Unit 1 in the APUSH Exam

This time period extends from 1491 to 1607 and counts for 5% of recommended instructional content for an AP class. It does not appear on the DBQ question. There are two key concepts for this time period.


As native populations migrated and settled across the vast expanse of North America over time, they developed distinct and increasingly complex societies by adapting to and transforming their diverse environments.


Contact among Europeans, Native Americans, and Africans resulted in the Columbian Exchange and significant social, cultural, and political changes on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


Unit 1 of the AP U.S. History Course focuses on what life was like in the Americas before European contact and how contact with Europeans forever altered the lives, cultures, and customs of American Indian societies.

Previous to European contact, American Indian tribes across both North and South America had complex societies with distinctive social structures, political organizations, and religious beliefs. Along the American northwest, American Indians had a combination of permanent settlements and hunter-gather lifestyles. In the Great Plains, tribes followed the herds of buffalo and lived a nomadic lifestyle. In the American Southwest and modern-day Mexico, the American Indians cultivated maize. Maize was a staple crop that allowed tribes to develop a more sedentary lifestyle.

Christopher Columbus and the other early European explorers in the New World were motivated by a combination of economic and religious factors, sometimes described as “God, Gold, and Glory”. They were primarily looking for raw materials, especially gold, to take back to their countries to enrich their monarchs. This would bring them glory and prestige. They also felt that they had an obligation to spread Christianity. This combination often proved disastrous for native populations because American Indians were often ensnared into the slave labor system, like Spain’s encomienda system, and forced to abandon their native religious practices. The American Indian population was also decimated by diseases brought over by Europeans.

Map depicting the goods trade system between the Americas and Europe.

A trade system gradually emerged, called the Columbian Exchange, that moved crops, animals, and even diseases from the Old World to the New World and vice versa. This system introduced American crops like potatoes, tomatoes, and corn to Europe and European crops like wheat, rice, and grapes to the Americans. The Columbian Exchange also brought slaves to the New World to farm cash crops and mine for precious metals.


1419 Christopher Columbus claims the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba for Spain.

1512 Spain establishes the encomienda system.

1519 Hernan Cortes invades Mexico.

1525 The first ship of slaves from Africa arrives in the Americas.


Maize This was the main crop cultivated by American Indians.

Christopher Columbus An Italian explorer who stumbled upon the New World after convincing the Spanish monarchs that he could sail across the Atlantic to India.

“God, Gold, Glory” Early European explorers were motivated by a desire to spread Christianity, enrich themselves and their monarch, and gain glory for discovering new lands.

Encomienda System A forced labor system developed by the Spanish that required American Indians.

The best way to get better at something is by practicing.

That’s why it’s so important that you take practice tests to help you get better at the AP U.S. History Exam. Only then can you expect to get a good score—and even improve your score.

Download your free AP® U.S. History practice test HERE.

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