Discovery and first settlement

Leif Ericson was an Icelandic explorer and he is thought to be the first European visitor to North America, in approximately 11th century (500 years before Christopher Columbus). According to the Sagas, he was converted to Christianity in Norway in around 1000 by Olaf I, who sent him to Greenland to convert the settlers there. However, on his voyage to Greenland he sailed off-course and arrived in a place he called Vinland (because of the grapes growing there, and the general fertility of the land). With a group of Vikings he established a Norse settlement at Vinland. The precise identity of Vinland remains uncertain; however, after discovering ruins of a Viking-type settlement, it is now commonly identified with the Norse L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, modern-day Canada. Ericson may also have visited Nova Scotia and New England, but he failed to establish any permanent settlement there.

The knowledge of the Vikings was not accesible to the Europeans. After Constantinopole and the trade routes were taken by the Turks, Europe was seeking for the new access to Indies. And so, five hundred years after Ericson, the need for increased trade and error in navigation led Christopher Columbus to land in the new continent (New World). Columbus was an Italian sailor and traveller sailing for Ferdinand and Isabella - the King and Queen of Spain. On the 3 August 1492 he set sail from Palos, Spain with three ships: the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He wanted to find a new route to the Far East. In India, China and Japan he could get valuable silks, spices, precious stones and china. He knew the world was round and believed that by sailing approximately 6,500 km west from Europe (instead of passing the coast of Africa) he could reach the Far East. On the 12 October 1492 he reached San Salvador, a small island in the Bahamas in the Caribbean Sea and later he landed also in present Cuba. He thought he had discovered a new way to Indies. He never knew he had discovered a new continent.

The first explorer to realize that a new continent (New World) was discovered by the Europeans was another Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, and in 1507 the continent was named after him: America. Further exploration includes Italian navigator and explorer Giovanni Caboto (known in English as John Cabot) who helped to open the European era of exploration and colonial expansion. He was sailing in the service of Henry VII of England, and he reached the North American mainland (present Newfoundland) in 1497. On the basis of his voyage, England later claimed the entire North America. Pedro Álvares Cabral reached Brazil and claimed it for Portugal; Jacques Cartier, a French explorer of Breton origin, claimed what is now Canada for France.

The New World, however, had been inhabited long before the arrival of European navigators. Estimates of the number of first inhabitants living in what is now the United States at the onset of European colonization range from 2 to 18 million. This number was, however, radically reduced after the arrival of European settlers, because the Indians (as Columbus named them) lacked natural immunity to European diseases. Smallpox, in particular, ravaged whole communities. The Indians received the first Europeans in a friendly manner, taught them how to cultivate crops such as tobacco and corn, but they received brutal treatment in return. Settlers invaded Indian's agriculture lands and changed the natural environment drastically. Settlers bought up lands and valuable furs from the Indians at trifling prices, seized Indian lands through war and threats, cut their forests and built big cities. That caused the fact, that later the white men became unwanted trespassers to the Indians.

The word Indian may even nowadays cause difficulties, since it denotes both Native American as well as a person from India. There are attempts to differenciate them: East Indians (India) and West Indians (America), but the term West Indian denotes however somebody coming from the West Indies (islands by the American coastline). Red Indian is pejorative, so most commonly used names are American Indians, Native Americans, Amerindians, first nations, aboriginal or idigenous people. Some countries of the American continent have still sizeable population of Indians: Belize, Bolivia, Chile, Greenland, Mexico and Peru and at least a thousand different indigenous languages are spoken in the area. Some California and Southwestern tribes, such as the Kumeyaay, Cocopa, Pascua Yaqui and Apache span both sides of the US – Mexican border. Haudenosaunee people, for example, have the legal right to freely cross the US – Canadian border. There are some other tribes, such as Huron, Blackfeet, Lenape, Penobscot, Athabascan or Iñupiat to mention some, who live in both Canada and the US.