Lecture 12:
Course of Empires: Spain, France, Britain, and the United States

Suggestions for Further Readings:

Helen Hornbeck Tanner, The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America from the Ice Age to the Present (1995).

Colin McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of North American History to 1870 (1988).

Mark C. Carnes, Historical Atlas of the United States (2002).

Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001).

Donald W. Meinig, The Shaping of America Vol. 1: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History (1988).

David Buisseret, Historic Illinois from the Air (1990).


The midterm exam is on Wednesday, October 19, in 2650 Humanities during the regular class time. It consists of the following:

  • A map identification section: given 12 items, you ID 10 (10 points).
  • An essay section: choose 1 of 3 essay questions (90 points).

Next week in section you'll be talking about the Place Paper writing assignment. To help you with that assignment, we've scheduled tours of the Wisconsin Historical Society for the following times. You are strongly encouraged to attend:

(meet in the First Floor Lobby of WHS, across the street from Humanities)

Wednesday, Oct 19, 4:00-5:00pm

Thursday, Oct 20, 4:00-5:00pm 

Monday, Oct 24, 4:00-5:00pm

Tuesday, Oct 25, 9:00-10:00am

Wednesday, Oct 26, 4:00-5:00pm

I. Introduction: Comparative Colonialisms

Today's topic is comparative colonialisms and comparative imperialisms. The period we'll be trying to cover in this session is a staggering 250 years of North American history; most of what we've talked about thus far in class follows after the time period we'll be talking about today. Another way of saying this is that there is as much "American History" that precedes the American Revolution as there is history that follows it.

What we will do today is look at several major European empires, and think about how those empires organized their systems of colonization in North America, with a particular focus on landscape. How can we recognize in the palimpsest that is the North American landscape the features that are Spanish colonial, French colonial, British colonial, or U.S. colonial?

For the start of our story today, it's the Spanish Empire, and especially the Iberian Peninsula (what today you would know as Spain and Portugal) that is central to the story of the colonies and empires that would most strongly shape North America (to say nothing of Central and South America). From Columbus's 1492 journey through the next 250 years, Spain would set the model for other European imperial powers wanting to expand into North America. Recall, too, that the story of Spanish imperialism is itself part of a much older story: when you think of Cortez, Coronado, and other Spanish conquistadors in North America, remember that the strategies they used to seek wealth, land, and labor were part of traditions that emerged during the reconquest of Iberia by Christians against Muslim forces and the Ottoman empire. (In Spanish, this is known as the reconquista, which you can survey here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reconquista.)

This should remind us that the colonizing of North American is itself part of a much, much older set of events and patterns than we typically think. What we think of as ranching in the American West got its start in Spanish ranching, which had its start in livestock-raising practices on the Iberian Peninsula. Cowboys in the American West, which many Americans today regard as iconic figures in U.S. history and folklore, were part of a vaquero tradition that migrated north out of Mexico and South America, and originated in the Iberrian Peninsula: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaquero

Likewise, the English colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America were a continuation of "plantations" that the English had first initiated in Ireland during the 16th and 17th centuries: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plantations_of_Ireland

To study colonies and empires in early American history is to recognize the much deeper continuities that connect the American past with histories in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

II. Portugal and Spain

Start on the Iberian Peninsula. With the establishment of coastal stations in West Africa (1480s) and further on in India (1490s, 1500), Portugal became linked globally to a network of trade. Recall that at the start of the 15th century, the schism between Protestantism and Catholicism had not yet happened, so it was the Catholic Pope who had much authority over where different empires could participate in trade. With the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), the Pope declared Portugal had dominion over all lands east of a line running through the heart of the Atlantic Ocean; land west of that line—including much of the Americas except for what would become Brazil—was declared Spanish territority.

Thus began a series of Spanish expeditions into Central and North America in the 1510s and 1520s. Hernán Cortés laid siege to the Aztec capitol Tenochtitlán and the city fell to Spanish forces in 1520, toppling Aztec dominance of the region. One crucial factor in explaining Spanish military success were the devastating epidemics to which European explorers were immune but native peoples in Central America were not. Measles, mumps, and smallpox decimated Native American populations that may have been 50 to 100 million people in the western hemisphere but were reduced by as much as 90% over the next few centuries. The movement of microbes across oceans helps explain why the Aztecs and others had difficulty resisting Spanish military invasions.

Extraordinarily rich silver mines in Mexico and Bolivia meant that huge amounts of wealth returned to the European economy and also helped open trade between Europe, China, and the Americas. In addition to precious metals, the Spanish colonial system was based on the extraction of wealth by colonizing large tracts of land and forcing peasant labor to work that land. It was a highly regulated system that looked to the Spanish Crown for its organization. The Laws of Burgos (1512) and the New Laws (1542) were examples of monarchical decrees that specified everything from rules governing the treatment of native slaves to city planning:

Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican friar, called attention to the abuse of native peoples in his classic 1542 work A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Notice the centrality of faith in all of these efforts. One of the justifications for conquering and exploiting natives was their lack of Christian faith; if left unconverted and unbaptised, they would be eternally damned in the afterlife--so European Christians believed. So a striking feature of New Spain was a set of institutions meant to Christianize native peoples, gather them into civil society, settle them into sedentary communities, and put them to work. This would have implications for American landscapes that we'll discuss at length.

For example: the Laws of Burgos institutionalized the notion that a central town square should be built around a church, with a grid of twelve layers of streets and centralized military power also structuring each town. We can see evidence of this connection between faith, military power, and disciplining native peoples built into the town of St. Augustine (est. 1565) in Florida. It is the oldest continuously-inhabited Spanish settlement in the present-day U.S., and began as a military fortification.

Like his predecessor Hernán Cortés, Hernando De Soto's 1539-1542 explorations of North America also sent the Spanish conquistador looking (unsuccessfully) for gold and native peoples to enslave. The map his expedition into the interior of the North American continent produced a map—as we've seen in this class before—the focused closely on the locations of rivers.

Other Spanish expeditions expanded European knowledge of North America. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado had heard somewhere to the north were Seven Cities of Cíbola with streets paved in gold. He headed north out of Mexico, capturing several Pueblo villages, and eventually made his way out to what we'd today call the Great Plains. His expedition lasted from 1540-1542, during which one of his men, García López de Cárdenas became the first European to visit the Grand Canyon. Notice: it was not until fully four centuries later that a Euroamerican would successfully navigate the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. His name, as you know, was John Wesley Powell. You'll hear more about him later in the class.

Notice that the centers of power for New Spain were all to the south of the present-day U.S. The northern frontier of New Spain, in what is today the southern tier of the United States, come into being for defensive reasons: out of fear that other European colonial powers would begin seizing land there. So areas of Spanish occupation—regions of Florida and east Texas, as well as the large number of missions from southern California to San Francisco and linked together by the El Camino Real, "the Royal Road"—were marked by military as well as religious buildings.

Spanish colonization efforts sometimes met with significant native resistance. The most dramatic example in what is today the United States took place in 1680, when the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico organized a large-scale revolt, rising up against the Spanish and forcing them out until 1692,

Spanish colonization relied on three institutions: missions (for promoting Christian faith), pueblos (sedentary communities of Christianized natives), and presidios (military fortifications).

What were the footprints of these institutions? How did they reshape the landscape?

We'll use the Franciscan Mission San Juan Capistrano in San Antonio, Texas, as an example. The following links will give provide useful overviews:
Google Maps satellite view: https://goo.gl/maps/RtDgJcf9ZiB2

Notice the following in these aerial photographs:

  • Walled settlement for defensive purposes.
  • Open courtyard, as the Laws of Burgos would have specified
  • Spanish settlers in the interior of the mission
  • To make this work in many areas, the Spanish rearranged the irrigation system to include a series of aqueducts or irrigation canals, known as acequia in Spanish: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acequia). Several survive to this day in San Antonio and elsewhere in the Spanish Borderlands, especially New Mexico. The Espada Acequia in San Antonio dates to 1731: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Espada_Acequia
  • Along with presidios and missions, large land grants were given to favored colonial elites.

Confusingly, there's also a Franciscan Mission San Juan Capistrano in southern California that has an excellent Wikipedia entry with even better illustrations than the San Antonio mission; you may find it helpful as well:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mission_San_Juan_Capistrano https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_missions_in_California

To conclude: here is a map of the Spanish empire at its greatest extent, in 1790:
For two centuries and more, Spain's was the empire that every monarch in Europe with imperial ambitions hoped to emulate.

III. France:

Samuel de Champlain's map from 1632 shows us the first of the great French colonies in North America, along the St. Lawrence River:

Notice the ecology of Canada: agricultural settlement had to occur right along the St. Lawrence river because it was such a challenge to cultivate crops and animals in much of the country. The Canadian Shield, a large area centered on Hudson Bay of exposed Precambrian igneous and metamorphic rocks covered by only a thin layer of soil, set limits on colonial enterprises: they couldn't be agricultural because of poor growing conditions. This meant that most French colonial settlement occurred close to the present-day border with the United States (unlike the fur trade, which reached much farther north and deep into the interior of the continent).

One feature of the French that was striking compared to the Spanish was a much greater degree of mixing with native populations: intermarriage, trading, and cross-fertilization of cultural practices, in part because of the centrality of the fur trade to the French colonial economy and its dependence on native economic, cultural, and political networks.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Biloxi, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana were established as seats of French settlement and trade on the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the Spanish, who sought to "civilize" and turn native peoples into workers, the French were less aggressive in their conversion missions. The same was true in the Pays d'en Haut, the region of the Upper Great Lakes (including Wisconsin), where the French were nowhere nearly as dominant as the Spanish and much more dependent on alliances with native groups.

Let's return to landscape: what kinds of footprints did the French leave on the North American landscape? Their inscriptions on the landscape were less prominent than that of the Spanish for several reasons: partly because French military forces were less interested than their Spanish counterparts in trying to "civilize" native peoples by concentrating them into centralized locations to extract labor from them; and partly because the preferred French building material was wood rather than stone, and wood decomposes much more rapidly than stone, especially in the much more humid climates that typified New France as compared with New Spain.

So what do we see on the landscape that survives to today? We see remnant military operations, for example the remains of Fort de Charts in Illinois (built 1760). Vertical boards (contrasted with the horizontal logs of traditional log cabins, which originated on the Chesapeake in New Sweden), as seen in Cahokia's Holy Family Church (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_Holy_Family_(Cahokia,_Illinois)), are also vestiges of French building practices. Large houses on an open plain that are ringed by a porch around the entire structure are also characteristically French: you can visit an example of this today at Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin:

What has survived longest are the ways the French divided and sold off the land. They frequently used a "long lot:" not the checkerboard squares we see on much of the North American landscape, but lots that are long and skinny (partly to facilitate plowing), all fronting on the Mississippi or St. Lawrence or other rivers that served as the chief corridors of transportation in New France and Louisiana.

For examples, search Google satellite views near Baton Rouge:
or anywhere along the St. Lawrence River in the vicinity of Montreal:

One additional remnant are the French place names that are so numerous in Quebec, Louisiana, and some parts of Missouri and even Wisconsin. The word "Cajun" to describe French-heritage residents of modern-day Louisiana comes from the 1755-78 expulsion of Arcadians ('Cadians —> Cajuns) from Nova Scotia to other parts of North America, especially the bayou country of the Mississippi Delta. French-speaking populations are of course still active in Francophone Canada—most notably Montreal—and in New Orleans today.

Wikipedia has a page listing prominent French place-names in the United States, organized by state:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_place_names_of_French_origin_in_the_United_States For comparison, here's the corresponding page for places with Spanish names:

IV. Britain

In the final section of today's lecture, we turn from the Spanish and French in North America to focus on the British colonies. We will encounter the legacies of these colonies multiple times in this course, so don't be misled by their brief treatment here. Let's focus on the differences between the British and the other colonial powers, and on some of the landscape consequences of the British in North America.

1607: Jamestown, on the eastern seaboard of what is today Virginia, was the oldest sustained English settlement in North America (though Sir Walter Raleigh's failed "Lost Colony" in Roanoke, which we've already encountered in John White's paintings, obviously predated it). It is often contrasted with the settlements that began in New England, an area of intense Calvinist fervor, with migrants highly critical of the Church of England. Settlements from this religious exodus included Plymouth (est. 1620), the Massachusetts Bay Colony (est. 1628-1634), Rhode Island (est. 1636), and Connecticut (1636). Congregationalism was the dominant religious tradition in New England.

There were other colonies whose origins predated British settlement: New Holland, which would become New York and whose New Amsterdam would become New York City; and New Sweden, along the Delaware River in the area that is today Delaware, New Jeresey, and Pennsylvania. These would become part of the "middle colonies." Unlike New England, colonies to the south would be less Calvinist in orientation: e.g., Pennsylvania (1681), a Quaker colony founded by William Penn, whose religious tolerance would attract a very diverse array of immigrants from many religious traditions; and Maryland, the only Catholic colony, granted to George Calvert, 1st Baron of Baltimore, in 1632.

Notice one attribute exemplified by the Northeast colonies: that the English crown did not seek to exercise the same degree of control as was the Spanish crown did over its empire. As a result, the English colonies were remarkably diverse in their political governance, religious identity, economic activities, and land use.

One other feature you should notice: unlike the French and Spanish colonies, large numbers of English citizens moved to North America because they were fleeing what they saw as a corrupt church (whether that church was Catholic or the Church of England). Religious conflicts in Great Britain and on the Continent had the effect of encouraging new waves of migration. Whereas military and financial interests motivated Spanish colonial activity, religious schism helped to create the demographic pressures for large-scale British settlement in North America. This meant that migrations of British subjects to North America played a much larger role in the English colonies, which were correspondingly less dependent on Native American workforces than was true in New Spain (though the forced migration of enslaved African would obviously play a crucial role in the English colonies as it also did in other European colonial systems, a topic we'll explore in an upcoming lecture).

Grants made by the British Crown had contested boundaries and virtually no western limits other than (hypothetically) the Pacific Ocean. They thus ignored the fact that native peoples were prior occupants of the land and might be regarded as having territorial rights to it. When William Penn signed with Indians in Pennsylvania in 1683, it was the first example of a formal effort to transfer property rights legally native groups to a British citizen. That English colonial land grants went virtually all the way west across the continent would create problems in the future, including for the new United States. We will return to the challenges created by such land grants in future lectures.