European colonization of the Americas began in 1492, when a Spanish expedition headed by Christopher Columbus sailed west to find a new trade route to the Far East and inadvertently landed on the American continent. Prior European contact existed on a limited basis when several Norse expeditions arrived on the shores of present-day Greenland and Canada in the 10th century. While Norse settlements in southernGreenland existed for several centuries, archaeologists have found remains of only one short-lived Norse settlement in Canada. According to Norse folklore, violent conflicts with the indigenous population ultimately made the Norse abandon those settlements. It wasn't until five centuries later that the systematic conquest andcolonization of America began with Columbus' discovery of Hispaniola.
As the sponsor of the discovery voyage, Spain was the first European power to settle the Americas and colonize the largest areas, from North America and the Caribbean to the southern tip of South America. Spanish cities were founded as early as 1496 with Santo Domingo in today's Dominican Republic or San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1508 or Veracruz (Mexico) and Panama City in 1519. The city of St. Augustine, Florida founded by Spain in 1565 is the oldest continuously inhabited European city in present-day United States.
Other powers such as France also founded colonies in the Americas: in eastern North America, a number of Caribbean islands, and small coastal parts of South America. Portugal colonized Brazil. This was the beginning of a dramatic territorial expansion for several European countries. Europe had been preoccupied with internal wars, and was only slowly recovering from the loss of population caused by the bubonic plague; thus the rapid rate at which it grew in wealth and power was unforeseeable in the early 1400s.
Eventually, the entire Western Hemisphere came under the control of European governments, leading to profound changes to its landscape, population, and plant and animal life. In the 19th century alone over 50 million people left Europe for the Americas. The post-1492 era is known as the period of the Columbian Exchange, a dramatically widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture, human populations (including slaves), communicable disease, and ideas between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres following Columbus's voyages to the Americas..