reformation and Counter Reformation continued to disrupt people’s lives in Europe, many saw the Americas as a haven where they could worship as they liked. The first such religious colonists to arrive were the Pilgrims, who settled Plymouth in 1620. A larger colony was established in 1630 around present-day Boston by the Massachusetts Bay Company. The company had been formed by English Puritans as part of the Great Migration, in which some 60,000 Puritans left England to escape the "corrupt" English society of Charles I.

            The Puritans of Massachusetts hoped one day to return to England. In the meantime, as John Winthrop, first governor of the colony, put it, they had come to the new world to establish a “city on a hill” as an example for all. Only church members could participate in the colony's government, and religious conformity was strictly enforced.

            As more and more people migrated to the colony, land pressures and internal disagreements led some Puritans to establish new settlements of their own. In 1636 Thomas Hooker and his followers settled in what became Connecticut. Others left Massachusetts because they could not bring themselves to conform to the strict religious rule. For example, Roger Williams challenged the religious government of the colony and was banished. He and a few followers fled south, establishing the first settlement in Rhode Island. Williams was outspoken in his support of religious toleration for all. His colony soon became a haven for another dissenter, Anne Hutchinson.

 [BIOGRAPHY] Born in Alford, England in 1591, Hutchinson was raised in a strict Puritan family. Like many Puritan families, in 1634 the Hutchinsons migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Inspired by the teachings of the Puritan minister John Cotton, Hutchinson held weekly meetings in her home to discuss his sermons and to present her own interpretations of the Bible. Rejecting the concept of original sin, she insisted that people could communicate directly with God. [lvii]

            Hutchinson soon began to speak out against ministers in the colony who interpreted the Bible literally.[lviii] By suggesting that people should follow their own consciences in matters of faith, however, many thought Hutchinson was undermining the authority of the community’s religious government. Her attacks quickly brought the combined force of church and state against her. Eventually, Governor Winthrop ordered her to stop preaching or suffer banishment.[lix] Hutchinson replied:  

      “You have no power over my body, neither can you do me any harm. . . . No further do I esteem of any mortal man. . . . I fear none but the great Jehovah [God], . . . and I do verily believe that he will deliver me out of your hands. . . . Therefore, take heed how you proceed against me.”[lx] 

When Hutchinson claimed to have heard God’s voice directly, however, the shocked colonists denounced her for heresy. In 1638 she moved with her family to Rhode Island. After her husband died, she moved to New Netherland, where Native Americans killed her in 1643.

            The same search for religious tolerance that had motivated Williams and Hutchinson also inspired the founding of several other colonies. In the 1630s Cecilius Calvert, second Lord Baltimore, established a haven for English Catholics in his colony of Maryland. Accepting the principle of religious tolerance, Lord Baltimore eventually opened the colony to anyone. Farther north the Quaker leader William Penn established Pennsylvania on a similar basis of tolerance in the 1680s.

A Clash of Cultures

Although neither the French nor the Dutch were particularly interested in conquering the Native Americans, the foreign presence nevertheless brought enormous changes to the Native Americans’ way of life. Some Native American leaders understood the implications of cultural interaction, and worried about its effects. As one Native American leader told Champlain in 1633:

      “You will build a house that is a fortress, then you will build another house . . . and then we will be nothing but dogs that sleep outdoors. . . . You will grow wheat, and we will no longer look for our sustenance in the woods; we will be no better than vagabonds. . . . You pinch our arms, and we will tremble.”[lxi]

Changes did occur, particularly as the Native Americans adapted to the fur trade.

            Most of the tribes between the Hudson Bay in the north and the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence in the south became involved in the French fur trade. In the early 1600s the Huron tribe north of Lake Ontario organized a trading empire with the Ottawa and Nipissing tribes of Lake Huron. The Huron traded agricultural products of their own for furs gathered by tribes farther north and west. Carrying the furs to Montreal or Quebec, the Huron traded them for European-made knives, axes, cloth, and other merchandise. Returning west, they used some of the European goods to get more furs from their Native American suppliers. Farther south, the Iroquois League became similarly involved with Dutch fur traders.[lxii]

            As the European demand for furs continued to increase, some tribes over hunted the beaver in their own territories. Such ecological catastrophes could upset local balances of power. The Iroquois League, for example, having trapped out their own territory in the 1640s, decided to capture the trade of the Huron. The subsequent vicious conflict nearly destroyed many tribes around Lake Erie. Such wars became even more common as the Native Americans’ various European allies also fought each other over trade and land, drawing their tribal allies into the fighting.

            The worst conflicts, however, developed between Native Americans and Europeans over land. Violent land disputes underlay the Dutch decision to restrict immigration and stick to fur trading as the basis for the New Netherland colony. Such disputes were even more common between local Native Americans and English colonists in search of free land.

            As more and more European settlers arrived in North America, they soon outnumbered the Native Americans, whose population had been severely reduced by disease brought by settlers. English settlers often interpreted the great epidemics as signs of God's blessing on their own settlement. Edward Johnson, an early settler in Puritan New England, expressed this view when he described the catastrophic death rate of the Indians just before the Puritans arrived:

"There befell a great mortality among them; the greatest that ever the memory of father or son took notice of, desolating chiefly those places where the English afterward planted; sweeping away whole families, but chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase. . . . Their wigwams lie full of dead corpses. . . . By this means, Christ, whose great and glorious works throughout the earth are all for the benefit of his churches and chosen, not only made room for his people to plant, but also tamed the hearts of these barbarous Indians."[lxiii]

            With conflicting ideas about how to use the land, English settlers and Native Americans pursued ways of living that were often at odds. Eventually, the technology and greater numbers of the colonists prevailed. Despite considerable resistance, Native American peoples were driven off their lands, and often destroyed altogether. European settlers eventually drove out even the farming tribes of the Southeast, who tried to adapt to European methods.

            With more land coming under cultivation, European settlers, especially in southern colonies, soon found themselves in need of workers. As the Spanish and Portuguese had done under similar circumstances in Central and South America, now the North American colonists turned to Africa to provide slave laborers. It was a fateful development that would affect three continents and the fate of millions of people.


Section 3 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

Northwest Passage

John Cabot

Jacques Cartier

Samuel de Champlain

René-Robert de La Salle

Henry Hudson

Dutch West India Company

Peter Minuit

indentured servitude

Great Migration

Anne Hutchinson

John Winthrop

LOCATE and explain the importance of the following:

St. Lawrence River



Manhattan Island

New Netherland



1.   Main Idea  What was France's motive in establishing overseas colonies?

2.   Main Idea  How did the Dutch establish their American colony?

3.   Geography: Movement  What geographic features determined the exploration and settlement of New France and Louisiana?

4.   Synthesizing  How did the settlement of Europeans in North America affect Native American populations In your answer, consider the situation in New France, New Netherland, and English America.