European Settlers and Missionaries: Ideology and Conflict

The role of religion in the spread of European influence.

The Mayflower Compact
The Massachusetts Bay Colony
$15 million

Utopian Ideals and Colonialism in Europe


Since antiquity, European culture has been flooded by myths of unknown lands beyond the horizon. In Ancient Greece and Rome, this included Hesiod’s “Islands of the Blessed” or “Fortunate Isles”, a legendary paradise in the Atlantic which later became identified with Bermuda.

Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, transatlantic voyages began to give reality to these myths of a world unknown to Eurasia and Africa, developing into a “utopian” colonial ideology.

In England, early modern utopian literature combined the concept of mythical paradise with the prospect of founding ideal societies.

Thomas More’s “Utopia” (1516) for example, depicts an island community cut off from the rest of the world that had developed a unique social and political system. Similarly, Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis” (1626) presents an imaginary, deeply christian and isolated island, dedicated to the pursuit of scientific knowledge and discovery.

It is in the context of this desire to mold a society by new and innovative principles that we should understand the founding of colonies in America.

Puritanism and English Separatists

Puritanism emerged in 16th and 17th century England as a movement within the Church of England that sought to purify it of what they considered to be Roman Catholic influences. The Puritans believed that the Church of England was still too closely aligned with the Catholic Church and sought to eliminate any remaining vestiges of Catholicism from it.

English “Separatists” were a group of Puritans who believed that the Church of England was irredeemably corrupt and that true believers should separate from it entirely. They faced persecution and harassment in England, as the government and the Anglican Church considered their beliefs to be heretical and a threat to social order.

As a result, many Separatists fled England in search of religious freedom, particularly to the Netherlands, where religious tolerance was greater.

Religious Paradise: Separatists' Appeal to North America

North America also held a special appeal for separatists, who often imagined its shores as a form of religious paradise of Eden.


The English writer Andrew Marvell’s poem “Bermudas”, written in the mid 17th century, explores this phenomenon. The poem depicts a group sailing “in an English boat” towards an island of eternal spring. As they sail on, they sing God’s “praise”, maintaining a “holy and a cheerful note”.

In 1620, a group of English Separatists known as the Pilgrims who had been living in the Dutch city of Leiden for over a decade, decided to leave their homeland and establish a new colony in North America.

Unhappy with the economic opportunities and social restrictions they faced there, the Pilgrims wanted to create a society where they could worship God according to their own beliefs and practices, and they saw the New World as a place where they could do that.

The Mayflower Journey and the Establishment of Plymouth Colony


The 102 separatist Pilgrims secured a patent from the Virginia Company, which gave them permission to settle in Virginia. They planned to sail to America on two ships: the Speedwell and the Mayflower.

The Speedwell proving to be unseaworthy, the Pilgrims were forced to cram into the Mayflower, which set sail from Plymouth, England, on September 16, 1620. The journey was arduous, taking over two months to cross the Atlantic over rough seas.

Finally, on November 21, 1620, the Mayflower sighted land. The Pilgrims had intended to settle in Virginia, but they had been blown off course by storms and had landed further north, in what is now Massachusetts.

On December 21, they chose a site on the shore of Plymouth Harbor, where they began building their new colony, later known as the “Plymouth Colony”.

Upon arrival, all passengers agreed to sign “The Mayflower Compact”, which established a framework for governance which would later be adopted by other colonies throughout the New World.

Failed Attempts at Colonization in the New World

The Mayflower voyage was preceded by many failed attempts to establish colonies in the New World, with many colonists unprepared for the harsh conditions and unfamiliar cultures they encountered.


One such example was Roanoak, a settlement established by the English colonist Walter Raleigh in 1587 on an island off the coast of North Carolina. By 1590 Raleigh failed to locate anyone on the island, which became shrouded in speculations that a massacre had occurred.

Though less shrouded in mystery, similar ill fate shadowed the early London Company, a joint-stock company that hoped to profit from the natural resources of the New World. Their settlement in Bermuda of 1609 was abandoned after just one year.

Similarly, “Jamestown”, founded in 1607 by the London Company along the banks of the James River, Virginia, proved initially difficult to farm. Settlers struggled with disease, lack of supplies, and famine.

Though later successful, the first years of the Jamestown settlement were marked by a high mortality rate. In 1608, two thirds of settlers had died.

Thriving English Settlements in America


Over the next three decades, English settlers gradually formed thriving communities.

The Jamestown colony began to prosper thanks to the cultivation of tobacco and the expansion of the colony’s territory.

This success was matched in New England: in 1630, the Mayflower’s Plymouth Pilgrims were joined by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, a group of Puritan settlers with a similar mission to seek religious freedom while maintaining economic prosperity.

This Massachusetts Bay Colony was particularly economically successful due to its larger population size and better-developed infrastructure; it also enjoyed greater autonomy from England than other colonies did at this time, and close proximity to Boston Harbor, vital for trade.

The fiercely Puritan settlers in Massachusetts also placed significant emphasis on civic duty and education, and became home, in 1636, to “Harvard College”, founded by ​​clergyman John Harvard to train ministers.

The French and Indian War: Competition for Resources and Land

In the 17th century, European colonial powers competed for control of the resources and land in America. The resulting conflicts between colonies, particularly between the French and English, led to a series of wars that ultimately resulted in the first Treaty of Paris.

One of the main areas of contention between the French and English was the Ohio River Valley, which was rich in fur-bearing animals and fertile land for agriculture. In the early 1700s, the French began building a string of forts in the region, which the English saw as a threat to their own expansion plans.

This conflict escalated into the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which pitted the French and their Native American allies against the English and their Native American allies.

The Treaty of Paris and the Louisiana Purchase

Conflicts between European powers in the Americas came to a resolution through The Treaty of Paris of 1763, which marked the end of the French and Indian War.

The treaty saw France ceding its North American territories to Britain. This included Louisiana, which had been a French colony since 1699.


The treaty also granted Britain control over all lands east of the Mississippi River, including parts of modern-day Canada and Florida.

In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated with President Thomas Jefferson for the purchase of Louisiana from France for $15 million dollars (equivalent to about $337 million in 2021). This was known as the Louisiana Purchase

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