Early European settlers had many motives for coming to North America. The newcomers were looking to expand trade, gain wealth or seek religious freedom. Settlers from Spain chose the lands around Florida, the Dutch and the Swedes were drawn to the Mid-Atlantic region for the burgeoning trade, and the Pilgrims from Britain settled New England.

Early Explorers

The Vikings first arrived in North America around A.D. 1000 and made some attempts to settle a colony around Newfoundland, but later abandoned it, perhaps because they lacked the resources for such extended occupation. It is unknown why the Vikings ventured so far, but future travelers had very specific purposes. Christopher Columbus, for example, stumbled upon North America as he searched for an expedient sailing route to Asia. At the time, traders had to sail around Africa to get to the Far East, and he was sure there had to be a faster way. He didn't find his easy trade route, but he did find the Caribbean in 1492. During the 1500s, the French sent explorers to the New World looking for furs and gold.

The French Go Inland

The French were mainly interested in trade, and they explored the regions from the St. Lawrence River all the way south to Cape Cod, but the various fishing posts did not become permanent settlements, and they eventually traveled further inland as they hunted and trapped for furs to send back to Europe. During the 1500s, religious upheaval in England caused many Protestants to look to the New World for a place they could live and worship as they chose and by the early 1600s, settlers were ready to try the New World.

The Pilgrims Arrive

In England, a fierce struggle took place between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church, formed by Henry VIII when he broke with the Catholics. The Puritans strongly disagreed with the Anglican Church and were persecuted by the government; they sought a place where they could live in peace and raise their children. They desired a “purity” of religion that they believed to be in direct contradiction to corruption of the Anglicans.

The Puritans Populate New England

Though they faced many challenges -- harsh weather, hunger and potentially hostile Native Americans -- the Puritans eventually thrived in New England. The land was unsuitable for large farms, but the small, self-governed towns were a good fit for a people who wanted to live independently and devoutly. European countries seeking to colonize for reasons of trade and wealth were apt to choose the southern or the middle colonies, where large plantations and warm weather ports were more conducive to commerce. New England remained a stronghold of English-speaking Protestants who came to the colonies for religious and personal freedom.