Northwest Passage for APUSH
Do you know which North American waterway the French and the English used to connect the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans? Do you know how this Northwest Passage changed the course of United States history? Let’s take a look together and find out.
A World Divided
In 1494, the Pope splits the world between Spain and Portugal in the Treaty of Tordesillas. This treaty said that Spain gets all the land in America, except for a little sliver in Brazil, and that Portugal gets all the land east of America, except for that little sliver in Brazil. This effectively gives Spain the monopoly on the water routes between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, and it gives Portugal a monopoly on all African trade routes between Europe and Asia. However, this treaty wouldn’t prove very enforceable and by 1519, England and France and the Netherlands largely ignored it. And while the Treaty of Tordesillas was largely ignored by these European countries, what they could not ignore was the strong hold Spain had in South America with its colonies and its dominant Armada and the strong hold that Portugal had on the African trade routes. So what did these northern European countries do? Did they sit around together in a cry circle and whine about how life was so unfair? Absolutely not. They did what any self-respecting, semi-rich monarchy in Europe would do in the 16th century. They fought over the scraps of North America. Now when I say water route or trade route, do you know what I mean? I’m mainly talking about the water routes between Europe and the trading in Asia, whether around Africa or around South America. You see, in the 15th, 16th and 17th century, European powers didn’t care about colonizing the New World as much as they cared about establishing trade routes between Europe and Asia.
Search for a New Route
Ever since the Crusades, the Italian merchants had had a monopoly on trade routes coming out of the Middle East. So trade routes were established between Asia and the Middle East, the Middle East and Italy, and Italy and the rest of Europe. These were highly profitable and allowed the Italian city states to become very rich, allowing them to invest in the Renaissance. But while Italy was sitting fat and happy with its nice, established routes and its monopoly on trade and all the money that it made, the other European countries took notice and they wanted to trade, too. So what do they do? They start looking at water routes or waterways, water passages, that connect Europe to Asia. Now Portugal was very successful in establishing water routes around Africa and Spain was very successful establishing water routes around the tip of South America. But England and France and the Netherlands, they still needed their own proprietary water routes. So these northern European countries, they sent out explorers all throughout North America, like Henry Hudson, who found the Hudson Bay. And these explorers tried to find the connection between the Atlantic and the Pacific. And do you know if they found a waterway that connects the Atlantic to the Pacific? Unfortunately for them, no such thing exists. The Northwest Passage is just a theoretical waterway that connects the two oceans.
So why is the Northwest Passage important to U.S. history? The Northwest Passage is important because those European explorers explored all the lands of North America. They sailed down the St. Lawrence River, through the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi. They established trading posts with Native Americans and they scouted and mapped the terrain. While these explorers were not successful in establishing trade with Asia, they were very successful establishing trade with the Native Americans, which furthered European colonization in North America. Additionally, these explorers would end up laying claim to North American lands for their home countries. Sieur de la Salle claimed a lot of land along the Mississippi for France, Henry Hudson and John Cabot claimed a lot of land in Canada for England. It is this exploration which laid the foundation for further colonization by the French and the English.
The Northwest Passage, while unsuccessful at first, did lay a solid foundation for further exploration and colonization in North America. And the exploration for the Northwest Passage laid the groundwork for further colonizations of North America by European countries. What are your thoughts on the Northwest Passage and this video? Let me know in the comments below.