Christopher Columbus made one of the most famous voyages of exploration in 1492 when he sailed from Palos, Spain in search of a route to Asia and the Indies. Instead, Columbus found the New World - the Americas. Other voyages soon followed Columbus'. At first, Europeans thought of the Americas as little more than a chunk of land blocking their way to the Indies. It didn't take long for them to realize that the Americas had great resources of its own.
The motives for Spanish, French and English explorers were all different, although in some ways, they were the same. They all wanted to find the Northwest Passage, which they believed was a direct and efficient route to the Orient (Asia) - home of spices, silks and wealth. They also wanted to lay claim to new land to expand their empires. More land meant more of their influence throughout the world.
The Spanish explorers were in search of mineral wealth (gold & silver), looking for El Dorado (the City of Gold) and they aspired to spread Christianity. After Columbus's voyages, Spain began sending conquistadors (conquerers) across the Atlantic. Their mission was to conquer a vast empire for Spain, spread the Catholic faith, and convert native people's into loyal Spanish subjects (Spanish Missions)
France also wanted to spread Christianity and find a new route by water to the East through North America. The French failed to find a Northwest Passage, but did claim the land we call Canada today...they called it New France. Because the French were more interested in furs than farming, they didn't try to conquer the natives and put them to work as the Spanish had done. Instead, they made them their business partners and established a fur trading network along the Mississippi River.
The English were motivated by a desire to colonize as much of the Americas as possible - to add to the ever-increasing British Empire. They had seen the wealth that Spain and France had accumulated from previous expeditions and wanted their part. England sent settlers to start a money-making colony in Virginia, which would send back valuable resources (gold, timber, furs) to England. It would eventually become the first permanent English settlement in North America.
The Columbian Exchange
The voyages of Columbus triggered a great transfer of people, plants, animals, and diseases back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. This transfer, which still continues today, is called the Columbian Exchange. The Columbian Exchange brought valuable new crops such as corn and potatoes to Europe. These foods greatly improved the diet of the average European. Many Europeans also found new opportunities by crossing the Atlantic to settle in the Americas.
For Native Americans, however, the exchange began badly. The Europeans who came to America brought with them germs that caused smallpox and other diseases deadly to Native Americans. Historians estimate that in some areas, 90 percent of the native population was wiped out by European diseases. This high death rate contributed to the introduction of African slaves to the Americas which were needed to work in Spanish gold mines and sugar plantations. Some Natives converted to the Catholic faith.