1492 – 1734 Early Encounters

Nicolás Enríquez de Vargas (artist), Portrait of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, ca. 1750. Oil on canvas. Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City.

Key Ideas

1. Women were integral to the formation and evolution of societies in the early colonies of the Americas.

2. The experiences of women in the early colonial period varied widely based on race, class, age, gender identity, and geographic region.

3. The full story of the early colonial period cannot be properly understood without considering the experiences of the women who lived it.


When you think of the early colonial period in the Americas, what comes to mind? The era roughly defined as beginning with Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492 and ending in the early 1700s is widely remembered as a time of great struggle, when stalwart individuals worked tirelessly to overcome impossible odds and carve out a new place in the world.

This popular narrative is almost entirely focused on the experiences and contributions of men. From the earliest male explorers to the male leaders who negotiated with adversaries and commanded their communities, to the male workers who did the labor of building homes and cultivating land, a brief look at a textbook or other student-friendly summary of the early colonial period would lead one to believe that women were hardly present for, and certainly not integral to, the development of the colonies in the Americas. When they are mentioned, women of this period are characterized as housewives, important to their families but not critical to the development of their communities.

Jacobus Houbraken from Georg Gsell, “An occupational portrait of Maria Sybilla Merian,” 1700, Das Insektenbuch. Leipzig Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1991.

This version of history is wrong. Even a cursory glance through available historical evidence reveals women operating at every level of society and government, making contributions that would alter the course of history. What’s more, examining the experiences of women in this period allows us to develop a more holistic sense of life in these communities, from gender expectations to race relations. Without knowing the history of women, we are literally missing half the story.

Nieu Amsterdam. Cum Privilegio Ordinum Hollandiae et West-Frisae, ca. 1640. I.N. Phelps Stokes Collection, Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundation.

Early Encounters, 1492–1734 provides resources to allow you to easily discover the history of women in the early colonial period and then integrate them into your lessons plans. We have organized the unit into four sections based on the four major empires that colonized the Americas in this period—Dutch, English, Spanish, and French. The resources in each section illustrate the experiences of a wide range of women across race, gender, age, social, and economic spectrums. You’ll meet women who worked in agriculture, participated in politics, ran complex business empires, and resisted slavery and colonization with every means at their disposal. Some resources tell inspiring stories of accomplishment and ingenuity, and some force us to confront the oppression and exploitation that women lived with every day. Some you’ll be able to easily substitute into your lessons, and some will allow you to introduce new ideas and avenues for exploration. Many of the resources “speak” to each other in interesting ways, allowing you and your students to compare and contrast women’s experiences across geographical and cultural lines.

Lienzo de Tlaxcala, Fascimile, 1890. Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, the University of California, Berkeley.

This unit is by no means comprehensive. For example, it does not cover the experiences of women in the Caribbean colonies, because that is an entire history and culture that stands separate from U.S. history, which is the end goal of this curriculum guide. We wanted to include pieces from Florida and New Orleans, but ultimately decided we could do those fascinating histories more justice in later units, because their archival presence improves over time. And there are thousands more stories of women in the archives—we hope this limited introduction inspires you and your students to seek them out and bring them into the light.

Cultivation and Harvesting Tobacco, 1722. NLM/Science Source.

To get started, you can explore the thirty-four resources that make up this unit in two different ways: by section or by theme. Each resource comes with background information, a vocabulary list, and suggested activities for how you might integrate it into your lessons. Resources can be printed out individually or with various supplements included, depending on how you want to use them with your students. There are also links included on each resource page that will allow you to explore other resources that connect by topic or theme, so you can continue to follow interesting threads and see where they take you.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, Arrival of the Brides, before 1927. Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No 1996–371–1.

Unit Essential Questions

1. In what ways did women experience the early colonial period?

2. How did women’s experiences vary as a result of race, class, age, gender identity, and geographic region?

3. Why is it important to consider women’s narratives when learning about the early colonial period?

Explore by Section

To learn about the early colonial period by geographic region, explore the sections below!

Dutch Colonies

Under the direct control of the Dutch West India Company, the New Netherland territory covered most of present day New York State, as well as parts of Connecticut, New Jersey, and Delaware.

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English Colonies

The history of the early English colonies in North America can be divided into two familiar stories: the southern colonies of Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas; and the northern colonies known today as New England.

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Spanish Colonies

After the early years of invasion, two colonial territories were established: New Spain in North America, and Peru in South America.

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French Colonies

Most citizens who