European colonization of the Americas began as early as the 10th century, when Norse sailors explored and settled limited areas on the shores of present-day Greenland and Canada. According to Norse folklore, violent conflicts with the indigenous population ultimately made the Norse abandon those settlements.
Extensive European colonization began in 1492, when a Spanish expedition headed by Christopher Columbus sailed west to find a new trade route to the Far East but inadvertently landed in what came to be known to Europeans as the "New World". European conquest, large-scale exploration, colonization and industrial development soon followed. Columbus' first two voyages (1492–93) reached the Bahamas and various Caribbean islands, including Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Cuba. In 1497, sailing from Bristol on behalf of England, John Cabot landed on the North American coast, and a year later, Columbus's third voyage reached the South American coast. As the sponsor of Christopher Columbus's voyages, Spain was the first European power to settle and colonize the largest areas, from North America and the Caribbean to the southern tip of South America. Spanish cities were founded as early as 1496 with Santo Domingo in today's Dominican Republic.
Other powers such as France also founded colonies in the Americas: in eastern North America, a number of Caribbean islands, and small coastal parts of South America. Portugal colonized Brazil, tried colonizing of the coasts of present-day Canada, and settled for extended periods on the northwest bank of the River Plate. The Age of Exploration was the beginning of territorial expansion for several European countries. Europe had been preoccupied with internal wars, and was slowly recovering from the loss of population caused by the bubonic plague; thus the rapid rate at which it grew in wealth and power was unforeseeable in the early 15th century.
Eventually, the entire Western Hemisphere came under the ostensible control of European governments, leading to profound changes to its landscape, population, and plant and animal life. In the 19th century alone over 50 million people left Europe for the Americas.〔David Eltis ''Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic slave trade''〕 The post-1492 era is known as the period of the Columbian Exchange, a dramatically widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture, human populations (including slaves), communicable disease, and ideas between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres following Columbus's voyages to the Americas.
==Early conquests, claims, and colonies==
Early explorations and conquests were made by the Spanish and the Portuguese immediately following their own final reconquest of Iberia in 1492. In the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, ratified by the Pope, these two kingdoms divided the entire non-European world into two areas of exploration and colonization, with a north to south boundary that cut through the Atlantic Ocean and the eastern part of present-day Brazil. Based on this treaty and on early claims by Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, discoverer of the Pacific Ocean in 1513, the Spanish conquered large territories in North, Central and South America.
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés took over the Aztec Kingdom and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire. As a result, by the mid-16th century, the Spanish Crown had gained control of much of western South America, Central America and southern North America, in addition to its earlier Caribbean territories. Over this same timeframe, Portugal claimed lands in North America (Canada) and colonized much of eastern South America, naming it Santa Cruz and Brazil.
Other European nations soon disputed the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas. England and France attempted to plant colonies in the Americas in the 16th century, but these failed. England and France succeeded in establishing permanent colonies in the following century, along with the Dutch Republic. Some of these were on Caribbean islands, which had often already been conquered by the Spanish or depopulated by disease, while others were in eastern North America, which had not been colonized by Spain north of Florida.
Early European possessions in North America included Spanish Florida, Spanish New Mexico, the English colonies of Virginia (with its North Atlantic offshoot, Bermuda) and New England, the French colonies of Acadia and Canada, the Swedish colony of New Sweden, and the Dutch New Netherland. In the 18th century, Denmark–Norway revived its former colonies in Greenland, while the Russian Empire gained a foothold in Alaska.
As more nations gained an interest in the colonization of the Americas, competition for territory became increasingly fierce. Colonists often faced the threat of attacks from neighboring colonies, as well as from indigenous tribes and pirates.
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