Each of the European countries had their reasons and agendas for getting involved in the New World. It ranged from money to power to a place to discard the unwanted. Their reasoning fluctuated as situations rose up and new leaders stepped into play.
Logically, Spain should be addressed first as it was due to their desire to find a more economic route to the Orient that showed Europe a vast land mass that stood between them and their spice goal. Spain was wanting more money and more power through a direct trading route that would eliminate the Arab middle man. When they arrived in the New World, they were under the belief that they had arrived in India. Before and after their discovery that this was a new land, Spain was on an agenda to find gold and would stop at nothing to get it. As an aside, some priests tried to convert the natives, but gold was the driving force of the Spanish. (1)
Portugal saw itself as a rival to Spain and ventured to Brazil to set up sugar colonies. Their efforts were small compared to Spain and eventually became part of Spain in the New World and in Europe. This combined the motives and goals into one of gold. (2)
France could not compete with the powerful Spanish empire. Soldiers were stationed at every colony and their ruthlessness ensured victory. They looked to the northern realm of the New World hoping to find the Northwest Passage to get to India and be the ones who actually made it. In the end, they discovered that the New World was deeper than anyone realized and that the passage might not even exist. Instead, they found an abundance of furs and natives that were willing to trade. Permanent colonies were not the goal of the French though they did create a few such as Quebec. Profits from the fur trade was their goal. (3)
The Dutch were also in a similar situation as the French. They could not compete with the power of Spain. Instead, they also moved north to find land they could use. Building a fort in the Hudson Bay, they began to rival the French in fur trading and expanded their presence through the shipping channels. (4)
The English were a little late in the New World game. As exploration and colonization meant money, England spent most of its time focusing on its war with Spain on the mainland. It gave out charters to companies that wanted to see the New World and what they could get out of it. They found an in to the New World in the mid-Atlantic region. Their main goal was a mixture of treasure and trash can. Many of the first colonists were undesirables in the land. They were shipped out with orders to find something worth their time. In the end, they did not find gold, but found commodities such as sugar and tobacco. (5)
In the end, they all were looking for money and extra power. They each found it in a different manner. Spain found it in gold and slaves. The French found it in fur. The Dutch found it in commerce, and the English found it in tobacco, sugar, and fertile lands. Though so different, they were all after riches.
(1) Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America, (New York: Penguin, 2001), 51-66.
(2) Ibid, 64.
(3) Ibid, 92-101.
(4) Ibid, 105-107.
(5) Ibid, 118-129.