European Colonization: The First Wave

1492 — 1776

United States


While it is debated whether Christopher Columbus really “discovered” America, there is no question that his voyage to the Caribbean in 1492 paved the way for European colonization. Beginning in the sixteenth century, several European countries established and disputed over colonies, territories, and trading posts in the Americas.

Motivated by the prospects of raw materials, trade and proselytizing Christianity, among other factors, colonizers claimed land on which indigenous peoples of the Americas had lived for thousands of years.

Millions of European settlers migrated to the “New World,” forcibly displacing and killing its indigenous inhabitants in the process. Moreover, the European powers turned to African and Native American enslavement and indentured servitude to undertake the laborious work of colony building.

In the 1560s, the Spanish and French disputed over claims to St. Augustine, which is now present-day Florida. Then, in the early 1600s, the English colonized Jamestown, Virginia (1607); the Spanish established large military and trading posts in modern day Texas, New Mexico, and California; the French claimed territories in Canada, along the Great Lakes, Mississippi River and in present day Louisiana. On a smaller scale, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands set up the Swedish West Indian Company, the Danish West Indian Company, and the Dutch West India Company in modern day Delaware, Virgin Islands and New York respectively. Russia also established a large colony in modern day Alaska, as well as trading posts through Washington, Oregon, and California.

From 1607 to 1732, England acquired control over the thirteen colonies. In the 1760s, however, the colonies’ inhabitants drove out English officials through armed conflict in response to strict taxes and harsh punitive laws. The colonial period came to an end when the United States declared itself independent on July 4, 1776, although Great Britain did not officially recognize U.S. independence until the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The first U.S. Census, conducted in 1790, counted roughly four million people living in sixteen established states, including about 700,000 (mostly enslaved) Black people. This figure did not include American Indians, who were not counted in the decennial census until 1860.