Before the Spanish introduced horses in the 16th century, the native population traveled by foot. While social organization differed from tribe to tribe and material culture depended on the local environment, migration patterns were similiar throughout the usa: summer was spent in cooler, higher places and in winter people traveled to protected camps at lower elevations. Most travel routes, especially in areas with dense vegetation, followed trails cleared by bison and deer. Trading was important to most tribes, enabling the supplementation of local materials with items from other regions. The Hopewell culture, for example, arose in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys from around 500 BC and had extensive trading links which reached from Lake Huron to the Rocky Mountains and south to Mexico. These trade routes formed a blueprint for subsequent European exploration.


Columbus landed in the Carribbean in AD 1492 while in search of a route to the spice islands of Asia. Believing that he had landed in the East Indies, he called the native people Indians, creating a lasting linguistic confusion. The Spanish, who had sponsored his expedition, continued to build their American empire with Cortés’ conquest of Mexico in 1519-20. Continuing the search for spices and cities of gold, Francisco de Coronado wandered for two years (1540-41) in what is now Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado.


English explorers such as John Carbot (in 1497) and Walter Raleigh (in 1584), also seeking a shortcut to Asia, probed the eastern coast of North America and claimed the Atlantic coast for England. Around the same period, French Bretons, who had fished off Novia Scotia from the early 16th century, began trading metal axes, pots and other implements for Native American furs. Dutch settlers formed the colony of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York) along the Hudson River in 1624, furthering the interest in the fur trade. As the Europeans navigated the trails laid by native North Americans, they documented the routes for use by future settlers.