New navigational technologies, along with economic, political, and religious motivation yielded unprecedented discoveries between the 1400s and 1600s. Called the Age of Exploration or the Age of Discovery, it forged new connections throughout the world, and enabled a global exchange of goods, people, and diseases. During this period, interactions between Europe, Asia, and the New World forever altered the course of history.
By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!
Before the 1400s, the 'Known World' was limited to Europe, parts of Africa, and parts of Asia. Most people believed the world was smaller, and flatter, than it actually is. Most sea travel was limited to the coasts, for many that ventured farther did not return. Transportation over land was often dangerous and tedious, but despite that, explorers of the Middle Ages, like Marco Polo, made their way into Asia and opened trade routes. Other boundaries were blocked by Muslim territory or open ocean. The Black Death in the 13th century soon limited trade and travel, and decimated the European population.
Near the beginning of the 15th century, shipwrights developed vessels that could travel farther than previous models. Navigation with star charts allowed ships to stay on course, and more accurately chart new territory. Portugal, Spain, Italy, and other countries sent expeditions along the coast of Africa and beyond. Christopher Columbus is one of the most famous explorers, but others like Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and Ferdinand Magellan, also made extraordinary discoveries in the New World.
The period between the 1400s to 1600s is known as the Age of Exploration, or the Age of Discovery. The discoveries made by European explorers allowed for a greater understanding of the American continents, and the people that live on them. These discoveries and exchanges between the Western and Eastern Hemisphere during the Age of Exploration have forever changed the history of the world. New innovations in shipbuilding and navigation allowed explorers to discover unknown lands and create lucrative trade routes that were previously unobtainable.
This teacher guide on the Age of Exploration will allow students not only to recognize why explorers braved such challenging voyages, but also draw connections to the impact they had on the foundation of the United States.
Essential Questions for the Age of Exploration in America
What were the reasons behind European exploration?
Why is the Age of Exploration considered a turning point in history?
What were the results of the “Columbian Exchange?”
Why were the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies founded?
What was the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke?
Age of Exploration in America Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers
For this activity, students will create a timeline that illustrates the major events in the life of an explorer. Students can either be assigned an explorer to research, or choose from one of the numerous European explorers. Students should use their research to select the ten most significant events that took place in the life of their explorer. A timeline is a powerful tool that allows students to both chronologically understand the significant events of a major historical figure, and also connect how their researched explorer contributed to larger outcomes of history.
The Life of Christopher Columbus
October 31, 1451
Christopher Columbus was born in the seafaring city of Genoa, Italy.
Columbus worked aboard merchant ships as a teenager and sailed throughout the Mediterranean Sea. At an early age, he began to show a great interest in navigation and cartography.
Columbus moved to Spain and continued to study navigation and geography. He believed he could find a trading route to Asia by sailing west from Spain.
January 2, 1492
In order to find a western route to Asia, Columbus asked Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to pay for his voyage.
August 3, 1492
With the financial support of the King and Queen of Spain, Columbus set sail to find the western route to Asia.
October 12, 1492
A crew member named Rodrigo de Triana shouted out that he had spotted land. Columbus would name the island San Salvador.
October 29, 1492
Columbus and his crew discover what will be known to be the island of Cuba and soon makes the first permanent Spanish settlement. Columbus believed he landed in Asia.
March 15, 1493
Columbus returned to Spain with artifacts and American captives as proof of his discoveries. This interaction between the two worlds marked the beginning of the Columbian Exchange.
May 20, 1506
Columbus died in Valladolid, Spain. At the time of his death, thousands of Europeans had set sail thanks to this "New World" discovered by Columbus.
Teachers may also choose to have students research significant figures in Native American history during the Age of Exploration. Students represent the same series of events, but from two different perspectives. An example of this activity would be the conquest of the Aztecs by Hernando Cortez from the perspective of the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez, and Montezuma II, the Emperor of the Aztecs.
In this activity, students will be able to represent the numerous outcomes of the Columbian Exchange on both North America and Europe. This activity will require students to research the goods, ideas, people, diseases, and animals that were exchanged between continents during the Age of Exploration. By using a T-Chart, students will compare the Exchange from the perspectives of both continents, and define the outcome of the exchanges, e.g. increased caloric intake, increased Native American mortality rates, advancement in agricultural methods.
“New World” to the “Old World”
The turkey is native only to North America. The spread of the turkey happened rapidly as European and Mexican societies integrated the bird into their diets. Although many associate this odd looking bird with the Pilgrims, the turkey was brought to Europe prior to the landing at Plymouth.
Corn, or maize, is a grain plant domesticated by the Native Americans. The corn we know today was not always so large. With brilliant agricultural planning, Native Americans were able to create a hybrid of plants that we recognize today as corn.
The addictive and harmful plant, tobacco, dates back to 1400 BCE in Mexico. Upon the arrival of the European settlers, this plant quickly became a European custom. Early American colonists made a considerable amount of money exporting the crop to Europe, and soon the crop became the most sought-after in the world.
Long before pasta and lasagna graced the European dinner table, tomatoes were a native crop to North America. Similar to other American crops, once the tomato was introduced to Europeans, it greatly increased their caloric intake, which lead to a healthier and stronger society.
“Old World” to the “New World”
Horses were brought to the New World by early European explorers. Breeds like the mustang quickly became an instrumental element in Native American culture. Used for both transportation and hunting, the importation of horses to America allowed the expansive continent to be much more navigable.
Long before Americans went out on a coffee break, coffee was a staple crop throughout the Middle East. Dating back to the 16th century, coffee spread throughout Persia, Turkey, and Africa before making its way to the Americas.
No other aspect of the Columbian Exchange had the same impact as infectious diseases. Although historians have debated the exact statistics, it is estimated that, due to a lack of immunity, the Native American population decreased by 90% within 300 years after initial contact with Europeans.
The sheep has been important to the welfare and economy of Europeans for thousands of years. Sheep have been used throughout history for their meat and wool for clothing. Once introduced in America, Natives began using the wool for clothing and insulation.
Students should use the Frayer Model storyboard to research and argue the four most significant aspects of the Columbian Exchange. They should include both a description of the good, idea, disease, or food, and a summary of the impact it had.
In this activity, students will be able to compare and contrast the two early English settlements of Jamestown and Plymouth. This activity will require students to create a grid storyboard (suggested size is 4x2 or 6x2). Students will use their research to identify the following aspects of both colonies:
Reasons for Each Settlement
Interactions and treatment of Native Americans
Comparison - Jamestown vs. Plymouth Colonies
In 1607, made up of 100 colonists, the Virginia Company established the Jamestown Colony in North America, on the banks of the James River. Jamestown would become the first permanent English colony in North America.
Plymouth was founded in 1620 by a group of religious separatists. These separatists would colonize the area known as Massachusetts and set the stage for future English colonization.
Reasons for Settlement
Jamestown was established as an economic venture. Many Jamestown colonists were in search of gold and valuable minerals.
The Plymouth colony was founded by the Pilgrims otherwise known as "Separatists". They sought to break off entirely from the Church of England.
Many of the Jamestown colonists were seen as "gentlemen" and not skilled tradesmen. The lack of experience with agriculture led to starvation for many.
Unfamiliar with the harsh winters of New England, nearly half of the initial 102 colonists died in the first winter. Thanks to the guidance of local Native Americans, the Plymouth colonists learned how to survive.
Jamestown founded the first representative government in North America. The Jamestown General Assembly attempted to establish "just laws for the happy guiding and governing of the people there inhabiting."
Before the colonists landed in Plymouth, they signed the Mayflower Compact. The compact created a “Civil Body Politic” to enact “just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions and Offices.”
Students can create a timeline that represents the major events that took place in one, or both, of the colonies. Students will represent events such as the initial landing, establishment of government, numerous hardships encountered, and a major unique event for either Jamestown or Plymouth.
Mystery surrounds one of the earliest English colonies. Colonists came to Roanoke Island in Chesapeake Bay in the late sixteenth century, but no evidence of the colony remained a mere three years after its founding.
In this activity, students will research the “Lost Colony of Roanoke” and create a timeline that depicts the events between its founding and eventual disappearance. From John White’s initial landing, to the English defeat of the Spanish Armada, students will have a variety of exciting events to represent this historical mystery. Students will not have a definitive answer as to “What happened to Roanoke?” for the final event of their timeline; students should create a historical hypothesis of what they think is the most likely result of the Roanoke colonists.
Example Roanoke Timeline
July 22, 1587
Led by John White, between 110 and 150 settlers arrived on Roanoke Island on the Chesapeake Bay.
Difficulties quickly arose, and within a week of landing in Roanoke, an English colonist was killed by a native while fishing.
August 18, 1587
John White's daughter, Eleanor, gave birth. The child was named Virginia and was the first English child born in America.
October 1, 1587
Lacking supplies for the colony, John White was convinced to return to England. He planned to return to Roanoke as quickly as possible.
Due to a war with Spain, Queen Elizabeth refused to give White a ship to return. Despite begging, White would have to wait, knowing his colony desperately needed the supplies.
June 1, 1590
After the defeat of the powerful naval fleet known as the Spanish Armada, White was finally able to return to his colony.
August 18, 1590
White's return to the island was met with silence. The buildings and people of Roanoke were nowhere to be seen. The only thing remaining was a tree carved with the word "Croatoan".
Extended Activity: Roanoke Crime Scene Investigation
For this extended activity, students should present their timelines to the class and explain what they believe happened to the lost colonists of Roanoke. Following all the presentations, students should vote on what they believe is the most credible hypothesis. A student can be selected to be the judge or police chief to tally the votes and read the majority decision of the class.