Discovering Europeans

Although contact with Europeans themselves became more common throughout the colonial period, most Native Americans discovered Europeans through trade goods and disease. Because they had remained isolated from European and African diseases, the native peoples had no immunity to them. Smallpox was a particularly lethal killer. The estimates of Native American population and depopulation vary widely, but even modest estimates suggest that the population north of the Rio Grande before 1492 was over 5 million. By 1900, only 250,000 Native Americans lived in this area. North America Indian Tribes, 1492. A wide diversity of native peoples lived in North America at the time of their first encounter with Europeans. The above map shows the major regions and tribes of North American Indians in 1492. (Carto-Graphics)

While disease was one factor in this tragic decline, it was not the only factor. Dispossession, relocation, and centuries of colonial rule also drastically reduced the Native American population. In some areas, such as southern New England, more than 75 percent of the Native American population died within the first few decades of English settlement.

As noted above, Native Americans also discovered European trade goods, alcohol, and firearms. At first, native groups adapted European trade goods into their own ways of life. For instance, copper kettles were of great value not as cookware but as sources of copper, pieces of which were worn as a sign of prestige in some communities. As the colonial period progressed, Native Americans began to use European goods in European ways. They often became dependent on these goods and on trade with nearby European settlements, and were drawn into the expanding Atlantic economy. Beginning in Paleo-Indian times, native peoples up and down the Atlantic coast of North America relied on fishing as a primary means of sustenance. This illustration depicts Virginian natives during the sixteenth century. (Brown Brothers, Sterling, Pennsylvania)

The French and Spanish made inroads into North America in the sixteenth century, and the English followed in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. These earliest contacts were little more than reconnaissance missions and had minimal impact on native cultures. The major exceptions were the native people, usually young men, who were carried back to Europe as trophies or in the hope that they could learn European languages and become interpreters. In 1534, Jacques Cartier kidnapped two sons or nephews of the St. Lawrence Iroquoian chief Donnacona. The Spanish explorers Pedro Menndez de Avils and Lucas Vsquez de Ayll³n both used native interpreters.

After their initial coastal contacts, European explorers, missionaries, and armies began to move farther inland. There, they met a wide range of native cultures. The Spanish in the Southeast, for instance, witnessed centralized Mississippian cultures before their decline. Hernando de Soto, who cut a path of destruction across the Southeast between 1539 and 1542, stayed at Cofitachequi, a chiefdom near present-day Camden, South Carolina. The French established close ties with the villages of Huronia, in Ontario. Both the French and Spanish claimed native converts, but the extent to which native peoples accepted Christianity is unclear and still debated.

The sixteenth century brought an increasing number of fur traders to French Canada. These men had little effect on native ways of life, though they did encourage Native Americans to hunt for beaver more extensively. They also fathered many biracial children, known as Mtis.

One of the long-standing myths of this early period of contact is that Native Americans believed the European explorers had supernatural powers; most of the evidence to support this comes from the explorers’ own records. If the natives did initially think this way about the Europeans (because they came from the sea and seemed immune to smallpox), close contact with them probably soon changed their minds.

The seventeenth century saw the planting of several colonies on North America’s Eastern seaboard and an increase in the interaction between Native Americans and their new neighbors. Native Americans continued to understand themselves and the newcomers in terms deeply rooted in their American past.

An example of this is the way that Powhatan, a paramount chief in control of the eastern half of Virginia, dealt with the English who settled at Jamestown in 1607. Powhatan treated the English colony as another village in his realm. He demonstrated his power by kidnapping John Smith and adopting him into the world of the Powhatan. When the English overstepped their bounds or pressed the Powhatan for food, Powhatan reacted violently. Even after the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia was still Powhatan territory.

European involvement also had a serious impact on Huron-Iroquois relations. The Huron had allied with the French, accepting Jesuit missionaries in their settlements and becoming major power brokers as a result of their involvement in the fur trade (their access to furs from the Great Lakes region ensured their position). The Iroquois, armed by the Dutch, turned European colonization to their advantage by taking furs from Huron traders and captives to the Dutch at Fort Orange (present-day Albany, New York). The Iroquois (an alliance between the Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, Mohawk, and Oneida) increased their power as a result of colonization. By 1649, the Iroquois had destroyed the Huron as a political entity. Some were adopted into Iroquois villages, and others scattered to the Great Lakes. The Iroquois also began to distribute wampum (southern New England shell beads) to neighboring tribes in an effort to cement alliances.

Most Native American communities with close Euro-American contacts did not fare so well in the seventeenth century. The Pequot, for example, were a relatively powerful tribe that controlled the Connecticut River Valley. The Puritans at Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth, looking for new farmland and noticing a decline in the Pequot population, launched a genocidal war against them in 1637. The main action of the Pequot War took place at a fort on the Mystic River: the Puritans set fire to the fort and put between 500 and 1,000 Pequots (mainly noncombatants) to the sword as they fled the flames. The peace treaty that ended the war forced the Pequot to renounce their identity. It bears mentioning that Native Americans fought on both sides of the two major conflicts over New England, the Pequot War and the much more devastating King Philip’s War (1675 1676).

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