GED Social Studies Practice Test: Exploration & the Settlement of the Americas

The Stirring of Interest in the World Beyond Europe

During the Renaissance, northern and western Europeans displayed a thirst for knowledge after centuries of little intellectual activity during the Middle Ages. They began to rediscover the ancient Greek writings on astronomy and mathematics. Europeans had limited knowledge of the world beyond their continent. Marco Polo, in the 1300s, brought back amazing stories of his journey to China, and Crusaders encountered spices, citrus fruits, and silk during the Crusades (attempts to recapture the Holy Land from the Ottoman Empire).

As the Renaissance spirit grew and spread, scientists discovered that other cultures had made great strides in technology. From the Arabic world, Europeans learned of navigational instruments such as the sextant and quadrant, which measured the angle of the sun in relationship to a fixed point, allowing a ship to determine where it was relative to the equator (the midpoint of Earth’s sphere). From Chinese culture, the Europeans learned about the magnetic compass, which allowed mariners to determine direction they were sailing (this was before accurate clocks could allow seafarers to determine accurate measurements of east and west — an issue led Columbus to believe he had reached India when, in fact, he had sailed only about 3,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas).

Along with navigational technology, new developments in shipbuilding allowed seafarers to voyage into the ocean beyond the sight of land. Adjustable sails, the rudder (another cultural borrowing from China), and the creation of stronger, safer ships made exploration more feasible.

Europeans lusted after the riches of the East and were determined to find sea routes to China and India. Their motives were primarily economic; those nations that could voyage to those far-off lands and bring back silk, spices, and gold would powerful and wealthy.


Europe Ventures South and East

The Portuguese were the first to explore the coast of Africa (Africa was known to Europe, although Europe had imported relatively few slaves). Beginning in the early 1400s, Portuguese explorers felt their way down the coast of Africa, venturing southward. Finally, in 1487, a Portuguese explorer rounded the continent (the Cape of Good Hope) and sailed up the eastern coast of Africa.

Islamic traders had been plying the Africa-to-India trade for decades, but this was new to the Europeans. The Portuguese learned to sail with the seasonal winds and were soon able to establish a Europe-to-India route by sailing around Africa and stopping along the way. The little country was the world’s leader in trans-ocean exploration.


Spain Grows Jealous and Hires Columbus

The collection of kingdoms that made up the region known as Spain were unified when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella brought their kingdoms together and managed to banish the last of the Islamic rulers. The nation was now unified.

Spain was envious of Portugal’s success, and wanted to participate in the lucrative trade. Ferdinand and Isabella also sought to spread Catholicism, as this would help them consolidate and strengthen their power.

In 1492, they hired an Italian seafarer and navigator, Cristoforo Colombo (known today as Christopher Columbus). Columbus, who had studied ancient texts and maps, knew the earth was a globe. He had a bold plan.  He would sail west to arrive in the Far East. Columbus presented his plans to various monarchs of Europe; the plan seemed too radical for most. But Ferdinand and Isabella, intrigued, financed him.

With three ships and approximately 100 men, Columbus left Europe in the summer of 1492 and sailed west. In early October, he sighted land. Columbus landed on an island in modern-day Bahamas, but he believed he had reached India. When he first encountered the native peoples, he referred to them as Indians. Since it was impossible for mariners to determine their location east or west of a fixed point (that would come in the 1700s), Columbus had not sailed nearly as far as he believed he had. His reasoning was sound enough, but the Americas and the Pacific Ocean stood in his way!

Columbus made three more voyages on behalf of Spain, and while he never found the gold he so desired, his exploits demonstrated that crossing the Atlantic was feasible (and would soon be profitable).


Spain Soon Strikes Gold and Initiates the Columbian Exchange

Following the footsteps of Columbus, later Spanish explorers landed in modern-day Florida and South America (an Italian navigator had demonstrated that North and South America were, in fact, distinct land masses and were not Asia). Nonetheless, the New World beckoned. Hernán Cortés landed in modern-day Mexico and conquered the Aztec Empire. Its fabled gold and riches were now Spain’s. To the south, Francisco Pizarro conquered the technologically advanced Inca Empire and reaped its gold and silver.

The Europeans learned of the fantastic variety of foods and animals — including the potato, corn, and tomato — present in the New World and brought them back to Europe. The Europeans brought pigs and horses to the New World, along with diseases. These diseases — primarily smallpox and measles — against which the people of the New World had no immunity, killed millions. This is called the Columbian Exchange.

While the Spanish and the Portuguese (who had claimed the eastern coast of South America and named it Brazil) attempted to use the native populations for forced labor, these nations soon found a new source of forced labor: slaves from Africa. In just a few decades, the trans-Atlantic trade brought foods, gold, and silver from the New World to the Old World (Europe), and slaves from Africa to the Americas.


England Joins the Quest for New Lands

England’s earliest claims to territory in the New World rested on the voyages of John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), an Italian sea captain who was under contract to England’s King Henry VII.

Cabot explored the coast of Newfoundland [in Canada] in 1497. England, however, did not follow up on Cabot’s discoveries with other expeditions of exploration and settlement.

Through most of the 1500s, England was preoccupied with religious conflict (King Henry VIII broke with Rome and established the Church of England) and intrigue over succession to the throne.

In the late 1500s, however, England realized that if it did not begin to colonize the New World, it would be eclipsed by Spain.

Sir Francis Drake (who was the second man, after Magellan, to sail around the world), attacked Spanish ships, seized the gold and silver that they carried, and even attacked Spanish settlements on the coast of Peru. Another English adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh, sponsored voyages in the early 1580s and proclaimed “The Dominion (state) of Virginia” (named for Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen”). The original land claim ranged over a vast amount of territory (from modern-day Pennsylvania to modern-day Georgia).


England’s First Settlement

England’s first settlement, in 1587, on an island off the North Carolina coast, was a failure and a mystery. When a supply party reached the island in 1590 (in the interim, Spain and England fought a fierce naval war), no trace of the 100 colonists remained. Even today, no one knows if they fled, were kidnapped by local tribe, or simply disappeared.

In the early 1600s, with a new king on the throne, the Virginia Company received a royal charter (license) from King James I to start a new colony. The Virginia Company was a joint-stock company, meaning that it had investors, who believed the colony could be a money-making venture. Investors hoped the settlers would find gold.

In late 1606, three ships, carrying 105 men set out and in May, 1607, arrived at the Virginia coast. They sailed inland on a river they named the James River and established Jamestown, which would become the first permanent English settlement in the new world (the Spanish had established their colonies in the south and west decades earlier).

Jamestown got off to a rocky start. Many of the men — minor aristocrats, adventurers, and gold-seekers — were not used to hard work and did not construct buildings and plant crops. Everyone was looking for gold and most of the original settlers starved. Their relations with local Native American tribes was poor; rather than plant food for themselves, settlers were constantly demanding food from the local tribes (including the tribe led by the father of Pocahontas).

What saved the colony was the discovery of a local plant long used by Native Americans: tobacco. By experimenting with different blends, the colonists developed a smooth-tasting (and highly addictive) variety that found a ready market in England. This “bewitching weed” (King James hated smoking and believed it was hazardous to one’s health!) was insanely profitable, and soon the colonists were growing as much as they could.

Since tobacco is labor-intensive, colonists soon began to import poor English men and women to work as indentured servants — basically, people who signed away their freedom for a period of 4 to 7 years. At the end of the period of service (the indenture), they might receive some clothes, tools, and a plot of land. Poor people with no prospects in England, both men and women, had the opportunity to flee poverty and go to the New World.

As tobacco grew ever-more profitable, a class system — the planters and the servants — developed. Eventually, the slave trade became more organized (and profitable), and the settlers of Virginia began to use slaves imported from Africa instead of indentured servants. Eventually, large farms, known as plantations, were established and worked by slave labor.


Other Southern Colonies

Maryland (named for Queen Mary of England) was set up as a refuge for Catholics, and it, too, became a tobacco-growing colony.

North Carolina and South Carolina were established in the 1660s and quickly became profitable colonies. South Carolina’s climate also supported rice growing.

Georgia (named for King George II) was originally established as a place where English debtors could be sent. Its fertile soil also supported tobacco and cotton.


Religious Persecution in England Leads to Colonization in the North

The Puritans were a sect in England that sought to “purify” the Church of England of what it believed to be its corrupted ways. One group of Puritans, called Separatists, left England for Holland, and eventually received permission to establish their own colony in America. They set out for Virginia, but strong winds blew them north and they landed in what is today Cape Cod Bay and established a colony at Plymouth in 1620. Unlike the Southern settlers, the Plymouth colonists had generally good relations with the local Native American tribes and prospered by establishing small farms and raising livestock. Also, the abundant forests provided timber and animal furs for export to England.

Ten years later, a larger, wealthier group of Puritans set sail and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630). The colony was meant to be a holy place and was a theocracy (government by religious officials). Every aspect of daily life was controlled by Puritan principles. It later merged with Plymouth.

Offshoots of the Puritan settlements in Massachusetts were Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Collectively, these four colonies made up a region known as New England. Because of short summers and thin, rocky soil, plantations never developed.

In order to train ministers, the Puritans established a number of colleges. The first, Harvard College, was founded in 1636.


The Middle Colonies

Holland was a major power in the 1600s and had established the colony of New Netherlands. Its port city was New Amsterdam and was a bustling city of trade and commerce. In 1664, the English sailed into the harbor and demanded that the Dutch hand over the colony. Rather than fire a shot, the Dutch (seeking to protect their business investments), surrendered, and the colony was renamed New York (named for the King’s brother, the Duke of York). Part of the colony was broken off to form New Jersey.

William Penn was a Quaker, a religious group that promoted peace and religious tolerance. He established Pennsylvania (“Penn’s Woods”) and made it a place of religious and cultural toleration. Penn created the city of Philadelphia (which in Greek means, “The City of Brotherly Love”). A small part of Pennsylvania was broken off to form Delaware.

New York and Philadelphia, on the Atlantic coast, were the region’s largest cities and important centers of trade and commerce.


Colonial Life and Trade

Many colonists lived better than their counterparts in England. There were opportunities for social and economic advancement, and class distinctions were less rigid.

Trade was vital to the colonies. Having little or no manufacturing, they imported goods from Britain. The exported raw materials (such as dried fish, timber, grains, and furs) to England and imported finished (manufactured) goods from England.  England and the colonies also sent ships to the west coast of Africa to capture slaves. This three-continent trade was known as the Triangular Trade.

Eventually, almost all of the work on southern plantations was performed by slaves. Though captured from their homelands and brought to the New World, many slaves attempted to preserve their African culture through song, dance, and stories.


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