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European Colonization

European colonization was a massive structural event, whereby the imperial powers of Europe including Spain, France, England, the Netherlands, Sweden, Portugal, Denmark, Belgium, and later (in the 1880’s) Germany and Italy, violently invaded the lands of North, South, and Central America, Australia, New Zealand, China, the Philippines, the Caribbean, most of South East Asia, India, the Middle and Near East, and the entire continent of Africa in pursuit of slave labor and the theft of natural resources to supply European economies.

Beginning in 1492 with the realization that there were continents beyond those previously known to them, European monarchs saw an opportunity for economic expansion through the establishment of colonies. These colonies were sites of tragedy, avarice, and suffering, with many of them serving as an outpost for colonial governors to seek out natural resources for European powers to exploit. In the Caribbean and Central America, the colonial powers of Spain and Portugal were especially violent, with Christopher Columbus writing at length about his massacre and enslavement of the Taíno peoples of Puerto Rico.

These sites were also places with a high degree of cross-cultural interaction, where societies met and intermingled, and where kinship was expanded. The nature of colonization varied depending on what the motivations of the individual European power was in establishing a particular colony. Spain and France sought to exploit the material wealth of the Americas and employed different strategies to do so, while England sought to colonize the territories claimed by the Crown. Native people often lay at the center of these colonial strategies as Europeans vied for territorial claims, fighting for and against various imperial powers depending upon the allegiance of their communities.

Wealth stolen from the so-called “New World” and across the globe sustained age-old conflicts in Europe. However, their unmitigated hunger for wealth merely exacerbated the scale of wars on the European continent. These wars spilled over into colonies as alliances were forged between colonial powers and tribal nations.


In the Great Lakes of North America, the nations of Europe sought to tap into existing centers of Native commerce, France in particular. As the demand for furs surged in France, so too did French trappers’ reliance on their Native business partners in order to acquire sought after animal hides. Thus, many French colonists, in pursuit of lucrative fur trade-profits, adopted a variety of Native customs and recognized proper trade ceremonies in an attempt to access Indigenous hunting knowledge. Many French fur traders married into Native families to expand their trade networks through their wives’ communities.

For a time, the relationship was mutual between the French and Potawatomi as the ability to trade for manufactured goods like guns, pots, and needles made life in the Great Lakes easier for Potawatomi peoples. This style of colonial interaction between the French, Potawatomi, and other Great Lakes tribes, possessed altogether different dimensions than that of English colonization, which sought to extinguish Native title and recreate England in North America.

Yet, their growing dependence on manufactured goods drew the Potawatomi, like many other tribes, into European conflicts across their lands. As European-driven territorial wars erupted across North America, swallowing up vast tracts of Native land, the conclusion of the French and Indian War [Seven Years War] in 1763 saw an expanded British presence. The trade ceremonies honored by the French were not reciprocated by the British, exacerbating tensions across the “Old Northwest.” Furthermore, the British claimed ownership over their territories, further straining England’s relationship with tribal nations threatened by a growing Anglo-American presence.


The events of the American Revolutionary War marked a decline in the European colonial presence in North America. Ultimately, as American settler-colonialism replaced European-style colonialism, new states from North to South America severed ties with their European progenitors. This led to vast numbers of tragedies across the Western hemisphere, from massacres in the United States like the Cherokee Campaign and Wounded Knee, to places like Argentina with the 1878 so-called “Conquest of the Desert” in which nearly 1,000 Indigenous Argentinians were massacred and 15,000 displaced. The ramifications of the violence of European colonization continues to shape our communities to this day, in the United States and elsewhere, as those affected by slavery and displacement grapple with trauma of violence and loss. There remains today 16 colonies spread throughout the world, most of which being held by the United Kingdom, France, and the United States.




  1. “Non-Self-Governing Territories | The United Nations and Decolonization.” United Nations. United Nations, n.d. https://www.un.org/dppa/decolonization/en/nsgt.


  1. Edmunds, R. David. The Potawatomis, Keepers of the Fire. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
  2. Larson, Carolyne R. The Conquest of the Desert: Argentina’s Indigenous Peoples and the Battle for History. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2020. muse.jhu.edu/book/78336.
  3. MacLeitch, Gail D. Imperial Entanglements: Iroquois Change and Persistence on the Frontiers of Empire. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.
  4. Starna, W. A. “From the Mohawk-Mahican War to the Beaver Wars: Questioning the Pattern.” Ethnohistory 51, no. 4 (2004): 725–50. https://doi.org/10.1215/00141801-51-4-725.
  5. Taylor, Alan. Colonial America: a Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  6. Viola, Herman J. “The Great Exchange.” Archaeology 45, no. 1 (1992): 57-58. Accessed July 12, 2021. http://www.jstor.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/stable/41766290.
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