Most authorities believe that the Western hemisphere was populated at the end of the last ice age when a lowered ocean level exposed a land bridge that Asian peoples traversed to North America.
Later, the arriving European settlers discovered the existence of extensive civilizations. In the southern reaches of North America (present-day Mexico and Central America) the Mayan civilization built sophisticated stone structures, developed an advanced numerical system and maintained extensive agricultural complexes. TheAztecs established a far-reaching empire that controlled much of present-day Mexico.
In the northern portions of North America the early native peoples are commonly divided into the following regional groups:
The Eastern Woodland culture was located in the drainage area of the Mississippi River east to the Atlantic Ocean and south from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Various groups of mound builders existed in this region.
The Plains culture existed on the open expanses of present-day Canada and the United States.
The Southwest culture occupied areas in present-day northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Notable within this grouping were the Pueblo societies in present-day New Mexico and Arizona.
The Far West culture ranged from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.
The Northwest culture inhabited the coastal regions of the northwestern UnitedStates and western Canada
The Subarctic culture stretched across Canada north of the Great Lakes and south of the Arctic tree line, and across much of Alaska
The Arctic culture occupied the treeless expanses in the extreme northern portions of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland
Historical evidence for early European ventures to the New World is in dispute, but it appears that Norsemen, including Leif Eriksson , made voyages to the area toward the end of the 10th century.
Europe lacked the technological skills and motivation to immediately follow the Vikings into the New World. Conditions changed, however, during the 1400s. Portugal emerged as the first nation-state to engage in an organized effort to reach the lucrative Far Eastern markets by means of an all-water route.
Next, Spanish exploration of the New World followed the voyages of Christopher Columbus, 1492-1504. Settlements were established in the hope of finding mineral wealth, converting the native populations to Christianity, and for the thrill of a great adventure.
England and France followed Spain into the Americas in the early 17th century, later to be joined by Holland and, briefly, Sweden.
Northern European interest in exploration was fueled by the search for a Northwest Passage. Later, attention was turned to the establishment of permanent colonies. The English failed in an effort at Roanoke Island in the 1580s, but succeeded at Jamestown in 1607. In 1620, a Pilgrim colony was established at Plymouth in present-day Massachusetts, followed in 1630 by the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay.
The white settlements in New England sparked interaction with local Native Americans, notably the Narragansett and the Pequot. The ultimate failure of the relationships was seen in the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip’s War (1675-76).