The New World had been discovered for a century, and the territory of the present United States was still a wilderness, uninhabited except by the native savage.1 It was not possible that such a condition could endure. North America presented wonderful opportunities for future development. It was bounded by two oceans, while Europe had but one; its central river valley for extent and fertility was unequaled in the world; nor could Europe match the Great Lakes, the cataract of Niagara, the Mississippi River, the Rocky Mountains, or the Grand Cañons of the Colorado and the Yellowstone. It was only through colonization that this vast and beautiful land could become truly useful to mankind, and the time was ripe for a portion of Europe to transplant itself permanently to North America. The burning question during the closing decades of the sixteenth century was, Which of the European states will succeed in becoming the mother of civilization in North America? The chances all seemed to favor Spain. Spain had taken possession of Mexico and South America2 and of the adjacent islands of the sea; and, moreover, she had laid claim to all of North America on the ground of the Pope’s decree of a century before. Her great advantage lay in the fact that she was by far the greatest maritime power of the earth. But Spain was ill fitted to found empires and build nations. Her motives were too low. She sought, not to found self-supporting colonies, but to plunder the natives in her mad search for gold. For gold she slew the red man, for gold she enslaved the black man, and gold proved the ruin of Spain.

For nearly a hundred years Spain had held undisputed sway in the New World. Neither England nor France had followed up their early discoveries with attempts at colonization. England during the sixteenth century was struggling with the Reformation and the political questions accompanying it; France was rent with civil and religious wars. Both were thus deterred for many years from giving serious attention to the new lands of the West, though both agreed in disputing the exclusive claims of Spain.

Meantime Spain had a clear field. No other nation ever had such an opportunity to establish a great empire.3 But Spain proved unworthy of her trust. The chief cause of her downfall was, as stated, her too great devotion to the god of gold. This caused a decline in her agriculture and manufacturing. But there were other causes. Spain lost her best artisans and laborers through the expulsion of the Moors; she lost much of her commercial spirit through the expulsion of the Jews; and, worst of all, the horrors of the Inquisition robbed the nation of much of its choicest blood. In addition to all this the efforts of Spain to increase her political power in Europe and to lead the forces of the counter reformation only weakened the Empire and hastened its downfall.

While Spain was declining through her own inherent weakness, France and England were rapidly rising. France had reached a season of peace and also a season of wide influence under the reign of that broad-minded statesman, King Henry of Navarre, the author of the Edict of Nantes. The French now began to occupy Acadia and the St. Lawrence Valley. But it is with the work of England that we are here concerned. The reformation in England had continued through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, and, after a momentary reaction under Mary, had been completed under Elizabeth. The long reign of "Good Queen Bess," ending in 1603, brought not only internal peace, a notable revival of industries at home and activity on the sea, it also raised the British nation to a first-class power. And the Spaniard at length found his match in the Briton.

For five centuries, in their island home, the Norman and the Saxon, the Angle and the Jute, had commingled, until each had lost his identity in the producing of a race unsurpassed by any other in history—the English race; and this people now, at the close of a long and successful struggle for religious liberty, had taken a foremost place among the nations. England was now seized with a desire to expand, and her attention was turned toward the New World.

Various were the motives of the British in turning their attention to colony building. One of the chief causes was a feeling of rivalry with Spain; another was a belief that the island was already overpopulated and needed an outlet for its surplus population. To these causes must be added the desire to search for gold, to find a northwest passage, and, as developed a littler later, a belief that the colonies could be made to furnish certain commodities, such as silk and wine, which could not be produced in England.

Reviving the half-forgotten voyages of the Cabots, England laid claim on this ground to the greater portion of North America. Conscious of the strength of youth, Englishmen set forth upon the sea, and stood ready to dispute with Spain the dominion of the ocean. The Elizabethan Era is renowned in English history, not only for its literature, but for its growing power upon the sea, and especially for its hardy and skillful seamen. There were Hawkins the slave trader, the famous half-brothers, Humphrey Gilbert and Walter Raleigh, Gosnold, Newport, and Frobisher, and above all Francis Drake, the greatest seaman before Nelson. Drake was the first to put into practice the policy of weakening Spain by attacking her in America.4 Drake it was who made a voyage around the earth ending in 1580, the second in history, in which he took many Spanish prizes; and henceforth he was known by the Spaniards as the Dragon. Eight years after the completion of his famous voyage he played an important part in the most momentous event of the century in which he lived—the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Never before had Europe witnessed so vast a display of power upon the sea as that which Philip II now put forth in the "Invincible" Armada. Spain was at this time by far the richest and greatest nation of Europe or the world. Mexican and Peruvian gold had poured into the Spanish coffers in uncounted millions,5 and the power of the Empire was felt to the uttermost parts of the sea. This was the golden age of the Spanish Empire, and the Armada was the most notable product of that age. With this vast fleet Philip would now smite and disable the island kingdom, and at the same time he would present a spectacle to the world that would overawe any other nation that might have the temerity to measure swords with the Castilian. The Armada consisted of one hundred and thirty ships, the largest ever seen in Europe, bearing thirty thousand soldiers and three thousand heavy guns. Not only to chasten England for daring to claim a portion of the New World did Philip send forth this fleet, but especially to force back into the Church the straying Briton who had wandered from the Catholic fold.

Great was the excitement in the British Isles when the people knew of the hostile coming of the Armada. Europe stood aghast with consternation. Had England been conquered, France and the Netherlands would immediately have been attacked. But the English rose to the occasion. Forty thousand soldiers were soon under arms. The English fleet was much smaller than the Spanish, but the ships were swifter, and above all, they were manned by such masters of the sea as Lord Howard of Effingham and Hawkins and Frobisher and Drake, while the Armada was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, a man of little skill and less experience. The gigantic fleet approached the Plymouth harbor in May, 1588, in the form of a grand crescent seven miles in extent. The English met the foe and destroyed many of their ships by making sudden dashes, then sailing beyond the reach of the Spanish guns, and again by sending fire ships among them. In a few weeks the Spanish fleet was greatly disabled, and, moreover, it was penned within the German Ocean. The conquest of England was now abandoned, and the remnant of the Armada, attempting to reach Spain by sailing around England and Scotland, encountered, near the Orkney Islands, a succession of terrific storms, and many more of the vessels found a bed in the depths of the sea. The soldiers perished by thousands, and comparatively few of them ever again reached their native land. Few events in history have been more far reaching in this results than the destruction of the Spanish Armada. It marked the end of Spanish dominion of the sea. It was the beginning of the end of the national greatness of Spain. From this time the Empire declined steadily and irresistibly, and three hundred and ten years later the downfall was completed in the short, decisive war with the United States of America. What England began in 1588 her child, then unborn, was to complete three centuries later; and the power of Spain was confined to the bounds of her own peninsula.

The greatness of the modern British Empire takes its rise from the defeat of the Spanish Armada. As a maritime power England soon rose to the first place, and from that day to the present there has been none successfully to dispute her sway. The defeat of the Spanish Armada has been pronounced the opening event in the history of United States.6 From that moment North America was open to colonization with little danger of hindrance from the Spaniards. Even before that even England had made a beginning of colonizing America, and the first Englishman to engage in it was Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Obtaining a charter from Queen Elizabeth, he made a heroic attempt to found a colony in Newfoundland; but Gilbert lost his life by shipwreck, and his mantle fell on the shoulders of a much abler man than himself, one who must be considered the father of English colonization on the soil of the United States —Walter Raleigh.

Raleigh was one of the best representative Englishmen of his age. He was a student of books and a leader of men. A pupil of Coligny, a friend of Spenser, he was a statesman and a scholar, a courtier and a soldier, and in each he was one of the leading men of his times.7 Raleigh was granted a charter similar to that of Gilbert. He sent two exploring ships to the coast of North America, and they brought back glowing accounts of the beauty of the land and the gentleness of the natives. They had landed at Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. It was at this time that the eastern coast of North America received the name Virginia in honor of the Virgin Queen.8 Raleigh’s first colony was sent out in 1585 under Ralph Lane with one hundred and eight men, who settled on Roanoke Island; but after a year of hardships they were picked up and carried to England by Sir Francis Drake, who happened to touch at that point in one of his great voyages. They brought back with them tobacco and the potato, and first introduced the use of these in England. Raleigh was disappointed at the failure of his colony and he determined to try again. In 1587 he sent a colony of one hundred and fifty, seventeen of whom were women, under John White, and soon after they landed at Roanoke, Virginia Dare was born. She was a grandchild of Governor White, and was the first English child born on the soil of the United States. The governor soon found it necessary to make a voyage to England, intending to return to his colony. But the war with Spain interfered, and three years passed before an English vessel reached Roanoke. When at last help came, the colony had utterly disappeared and its fate was never known.9 Raleigh was still undismayed. He exclaimed to a friend as late as 1602, the year of his fifth expedition, which also failed, "I shall yet live to see it an English nation." But the great man’s fortunes now took a downward turn. His royal patron died, and in her place came the bustling little egotist, James I. Raleigh fell into disfavor; he was cast into prison, where he remained for twelve years, meantime writing his "History of the World." Then, after a brief season of liberty, he was again imprisoned on the false charge of treason and was soon after beheaded. No more dastardly deed was ever committed by a British sovereign than the murder of Raleigh.

Notwithstanding the fact that none of the colonies planted by Raleigh was permanent, he must be awarded the honor of securing the possession of North America to the English race, of making known the advantages of its soil and climate, and creating the spirit of colonization among his countrymen.10 It was Raleigh above all men who prepared the way for successful and permanent English colonization on the soil of the United States.


1The only settlement of white men in the present United States was at St. Augustine, Fla., founded 1565, and at Santa Fé, New Mexico, settled in 1582 or later. The great French Huguenot, Coligny, first sent Ribault, who made a settlement in Florida; but they were brutally massacred by Menendez, a Spaniard. Gourges, a Frenchman, afterward made fearful retaliation by destroying the Spanish colony. Return
2Except the eastern portion which belonged to Portugal. Return
3See Johns Hopkins University Studies, Vol. VIII, pp. 122-123. Return
4Fiske’s "Old Virginia and Her Neighbors," p. 24. Return
5It is estimated that by looting the Indians of Mexico and Peru, Spain was enriched by a sum equal to $5,000,000,000. Return
6Fiske’s "Old Virginia," p. 39. Return
7Doyle’s "English Colonies in America," Vol. I, p. 56. Return
8It is said that Elizabeth herself suggested the name Virginia.Return
9Years afterward the people of Virginia found children among the Indians with light hair and eyes, and it was believed that they were descendants of members of White’s colony who were probably adopted by Indian tribes. Return
10Winsor, Vol. III, p. 334. Return

History of the United States of America, by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Chapter IV pp. 55-60
Transcribed by Kathy Leigh


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