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Unit 1

1.0 Unit 1 Overview: Contextualization

4 min readjune 2, 2021


Caleb Lagerwey

1.0 Period 1 (1491 – 1607)

Summary of Events

Period One represents the time right before Columbus lands in the Caribbean until the English establish their first permanent settlement in North America at Jamestown. During this period, European exploration and discovery are in full swing. Rival countries such as England, Spain, Portugal, and France are competing for resources and trade routes. Columbus is searching for a Northwest Passage to Asia; however, Columbus lands in the Bahamas at San Salvador. The news of his discoveries spread as quickly as it could in the 15th century and further exploration ensued.   📰

The Spanish take the lead

The Spanish take the lead in exploration following Columbus’ voyage in 1492 and the Western Hemisphere is never the same. Spanish conquistadors like Pizarro and Cortez find tremendous amounts of gold and silver in places like Mexico and Peru. As a result of advanced technology and weapons, huge Native empires fall to European conquest. Millions of natives die from European diseases such as smallpox.😝 Nonetheless, the news of Spanish discoveries encourages other Europeans to explore.

Image from Wikipedia

Economic Impacts

Economies drastically change as a result of European exploration. Native empires throughout the western hemisphere begin to establish trading relationships with the European powers known as the Colombian Exchange. Ideas, technology, and varieties of food begin to span the Atlantic Ocean stimulating tremendous economic and social changes in the West as well as in Europe. European populations begin to explode from the sharing of new foods such as the potato. 🥔 Rising populations further propel exploration and the desire for European goods encourage many Native tribes to continue trading.
England creates joint stock companies for the purpose of finding riches. Unfortunately, the colony of Roanoke mysteriously collapses. However, the Virginia Company finances the settlement of Jamestown for the purpose of finding Gold.💰 Although no gold is found in Virginia, Jamestown will be England’s first permanent colony.

Social Impacts

Socially, the Spanish began to establish the encomienda system in order to create a labor supply for mining resources and farming. The Encomienda system has many flaws and both the Spanish and English turn to enslaved Africans as their source of labor. Social systems based upon lineage and ethnicities lead to rigid caste systems in many areas. Thus, the social system in the New World begins to change drastically from the inclusion of Europeans, Africans, and natives. 

Religious Impacts

Religiously, the Spanish empire sends missionaries, such as de las Casas and Sepulveda, over to the new world to convert Natives to Catholicism.🕇 The outcome is not always pleasant as many Natives were killed or persecuted if they did not convert to Catholicism. Nonetheless, religious and social justifications condone the use of both Natives and Africans as labor sources.

What to think about

As you study Period 1, really focus on the causes of European exploration and the impact the Europeans have on the Native Americans and vice-versa. Understanding the impact on both cultures will demonstrate higher levels of understanding important on the APUSH exam. In addition, understanding the development of the Columbian exchange is crucial in describing the impact of both cultures upon one another.
Pay close attention to the development of the different labor systems employed by European powers. Focus on the encomienda system and then the movement to the slave labor system. The movement from one system to the other is crucial in understanding the movement toward the Trans-Atlantic trading patterns that will soon develop.

Image from Wikipedia

Major People and Events:

Christopher Columbus; Italian explorer sailing for Spain and looking for a new route to Asia and the Indies, but lands in the Bahamas, thus discovering a “new world.”
Aztecs, Mayas, Incas; all three were indigenous tribes conquered by the Spanish conquistadors for their gold and other resources.
Francisco Pizarro and Hernan Cortes; both Spanish conquistadors claiming New World lands for Spain and exploiting the Natives for their gold.
Columbian Exchange; the exchange of goods, ideas, plants, and diseases between the New World and the Old World.
Bartolome de las Casas; Spanish missionary against the enslavement of Natives and critic of the encomienda system.
Juan de Sepulveda; Spanish priest who supported the encomienda system and the enslavement of the Native peoples.
Encomienda System; a harsh method of slavery imposed by the Spanish on the Natives of the New World.
Slavery; the use of people against their will for the purpose of doing labor.
The Black Legend; a term describing the harsh, inhumane practices imposed on the Natives by the Spanish during the period of conquest.
Maize: corn.

Key Timeline:

1492 Columbus Voyage
1494 Treaty of Tordesillas
1565 St. Augustine founded by the Spanish
1587 Roanoke founded by the English
1607 Jamestown

Major Trends

Environmental issues will begin to have huge significance as people searched the world for natural resources.
European exploration will lead to competition among major nation-states fueling the development of joint-stock companies and overseas rivalries.
Agricultural goods and irrigation practices would be shared between European and native groups.
European countries would begin to shift from feudalism to capitalism as new sources of wealth were discovered and international trade began to flourish.
The colombian exchange would provide access to all sorts of new technologies, food-stuffs, and religious ideas.
Improvements in technology such as the caravel and compass would fuel further exploration.
Labor systems such as the Encomienda and slave-labor system would expand drastically.

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