A wooden ship with sails representing the Mayflower

Why did settlers come to America? Where did the colonial mindset come from?

Settlers came to America because they felt superior to Native Americans and wanted to secure their wealth for themselves. If you look at where European settlers came from, you can see how racism and poverty paired together to feed colonization.

Keep reading for more on the reasons behind European colonization.

Why Europe Colonized the Americas

Why did settlers come to America and form colonies? In An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, author Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the European colonial mindset developed long before Europe made contact with Native Americans—it began with the Christian Crusades against Muslims in the 11th through 13th centuries. She explains that the point of the Crusades was to appropriate Muslim wealth and spread Christianity by militaristic force. These exploits gave way to an early form of white supremacy known as “cleanliness of blood,” where people who were born Christians were considered superior to former Jews and Muslims who converted to Christianity later in life. Cleanliness of blood was the first version of the concept of racial superiority, which would be used to justify British colonization later on.

(Shortform note: Other experts agree that the Crusades were a prelude to European colonization, noting that Europe was politically isolated until the First Crusade, which began in 1096, linked Europe with Asia. After that, Catholic crusaders occupied and set up kingdoms known as Crusader States in places like Palestine. Historians disagree as to whether these states truly count as colonialist projects, but they may have contributed to modern colonialism. Historians also disagree about the origins of white supremacy; for example, in Stamped From the Beginning, Ibram X. Kendi traces it back to Prince Henry of Portugal’s inception of the African slave trade. However, cleanliness of blood was the first instance of legally enforced racial discrimination.)

Dunbar-Ortiz explains that two other historic events spurred the development of the colonial mindset. First, when capitalism emerged toward the end of the Middle Ages, land was privatized and wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few. This process displaced and impoverished the European peasantry. Fueled by the belief that they were biologically superior to other peoples and by a desire to procure their own land (and therefore wealth), these peasants and their descendants had the motivation to become early European settlers of other lands. 

(Shortform note: Dunbar-Ortiz attributes European colonialism to the advent of capitalism, but Marxist scholar Cedric Robinson argues that the seeds of colonialism were planted during feudalism—the economic system that preceded capitalism. Under feudalism, lower class people called serfs had to work the land owned by upper class people called lords. Robinson explains that European societies used racist logic—especially against Slavic, Jewish, and Romani people—to legitimize land and labor-related inequality, which he says qualifies as colonialism. In his view, global capitalism was a natural consequence of the colonial mindset Europe developed under feudalism—not the other way around, as Dunbar-Ortiz puts it.)

Second, in the 1400s, Catholic authorities instituted the Doctrine of Discovery—a series of religious edicts that gave European countries the legal right to claim lands that were occupied by non-Christian peoples. This motivated European nations to colonize other civilizations, appropriate their wealth, and create greater wealth via slavery and the spread of capitalism. Dunbar-Ortiz explains that the Doctrine of Discovery justified the actions of explorers like Christopher Columbus, who sailed to the Americas in search of gold, took indigenous slaves, and created colonies. After this, the colonial period was in full swing.

(Shortform note: In Unsettling Truths, scholars Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah explain that the first document associated with the Doctrine of Discovery was Pope Nicholas V’s Dum Diversitas of 1452. The Dum Diversitas entitled the Portuguese government to enter and permanently enslave the occupants of all non-Christian lands, which ignited the Portuguese slave trade in West Africa. In 1454, the same pope issued a second document, Romanus Pontifex, which entitled Portugal to take ownership of non-Christian lands. As a result, Portugal colonized parts of Western Africa. Europe wouldn’t apply the Doctrine of Discovery to the Americas until 1492, when Columbus became the first—or one of the first—Europeans to “discover” that the Americas existed.)

Why Did Settlers Come to America? The Colonial Mindset

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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