Motivations for Colonization

Motivations for Colonization

Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands established colonies in North America. Each country had different motivations for colonization and expectations about the potential benefits.


3 - 12


Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography, Religion, Social Studies, Economics, U.S. History, World History


Jamestown Colony Ferry

The opportunity to make money was one of the primary motivators for the colonization of the New World. The Virginia Company of London established the Jamestown colony to make a profit for its investors.

Painting by Richard Schlecht
The opportunity to make money was one of the primary motivators for the colonization of the New World. The Virginia Company of London established the Jamestown colony to make a profit for its investors.
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Goods used to be traded between Asia and Europe using a trade route. It was called the Silk Road. It made it possible for Europe to receive silks, spices, and pottery. Then in the 1500s, new leaders took over much of Asia and Europe. Traveling by land became difficult. It was easier to travel by sea. This encouraged European exploration. It led to Europe exploring and colonizing other lands. Colonization happens when one country invades and controls another country and its people.

Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer. He was hired by Spain's king and queen to find a fast sailing route to Asia. In 1492, he landed on an island in the Caribbean Sea. He thought it was India, but he was wrong. He called this land the "New World." Soon, many other European countries were fighting to control these new lands. These countries included Spain, France, the Netherlands, and England. Each country wanted wealth and power. However, each had different reasons for colonization.

Spain Had Big Ideas for the New World

Spain was driven by fame and fortune. The country conquered many lands and empires. Most were in Central America and South America. While they were not as successful in the rest of North America, there are still signs of their rule. A fort built in present-day Florida by the Spanish in 1565 is the oldest surviving European post in the United States.

The Spanish also wanted to spread the Christian faith to Native Americans. Missions were created to teach the native people European ways. The first mission was led by Don Juan in New Mexico in 1598. It was followed by many others as they became more established. Expanding from villages to cities, the missions became home to explorers and other settlers. Some of today's largest cities in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, and California were once missions.

The Dutch Were Successful in North America

In 1534, the French began claiming land in northern North America, and by 1608, they had also taken over land in Canada. France traded animal furs with the Native Americans. However, the French influence in North America was always relatively small.

Even though it is a small country, the Netherlands prospered in North America because of its navy. The Dutch controlled trade with islands in Indonesia, which gave them great power. Henry Hudson, an English explorer was hired to find a faster route to the Indonesian islands. He did not find a passage, but he did find a river, which was named the Hudson River. This flows between what is now New Jersey and New York.

The Dutch bought the island of Manhattan from Native Americans who lived in the area in 1626. However, in 1664, the British took over the colony and renamed it New York.

England Established Permanent Colonies

England had the most success of all the European countries colonizing other lands. King James I colonized Virginia in 1606. While England was also motivated by the route by sea and the riches of the New World, the country had different reasons for colonizing.

Freedom of faith was a big motivation for the English. In 1620, a group of settlers left England to seek the New World. Many were separatists, who believed the Church of England was dishonorable. By seeking out the New World, they were trying to break away and worship their own faith. They attempted to get to Virginia, but their ship landed on the coast of modern-day Massachusetts.

These were the first Pilgrims and many others followed. The Pilgrims from England worked in fishing, lumber and shipbuilding. Those farther south produced tobacco, rice, and indigo. All of this worked out well for Britain until the colonies fought for and won their independence 200 years later.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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