OVERVIEW / U.S. History I

Exploration & Early Colonization
Part 4: The Northwest Passage


Although French fishermen had caught cod off Newfoundland as early as 1504, fish were not what motivated the voyages sponsored by King Francis I in the sixteenth century. In 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano sailed up the east coast from present‐day North Carolina to Nova Scotia looking for a northwesterly passage to Asia. The same objective was behind Jacques Cartier's three voyages (1534–42) that were the basis for future French claims to Canada. He explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence and discovered the St. Lawrence River, on which members of his expedition founded a short‐lived settlement near Quebec. Abortive colonies were also established by French Huguenots (Protestants) within the modern‐day boundaries of South Carolina (1562–64) and Florida (1564–65). 

The Wars of Religion, which pitted Catholic against Protestant, delayed further French exploration until the seventeenth century. Under the leadership of Samuel de Champlain, who made numerous voyages to the eastern Canada region beginning in 1603, the city of Quebec was founded (1608) and alliances were made with the Hurons to develop the fur trade. Indeed, furs rather than settlements were more important to France at the time.


The Dutch became one of the great seafaring and commercial nations of Europe in the seventeenth century and were rivals of the Portuguese in the East Indies. The Dutch East India Company financed English sailor Henry Hudson in 1609 for another search for the elusive Northwest Passage. He discovered Delaware Bay and sailed up the river later named for him, establishing Dutch claims for the territory known as New Netherland. Like the French, the Dutch were fur traders, and they established lucrative ties with the local tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy.


When the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I came to the English throne in 1558, the fiercely Catholic King Philip II of Spain, grown wealthy from his New World colonies, saw England as his biggest threat. Elizabeth, ambitious for an empire, fanned the flames, sponsoring piracy against the Spanish treasure fleet.

The English also wanted to defeat Spain in the search for a faster trade route to India and China. Convinced that a Northwest Passage could be found by sailing up the coast of the New World and through the Arctic, several French and English explorers tried and failed. Later, in 1609, the Dutch hired Englishman Henry Hudson to try. Hudson gave his name to the bay and the river, and the area provided the English with a lucrative trade in fur, but he never found the elusive passage, and later disappeared when his crew mutinied following a grueling Arctic winter.

In 1585, Elizabeth gave her blessing to an English expedition to claim colonies in the New World, from which it was hoped Spanish treasure ships might be intercepted and raided. Sir Walter Raleigh--and Sir Francis Drake a year later--founded a very small English colony on Roanoke Island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. But English supply ships, preoccupied with the Spanish Armada in 1588 and further delayed by bad weather and piracy, were unable to return to America until 1590, by which time the colonists had mysteriously vanished.

The Lost Colony was Queen Elizabeth I’s last American venture, although Virginia was named after her (the “Virgin Queen”) by Raleigh.