European Exploration of North America
Women played an important role in early expeditions to the New World, beginning with Spanish Queen Isabella’s financing of Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage. The first European to reach an area that would become part of the United States was Ponce de Leon, whose 1513 voyage to Florida owed a good deal of its funding to his wife, Leonor Bint Pedro, whom he married in Santo Domingo in 1502.
The first colony that lasted in what would become the United States was St. Augustine, Florida. In 1565 the Spanish built a fortress there, San Marcos, which still exists. The Spanish government intended St. Augustine to be a permanent colony, so women were important to the settlement. Although male soldiers and priests outnumbered women by about ten-to-one, Spanish families soon expanded north and west. In 1568, planned family colonization went as far as modern South Carolina – where the Santa Elena settlement specialized in growing sassafras, which was believed to cure syphilis.
Few women accompanied French attempts at North American settlement. As a result, French men were more likely to establish relationships with native women. Women from France, however, were part of Fort Caroline, a 1564 settlement near modern Jacksonville, Florida. They were Protestants fleeing persecution in France, but the New World did not offer them shelter, as Spanish Catholics from St. Augustine soon destroyed the French settlement. French colonization in what became Canada and in areas such as Illinois and Michigan was more successful.