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Colonial Period

European Settlement Of North America

In 1492 the explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) arrived from Spain to what Europeans referred to as the New World. Some seventy years of exploration of the North American continent by various European adventurers followed before settlements began. Explorers discovered the New World Pilgrims signing the Mayflower Compact, an agreement to provide just and equal laws in their settlement. (© Bettmann/Corbis) was inhabited by many American Indian societies with various legal systems that had developed over thousands of years.

Despite finding existing societies in the New World, Europeans considered Indian culture inferior to their own heritage and decided to create their own settlements. In 1565 Spain created the first permanent European settlement at St. Augustine on coastal land that later became part of Florida. Through the next century, however, most colonists who arrived from Europe to settle the eastern coast of North America were from England. Others came from France, Germany, Holland, and Ireland. Sir Walter Raleigh (c. 1554–1618), with the permission of Queen Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603), attempted settlement of the first British colony in 1585 on Roanoke Island off the coast of what would become North Carolina. Known as the "Lost Colony," the Roanoke settlement proved unsuccessful as the colonists vanished without a trace. Their fate remains a mystery to this day.

The curious disappearance of the Roanoke colony did not prevent enthusiasm for colonization of the New World. News of a continent with unlimited opportunities spread throughout Europe. A population growth spurt in the late 1500s and early 1600s had left many in crowded European cities without jobs or land. Religious intolerance and persecution (being treated badly because of one's religious beliefs) was also common. Thousands of Europeans looked to a new beginning across the Atlantic Ocean.

The first half of the seventeenth century saw the establishment of many permanent European settlements in the New World. The British royalty, eager to gain control over any valuable natural resources that might be found, began granting charters (documents granting certain rights to a person, corporation, or group of people) for establishing colonies in the New World. The charters went to companies run by adventurous merchants who recruited settlers. King James I (ruled 1603–25) chartered the Virginia Company of London in 1606.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawColonial Period - European Settlement Of North America, Factors Influencing Early Colonial Law, Differences From The English Criminal Justice System