Even though his name is often associated with the "discovery" of the Americas, Columbus was hardly the first person to set foot on the continents. Native Americans had lived throughout North and South America before Columbus arrived, and Norse explorers landed on Newfoundland at least 500 years before Columbus's first voyage. Even though he wasn't the first European to visit the Americas, however, Columbus's impact on the continents and on the area that would become the United States was incredible.
Sparking the Age of Exploration
Columbus didn't discover any uninhabited land, but he did spark a new age of exploration in Europe. After his reports, every European power sent explorers, and later colonists, to the new world. According to The History Channel, Columbus' early voyage lit the spark that led to an explosion of European colonization. Less than 300 years after his voyage, Europeans living in North America established the United States. The British Broadcasting Company notes that Columbus' unparalleled skills as a navigator allowed him to make the discovery before other European explorers could.
Genocide of Native Americans
Perhaps the ugliest black mark on the United States' historical record is the aggressive and often deliberate eradication of Native Americans. Columbus helped set the precedent for the genocidal campaigns that followed his voyages. According to The Daily Banter, Columbus began murdering indigenous people on his very first day in the so-called "new world." Author and historian Charles C. Mann argues that, in addition to ordering the deaths of disruptive native people, Columbus also helped to spread deadly diseases like smallpox and typhus throughout North America. When colonists of what would become the United States arrived, they followed Columbus's lead. The United States was built on land cleared of indigenous people by war and disease that were first initiated by Columbus.
The Slave Trade
Columbus also helped to establish the slave trade that would later dominate the southern United States. According to The History Channel, Columbus kidnapped and enslaved hundreds of indigenous people, forcing them to work on plantations and as servants. Later colonists and explorers followed his example. Slavery quickly spread from the island of Hispanola to South America, Mexico and the areas that would become the American South.
The Columbian Exchange
Possibly the single biggest effect of Columbus' voyages was the event researchers call "the Columbian Exchange." For millennia, the plants and animals of the Americans had been isolated from the rest of the world by massive oceans. Columbus and the explorers that followed him changed all that. They brought horses, chickens and other livestock to the Americans and returned to Europe with corn, potatoes, tomatoes and hundreds of other species. This biological exchange transformed the United States, according to Mann. Columbus and those who followed created a market for tobacco, for example, that later fueled the American economy. The importation of horses transformed Native American culture and allowed more rapid transportation across North America.
Nick Robinson is a writer, instructor and graduate student. Before deciding to pursue an advanced degree, he worked as a teacher and administrator at three different colleges and universities, and as an education coach for Inside Track. Most of Robinson's writing centers on education and travel.