In the 1490s European sailors began reporting their encounters with new lands in the western hemisphere. Although the ‘discovery’ is often associated with Christopher Columbus, he had many equally inquisitive contemporaries and writers of the day gave priority to the claims of a fellow-Italian named Amerigo Vespucci, from whom ‘America’ takes its name. The first explorers touched chiefly on lands in the Caribbean, but it soon became apparent that the New World represented an almost unimaginably vast continental land mass, the exact dimensions of which would not be appreciated for another century. Beginning with Columbus’ Spanish employers, several European nations sought to create in the New World great empires modelled on the motherland. New Spain was followed by New France, New Netherland, New England and even New Sweden, in each case implying that the social and political patterns of the home country could successfully be transported across the Atlantic and flourish in this very different soil. These aspirations would prove futile, as settlers adapted to the distinctive conditions of the new land and took advantage of its unique opportunities, to the chagrin of imperial authorities.
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