As school children, my generation thrilled to the stories of European explorers who set out in small wooden ships to cross uncharted seas. These men represented the curiosity, imagination, and desire for new experiences, exotic goods and luxury wares that seemed to sweep across western Europe in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These explorers flew the flags of any King who would finance their journeys: the Italian Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan sailed for Spain while the Englishman Henry Hudson sailed for the Dutch. These men were adventurers, but they were soon followed by settlers who hoped to make their fortunes or escape poverty and persecution in the Americas. The Spanish and Portuguese came first; but soon enough Dutch, French and English colonies were established. This year, thousands of visitors flocked to Jamestown, Virginia to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement on mainland North America.
Students today have a far richer scholarship on the exploration and settlement of the Americas than have previous generations. Scholars have studied the technological innovations necessary to make transatlantic and transpacific ocean travel possible. They have looked closely at map making and navigation as well. By studying the Native American cultures that existed before the arrival of Europeans, and by studying the interaction between these cultures and those of the explorers and colonists, they have given us a far more complex understanding of the meeting of these two worlds. Exchange and contact have been added to the descriptive vocabulary that once only included conquest and extermination. Historians have also described the impact of nonhuman exchanges, from flora and fauna to viruses and disease. And, American historians have used archeology and anthropology as well as wills, legal cases, and material culture to reconstruct the histories of our earliest seventeenth century settlements like Jamestown, Plymouth Plantations, and New Amsterdam.
In this issue, we offer a rich sampling of the new scholarship. Ted Widmer begins with an overview of the subject, entitled “Navigating the Age of Exploration.” In this provocative essay, he urges us to “try to stretch our boundaries” beyond the Anglo-American settlements and introduce our students to Quebec and Peru as well as to Jamestown, to slavery in the Caribbean as well as slavery in South Carolina. In “The Columbian Exchange,” Alfred Crosby provides an overview of the broad-ranging impact when European and Native American foodstuffs, grasses, animals, and diseases were introduced to each other. New staple crops that were native to the Americas allowed population increases as far away as Africa and northern Europe; tobacco brought a new addiction to European life; horses transformed southwestern Indian cultures; and smallpox and measles decimated Native American populations.
In “Native American Discoveries of Europe,” Daniel Richter reminds us that “discovery” was as much a Native American experience as a European one. Richter helps us understand the cultural context in which Indian responses to the arrival European explorers and colonists took place. In “Jamestown and the Founding of English America,” James Horn provides us a history of this colony, recreating for us the difficulties the early settlers faced. Horn shows us that the success of these English colonists came at a price: both Indians and colonists died in the warfare that established English supremacy in Virginia and the colonists’ economic success would lead to enslavement for thousands of African laborers.
In “Ferdinand Magellan: Missing in Action,” Laurence Bergreen tells us the fascinating story of the man whose ship circumnavigated the globe. Bergreen explains why so little is known of Magellan and he analyzes the role that politics in Spain and Portugal played in assuring that the record is silent on Magellan’s motives and experiences at sea. Finally, in “Conflict and Commerce: The Rise and Fall of New Netherland,” Simon Middleton offers us a portrait of an non-English colony, created as many English colonies were, by men and women who hoped to profit from the natural resources of the new world. The English conquest of this thriving commercial colony is an example of the central role that European political rivalries play in any account of U.S. history.
Our interactive feature, courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, focuses on the early maps of North America, reminding us that geography is a critical part of any history lesson. These maps illustrate the changing perception of American geography; they track Europe’s increasing familiarity with the new world. Our lesson plans deal with a variety of aspects of the era, offering you suggestions for classroom activities for elementary, middle and secondary school students. And, as always, our archivist, Mary-Jo Kline provides the sources you need to explore the subject in depth and create your own lessons.
We wish you an enjoyable and productive summer. Look for our September issue on the Constitution, offering you a wealth of materials for your Constitution day activities.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Presidential Distinguished Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.