Period 1 Overview
Age of Discovery
The “Age of Discovery” ushered in the merging of two distinct cultures, those of European nations and those of the civilizations of native populations. Both cultures had to make accommodations to each other and the contact between them profoundly influenced the subsequent development of the Western Hemisphere. The migration and formation of complex societies by native populations in the Western Hemisphere required adaptation to varied environments and attempts to adjust to the influences of foreign peoples. In the end this contact with Europeans led to the devastation and demise of native populations who failed to adequately deal with the pressures of a militarily superior force and the radical changes they brought to the environment.
The native populations of the Western Hemisphere developed complex societies amplified by migration to diverse environments that required adaption to unique climates. Moving north from Mexico, and carrying knowledge of maize cultivation as their staple crop, native peoples (known as the Pueblo or Anasazi) settled in and adapted to life in the arid American southwest. The native peoples who settled on the Great Plains adopted a nomadic lifestyle to adapt to the local environment and follow the movement of their chief source of sustenance, the American bison. The more plentiful resources of the eastern and northwestern regions of the continent led to the development of more permanent villages which combined a mixture of sedentary agriculture and hunting and gathering activities. Thus the migration of early native populations required adaptation to the specific environmental factors that they encountered in different locations.
The “Age of Discovery,” was fostered by improved navigational aids (such as the astrolabe and the compass) and movement toward a mercantilist economy (that viewed the accumulation of wealth as a sign of power). Also, the growth of nation states fostered competition, both economically and religiously among European nations, encouraging exploration and ultimately bringing Europeans in to contact with the native populations of the Western Hemisphere.
Europeans quickly established dominance over the native populations due to epidemic diseases (particularly smallpox and measles) for which the native populations had no immunity and due to superior military technology. One hundred years after the explorer DeSoto discovered a rich and thriving Mississippian culture in the American heartland it had all but disappeared. European countries employed different strategies in colonizing the New World. Some, like the Spanish, utilized a combination of native and African slave labor to advance agricultural pursuits as well as mining interests.
The Spanish developed the encomienda system, rewarding conquerors of native people with the power to exploit the native population through forced labor and taxation. Native populations were, however, an insufficient source of labor leading to the development of the African slave trade. Others, like the French and Dutch, utilized commerce and trade with the native population to extract economic resources from the North American continent.
Both the Spanish and the French attempted to spread Catholicism to native populations by sending missionaries and also tended to inter-marry with native population more than the English or Dutch. Agricultural colonies, such as those established by the English, seriously encroached on native lands and introduced farming practices which radically altered the traditional native environment. While European incursions into the Western Hemisphere required adjustments on both sides, clearly the bulk of the adjustments fell on the native populations.
Contact between Europeans and native populations led to the exchange of goods and ideas between the two known as the “Columbian exchange.” Technological innovations, enhanced both cultures and the exchange of crops and livestock altered both the diets and environments of both groups. On the one hand the Columbian exchange spread devastating diseases throughout the Western Hemisphere and significantly altered the diets and environments of native populations. Hunter/gatherer civilizations suffered as agricultural encroachment depleted forests and grasslands necessary for sustaining native animal populations.
At the same time, European technology such as the wheel and firearms altered and improved life for native populations. For instance, the introduction of the horse and firearms altered the lifestyle of American Indians on the Great Plains. At the same time, the introduction of certain crops into the European and African continents enhanced diets and supported significant population growth, going a long way toward eliminating chronic famine. Western Hemisphere transplants such as the potato and cassava became staple crops in Europe and Africa respectively and the Western hemisphere offered up massive acreage which greatly increased the production of wheat.
As well, the abundance of natural resources in the Western Hemisphere ultimately precipitated the growth of trade and commerce both within Europe and between Europe and the Western Hemisphere. While the Columbian exchange had both positive and negative impacts on both cultures, the benefits to Europe clearly outweighed the benefits to native populations. Ultimately the thirst of Europeans to exploit the resources of the Western Hemisphere threatened the social and economic base of native civilizations and led to conflict between the two cultures.
Increased European demands for land, mineral wealth, and other natural resources left native populations with the choice of submission or extermination. Native population’s attempts at armed resistance in an attempt to preserve their economies, social structures, and religious beliefs generally failed due to decimation by disease and the superior firepower of Europeans. While elements of native culture permeated European society, the successful conquerors largely supplanted the perceived inferior native cultures with their own perceived superior institutions and religions.
About the Author: Warren Hierl taught Advanced Placement U.S. History for twenty-eight years. He has conducted 250+ AP US History workshops for teachers. He was a member of the committee that wrote the original Advanced Placement Social Studies Vertical Teams Guide and the Advanced Placement U.S. History Teachers Guide. He has been a reader, a table leader, and, for the past eight years, the question leader on the DBQ at the AP U.S. History reading.
In other words- Mr. Hierl grades the essays you will write for the APUSH exam.