American History Lecture One

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Lecture - Questions

Welcome to "American history," also known as "United States history." This topic is much broader than "American government"; this course also includes culture and intellectual thought. It addresses the many unsolved mysteries of who we are, and why. Why do most Americans speak English rather than Spanish? Why is the United States the most prosperous society in the history of the world? Be prepared to ask many questions, and look for the answers until you find them.

Learning about the past can give us insights into where we are going in the future. Studying history helps us understand ourselves better, and can inspire us to attain greater achievements. When we learn that Thomas Edison invented the phonograph (music player) even though he was mostly deaf, then we can strive to do more with the talents and abilities God gave us. Learning history is also an enjoyable and relaxing hobby for many people, just as playing sports or listening to music is for others.

A small boat which sailed into unchartered waters brought the Pilgrims to America. Their group was not much bigger than our class, and their boat (the "Mayflower") was not much larger than an ordinary classroom. Just before arriving on shore, the Pilgrims agreed to a written agreement or "compact" to bind them after they arrived. The very first words of their "Mayflower Compact" were "In the name of God Amen."[1]

Just as our Nation's founders started with a prayer, so do we. Prayer clears out the noise in our minds. We are looking for knowledge and inspiration here, and that comes from God. In most countries families lack the freedom even to have a class like this. Yet America was established on prayer and liberty, from which prosperity results.

A tip before we begin: the best way to master American History is to find something you enjoy about it, and then write about that topic and everything that relates to it. Now let's learn some history.

What Students Find Challenging About History

Students find the following aspects of American history challenging:

  • identifying trends, which becomes useful in making predictions about the future
  • keeping facts in perspective and understanding how they relate to each other
  • recognizing the importance of culture, ideas, and economic issues in shaping history
  • interpreting political cartoons
  • improving speed in reading and retaining historical information, such as answering history questions quickly

Common mistakes by students in history courses include:

  • failing to recognize that American politics is always a struggle between two sides; politics mattered in the past as much as it does today
  • memorizing dates without understanding the sequence of events (exams rarely ask about dates, but do ask about the sequence in which events ocurred)
  • getting bogged down in detail and failing to see the big picture
  • misunderstanding questions
  • failing to apply common sense to recognize that people in the past were similar in nature to people today, with similar types of human problems and issues

The Key to Mastering History

The key to mastering history is to find what you like and understand, and then use it as your foundation to learn everything else. In other words, first find and learn what you like, and then learn everything else by connecting it to what you know. This is the same technique that we all use for directions: pick a landmark or a place that you know how to get to, and then figure out how to go from there to where you need to go.

For example, if you are most interested in religion, then learn about the 13 colonies based on their different attitudes towards religion. If you are most interested in one colony, then learn about it and how it related to other colonies. If you like military history, then use that as your starting point (although beware that almost no questions on the college board exams will be about military battles). Perhaps you enjoy mysteries; in that case, use our list of Greatest Mysteries of American History to motivate you. If you like economics, then much of history can be learned by viewing it through an economic perspective. The American Revolution (or "Revolutionary War"), for example, happened during difficult economic times in the colonies. Even sports fans can learn history through their favorite sport: baseball, for example, began during the Civil War.

Perhaps you like politics the most. In that case, you'll want to memorize the presidents and leaders of Congress, and relate historical events to their times in office. Or perhaps you enjoy legal issues, and reading about famous trials and court rulings. If so, then you may want to focus your attention on the major rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court throughout American history, and relate other historical events to those decisions.

Periods in American History

American history can be broken into about 20 time periods:

These periods span 7 centuries, from the 15th century (1400s) to the 21st century (2001 through today).

Why America?

Your common sense and imagination can help you master American history. Pause for a moment and imagine what would likely happen to a nice chunk of fertile land, possibly containing riches like gold, located between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Would some Europeans want to go there? Of course. Which ones would want to go there, and why?

One reason is to convert the natives to Christianity, just as people today often go on missionary trips to distant lands. Another reason is to search for gold and other riches. A third reason is to obtain freedom. An additional reason is for the same reason people climb a mountain: simply because it is there! Some want to escape where they are. Others want to set up a new community, perhaps a new religious environment. Others hope to meet new people and make new friends, and engage in the trade of goods with the people. Another motivation is to learn from the new people, or have adventures and then write about them.

What is likely to happen if a bunch of Europeans go to this land? There will be conflict: conflicts with the natives, conflicts with other European countries, and conflicts with the mother country that sent the settlers. But there will also be new opportunities for improvements, for new products, for new businesses, for new religions and for new systems of government.

Who is going to pay for exploration and settlement? Kings. Investors. Churches. Many people were reluctant to risk their money on such a dangerous and uncertain project.

Who is going to do the hard labor needed to set up a new community, such as chopping down trees, working the farms, and constructing the buildings? There was almost no money to pay anyone for the work. Families might do some, but many of the families consisted of young children. Soon slavery developed as a form of labor, particularly in less religious settlements. Another form of labor less objectionable than slavery was the use of indentured servants. They were workers who promised to work for free for seven (7) years in exchange for free transportation to the New World, free food and housing while there, and complete freedom (and maybe some land) after the end of the seven (7) years.

In learning history, it helps to look for unifying themes to organize events in your mind. One theme that helps explain American history well is the overall expansion of Christianity for 2000 years. Why did Christopher Columbus and other explorers risk their lives to come to the New World? To spread Christianity. Why did families then risk their lives to settle here? To establish religious communities free of persecution. Two hundred years later, why did Massachusetts prohibit slavery and why did abolitionists like President John Quincy Adams devote their lives to ending slavery? Their religious values told them slavery was wrong.

There are other possible themes in American history. How about the desire to make more money? How about the urge for self-government, to be in charge of oneself free from a monarchy? How about the advance of technology and its effect on how we live? There are many possible themes to American history and we will have fun debates about them.

Organizing History

From 1789 until today, we have had 45 American Presidents. A president is not more important than other people. If I had to name the ten most significant Americans in history, I would include only one president in the list (the first president, George Washington, and he was already important prior to becoming president). A few of the presidents, such as Thomas Jefferson, achieved more when they were not president (Jefferson's more important work was to write the key parts of the Declaration of Independence).

But memorizing the list of 45 presidents can help you organize all the other facts. When someone asks me what was happening in 1962, I think of who was president and then remember the issues of that time. The presidents become like drawers in a cabinet where you might put your clothes. In the "cabinet" of presidents, each drawer is filled with issues and events that happened during each presidency.

But before 1789 there was no president. How are we going to organize that? One way is to focus on the three most important colonies, Virginia (founded in 1607), Massachusetts (1620) and Pennsylvania (1681), and relate the other ten colonies and events to them. Another way is to look at the battles that occurred before the American Revolution, such as the French and Indian War in 1754-1760.

By the end of this course, you should be able to hear an event and describe what else was going on at that time. You will be able to tell me what happened before the event, and what happened afterward.

Don't try to memorize hundreds of dates. Instead, when you see a date, think what happened before and after it. There are only about ten dates that you need to know. For example, no one will ask you when Georgia was founded as a colony. But you may be asked whether it was the first or last colony founded. (It was the last colony established.) Another example: Quebec was founded in 1608. Don't remember the 1608 date, but remember that Quebec was founded after Jamestown was established in 1607 (1607 is one of the few dates you should memorize, because this was when the first permanent English colony was established in America)

Pre-Columbian Period

The "Pre-Columbian Period" is everything up until 1492, when Christopher Columbus led his maiden voyage from Spain to North America in the "New World."

The first settlers in America were Native Americans, or American Indians. Their origin is unknown. Some claim they migrated from Asia, but that makes little sense because American Indians are very different in many ways from Chinese and Asian Indians. Even their blood types are typically different.

Monks Mound built around A.D. 900 - the largest Indian mound in North America, located in Cahokia, Illinois

The Mississippian culture thrived between about A.D. 800 and 1600, particularly along the Mississippi River but also in the general midwestern and southeastern region of the United States, whereby Native Americans built mounds having spiritual significance to them. Old mounds reflecting these Indian settlements still exist, such as the Adena burial mounds and Mississippian platform towns.[2] The Cahokia Mounds in Southern Illinois (just east of St. Louis) still exist from an Indian community dating back as early as A.D. 1000 or 1100.[3] That community practiced human sacrifice, as did the Aztecs and Mayans in Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America) and the Incas in South America prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquerors.

When talking about Indian cultures, keep in mind that the Indians in what is now the United States were a diverse selection of cultures, which included nomads from the Great Plains in the Midwest, Indian settlements in the West, and many Indian tribes in the East. Among the Eastern tribes there were quasi-governmental systems with formal treaties. Most tribes did not have a formal monetary systems, but the Cherokee and the Iroquois Nations did have business transactions. None of the tribes of the North American continent had any formal writing systems. The Indians did introduce tobacco and corn to Europeans, which became widely popular back in Europe. Europeans also brought new things to the Indians, such as horses and guns.

The Viking Leif Ericson may have established a "Vinland" colony around A.D. 1000 on the island now known as Newfoundland, in eastern Canada. Historians think this Viking colony existed in Canada, but it did not last long and there is no sign of any Viking colony in what is now the United States.[4]

Indian Americans renowned for their achievements after the pre-Columbian period (and after 1600) include Squanto (a man who was an essential interpreter for Captain John Smith starting in 1614), Pocahontas (a woman who married the English settler John Rolfe in 1614 at the Jamestown settlement), Sacagawea (a female guide hired for the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804), Tecumseh (a man who organized an Indian confederacy in the Ohio territory in the early 1800s and fought on the losing side of the British in the War of 1812), Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse (male warriors defeated and massacred Colonel George Custer’s army at the Battle of Little Bighorn in what is now South Dakota), Geronimo (an Apache warrior in what is now Arizona), Jim Thorpe (a phenomenal Olympic and professional athlete in the early 1900s), and Maria Tallchief (a tremendous ballerina).

American Indians were considered to be citizens of their own tribes and not citizens of the United States, until Congress passed a law in 1924 extending American citizenship to all Native Americans here. To this day they have special sovereignty which enables them, for example, to run gambling casinos which would otherwise be illegal. The State of Oklahoma (the birthplace of presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren) has the largest percentage of residents who are American Indians, and Arizona also has a large American Indian population.

Questions: when do you think Native Americans first settled North America? Do you think the Vikings really had a colony in Newfoundland as historians claim?

Exploration (Columbian Period)

Starting in the Middle Ages, Europe began to use its knowledge, wealth and faith to extend beyond its horizons. Christian Europeans fought the Holy Crusades from 1095 to 1291 to protect pilgrims to Jerusalem against Muslim attacks. Some Europeans were motivated to spread the Gospel. Others were motivated by a desire to increase their wealth, such as by finding gold.

People in Ancient Greece knew that the world was round, and that it should be possible to reach the Orient by traveling west around the world. Ironically, it was the very knowledge of the Earth's circumference that deterred a westward passage - the distance to the Orient in that direction was beyond the open-water range of ships in that period. Steamships did not exist yet; the ships in the 1400s relied on sailing, using wind to reach their destination, but wind patterns did not always cooperate.

Thus, centuries passed before one man inspired by his faith was determined to change the world of his time. By the young age of 10, the Italian Christopher Columbus was working at sea, already on his way to becoming a master navigator and mariner. He learned the patterns of the Atlantic trade winds, and their ability to carry sailing vessels across vast distances both eastward and westward before one's provisions would run out. With the charts he developed, he was certain he could reach Asia on a westbound route more efficiently than others could.

It took enormous courage, determination and financial support to sail west into the complete unknown. It also took more than a desire to get rich, because there were easier ways to make money. That additional desire was a passion to spread Christianity to new civilizations. In 1482, Christopher Columbus sought financing to sail west in order to find an easier way to reach the Far East, by sailing westward rather than going eastward from Europe to reach India and Japan. Columbus tried to raise money in Portugal for his trip, but it already had its own successful explorers. Portugal declined to support him. Yet Columbus did not give up.

In 1492 Spain drove out the last of the Muslims and re-established itself as a Christian nation, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain granted Columbus's request to fund his voyage in that same year. Spain continues to honor Columbus Day just as the United States does.

Columbus was both a devout Christian and an enterprising capitalist. The contract he signed with the Spanish Monarchy, known as the Capitulations of Santa Fe, named him Admiral of the Atlantic Ocean, Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands discovered, and gave him one-tenth of the profit from all of the discovered lands (Spain later refused to honor the agreement, and Columbus never became wealthy). Having secured his funding, Columbus assembled his ships and crew and set out in August of 1492 to reach the Orient.

Columbus set sail in three ships. On Christmas eve, December 24, 1492, one of Columbus's ships, the Santa Maria, reached the island of Haiti. Columbus named the settlement "La Navidad," meaning "The Nativity," and dropped off 40 men with a promise to return to them the next year. Columbus then wrote for the King and Queen of Spain in his Journal: "In all the world there can be no better or gentler people. Your Highnesses should feel great joy, because presently they will be Christians, and instructed in the good manners of your realms."

But Columbus had grossly underestimated the size of the world, and when he reached San Salvador, Haiti (Hispaniola) and Cuba he thought he had reached the Far East. So he called the natives "Indians". He left some men there but they were eventually killed by the natives. Columbus reported back that new people had been found to evangelize.

Treaty of Tordesillas.png

Soon Spain and Portugal divided the Americas with the Line of Demarcation, drawn by Pope Alexander VI, such that Portugal could control east of the line, and Spain had dominion over west of the line. The Treaty of Tordesillas moved the line in 1493. It was a North-South line that gave North America and the western part of South America to Spain, but Brazil was given to Portugal. That's why Brazilians speak Portuguese to this day. But France and Protestant countries (including England) ignored these lines.

The incredible genius of Columbus -- or Providence -- was demonstrated a year later on his second voyage across the Atlantic. Amid the vast ocean, Columbus was able to return to exactly the same location that he had reached on his first voyage on the island of Hispaniola. That is like finding a needle in a haystack the size of a football stadium. But Columbus's colony had not survived in his absence.

Columbus sailed on a total of three subsequent voyages, but never achieved his goal and died a failure. His ultimate dream of liberating Jerusalem, as the Crusades attempted, was not realized. But what he did achieve was to open the New World to spreading Christianity and creating new wealth.

The 4 voyages of Christopher Columbus

Columbus's efforts resulted in Spain acquiring Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Cuba by 1515. Spain then settled Florida (St. Augustine), and later Santa Fe (now in New Mexico). Spanish Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztecs in central Mexico (1521), and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas of Peru (1531). They seized much gold in the process.

Fifteen years after Columbus's maiden voyage, map-makers (cartographers) coined the named "America" for the New World in honor of another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. Between 1499 and 1502 he explored the east coast of South America, and was the first to recognize that the new land was a separate continent rather than part of Asia.

But while Spanish soldiers came to America, Spanish women and children did not. So there were not many distinct, permanent Spanish settlements. Also, the Spanish were entirely subservient to their King back in Europe. Separate governments did not develop for the Spanish settlements in the New World.

Explorers other than Columbus

Other European powers were also exploring North America. The French explored the St. Lawrence and settled Quebec, where French is still spoken to this day. The French also explored the Mississippi, and settled the towns of Saint Louis (named after a French king) and New Orleans.

The Dutch explored and settled the Hudson River, calling the region New Netherlands and buying and naming Manhattan New Amsterdam.

The Swedish settled in Delaware; Germans settled later in Pennsylvania.

Explorer John Cabot discovered the North American coastline for England in 1497. But no settlements were attempted by the English for about another 100 years, because North America didn't have what the explorers were looking for. America lacked valuable natural resources. There was no gold, which is what Europeans wanted. In 1576, the British explorer Martin Frobisher even hauled 200 tons of material back to England, hoping it was gold. It wasn’t.

There wasn't anything else of much value to Europe. New England was too rocky near the coast to develop farms. The mid-Atlantic region or Chesapeake area, where Maryland and Virginia are today, was infested with malaria. Winters were cold, and summers were hot.

There was no livestock – no horses or cattle, until the Spanish imported them. Florida was a swamp, and did not even have orange trees until the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon planted them in 1515.

North America was a joke to many in England. Its Parliament passed a law in 1597 authorizing the deportations of convicted criminals to America and other colonies. In 1605, a satirical book entitled “Eastward Ho!” was published that mocked attempts to settle in Virginia.

Think about it. Would your family uproot and move, at great risk to your lives, to a place that had no civilization or anything of value? Do we see families moving to the middle of the desert in Arizona, or to cheap land in the middle of Wyoming? Only very rarely.

An English nobleman -- nobility was later prohibited in 1787 by the United States Constitution -- Sir Humphrey Gilbert obtained a charter from England in 1578 to establish a colony at Newfoundland, to the north of the United States, but he failed. Less than a decade later his half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh, tried to do likewise further south, in present-day Virginia.

This became England's first settlement of North America, first unsuccessfully in 1585 and then in a bigger way in 1587, on Roanoke Island in Virginia. More than 100 families settled there, and the first English child born in America was "Virginia Dare." But within a few years they had all disappeared. It remains a mystery to this day what happened. They could have died from disease or starvation. They could have been killed by Indians. No one knows the real reason for the disappearance of this settlement, and it's called the "Lost Colony."

About the same time, however, England obtained a big victory in Europe. Spain had ruled the high seas for most of the 1500s, but Sir Francis Drake was a superb English sailor who sailed around South America and claimed California as "Nova Albion" for England while attacking Spanish ships and settlements in Central America in the 1580s. He then led the English to a stunning victory over Spanish Armada in 1588, virtually destroying Spain's entire fleet of massive ships. That left England, under Queen Elizabeth, with the ability to gain control of the oceans and world trade over the seas. England could then protect its newly developing colonies against other European powers.

Debate: Did Europeans have a right to explore North America?

New Spain

Though Americans mostly speak English today, it was Spain which first settled North America. Through use of their military, called the Spanish Conquistadors, and Spanish explorers such as Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1513 in Panama), Juan Ponce de Leon (1513 in Florida), Hernando Cortes (who defeated the Aztecs in Mexico in 1519), Panfilio de Narvaez (1528 unsuccessful expedition to the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico), and Hernando de Soto (1539-1541 throughout the south to Oklahoma and including the Mississippi River). Finally, in 1540-1542, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado explored from Mexico up through Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma and as far north as Kansas. None of those states existed then, but these were the first Europeans to see these lands.

The result was "New Spain" in the "New World," where settlements of about 200,000 migrants from Spain traveled to the south and west and intermarried with American Indians who lived there. There were strict layers of social classes, and Indian slaves were used to work on large estates called "encomiendas". African slaves were also imported by the Spaniard settlors. The highest class were the peninsulares (from Spain), and their direct descendants born in this New World were called creoles. The offspring of Spaniards and Indians were the Mestizo.

Spanish settlements tended to be like military posts, such as St. Augustine in Florida, rather than colonies having their own self-government as the English colonies did. Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the oldest continuous European settlement in the United States, and exists to this day. Sante Fe (meaning "holy faith," is the oldest capitol, established in 1610 in what is now New Mexico).

New France

The leading French explorer in North America was Jacques Cartier, who attempted from 1534 to 1542 to find a so-called Northwest Passage by water to the Pacific Ocean and then to China (no such pathway by water exists). He tried three times using the St. Lawrence River north of the United States. He got only as far as Montreal and then gave up, and the French did not establish a permanent settlement until 1607, when Quebec was founded by Samuel de Champlain.

"New France" consisted more of territory than actual people. French settlers went to Canada and Louisiana, although France claimed to own vast regions of territory including what later became the Louisiana Purchase much later, in 1803. French fur traders founded some cities, such as St. Louis in 1764, which was named after the French King Louis IX. But again, the French settlements in the United States were much later than the Spanish and English settlements, and few people came over from France to what is the United States today, other than explorers and fur traders.

English Settlements

King James I of England granted separate charters in 1606 to the Plymouth Company and the London Company in order to establish English settlements along the Atlantic coast in North America. Their land was overlapping but the Plymouth Company extended more to the north (including what is now Massachusetts) and the London Company's land extended more to the south (including what is now Virginia).


Some Englishmen invested money in what was called a "joint stock company," which was similar to a modern-day corporation, for the purpose of finding gold or other treasures. One of those joint stock companies was the London Company (also called the "Virginia Company" or the "Virginia Company of London") which established the first permanent settlement for England in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. It was a disaster and the investors never received a profit. The men who settled in Jamestown were "English gentlemen" unaccustomed to working with their hands, and who expected to get rich with little effort. They lacked a common purpose and wasted their time searching for treasure, or simply doing nothing at all. Unwilling to work to grow their own food, they almost starved to death.

1607 is a date worth memorizing. This was after the Spanish had settled in Florida, but before the French had settled in Quebec. So remember the sequence in settling America: Spanish, English, and then French.

Initially, from 1607-1608, the Jamestown settlement lived under socialism, whereby the group shared its food with everyone no matter how much or little each person worked. This economic system was a complete failure that led to "starving time" as no one had any incentive to do any work to provide the necessities of life. In September 1608, John Smith was elected president of the governing council. He ruled for a year and installed a conservative economic system: "don't work, don't eat!" Because free enterprise replaced socialism, after a few years food production began to increase significantly and by 1614 there was plenty to eat.

Jamestown settlers had come to America to find fortune, but there was not any gold or silver. Indians had discovered tobacco and shared it with Europeans who were beginning to become addicted on it. Many Europeans recognized that tobacco was bad for them, and some wanted to prohibit it. In 1613, Englishman John Rolfe, who later married the Indian Pocahontas in Virginia, began growing tobacco to export to Europe. The King banned the growing of tobacco in England, so Rolfe had no competition. Cash began pouring in for the tobacco, and this so-called "cash crop" became highly profitable for the Jamestown settlers.

Although it profited from the sale of tobacco, the Jamestown settlement had many difficulties. It had made peace with Indian Chief Powhatan, whose daughter Pocahontas married settler John Rolfe. But after Powhatan died, his brother led a sudden attack on the settlers in 1622, massacring 357 out of just 1200 (killing more than 25% of the settlement).

Indian strife was only one of many problems. Labor was in short supply for working the fields. Settlers began importing indentured servants, who received free travel to the colonies in exchange for a promise to work for seven years. Then the Virginia settlement turned to a cheaper form of labor: importing slaves from West Africa beginning in 1619 to work the crops. The importation of slaves to the New World was not new in 1619; many European countries had been importing a total of 40,000 slaves to the New World prior to the 1600's based on the Portuguese plantation system for working the land.

In 1624 King James (of the "King James Bible" fame) took back ownership and control of the Virginia colony and established it as a royal charter. The Virginia colony was mess, and had become a problem as a colony that enslaved workers and grew tobacco. More trouble was in its future. In 1676, a young, arrogant Englishman Nathaniel Bacon from a wealthy family was a Virginia settler who decided to take the law into his own hands. He first massacred Indians in western Virginia, then took his small army of rebels to Jamestown, where he burned it down because the governor had refused to allow him to kill the Indians. This is known as Bacon's Rebellion and it resulted in less use of indentured servants and greater reliance on slaves, who could not rebel as easily. Bacon himself soon died unexpectedly at age 29 from a stomach disease due to a disease probably resulting from his failure to wash hands. Once he was sure Bacon was really dead, the governor returned and hanged to death two dozen of his supporters.

The Virginia colony, despite all its troubles, later produced four of our first five presidents. Why? Because it was big and prosperous.


Let's turn to the Massachusetts settlements next. Massachusetts had a much harsher climate than Virginia, particularly in the wintertime. Its settlers were motivated by religion, not money. They were unhappy with the oppression by the Church of England, feeling it was too much like the Catholic Church. Two different groups of these people set out for North America. The first group, the Separatists (better known as Pilgrims), wanted to separate completely from the Church of England and establish a religiously pure community. They came to America by way of Holland, to where they first fled from England. The second group consisted of more mainstream Puritans who wanted to purify the church from within, without leaving it. Both groups were types of Puritans, and both groups landed by chance within 100 miles of each other in Massachusetts. There were far more Puritan immigrants than Pilgrim ones.

The first smaller group, the Pilgrims, set sail from Plymouth, England and intended to land near the mouth of the Hudson River (now New York City), which was the northern part of the Virginia Company's territory. But their ship, the "Mayflower", was blown off course and they landed up on Cape Cod in Massachusetts in 1620. Outside of any official government, they decided on their boat to establish the first civil government in North America by signing the Mayflower Compact. They landed in December, and half of the people died due to disease in their first New England winter. But the following spring a friendly Indian introduced them to corn, or maize, the marvelous food discovered by Indians.

The Pilgrims had a plentiful harvest that fall, and celebrated their first Thanksgiving charitably with the Indians. In 1623, their new Governor William Bradford gave every member a plot of land and allowed the free market to develop. By 1624, the community was doing so well that it was actually making more food than it could consume and began exporting its corn. William Bradford and Edward Winslow kept diaries during the settling of Plymouth, which are recorded in a short but fascinating book called Mourt's Relation.

Corn is a tremendous contribution by Indians to the world, and it sustains entire countries to this day. Most of us eat lots of corn; corn is also used to make ethanol fuel, and the rising prices for fuel have caused corn prices to increase, which in turn has caused other food and meat to rise in price because animals depend on corn for food. But corn did not exist in Europe during the Middle Ages. Cheap and easy to grow, corn has become one of the most popular foods worldwide, rivaling rice and soybeans. We can thank the Indians.

Encouraged by the success of the Pilgrims, a new group called the Massachusetts Bay Company obtained a royal charter and sent a larger group of Puritans to settle in New England, this time with the purpose of purifying the Church of England with a more perfect community than in England itself. It was well-financed and led by the very capable John Winthrop, who had been trained at Oxford. They landed in Salem, Massachusetts in 1629 and immediately moved to Boston Harbor. They never looked back, thriving almost immediately despite the harsh winter climate. Within five years the Great Migration of religiously motivated settlers followed them from England. Their numbers and power grew. By the 1640s, this community was participating in robust trade by sea with England, the West Indies, and on occasion with West Africa.


Slavery was used for farming in Virginia, but not in Massachusetts. There were several reasons for that big difference. One reason was religion: Massachusetts was initially settled by very devout people. Another reason was the climate: Virginia was hot and muggy, while Massachusetts was cold with less farming and more fishing and trade. A third reason was the difference in the types of settlements: Massachusetts was settled by close-knit families, while Virginia was settled more by men seeking a new life or profit.

This enormous historical distinction would end up causing the Civil War more than 200 years later.

The Colonies

What is a "colony"? A "colony" is defined as "a body of people living in a new territory but retaining ties with the parent state." (Merriam-Webster dictionary)

From 1607 to 1639, a total of six colonies were established in what is now the United States: Virginia, Massachusetts, New Netherlands (renamed New York), Maryland, Rhode Island and Connecticut. There were four basic types of colonies:

  • Joint-Stock Colony: investors fund a colony through a joint-stock company; examples were Virginia and Massachusetts Bay.
  • Charter Colony: founded on land granted by the king to a company or person who governed by it; examples were Connecticut and Rhode Island, which obtained charters many years after being settled.
  • Proprietary Colony: owned and controlled by 1 or more persons; examples were Maryland, Pennsylvania (William Penn), Delaware and New York.
  • Royal Colony: a colony founded or taken back under rule of king, who appoints the governor to rule it; many colonies eventually became royal colonies as the King took back control, as happened in Virginia.

The growing colonies in Massachusetts and Virginia could not have been more different from each other, and it is remarkable they eventually joined the same country. Massachusetts was highly religious and motivated by faith. Virginia was marginally religious and motivated by money. Massachusetts, more religious, had vocal opponents of slavery and neighboring Vermont was the first state to prohibit slavery in its Constitution, in 1777. In contrast, Virginia welcomed slavery. Massachusetts grew the Indian crop of corn. Virginia grew the Indian crop of tobacco. Massachusetts settlers made greater efforts to get along with Indians and treat them fairly. Massachusetts attracted new settlers based on religion. Virginia attracted new European settlers based on the "headright system," by which land (usually 50 acres) was given to those who paid for the passage to the colony of an immigrant, who usually agreed to work as an "indentured servant" for free for fixed number of years on the land.

While the Virginia institution of slavery was spreading to the colonies of Maryland, Carolina and, later, Georgia, Massachusetts was spreading a different sort of institution: religious intensity. Roger Williams was an extraordinary individual of such great faith that he found even the Puritans to be lacking in their treatment of Indians. Williams also disagreed with how the Puritans combined government and religion, and how the Puritans had punished by death several Christians based on differences with the Puritan faith. Williams was fabulous with languages and learned to communicate with many different Indian tribes, and even lived with them at times in spite of the danger. He left the Puritans in Massachusetts and started the colony of Rhode Island, which to this day has prided itself on its independence. Rhode Island was the only state to refuse to support a colonial tax on imports after the American Revolution. Rhode Island, under Roger Williams' direction, separated state government from religion. It had no mandatory church attendance, and no funding of churches with tax revenues was allowed in Rhode Island.

But while Roger Williams was highly moral, others in Rhode Island made it the biggest importer of slaves in all the colonies. So censoring religion led to harm. In contrast, in the larger Massachusetts, taxes funded religious institutions for nearly 200 years, until at least the 1830s. It successfully prohibited slavery.

Another devout Christian who disagreed with the Puritans, Anne Hutchinson, was tried by them in 1636 for emphasizing "grace" rather than "works", and she was forced to flee. She escaped the Puritans but was later killed by Indians. Religious persecution continued in Massachusetts in the mid-1600s: the Baptists were banished in 1651, and the Quakers were expelled or -- when they remained or returned -- they were executed when Puritans hanged them.

Debate: were the Puritans right to be strict and to expel people of other religions?

The Congregational Church was started by Pilgrims in Plymouth (1620) as Independents. Like the Puritans themselves, the Congregationalists declined over time due dispersal of the population on farms, the formation of public schools, and perhaps the biggest reason of all, prosperity and the arrogance it often engenders.

Cracks in the Puritan way became clear in the Halfway Covenant of 1657. This was an agreement (a covenant) achieved at an assembly of Puritans from Massachusetts and Connecticut to allow halfway church membership and baptism for sinners. Second and third-generation Puritans seemed more interested in money than having the "born again" religious conversion necessary to become a full member of the Puritan Church and to be allowed to baptize their children in the Church. The Reverend Solomon Stoddard, whose grandson would be Jonathan Edwards (whom we will discuss in the next class), proposed partial or "halfway" membership in the Church of children and grandchildren of Church members. All the children and grandchildren need do was accept the Covenant and agree to the beliefs and rules of the Church, in order to participate in the sacraments of the Church. But they would not be allowed to vote on any Church issues until they had a spiritual conversion. This "halfway covenant" was adopted, but continued to be resisted by people on both sides of the issue: some who thought it was too lenient, and others opposed it as too strict.

One prominent textbook claims, under "Rhode Island," that "This belief [by Roger Williams] in the separation of church and state became a cornerstone of the American Constitution in 1787." That is overstated, because Rhode Island had no influence on the Constitution or the Bill of Rights which became its first ten amendments. Rhode Island did not send any representatives to draft the Constitution and it had no role in the drafting of the Bill of Rights. In fact, Rhode Island did not ratify the Constitution until after George Washington was elected president. The First Amendment (in the Bill of Rights) prohibits only the establishment of a national church by the government, not the support of religion by state governments. Also, Rhode Island was the only colony that had a "separation" of church and state. Other colonies, such as Massachusetts, funded religious institutions before and after adoption of the Constitution.

In between Massachusetts and Virginia there was a third approach: that taken by Pennsylvania. William Penn was another extraordinary Englishman. He converted to become a Quaker in England and began practicing that religion in violation of English law. He was arrested and prosecuted, but the jury refused to convict him. The king owed his father money, and gave the son what is today Pennsylvania. It was nothing but woods at the time. William Penn founded Pennsylvania based on this principle: religious freedom for all. He advertised in Europe and attracted people from many countries in addition to the English.

Penn was very kind to the Indians and soon had the most popular colony in America. Philadelphia, which means "brotherly love" in Greek, became America's greatest city, surpassing Boston in population in the 1700s. Only Pennsylvania and Maryland survived long-term under private ownership separate from the King of England. Most of the other colonies were eventually taken over by the King of England, often due to troubles that arose in the colony.

Pennsylvania was founded over 50 years after Virginia and Massachusetts. Georgia was founded over 50 years after Pennsylvania, which means over 100 years after Virginia and Massachusetts. Philanthropist James Oglethorpe founded Savannah in Georgia in 1733 for poor debtors in jails of England, and to serve as a "buffer" colony to separate protect English South Carolina against possible encroachment by Spanish Florida. Oglethorpe was religious and strict. Too strict, in fact, for the King of England, who then took over the colony in 1751. The colony was not nearly as strong and developed as the other colonies, so the other colonies did not take it very seriously.

Debate: Was it right for Europeans to settle on land where Native Americans already lived?

Economic System

This can be difficult for students to understand: it is money (economics) that shapes much of history. If the colonies were profitable for their mother countries in Europe, then the mother countries would continue to support and defend the colonies. But if the colonies were a money-loser, as in costing more to defend then they make, then they are going to be abandoned or at least no longer protected by the European mother country.

Some of the colonies were profitable. An economic system called mercantilism began to develop in the 1600s and 1700s, which would lay the foundation for capitalism in the 1800s.[5]

The basic concept of mercantilism is to limit imports from foreign countries (not including colonies), and maximize exports to everyone (including other colonies), in order to maximize the "trade surplus" (the amount by which receipts exceeds expenses). Colonies played an important role in this system by supplying raw materials (such as crops) at low cost to the mother country (e.g., England or France), which would then use the materials to produce food or other finished goods to sell to the world.[6] By selling more than the country buys, it could accumulate a surplus in money (gold) and become wealthier. In other words, mercantilism was an economic system in which the colonies existed to give raw materials to mother country (England), and buy her finished products, so that England could export more than it imported and thereby increase its gold reserves from a surplus in the balance of trade.

But there's no free lunch, and these European nations were all-too-happy to use slavery to do the back-breaking work of gathering the raw materials, such as crops and minerals. A slave trade developed to bring blacks from Africa to the New World in order to work the plantations for the settlers from England and other European powers.

Also, mercantilism tends to accumulate wealth in the mother country (England) at the expense of the colonies (America). Colonies attempted to print money to deal with their shortage of gold, but England would interfere with that, which created resentment.

The Spanish had a different system: they used a modified form of feudalism, known as the encomienda system, in order to force the Indians to do the hard work. The "encomienda" was a grant by the King or Queen of Spain of power over Indians within a geographic region, a grant that was given to an "encomendero", who was the Spaniard in that region who would put the Indians to work.[7] The Indians themselves became known as the economiendas.

The Spanish system looked better in theory, because the encomendero was supposed to educate the encomiendas, convert them to Christianity (Catholicism), and not exercise any political power over them (as in telling them how to live). In practice, however, there were no "checks and balances" preventing exploitation and abuse of power in working the Indians.

Triangular trade

A "triangular trade" existed from 1640-1720. The three sides of the "triangle" were trade routes from West Africa to the New World (specifically, the West Indies or the colonies), from there to Europe (England or continental Europe), and from there the boats traveled back to West Africa to begin again. The harshest part of this route was the taking of slaves, bound in chains from West Africa to the New World. After the slaves disembarked in the New World, workers would load goods onto the ships (such as raw molasses if the West Indies, or tobacco if Virginia) for transport to and sale in Europe.

New England colonies' version of triangular trade

The Massachusetts and Rhode Island colonies profited immensely from the slave trade through their own version of "triangular trade." They sent surplus goods like flour and addictive rum (alcohol) to Africa to purchase slaves, but rather than the slaves being shipped back to the New England colonies where there were opponents of slavery, the slaves were instead shipped to the West Indies to be sold at the highest price possible. After disembarking and selling the slaves, the captains of the ships then took as their cargo raw sugar, molasses (refined sugar), and lots money, which were then transported back to Massachusetts and Rhode Island at the profit of the businessmen running the slave trade. From there the ships were loaded up again with cheap goods for another trip across the Atlantic to North Africa (the African Gold Coast) to buy more slaves and put them on the ships. Over a 200-year period, opposition to this slave trade grew until it was prohibited in the 1800s.

Brown University in Rhode Island was founded in 1764 and named after an abolitionist (someone who wanted slavery abolished), Nicholas Brown, Jr., but his family profited from the slave trade.

Other immigrants

In addition to the English settlers, substantial numbers of Germans and Scotch-Irish also immigrated to the colonies. A small number of German Mennonite families settled in Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, in the late 1600s in order to obtain religious freedom. They are confusingly called the "Pennsylvania Dutch," because "Deutsch" is the German word for the German language. The Amish later settled there also, and their descendants can found to this day in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and in parts of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.

Scotch-Irish (or Scots-Irish), were Irish Protestants ("Ulster Protestants," which includes Northern Ireland) who settled further west, in the Appalachians. In England and Ireland, "Ulster Scots" is a term that refers to Scottish people who migrated starting in 1605 to the northern province of Ireland (Ulster).

A Word About College Board Exams

Finally, a word about College Board exams. This course will give you the foundation -- if you like -- for taking three different College Board exams: the CLEP, the AP, and the SAT II (rarely would a student take all three).

The CLEP is a multiple-choice exam that is recognized by most (but not all) colleges as a way to earn college credit. It costs about $89 and is conveniently administered on computers at local colleges, usually once a month. It is the least biased of the three exams, and not much advanced planning is needed to sign up for it. It is easy to register and take. In U.S. History, the CLEP exam is 120 multiple-choice questions with five answer choices per question, and it must be completed in 90 minutes on a computer. All questions should be answered because there is no penalty for wrong answers. Your final score is provided immediately upon your completion of the test.

On the CLEP U.S. History exam for college credit, the questions are allocated among these topics:

Political history - 35%
Social history - 25%
Cultural and intellectual history - 15%
Diplomacy and foreign relations - 15%
Economic history - 10%

On the CLEP exam for U.S. History I, roughly 1/3rd of the questions relate to the time period of 1492 (the initial voyage by Christopher Columbus) to 1789 (the beginning of the federal government of the United States under the U.S. Constitution, while 2/3rds relate to 1789 to 1877 (the end of Reconstruction).

The SAT II in American History is an inexpensive multiple-choice exam that takes only an hour and is given at certain high schools on Saturdays once a month, October through June, with registration available online at . No college credit is attained by it, but it is used for college applications to recognize achievement and seek scholarships. The SAT II is the cheapest of the three exams, but also the most politically biased in its selection of questions. The subject mater of this exam is similar to the CLEP but there are a bit more questions about economics and fewer on social history than on the CLEP exam. The breakdown of questions by time period for the SAT II exam is this:

Pre-Columbian history to 1789 - 20% of the questions on the SAT II history exam
1790 to 1898 - 40%
1899 to the present - 40%

On both the CLEP and SAT II exams, the biggest portion is devoted to politics, mostly concerning what happened in the federal government in Washington, D.C. If you master political history, then you will excel on both exams.

The AP, or Advanced Placement exam, is given only once a year early in May at local high schools, and is more expensive. It includes both multiple-choice and essay questions, and is used by more colleges to give credit for courses. But a student must sign up for it long in advance, and make arrangements with a nearby high school.

Unfortunately, all of the College Board exams omit military history. There are virtually no College Board questions about battles.

Each of these College Board exams can be taken as often as one likes, and colleges use the highest scores. Our course utilizes multiple-choice exams so that you can improve through practice.


  1. The Mayflower Compact is viewable here:
  2. Melissa L. Meyer, Dean R. Snow, Charles L. Cohen, Russell Thornton, Donald A. Grinde Jr., Leah Dilworth "Indian History and Culture" The Oxford Companion to United States History. Paul S. Boyer, ed. Oxford University Press 2001. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Tampa. 4 August 2008 <>
  4. "People have been looking hard for hundreds of years and there is no archaeological evidence in [New England] — it's certainly possible, the Vikings were incredible boat handlers — but there is no evidence," observed one history professor.[1]

See also