1492 to 1789
Christopher Columbus's voyage to America in 1492 paved the way
for Spanish colonization. By 1550, Spain had vanquished the indigenous
Aztec and Incan empires of central and south America, respectively,
and most of the western hemisphere's major population centers
were in Spanish hands. The Spanish plundered the continent for
silver and gold and imposed Catholicism on the local population.
Brazil was colonized by the Portuguese, who imported slaves from
Africa to work in sugar plantations and mills.
North America remained largely unexplored by the Europeans until
the early 17th century, when the English, French, and Dutch began
to establish colonies there, eager to exploit the continent's
natural resources. By 1623, Nova Scotia was settled by French;
Virginia and Massachusetts Bay were colonized by English; and
New Netherland (present-day New York) had been established by
The North American colonies drew thousands of Europeans in search
of economic opportunity and religious freedom. In 1654, the first
Jewish settlers arrived in North America, refugees from the Dutch
colony of Recife, Brazil, which had just been conquered by the
Portuguese. The Jews landed in the Dutch port of New Amsterdam,
where they had to fight for the right to stay.
Over the next century, a few hundred more Jews came to North America
-- most of them Sephardic merchants, who settled in the North
American coastal cities of Newport, Philadelphia, Charleston,
By 1770, the Spanish had established a colony on San Diego Bay
on the western coast of California, and the British controlled
all of North America east of the Mississippi. Deeply in debt from
wars fought to secure their colonial possessions, the British
attempted to recoup their expenses by imposing heavy taxes on
their colonial subjects. Resentment at this taxation grew among
the colonists until, in 1775, it exploded into a war of independence.
By war's end in 1783, the British had been defeated, and a new
nation, the United States of America, had come into being.
The United States of America, originally a narrow strip of states
along North America's Atlantic shore, had expanded from coast
to coast by the mid-19th century This expansion was achieved, however,
at great cost to the native peoples of North America, who were
driven off their lands and sometimes massacred.
By the middle of the century slavery had become a divisive issue
among Americans. An extensive mono-culture of cotton had developed
in the southern states that depended upon the cheap labor of slaves.
As new states entered the nation, their status as "free"
or "slave" states caused heated debate in the U.S. Congress,
and a deep rift developed over the question of how much sovereignty
individual states possessed. When southern states chose to secede
from the United States, northern states countered with military
force. The Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1864, was bloody
and costly, and it resulted in an overwhelming victory for the
forces of the northern states. In 1863, in the midst of the war,
President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which
officially abolished slavery in the U.S.
In the two decades before the Civil War, immigrants had begun
to arrive in the United States by the tens of thousands, driven
from Europe by poverty and political unrest, and drawn by the
prospect of cheap land on the frontier. After the war, the rapid
pace of urban industrialization in America attracted still more
immigrants. Among the immigrants were many Jews. Until late in
the century most of the Jewish immigrants were from German speaking
lands in central Europe, but from 1881 onward, the majority of
Jewish immigrants were Eastern European. To the north, Canada
also drew Jewish immigrants, totaling more than 125,000 by 1920,
most of whom settled in Quebec and Ontario.
Jewish immigrants became engaged in the economic development of
North America as entrepreneurs, merchants, and skilled workers.
They founded synagogues, schools, newspapers, and communal organizations
in the communities where they settled.
Both Reform and Conservative Judaism, movements with roots in
Germany in the early 19th century, took hold in North America, especially
among those Jews who had become most Americanized. The mass migration
of Jews from Eastern Europe in 1881-1924, however, led to the
revival of Orthodox Judaism in the U.S. and the establishment
of New York as a new center of Yiddish culture.
Eastern European Jewish immigrants, including many women, also
played a decisive role in developing the American and Canadian
In 1924 the Congress of the United States passed discriminatory
laws that severely restricted immigration, and the influx to America
of Jewish immigrants all but came to a halt.