AP U.S. History Notes: Period 1

September 8, 2022

Jumpstart your AP U.S. history (APUSH) exam prep with study notes for each of the nine time periods covered on the exam. In the following AP U.S. History Period 1 notes, we give an overview of what happened in Period 1 of APUSH and highlight key topics and important vocabulary to know for the exam. Remember: the APUSH exam tests your understanding of history rather than your ability to memorize concepts and dates. 

These AP U.S. History Period 1 notes should be used to supplement what you’re learning in your APUSH class. More study notes and tips can be found in our latest AP U.S. History Premium Test Prep Book and on our AP U.S. History Podcast. 

AP U.S. History Notes: Period 1 Timeline

This graphic gives a brief timeline of the key events that took place during AP U.S. History Period 1.

AP U.S. History Notes: Period 1 Overview

The first period covered on the AP U.S. History exam took place between the years 1491 to 1607 and is referred to as “The Meeting of Three Peoples.” The meeting of three peoples—American Indians, Europeans, and West Africans—on land held by American Indians on the North American continent created a “new world.” From the late 1400s to the early 1600s, a remarkable series of events led to a broad transformation of much of the world.

5 Things to Know About AP U.S. History Period 1

1. A wide variety of social, political, and economic structures had developed among the native peoples in North America in the period before the arrival of Europeans. These structures grew, in part, out of the interactions among native peoples and between native peoples and the environment. As native peoples migrated across North America, over time they developed a great diversity of complex social structures. These peoples both adapted to the environment and transformed it.

2. In the late 1400s and 1500s, European overseas exploration, conquest, and settlement resulted in a series of interactions and adaptations among Europeans, American Indians, and Africans. Eventually, the impact of conquest and settlement in the New World was felt in the Old World. Expansion in the Americas resulted in increased competition among the nations of Europe as well as in the promotion of empire building.

3. Historians refer to the introduction of new products and organisms on each side of the Atlantic as the “Columbian Exchange.” The Columbian Exchange and the expansion of the Spanish Empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries ushered in momentous demographic, economic, and social changes.

4. Spaniards first turned to the forced labor of native Indians in a system known as the encomienda. This exploitative system was used in plantation agriculture and in the extraction of precious metals. Over time, native labor was replaced by enslaved Africans.

5. In the sixteenth century, the divergent worldviews of Europeans and American Indians became increasingly evident. Both groups attempted to assert worldviews about religion, gender roles, family, land use, and power.

AP U.S. History Notes: Key Topics in Period 1

Native American Societies Before European Contact

  • Maize: The peoples of the Southwest came to depend on the cultivation of maize (corn). Maize cultivation spread from present-day Mexico through the Southwest and across much of North America. The cultivation of maize fostered economic development and social diversification among Native Americans.
  • Pueblo People: The Pueblo people lived in areas that are part of the current southwestern United States. The Pueblo were named by the Spanish because many lived in small towns, or pueblos.
  • Four Corners: A region of the Southwest where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. Ancestral Pueblo culture developed around the year 900 in the area that is now referred to as the Four Corners region.
  • Great Basin: The Great Basin refers to the 400,000-square-mile area between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The area has a great deal of environmental diversity but is characterized by a pronounced lack of natural resources.
  • “Desert Culture:” Historians and archeologists refer to a “desert culture” that was common among most of the pre-contact American Indian tribes of the Great Basin. “Desert culture” was characterized by seasonable mobility, as hunters and foragers searched for food throughout the year. “Desert culture” peoples often developed basketmaking, whereas more sedentary groups often developed pottery.
  • The Great Plains: The Great Plains refers to the vast stretch of land in the United States and Canada that stretches from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains.
  • The Plains Indians: The Plains Indians are the native groups most commonly stereotyped in images of Indians in American popular culture. The stereotype often involves Plains Indians riding horses, wearing feathered headdresses, and hunting buffalo; however, the stereotype has little validity. Although many Plains Indian groups, especially those of the western Great Plains, did depend on hunting buffalo for survival, it was not until European contact that horses were introduced into Plains Indian cultures. Before that, many American Indian cultures of the Great Plains, such as the Sioux, the Blackfoot, the Arapaho, and the Cheyenne, hunted for buffalo on foot, maintaining a mobile lifestyle.
  • The Algonquian Peoples: The Algonquian language group included hundreds of American Indian tribes along the east coast of the present-day United States and in the interior of the continent, around the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. The Atlantic coast Algonquians hunted, fished, and grew corn. In northern New England and the upper Great Lakes region, the colder climate tended to make agriculture impractical, forcing Algonquians in these areas to rely on hunting and fishing.
  • The Iroquois League: In present-day New York State, groups of Iroquoian-speaking peoples formed the Iroquois League, a confederation made up of the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. (Later, in 1720, a sixth group, the Tuscaroras, joined the league.) The league formed in order to end infighting among the groups. Over time, the cohesion of the five nations grew, and the Iroquois League became one of the most powerful forces in the pre-contact Northeast.
  • The Chinook People: In the Pacific Northwest, the Chinook people lived along the Columbia River in present-day Washington and Oregon. The Chinook consisted of several groups, all speaking related languages. These groups practiced foraging, hunting, and fishing and tended to live in settled communities.

European Exploration in the Americas

  • The Crusades: The series of religious wars known as the Crusades shook the stability of European feudal society and whet the appetites of Europeans for foreign trade goods. The wars, with the goal of securing Christian control of the “Holy Land,” occurred primarily in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
  • The Black Death: The Black Death, probably caused by a pandemic outbreak of bubonic plague in the fourteenth century, reduced the European population by 30 to 60 percent. Although the effects of the Black Death were devastating for Europe, the plague also opened up opportunities for the survivors. The Black Death also played an important role in undermining the stability of the feudal system.
  • The Impact of the Renaissance: The Renaissance spirit of curiosity about the world inspired people to explore and map new areas. Universities and scholarly books—also infused with the spirit of Renaissance humanism—spread knowledge of these new discoveries.
  • The Protestant Reformation: The most important religious movement during the sixteenth century was the Protestant Reformation. Theologians Martin Luther and John Calvin both led breaks with the Roman Catholic Church over church practices and beliefs. Both believed that the church had drifted from its spiritual mission. 
  • The Catholic Counter-Reformation: The Catholic Church itself underwent a reform in the sixteenth century. This Counter-Reformation focused on a renewed sense of spirituality within the Catholic Church.

Columbian Exchange, Spanish Exploration, and Conquest

  • The “Columbian Exchange:” The “Columbian Exchange” led to the introduction to Europe of crops and livestock that were native to the Americas in the 1500s. The list of organisms brought by Europeans back to the Old World included turkeys, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cacao (cocoa), and tomatoes. These foods revolutionized agricultural and culinary traditions in Europe and supplemented the meager diets of the European peasantry.
  • Technological Advances and a Revolution in Navigation: A series of developments in maritime technology encouraged exploration and transformed the global economy. The compass, the astrolabe, the quadrant, and the hourglass all aided navigation, helping sailors plot direction, determine speed, and assess latitude. Portulanos, detailed maps, also helped navigators find their way around the world, many sailing on Portugal’s maneuverable and sturdy ships called caravels.
  • The Joint-stock Company: The joint-stock company model was developed in Europe in the 1500s and became an important engine for exploration and colonization in the New World. In a joint-stock company, shareholders control part of the company in proportion to the number of shares they own.
  • Christopher Columbus: The Italian navigator Christopher Columbus convinced the Spanish monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, to fund a venture west, across the Atlantic, to reach the East. Columbus argued that the circumference of the Earth was smaller than cartographers believed and that a venture in a westerly direction was both possible and feasible.
  • The Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María: Columbus’s three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María, set sail in 1492 and, six weeks later, reached a Caribbean island that he named San Salvador.
  • Treaty of Tordesillas: Spain was able to secure a dominant role in the New World following the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) between Spain and Portugal. The treaty settled the competing claims of the two countries to the newly explored lands outside of Europe by drawing a longitudinal line through the Atlantic Ocean and South America. Portugal was granted lands to the east of the line, including Brazil in the Western Hemisphere and Africa. Spain was granted the rest of the lands of the Americas.
  • The Conquistadores and the Defeat of Native Peoples: The sixteenth century saw brutal fighting in the Americas as Spain extended its dominance over much of the New World. One of the more brutal episodes of violence between the Spanish conquistadores and native peoples was the defeat of the Mexica (also known as the Aztecs, and led by Montezuma) by Spanish forces led by Hernán Cortés (1518–1521).
  • Smallpox: The peoples of the New World, having evolved and adapted separately from the peoples of the Old World, had no immunities to many of the germs and infectious diseases that foreign explorers and settlers inadvertently brought with them. These diseases included bubonic plague, influenza, cholera, scarlet fever, and, most important, smallpox. It is estimated that between 50 and 90 percent of the native peoples of the Americas died between 1500 and 1650.

Labor, Slavery, and Caste in the Spanish Colonial System

  • Encomienda: In Spain’s encomienda system, the initial Spanish settlers were granted tracts of land and the right to extract labor from local inhabitants. In many ways, this system of New World colonization resembled Old World feudalism.
  • Spain and the African Slave Trade: Soon after European settlement in the Americas, a system of outright slavery developed. Spain participated in the international slave trad to import enslaved Africans to the New World in order to labor in plantation agriculture and mining.
  • “Maroon” Communities: Maroons were Africans who had escaped from slavery in the New World and established independent communities. These communities existed throughout the New World, with many in the Caribbean and Brazil. Often, these communities were formed by slaves who were the first generation brought out of Africa.
  • The Casta System: The Spanish used the term casta to describe the variety of mixed race people in the new world. The casta system included peninsulares (born in Spain) and creoles (those born in the New World of Spanish parents) at the top of the social structure.

Cultural Interactions Between Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans

  • Matrilineal: Many American Indian societies were matrilineal—members of the community were identified by their mothers’ lineages; European societies were patrilineal.
  • The Guale People: The Guale people lived near the Spanish mission in St. Augustine—one of four missions in Spanish Florida in the sixteenth century.
  • Juanillo’s Revolt: As missionaries tried to bring Guale Indians into the mission system, a revolt, known as Juanillo’s Revolt, occurred in 1597, resulting in the deaths of several missionaries.
  • Juan de Oñate: In the western reaches of Spain’s New World empire, a violent confrontation occurred with the Pueblo people in what is now New Mexico. The Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate and his soldiers had, in the 1590s, occupied land held by the Acoma Pueblo people.
  • The Acoma Pueblo People: In 1598, the Acoma resisted an order by the Spaniards to hand over certain supplies that the Acoma needed to survive the upcoming winter. They attacked the Spanish occupiers, killing 15, including the nephew of Oñate. Oñate responded by firing cannons from a mesa above the Acoma people, killing over 800 native people. The survivors were put on trial by the Spanish, whose punishments included cutting off one foot for males over the age of 25. As many as 80 men had a foot cut off. The remaining 500 Acoma people were enslaved by the Spaniards.
  • Pure Blood: As Europeans solidified their control over the New World and brought more American Indians and Africans under their control, a set of racist ideas developed to justify the continued subjugation of nonwhite people. These racist ideas often grew out of earlier notions of race that had existed in Europe. For the Spaniards, for instance, these included traditional notions about “pure blood” (limpieza de sangre).
  • Miscegenation: As miscegenation—the mixing of races—occurred in the New World, Spaniards erected an elaborate hierarchy of racial classes. The degree of “pure blood” determined one’s place in this hierarchy. Indians and Africans were at the bottom.
  • Bartolomé de Las Casas: The priest Bartolomé de Las Casas roundly criticized Spanish actions as being among “the most unpardonable offenses committed against God and mankind.” His book, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (written in 1542; published in 1552), chronicled atrocities against native peoples in the New World.
  • Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda: Sepúlveda defended the treatment that the Spaniards meted out to the native peoples of the Americas. He asserted that American Indians were beings of an inferior order. Because they could not be expected to perform duties beyond manual labor, he argued that they were “natural slaves.”