When Vitus Bering found the strait which bears his name, he also explored the Aleutian chain of islands and the Alaska shores. He discovered the presence of sea otters, which added a new geographical region to the international fur trade. By 1745, Russian hunters were established on Attu Island, where they often clashed with the local Unangan (also known as the Aleutians) population. Over time, the hostility between the Russians and Aleutians lessened so that members of both cultures lived together in an uneasy peace. In 1784, Gregory Shelikhov established a settlement on Kodiak Island and founded what became the Russian American Company. The Company obtained otter and seal pelts by trading with the Aleuts. Sadly, the pattern of European disease decimating native populations was continued in Alaska so that, by the end of the century, nearly two-thirds the Aleutian population had died.


A map showing the ancestral territory of the Tlingit peoples (Source: Wikimedia)

In 1799, the Russian explorer Alexander Baranov sailed along the Alaskan shore with 450 two-man kayaks to establish a colony on Baranov Island, just six miles above a Tlingit stronghold in what is now Sitka, Alaska. The Tlingit people had inhabited the lower coastal area of the Alaskan panhandle for thousands of years where they had built a highly prosperous civilization. They lived in gabled lodges housing a dozen families and manufactured canoes holding as many as sixty men. One of their most impressive artistic achievements were their fifty-feet tall totem poles.

The Eskimos lived north of the Tlingit along the Arctic shoreline where they hunted both seals and walruses. Central Alaska was the territory of the Athabascan Indians who are linguistic cousins of the Apaches and Navajos. They lived in smaller nomadic bands whose lives revolved around the caribou. They are the first known to use snowshoes to facilitate getting about in deep snow.

By 1745, when the Russians were already well established in the Aleutians, the English had only a handful of isolated trading posts west of Hudson Bay. On the Atlantic side, in 1711 Britain sent seven army regiments to conquer French Quebec and established control of Canada. Ten of their ships were sunk and the expedition failed. When the War of the Spanish Succession (also known as Queen Anne’s War) in Europe ended two years later, France’s position in southeastern Canada was greatly weakened by the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. France lost Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and the Hudson Bay area to England.


This painting shows French officials surrendering to the British in Quebec in 1760 (Source: Wikimedia)

As thousands of Germans, French, and Protestant Scots poured into the English colonies of North America, the government of Louis XV allowed only a mere trickle to go to Canada. In the 30 years after 1713, the French spent six million in gold building a fortress on Cape Breton Island on the Atlantic coast, which menaced English fisheries. They also built forts on Lake Champlain, at Niagara Falls, and two on the Wabash River. In 1744, the War of Jenkins’ Ear with Spain merged into the War of the Austrian Succession (also known as King George’s War) in which England and Austria were allies against France and Prussia. The French and their Indian allies raided New England and the Iroquois allied with the British in turn raided Canada. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 ended the war. In mid-century, English settlers in Nova Scotia fought against local French known as Acadians. When the Acadians were forced to flee, many of them emigrated to French controlled Louisiana.

In yet another example of the impact of European wars on the peoples living the Americas, the Seven Years War was fought not on European territory but also in the Americas where it became known as the French and Indian War (1755-1763). The end of this War and the terms of the Peace of Paris signaled the death knell for France in the Canadian region of North America. Quebec fell to the British in 1759 and Montreal in 1760. The British government, by the Quebec Act of 1774 guaranteed the French who remained in Canada free exercise of their religion, language, and law (Old French civil law). They also expanded the boundaries of their new Canadian colony to the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. In what is best seen as an ironic historical twist, this expansion was interpreted as harmful to Virginia and Pennsylvania and was one factor in lighting the fuse for revolution in the North American British colonies. The Canadian northwest was opened by Scottish merchants in slender canoes and by French voyageurs. The fur trade reached its zenith in the 1790s. Montreal was the chief supply center with great loads of supplies leaving in flotillas with as many as 30 canoes, each 40 feet long.

In 1791, Parliament passed the Canada Act which divided the region into Upper and Lower Canada. The Canadian Pacific coast was explored in the 1780s. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver explored and surveyed the region now bearing his name. Alexander Mackenzie went overland to the Pacific in 1793 as the first European to cross the North American continent, coast to coast. By 1800, trappers and traders had crisscrossed the continent many times. Near the end of the century, Spain was at war with Great Britain, and in 1789 the Spanish Captain Martinez seized four British ships in Nootka Sound. This started a year’s dispute that ended in an agreement in October 1790 in which both nations agreed that each had a right to navigate and fish in the Pacific and to establish settlements there.

Because of the warm Kuroshio Current, the Canadian western coast land and adjacent islands are warm, with large forests and rivers teeming with salmon. The Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Nuxalk peoples prospered in this region. The abundance of natural resources allowed them to build vibrant cultures. They were experts in woodworking. This expertise is shown in magnificently carved totem poles, some fifty-feet high, and in lodges that were as large as three-thousand square feet. They manufactured sea-gray canoes which could hold up to fifty men.


A photograph of a totem pole in Vancouver (Source: Wikimedia)



Two-hundred fifty thousand people lived in the eastern colonies at the beginning of the 18th century. By 1750, including the one-hundred thousand African slaves, the colonies were almost one-third as populous as England itself. By 1776, the population increased to about two and a half million. Patterns of migration changed during the century. The first settlers came from England, but throughout the century Scotch, Welsh, Irish, German, and Dutch settlers began to arrive in ever increasing numbers. By 1763, it has been estimated that the population living in the 13 colonies was 50% English, 18% Scotch / Scotch-Irish, 18% African, 6% German and 3% Dutch. Europe did not need food products from the colonies, such as grain, meat, and butter, so these things were sold to the Caribbean. The bills of sale obtained in this way were then used by the colonists to purchase manufactured items from England. The chief export of the American colonies was tobacco. By 1723 more than two-hundred ships carried three-thousand kegs of tobacco a year to England, from where it was re-exported to northern Europe. In time, both indigo and cotton were also shipped from the Americas to England. For example, South Carolina sent more than a million pounds of indigo per year to England in the early 1770s.

By 1733, there were 13 colonies, but each had its own government, currency, trade laws, and religious traditions so that they functioned independently of each other. The Middle colonies (New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) produced the most flexible and tolerant societies. The Southern colonies (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) were governed by a plantation aristocracy, while the New England region (Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) was controlled by a Puritan oligarchy. New colleges were established in Princeton, New York, and Philadelphia. The first American newspaper was published in Boston in April 1704. Boston ladies imitated the manners of the court of King James, and the elite in all of the colonies were concerned with social status. The colonies had rum distilleries, using molasses from the Indies, and there was an iron industry in Virginia in 1750. By 1775, there were more furnaces and forges in the colonies than in England and Wales together. Economic development, however, was handicapped by the English restriction on colonial use of money which forbade the export of English coin to the colonies and prohibited any local mint coinage. As a result, the locals used Spanish milled dollars, or “pieces of eight,” paper money, and bills of credit. In every colony south of Maryland, African slaves outnumbered white servants by 1720 and the number of enslaved blacks continued to increase in the decades that followed. In Virginia in 1756, there were 120,156 Africans out of a total population of 293,474. From the very beginning, slaves resisted their bondage and sought to free themselves. These slave rebellions were a constant part of US history.

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Learn more about the history of slave resistance in the Americas by exploring The Slave Rebellion website.

Social conflict and war followed the European presence in the Americas. The War of the Spanish Succession (known as “Queen Anne’s War” in the colonies) at the beginning of the century included fighting between English settlers in the Carolinias (and their Chickasaw allies) and the Spanish (and their Apalachee allies) in Pensacola. In 1704, fifty South Carolinians from the Goose Creek region led by the Carolina governor James Moore and aided by men he had recruited from the Creek, Yamasee, and Apalachicola peoples invaded northern Florida and attacked the Spanish and their allies. In what is known as the Apalachee Massacre, they burned missions and slaughtered those whom they found living there. Upon his return to South Carolina, Moore boasted that they had killed 1300 people and enslaved more 4000 women and children. He also claimed to have personally killed 325 men. A few Apalachees escaped and fled westward to Mobile, where French priests allowed them to live in new missions. Moore and his allies continued their rampage through Florida, ravaging Timucuans, burning their towns, plundering livestock, and taking captives. Unable to protect their people living in Florida, Spain shipped hundreds of people from Florida, including the remnants of the Calusa, Tequeta, Apalachee, Guale, and Timucuan peoples, to Cuba.

Conflict erupted in Carolina as well. The Tuscarora people, of Iroquoian stock, lived in North Carolina’s Tidewater region. Traditional enemies of the Algonquian tribes, they became alarmed at the growing alliance between white colonists and the Algonquians. In order to protect their lands and people from a perceived threat, the Tuscarora opened hostilities in 1711. For two years, war raged with the Tuscarora fighting both the colonists and the Algonquian tribes. During the war, more than one thousand Tuscarora people were taken captive and sold into slavery.

In 1714, a still more destructive war erupted, called “the Yamasee War.” Many of the people indigenous to the Carolinas had grown concerned about the growing power of the white men who had lived in the Goose Creek region. The origin of the war was complex, and reasons for fighting differed among the many Indian groups that participated. Common factors driving Native resistance included the trading system, trader abuses, the slave trade of native peoples, the depletion of deer, increasing Indian debts in contrast to increasing wealth among some colonists, and the spread of rice plantation agriculture. Many of the Native American tribes fought against the white settlers of the Carolinas, including the Muscogee, Cherokee, Catawba, Apalachee, Apalachicola, Yuchi, Savannah River Shawnee, Congaree, Waxhaw, Pee Dee, Cape Fear, and Cheraw. Some played greater roles than others. Many of these tribes were descendants of the old Chiefdom of Cofitachequi, and thus, this conflict can be interpreted as a native response to the commercial empire of the Goose Creek men. Losses on both sides were high. Four hundred colonists were killed – approximately 6% of the white population. In the first year of the war, the Yamasee lost about a quarter of their population, who were either killed or enslaved. The survivors moved south to the Altamaha River, a region that had been their homeland in the 17th century. But they were unable to find security there and soon became refugees. In the aftermath of the Yamasee War, some joined the Creek confederacy and others became members of the Seminole tribe.


A 1724 deerskin Catawba map of the tribes between Charleston (left) and Virginia (right) following the Yamasee War (Source: Wikimedia)

Europeans customarily branded slaves, and this became standard practice in the United States. In 1716, commissioners in charge of the Carolina Indian trade sent branding irons to agents in the back country to mark both deerskins and captives. The latter were marked on the face, shoulder, or arm. Through the 18th century, tens of thousands of southern native peoples were enslaved – the vast majority being women and children. Native slaves worked for whites as wage laborers, tilling fields, rounding up cattle, and as domestics, hunters, and artisans. Native women also worked as house slaves.

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Learn more about European enslavement of native peoples in the article, America’s Other Original Sin.


In the early 18th century, Anglicans redoubled their efforts to send missionaries to the Indians to learn their languages and establish schools. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was founded for that purpose in 1701. Colonial governors. and commissaries were members, as were laymen on both sides of the Atlantic. Inevitably there developed a close association between the SPG and English imperialism. There was little distinction between extending the flag and spreading the faith. Schools were established, including one in connection with William and Mary College, but there were never many in attendance and little was really accomplished. In the long run, the SPG was most “successful” with Mohawks in upper New York, where missionaries conducted services in the Mohawk language.


The seal of the SPG (Source: Wikimedia)

After 1715, the two largest Indian tribes adjacent to South Carolina were the Creeks and Cherokees, and there was some attempt to Christianize them. A German, Christian Gottlieb Priber, a versatile scholar and lawyer conversant in several languages, went to live among the Cherokee where he learned their language and educated them to better understand European practices and customs. Because he explained to them how traders’ scales, weights and measures worked, local British colonists who had been cheating native peoples sought him out and imprisoned him.

Except for Florida, Georgia was the last southern colony. It was founded in 1733, more than sixty years after the birth of Charleston. After ten years of trustee rule, Georgia’s white population was small, but by the eve of the Revolution in the early 1770s, Georgia contained over eighteen-thousand free whites and almost as many slaves. The original design for Georgia prohibited alcohol, outlawed African slavery, and restricted the size of land holdings. This did not keep the Georgians from using Indian slaves, however, and by 1750 the trustees reversed their earlier position and legalized all types of slavery. James Oglethorpe was the only trustee who actually went to Georgia. He appointed Charles Wesley as secretary for Indian affairs and John Wesley as an ordained missionary of the SPG. John Wesley decided to go into the Chickasaw country to learn their language and customs, but various complications kept him from accomplishing this, and his ministry was not successful.


An 18th century painting depicts James Oglethorpe presenting the Yamacraw Indians to the Georgia Trustees. Notice the Native American boy (in a blue coat) and woman (in a red dress) in European clothing. (Source: Wikimedia)

Native engagement with Europeans was complex. Each tribe sought to leverage their relationship with Europeans to their own advantage. This means that, at times, they cooperated with English settlers, as when Creek, Yamacraw, and Cherokee peoples helped Oglethorpe in battles against Spanish troops who attacked St. Simon’s Island in 1742. At other times, the Indians fought the colonists who threatened their way of life. There was also considerable intermingling (both cultural and physical), especially as runaway slaves were welcomed into tribal life. Africans and Indians intermingled, learned each other’s languages, intermarried and at times made common cause against whites. Many tribes were therefore diverse and inclusive.

Tribal identity among native peoples also shifted in response to the decimation of population by European diseases and to the loss of land as a result of European conquest. In the 18th century, the Creek indigenous people constituted one of the largest racially heterogeneous tribes. Lower and then Upper Creeks drifting into Florida together with isolated people who had fought in the Yamasee War formed the nucleus of a “new” group – the Seminole “nation.” The Lumbee tribe of North Carolina is another example. One of the largest tribes in the United States, they were an aggregation of diverse remnant tribes, run-away slaves, and some disgruntled white settlers.

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Learn more about the Lumbee Tribe (its history and culture) by visiting the official Lumbee website.

Native peoples suffered greatly at the hands of white settlers who enslaved and killed them. White settlers also frequently destroyed native food supplies and cut down their corn as part of a larger strategy to take over their land. Pushed off their land, survivors fled to the woods where many starved. The Cherokee Chief James Vann was driven from his village during the American Revolution and was forced to scratch for subsistence in the wild. All of these Indians were agriculturists. Although small amounts of wheat and rice were grown, corn remained the staple and was prepared as cornbread and hominy, or, after being boiled with oak and hickory ashes, was drunk as a kind of soup, which they called sofkee. Late in the century, sweet potatoes were planted. Fields were fenced and cattle, horses, sheep, goats, hogs, and chickens were raised.

Many new words entered the English language as a result of cultural interaction. Examples include moccasin, matchcoat, terrapin, opossum, raccoon, chinquapin, chum, hominy, pone, and tomahawk. Europeans also appropriated a great many Indian medicines and cures, and a considerable portion of southern white and African American folk medicine is of indigenous origin. In time, most African slaves adopted, at least in a modified form, the Christian religion. Notably, most joined one of the evangelical sects (especially Baptists and Methodists) rather than the Anglicans.


Frenchmen were at the upper end of the Mississippi watershed, and Detroit was founded by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701 as a fort to control the entrances to Lakes Huron and Erie. Native peoples lived throughout the eastern part of what we now call the Midwest. The Shawnees were widely dispersed, but, by 1725, most of the southern bands had rejoined their kinsmen in Pennsylvania. The expanding white frontier and the increasing military activities of the Iroquois slowly pushed them westward, where they established new villages in the Wyoming and Susquehanna valleys. During the second quarter of the 18th century, part of the tribe again moved south, seeking refuge among the Upper Creeks in Alabama, while the majority was settled in mid-century along the Scioto River in central Ohio. They were surrounded by a great many other tribes, including the Potawatomi, Delaware, Wyandot, and Seneca peoples. In the territory now known as the state of Illinois, there were herds of up to five hundred buffalo seen frequently as late as 1792, but within five years they had been driven across the Mississippi by hunters and domestic farming activities. In Minnesota, Chippewa and Sioux fought over the wild rice stands in the northern lakes in the 1750s. The Sioux moved into the South Dakota area as nomadic horsemen with a far different lifestyle than the original valley farming Indians. They received their horses indirectly from the Spaniards in the southwest.

In the lower Mississippi region in 1714, the French explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis settled Natchitoches as the oldest city in Louisiana. The city was located near a number of small Indian states, including the famous Natchez, perhaps the last inheritors of the Mound-building tradition. Four thousand Natchez people at the beginning of the 18th century lived in seven villages. In a series of events tragically repeated often in the interactions between native peoples and Europeans in North America, when the Natchez tried to defend and preserve their way of life against European encroachments through a show of military force, they were defeated by the superior weapons and numbers of white settlers. As a result, they lost their land and independence. Many were killed and as many as a thousand were forcibly enslaved.


A drawing of the Natchez Great Temple on Mound C and the Sun Chiefs cabin by Alexandre de Batz in the 1730s (Source: Wikimedia)

The Old Northwest was the territory about the Great Lakes and between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. By 1750, the Shawnees were divided into five semi-autonomous political units or bands, each occupying a special place within the tribal confederacy. All the bands took an active part in the French and Indian Wars, most of them supporting the French. They joined bands of Delawares to raid the English frontier in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

In 1763, Chief Obwandiyag (also known as Pontiac) of the Ottawa along with some members of the Wyandot, Potawatomi, and Ojibwa peoples, distressed by British military control of the Great Lakes region, attacked, and then besieged the British fort in Detroit from May until November. Inspired by their success, the Shawnee moved into eastern Ohio and West Virginia, killing settlers who had built settlements on Indian lands and burning farms. They sent runners as far west as Illinois, urging the tribes of the Wabash Valley to attack British forts and traders who were moving onto their land via the Cumberland Gap, a 1,665 feet elevation pass through the Appalachian Mountains lying at the border of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. This Gap had been known to the Indians for centuries but was “discovered” for the Virginia Land Company by Dr. Thomas Walker in 1750 who named it after the Duke of Cumberland. From the Pass, trails fan out to the south and west so that somewhat later a veteran of the French and Indian Wars, Daniel Boone, made this a highway to the “promised land” of the west. The so-called “Wilderness Road” was nearly 300 miles long, ending at the Ohio River at Louisville, and by the end of the century, over a hundred-thousand people had traversed this trail to settle on Indian land in what is now western Tennessee and Kentucky.


A map showing the Cumberland Gap in relation to the Wilderness route from Virginia to Kentucky (Source: Wikimedia)

During the French and Indian War, the British realized they needed to overhaul their imperial system and strengthen their central authority in the Americas. Because they had adopted a mercantilist theory of economics, they believed that colonies existed solely for the benefit of the homeland and that in return the homeland owed them protection. Although the Acts of Trade and Navigation had been passed by Parliament in 1651, they were more rigidly enforced in the 18th century. These Acts mandated that the colonies were only allowed to trade with England. In addition, after the war, the British found themselves with significant financial debts and they thus began to pass new taxes for the colonies. This shocked and infuriated the colonists who believed that their liberties were at risk.

The final result of the growing encounter was a declaration of independence by the colonists followed by war. The Revolutionary War was fought between 1776 and 1783. The victory of the colonists in the Battle of Yorktown led to the Peace of Paris in 1783. This Treaty divided North America. The United States was given territorial rights from the Atlantic Ocean west to the Mississippi, north to Canada and south to Florida. The British retained Newfoundland fishing rights and free navigation on the Mississippi. Spain was given Florida. Of course, as was usually the case with Europeans when they met to discuss territory, the rights of the native peoples who were indigenous to the Americas were neither considered nor discussed.

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Watch John Green explain the Revolutionary War and its impact on world history
in Crash Course in World History #28.


After winning the war, the colonists were faced with the challenge of creating a new nation. Significant problems faced its leaders. Besides having European nations treating it with contempt, the new nation had to pay the interest on the Revolutionary War debt. It was on the brink of collapse when Congress appealed to the people for a new constitution. Delegates from 12 of the 13 colonies met in a Constitutional Convention in 1787. After the Constitution was adopted, George Washington served as the first President with John Adams as Vice-President.

In the years following the Revolution, white settlers crowded into Indian lands in southern Ohio and the remaining Shawnees turned to British Indian agents, who assured them that they still owned their lands. The United States negotiated a series of treaties with the Iroquois and Wyandot in 1784 and 1785 and with the Shawnee at Fort Finney in January of 1786. In this meeting, American agents told the Shawnee that they must give up their land claims east of the Miami River and acknowledge the sovereignty of the United States over all their villages. The Shawnee were astonished, but, under the imminent threat of destruction of their women and children, their leaders signed the proposed treaty. When white settlers soon violated the terms of the treaty by invading the land that been given to the Shawnee, in an attempt to protect their lands and homes, the Shawnee violently resisted. Two federal expeditions were sent out against the Shawnees – the first under General Josiah Harmar and the next under Governor Arthur St. Clair, who had was supported by two-thousand soldiers. The Shawnee with the Miami, Potawatomi, Delaware, and other allies fought against the aggression and were able to push back the Americans. During the spring of 1794, the British built a new fort on the Maumee River (called Ft. Miami) close to modern Toledo. Thinking that was a sure indication of British military assistance, American forces led by Anthony Wayne, returned on August 20, 1794, and swept through Shawnee barricades at Fallen Timbers, Ohio, and crushed the native forces. The defeated Shawnee had no choice but to make peace. On August 3, 1795, they signed the Treaty of Greenville. According to the terms of the Treaty, the Shawnee and their allies lost most of their ancestral homeland and were only allowed to live in the northwest quadrant of Ohio.


The American Revolution and the events leading up to it had little impact on the few whites and Indian tribes who lived west of the Mississippi. The spread of horsemanship from the Spanish contact had worked a rapid transformation in the Great Plains, but this was only the beginning of a radical cultural adjustment to the lives of native peoples. Between 1720 and 1722, Mexican Spaniards occupied Texas. A mission was founded at San Antonio in 1718. In the adjacent area of Louisiana, American squatters made up nearly one-half of the population of fifty thousand by the end of the century. New Orleans was founded in 1720 by the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville to control river traffic.

Those areas now known as Texas and New Mexico, most of Colorado and Arizona, with portions of Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma, were claimed by Spain and renamed the Kingdom of New Mexico. White settlements were chiefly located along the Rio Grande River. Albuquerque was established in 1706, with Taos soon after, and there were Spaniards in Pueblo, Colorado by 1750. There was extensive trade between that area and Chihuahua in old Mexico, six hundred miles to the south.

Native peoples were routinely abused by members of the state and the church and treated as servants and serfs. There was periodic resistance to Spanish colonization. In the 1770s, almost seventy-hundred Spaniards were killed by Apaches and Comanches, who fought together against the white invaders. The Akimel O’odham Indians of southern Arizona fought the Apaches but maintained friendly relations with the Spanish. In 1775, they numbered about twenty-five hundred, living as sedentary farmers, raising com, squash, beans, cotton, and Spanish wheat by means of an elaborate system of irrigation.

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Learn more about the irrigation system used by the Akimel O’odham peoples who had inherited the system from their Hohokam ancestors in this article published by Popular Archaeology.


In the far west, Spain expanded its control by both land and sea. The land between Mexico and California was mapped by Father Eusebio Kino, who traveled to San Diego in 1769 and established missions in the Baja peninsula. The last great military expedition of the Spaniards was mounted in the 1750s when there were rumors that the Russians were intent on claiming upper California which the Spanish considered to be part of New Spain. Although the Russians were only chasing the sea otter, King Charles of Spain ordered that a chain of forts be built along the California coast. Priests accompanied the Spanish military. Father Junipero Serra is perhaps the most well-known. He built twenty-one missions, the main architectural legacy of Spain in California. The earliest California missions were in San Diego, San Gabriel, and San Luis Obispo, which were all established by 1773.


This map shows the location of the missions founded along the California coast by Spanish missionaries (Source: Wikimedia)


Spanish rule continued in this region. The object of Spanish colonization was to enrich the Spanish king, without little to no concern for the effect on the population and progress of the colonized country. As the century progressed and after wide-spread administrative reforms by King Felipe V of Spain, there was a general economic upsurge. The population increased rapidly by the close of the century, due at least in part to the development of immunity to the various European diseases. The growth of a large middle-class population gave new intellectual and cultural life to the colony. By the end of the century, there were over a million creoles (criollo in Mexico) and mestizos were becoming more numerous.

The Americas became more Europeanized, although racial plurality, the prevalence of large plantation estates, widespread compulsory labor, and the extraordinary economic and cultural importance of the Church, distinguished it from most of Europe. Mexico City had over one-hundred thousand people in 1793 and was larger than any city in France or England except Paris and London. There were more people in Mexico than in all of the thirteen colonies of North America. Silver mines in the northern part of the country allowed Mexicans to purchase large quantities of European goods. When the corn supply, which originated in the south, was interrupted in 1785-86, however, famine developed in the northern mine area, and there was an endless flight of workers to the south, especially to Mexico City.

Guatemala City was founded in 1776, after the old capital was destroyed by an earthquake. After 1720, Britain’s largest supply of American Indian slaves for the West Indies came from Central America, primarily the Gulf of Honduras, the Miskito Coast, and Panama. Britain established both permanent control of Belize and protectorates over Honduras and Nicaragua.

In the Caribbean, the first coffee plants were started on Martinique by a French naval officer in 1723, and the Caribbean eventually supplied 90% of the world’s coffee. Jamaica continued its sugar production, and Saint Domingue produced as much or more. Gigantic estates were built on the largest island, Jamaica, especially after 1740, when the island’s sugar economy was expanded.

The impact of the French Revolution was most clearly experienced on the French-controlled island of Saint Dominique (later renamed Haiti). In the late 18th century, this island was one of the richest colonies in the world. In 1872, it exported seventy-two million pounds of refined sugar, fifty-one million pounds of indigo, and one million pounds of cotton. In the 1880s and 90s, the colony exported 40% of the world’s sugar supply and 60% of the world’s coffee. These materials were grown, harvested, and made ready for export on eight-thousand large plantations, owned by French nobility but worked by a large number of slaves. The population of the island was split unevenly between five-hundred thousand slaves, forty-thousand Europeans, and thirty-thousand people described by the French as “free people of color” (mostly mixed-race). This later group was considered by the elite to be “second-class” citizens. The social situation was volatile – especially because sugar production was extremely dangerous and brutal.


A 19th century painting of Louverture in military uniform (Source: Wikimedia)

When news of the French Revolution reached the island, it was supported by the wealthy elite who saw a chance to escape the harsh taxes that had levied on them by the French king. As the ideas of the Revolution began to circulate on the island, “free people of color” and slaves welcomed the Revolution for very different reasons. To the free people of color, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which had been passed by the National Assembly on August 26, 1789, guaranteed equal treatment of all free people. To the slaves, the implications were even more radical. If, as the Declaration stated, “men are born free and equal in rights,” then slavery and the entire slave system was both unjust and immoral. In 1791, when a rumor spread that the King had declared all slaves in the Empire to be free, slaves revolted. They burned over one-thousand plantations and killed many who opposed them. The result was anarchy as freed blacks, slaves, and whites attacked each other to advance their own understanding of freedom. Amid the confusion and chaos, power began to shift towards the slaves who were now led by a former slave, Toussaint Louverture. Louverture and his successor were able to overcome internal resistance as well as negotiate with Napoleon to ensure freedom for the newly formed nation which they called Haiti (a term meaning “mountainous” in the language of the indigenous peoples of the island).

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Watch as John Green explains the Haitian Revolution – its history and its significance in world history – in Crash Course in World History #30.

The constitution of Haiti, announced on July 7, 1801, confirmed Louverture’s authority as governor general and abolished slavery. The Haiti Revolution was the only successful slave revolt in world history. This helps explain the international reactions to Haiti after independence. To the indigenous peoples of South America and the enslaved peoples of the Caribbean, Haiti’s revolution was a message of hope. Within weeks of the Haitian slave uprising in 1791, slaves in Jamaica had composed songs in its honor. Owners of slaves throughout the Atlantic world also reported a new “insolence” in their slaves who had heard of the successful revolt in Haiti. Throughout the slave world of the Americas, the word Haiti was associated with resistance to the cruelty of the slave system and its supporters. The memory of the slave revolt inspired many to revolt (in both small and large ways). It is certainly significant that the largest slave revolt in North America erupted in Louisiana in 1811, not many years after the establishment of Haiti. Haiti was also important to the emerging abolitionist movement in both the United States and Great Britain.

On the other hand, white elites throughout the same Atlantic world viewed the Haitian Revolution with a combination of fear and horror. Fear of slave revolts intensified and led to harsher treatment of slaves in the Caribbean, Brazil, and the United States. The United States refused to recognize the independence of Haiti and, during the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (a slave owner), imposed an economic embargo on trade with Haiti crippling its attempt to rebuild its economy after years of conflict and strife. Finally, as a sign of its disrespect for the newly established nation, France imposed a “independence debt” of 150 million francs in 1825. This financial burden also stunted economic development.


In the Spanish part of South America, a relatively small number of Europeans ruled over a large native population who chafed under European rule. The most important uprising against Spanish rule occurred in Peru in 1780-81, led by a man claiming royal Inca descent.

European expeditionary forces continued to intermittently fight for control of South American ports. Britain’s Admiral Edward Vernon attacked the Spanish fortress at Cartagena, Colombia in 1741, but the Spanish, with the “assistance” of malaria and yellow fever, held them off, and the British retired to Jamaica. Cayenne, in French Guinea, was a French penal colony. Cocoa plantations in Venezuela were created by the Caracas Company in 1728. Southern Venezuela, however, was a wild country with huge flocks of sheep shepherded by native peoples and mestizos. The silver mines of Bolivia continued to operate during the century. The more important mining camp was Potosi, thirteen-thousand feet high in the Andes, where more than one-hundred thousand workers lived in abject poverty. Only the merchants made money

When Spain decreed a liberalization of trade and transport, colonies were allowed for the first time to trade freely among themselves. The exchange of goods and ideas meant that gradually wider circles of Spanish-Americans began to interest themselves in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. In the third quarter of the century, under the enlightened Spanish reign of Charles III, the area had even begun to prepare for self-government. The French Revolution and its violent upheaval forestalled independence movements which did not materialize until the 19th century.


The alliance of Portugal with England during the War of the Spanish Succession led to French attacks on Brazilian ports. Rio de Janeiro was sacked in 1711. There was continued trouble between the Portuguese and indigenous peoples with open warfare finally resulting in the pushing of the line of Portuguese territory farther westward into the jungles. In addition, there was war (1710-11) between the native Brazilians of Olinda, capital of Pernambuco, and the Portuguese settlers in Recife. Again, the latter won and made Recife the capital of Brazil until 1763 when it was moved to Rio de Janeiro because of the development of nearby gold mines. The peak gold production was between the years of 1750 and 1755, when over fifteen tons a year were mined. In the 18th century, Brazil exported sugar, coffee, cacao, rice, and cotton, in addition to gold, to Europe. Work in the fields and the mines was increasing performed by African slaves. By 1775, over five and a half million slaves had been brought to America. The death rate for slaves was horrific. Four out of five brought to Brazil died within eight years.

The fiercely independent Araucanian Indians (also known as the Mapuche peoples), some of whom had escaped the Spaniards in the 16th century by taking refuge with their stolen Spanish horses on the eastern slopes of the Andes, subsequently invaded the pampas and occasionally threatened Buenos Aires in the 18th century. The sale of thousands of mules per year to Peru and Brazil gave Argentina a chance to share in the silver and gold of those countries. Up to two million mules were used in Central and South America for saddle or carrying (rarely for hauling). European oxen were used for drawing heavy carts in the pampas, and the gauchos were already riding great horses at the end of the century.


A painting shows the Araucanian Indians subduing horses (Source: Wikimedia)


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